Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret

Imagine the shock and confusion author Steve Luxenberg felt when he discovered that his elderly mother was not really the only child she had claimed to be for his entire lifetime. Luxenberg, after all, grew up knowing how proud his mother was to have been an only child, something of which she often spoke at family gatherings. It was only by chance that Luxenberg and his siblings learned that they, in fact, had an aunt whose existence they had never suspected.

Beth Luxenberg was in poor health by the time her children learned that she had a sister only two years younger then herself. Beth mentioned to a doctor that her little sister had been institutionalized at the age of two. Her children, assuming that Beth had no real memories of the little girl and believing that the age at which they were separated explained Beth’s claim to be an only child, decided not to confront her with their knowledge of her sister’s existence. That decision would be regretted by Steve Luxenberg long after his mother’s death.

Beth Luxenberg died in 1999, unaware that her children knew of the secret she had kept hidden from them for so many decades. However, within six months of his mother’s death, Steve Luxenberg was able to give his aunt a name, Annie, and he was beginning the research that would allow him to expose an astounding family secret (and a couple of less astounding ones), a secret his mother had hoped to take with her to the grave. Luxenberg discovered that Annie, rather than having been institutionalized at the age of two, had grown up in small family apartments with his mother and their parents. He was stunned to learn that, in fact, Annie had not been institutionalized until she was twenty-one years old and Beth was twenty-three.

Why had his mother worked so hard to keep Annie’s existence from her own children? Had his father known of Annie? Why was Annie placed in a state institution and what happened to her? These questions would lead Steve Luxenberg, longtime Washington Post reporter, on a search that would rewrite his family history.

Annie’s Ghosts is, at heart, a mystery but it is also a strongly written memoir in which Steve Luxenberg shares his experiences of being raised by a woman determined to keep the existence of her sister from her children. In his quest to find the truth, Luxenberg introduces numerous family members and friends, many of whom are able to add bits and pieces to Annie’s story. This is non-fiction, though, and much of Annie’s story seems lost forever despite Luxenberg’s determined research, including a trip to the European village from which his family immigrated to America.

Luxenberg, in an attempt to understand his mother’s motives for hiding her sister from her own family, includes a brief history of America’s twentieth-century mental-health movement and the country’s attitude about mental illness. What he learns about Annie’s treatment, and how different her life might have been if she had been born just 25 years later, is both heartbreaking and instructive.

Annie’s Ghosts
is a well-written account of Steve Luxenberg’s meticulously researched attempt to return Annie Cohen to the family that almost lost her memory for good. That he learned as much as he did about a woman he never knew existed, one whose past is barely documented, is amazing. Annie’s Ghosts is not a particularly easy read – but it is well worth the effort.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. I think I am going to have to give Annie's Ghosts a try. My family has a similar story concerning my grandmother and her twin brother, who also (we think) was institutionalized. Supposedly it was at a very young age, which would explain his absence from family photos. We don't know why he was institutionalized or when exactly he died as in her later years my grandmother suddenly "remembered" new details about her brother, but she was also convinced that everyone she knew was stealing from her. So, it's hard to know what to believe.

  2. I think a lot of secrets went to the grave with my mother, but we wrangled a couple of important bits of information out of her. And, I'm not so sure I wanted to know that stuff, after all.

  3. Alissa, you would find the sections on the mental-health industry interesting, I suspect, because the national attitude regarding mentally ill family members was generally one of shame. People believed that mental illness ran in families, and the author came to believe that his mother hid the existence of her sister because she was worried that no one would marry her if they knew she had a mentally disturbed sister.

    Your story sounds eerily similar to the one told in this book.

  4. Bookfool, the author struggled in a similar manner. He was not sure that he was doing the right thing by exposing long-buried family secrets and wondered if he were dishonoring his mother (and the rest of his family) by writing this book.

    I suspect that most families have some well kept secrets that are known to only a handful of family members.

  5. I'm just over 100 pages into this one and having a hard time with it. I'm going to push on to the end, but I'm afraid my review won't be as positive as yours is.

    The story of what happened to Annie and to people like her is a very compelling one, though. I've long felt that they psychiatric profession has a lot to answer for.

    I should have my review up next week. I'll include a link to yours. You know yours is the book blog that sends the most readers my way.

  6. C.B., I think what you're experiencing is what I alluded to by saying that it's "not an easy read." I did find it insightful and informative enough to decide that it had been a good book and worth my time. But I did grow frustrated with it a time or two and could not pick it up if I were tired.

    Hey, I'm happy to hear that you are getting some traffic from this direction. That makes my day.

  7. It sounds disturbing but compelling. It's so sad, the secrets that families keep. We get to look back at them w/contemporary eyes but they had to deal with their current reality and make their (hopefully hard) choices.

  8. Carrie, the author does an excellent job of putting his mother's decision to keep the existence of her sister secret into the perspective of her times. He doesn't try to justify her decision, only to explain it.

  9. It sounded as if that's what he did. I'll have to pick it up, it does sound like a good read.