Recently published May 5, 2009 by Hyperion.
Steve Luxenberg and his siblings always thought their mother Beth was an only child. It was an integral part of her identity, a fact she mentioned to people almost immediately upon meeting them, a piece of information no one ever had any reason to question. And no one ever did question it…until the spring of 1995, when Beth casually mentioned during a visit to the doctor that she had had a disabled sister whom her parents sent away to an institution when she was just two years old. Her social worker, wanting to suss out the truth, called Steve’s stepsister, who immediately called Steve, thus beginning what would become a decade-long inquiry into family secrets and unknown history.
Secrets, I’ve discovered, have a way of working themselves free of their keepers.
Steve and his siblings talked among themselves and wondered whether there was any truth to Beth’s statement. Had she really had a disabled sister? Why would she have kept her a secret? Did their father ever know? How and why would someone choose to live with such secrets. Despite his curiosity—and in total defiance of his journalist’s instincts—Steve never asked his mother about her possible secret. The timing just never seemed right.
While she was sick, it never seemed like the right time to ask her about her sister. Now that she was doing better, Sash and I thought she might reveal the secret on her own. But she never did. So we let it rest. Hard as it is for me to fathom this now, we never asked her about it; since she didn’t know anything about her sister’s fate, I guess I didn’t see much point.
Somehow, Steve and his siblings, who never reached full agreement on whether they wanted to pursue solving the mystery or not, managed not to think about their mother’s hidden sister for almost five years. Then, in March 2000, Steve’s brother Jeff received a solicitation from a cemetery that was offering to put flowers on his family members’ graves, including one belonging to someone named Annie. Annie Cohen, his mother’s sister. And the mystery was reopened.
Annie’s Ghosts is Steve Luxenberg’s memoir of the years he spent trying to unearth the truth about his “invisible” aunt. He recounts his mixed feelings about pursuing a secret his mother had obviously worked very hard to keep to herself, all the while seeking to understand what drove her to keep her sister secret in the first place.
Now that she was no longer here to add her two cents to the debate, was it right, or fair, to go ahead without knowing her views?
….It just seemed like something we should know. Mom had a sister. We had an aunt. What could we learn about her?
What follows is an in-depth exploration of a family’s history and secrets, of the history and evolution of mental health treatment in the United States, and of the experiences of Holocaust-era immigrants to the U.S. Luxenberg follows all potential leads and spends countless hours working to gain access to his previously unknown aunt’s medical and legal records. He interviews anyone he can get in touch with who knew his mother when she was young and who might have known about Annie, and the more he learns, the more he is disturbed by what appear to be inconsistencies, contradictions, and unexplained decisions that seem to protect the state and its interests more than Annie and hers.
I won’t give away the details, but I will say that I found Annie’s Ghosts to be very interesting and aptly titled, as many aspects of the story are haunting and almost unbelievable. Luxenberg’s look into his family’s history occasionally becomes more comprehensive and far-ranging than I felt necessary for this book, which made it drag a bit in the middle. The central story about Annie and why she was kept secret is fascinating, but there are also many extraneous bits that I found distracting. I’d be reading a chapter, thinking “Huh, this is interesting, but I really don’t understand why it needs to be part of this book.”
Annie’s Ghosts is well-researched and chock full of information that is, for the most part, woven smoothly into the narrative. But there’s almost enough here for two books, particularly when Luxenberg explores some friends’ experiences in eastern Europe during World War II and looks into his family’s immigration history, and I would have found the book more satisfying if Luxenberg had stuck to Annie’s storyline and been a bit more heavy-handed with the red pencil. As memoirs about family secrets go, Annie’s Ghosts is a solid read and one that is unique in that the author is not at all seeking to shock or amaze us. I would certainly recommend it for anyone interested in the history of mental health treatment in the U.S. As Luxenberg unearths his mother’s secrets about Annie, he comes across several other—relatively big—family secrets as well, and readers who enjoy that kind of excavation of personal history will surely find it fascinating. 4 out of 5.
Special thanks to Julie at FSB Associates for sending me this book to review.