Oct 08

Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret

Posted by Soliloquy in Adults with disabilities | Mental Illness


Beth Luxenberg was an only child. Everyone knew it: her grown children, her friends, even people she’d only recently met. So when her secret emerged, her son Steve Luxenberg was bewildered. He was certain that his mother had no siblings, just as he knew that her name was Beth, and that she had raised her children, above all, to tell the truth. By then, Beth was nearly eighty, and in fragile health. While seeing a new doctor, she had casually mentioned a disabled sister, sent away at age two.

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5 Responses

  • ck says:

    Review by ck for Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
    At what point do you stop controlling a secret and find that it’s controlling you? That’s one of the questions at the heart of Steve Luxenberg’s utterly compelling first book, “Annie’s Ghosts” Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret. Part memoir, part biography and part investigative reporting, this book humanizes a subject that probably touches more of us than we might realize.

    Luxenberg’s journey begins as a son’s quest to learn why his mother turned her sibling from younger sister to lifelong secret and expands to become an exploration of a particularly moving era in recent American history.

    Several months after Luxenberg’s mom died, the cemetery where her parents were buried sent the family a letter containing a simple question that was to lead Luxenberg and his siblings on a journey through their family’s past. “Spring was around the corner,” Luxenberg writes, “and the cemetery was offering to plant flowers on the grave sites.” The solicitation wasn’t for two sites, however, but for three. Suddenly, this whisper of a woman had a name, Annie. Her burial certificate answered some questions, but led to others that took Luxenberg deep into the dynamics of his own family as well as the evolving nature of health care in the United States during several key decades of the 20th century.

    He soon found himself part of a wave of thousands of family members seeking information about relatives who’d been institutionalized–relatives they’d never known they had. “I couldn’t write about all the `forgotten people,’ but I could write about one,” Luxenberg writes of his decision to ferret out Annie’s tale.

    Steve Luxenberg is a veteran newspaperman, and his journalistic instincts and contacts definitely helped him develop questions and efficiently seek answers. However, he’s also a son and a brother, and the decision to step outside the bounds of impartial reporter to involved memoirist and family historian cannot have been easy. His love for his mom and his family illuminates every chapter, even as he struggles with why his mom–who lived by the rule of honesty–chose to keep such a key element of her life a secret.

    In the end, drawing on primary and secondary sources, and leavening these facts with his knowledge of his mom, he finds answers. Too late, as he notes in his dedication, for his mom and Annie … but perhaps not for the other 5,000 whose families may still have time to reconnect.

    I read this book twice. The first time, for the tale of Annie and the Luxenbergs; the second, for the larger historical picture. As I’ve written and rewritten this review, I’ve struggled with how to describe this book without spoiling the intensely personal journey it conveys. So I’ll have to leave it at this. If you’ve ever loved or been loved, this book will hit you in the gut.

  • S. Lionel says:

    Review by S. Lionel for Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
    I won’t repeat a synopsis of Annie’s Ghosts – the “Product Description” does a good job of that. I will tell you what went through my mind as I read through this remarkable book.

    As the blurb says, Luxenberg made good use of his journalistic skills to dig into the mystery that was his aunt, Annie. I was amazed at the resources he was able to make use of, not the least was the welcome cooperation of government clerks who went out of their way to look for information. He also was able to locate and get the cooperation of relatives and friends of his mother, many of which he had never known or not seen since childhood.

    What I wasn’t expecting, from what I had heard of this book, were the side stories; about the history of how we treated the mentally ill in the early 1900s and how things would be different today for Annie, and about the Holocaust and the Russian execution of Jews. This last resonated with me because, like Luxenberg, I am the child of Jewish immigrants who fled the Holocaust and pogroms. I was amazed at the connections he was able to make and his luck, really, in not doing this even a few years later when many of his best sources would have likely been dead. It made me regret not learning more about my own family while I still could.

