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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

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