    As the book progressed, and more and more secrets were revealed, it seemed to me that Luxenberg’s quest was really more about him and desire to know as much as he could about his family. There’s a lot of introspective prose which at times feels like filler. I also tripped over some places, mainly early in the book, where he quotes someone, a few paragraphs later repeats the quote, and then repeats it again on the next page. Since I was reading a pre-publication copy, it’s possible that these will be trimmed out before release.

    While Annie’s Ghosts is not my usual reading fare, I found the story captivating and, like the author, I wanted to know what happened next. In the process, Luxenberg reveals some horrors about overwhelmed mental institutions of the early 20th century, despite the best intentions of the medical staff. People’s attitudes towards physical and mental disabilities have changed less, however, and Luxenberg’s story made me stop and think more than once. It’s well worth reading.

    A side note – I first heard about Annie’s Ghosts when NPR interviewed the author. When I’ve heard these interviews in the past, I often marveled at how the host had managed to find the time to read the book they quoted from. But, perhaps in this case, it seemed that everything discussed was from the first 10 pages or so. Maybe that’s their secret?

  • Sunny @ the Library says:

    Review by Sunny @ the Library for Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret

    The subject matter here is fascinating: the stuff of Hollywood films or interesting novels.

    After his mother’s death (and not from a “deathbed confession” as the book’s current blurb claims), journalist Steve Luxenberg learns something startling — He has an aunt.

    Or rather, had.

    A letter from a cemetery asking about routine maintenance for a grave helps Steve begin to coax this particular family skeleton out of the closet. See, his mother’s sister, Annie, was institutionalized. And as much as Steve might try to justify the obvious shame and embarrassment (even hatred? resentment?) that his mother felt, his difficulties in rationalization increase when he discovers this wasn’t some sister his mom barely knew, socked away as a child, or dying young — Annie was institutionalized when Steve’s mother was in her early 20s. His mother had spent a significant portion of her life living with Annie, and Annie didn’t die young. She lived into her 50s. She must have been a fixture around the neighborhood. How had his mother kept this secret all these years, and why?

    A journalist by trade, Steve begins investigating his own family history, immediately discovering the difficulties that even the state throws in the way of those who would like to learn more about its former wards. As Steve struggles to obtain records and interview family and friends, some of whom are dying before he can speak to them, the reader is along for an exciting ride. Steve’s careful research on the institution Eloise, Annie’s contemporaries’ views on mental illness, and how a physical handicap (malformed leg) might have affected Annie, absolutely shine.

    However, at some point the memoir shifts focus, partially because the information Steve can gather about Annie is, ultimately, sparse, and the burning question Steve tries to answer becomes not, “Who was Annie?” but, “Did my Dad know?” While the author barely accepts what his mother has done (and he only accepts it because it is the bare truth) he seems horrified that his father might have been complicit too. It becomes a bit of an obsession and is also when the story loses my interest a little. However, it comes late enough in this otherwise engaging investigation for the reader to already be invested, and carries through to a strong finish.

    Ultimately, I really enjoyed reading Annie’s Ghosts. I had a very hard time putting it down and read it in as few sittings as possible. It is certainly a great narrative that I will be haunted by for years to come.

  • Jojoleb says:

    Review by Jojoleb for Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
    Just before his mother’s death, Steve Luxenberg finds out a family secret–that his mother never revealed that she had a sister, Annie, who was mentally and physically handicapped. Not wanting to approach his mother when she was ill, Luxenberg never asked about Annie until after his mother died.

    Never losing his objectivity, Luxenberg used his skills as a journalist to uncover and tell this amazing, yet personal story. On the way, he uncovers what happened to Annie and some other family secrets that had been swept under the carpet for so many years. Through interviews, letters, documents, and hospital records Luxenberg traces Annie’s history and how she was hidden in plain site.

    Annie’s story is as much a story about Annie as it is about the attitudes of mental and physical disabilities in this era. It is also a story about a poor, Jewish, immigrant family trying to make their way during the great depression. He traces what it must have been like for Annie, who lived most of her life within a mental health facility and how things might have been different had she been born two decades later. Luxenberg traces the attitudes all the way back to Europe and, for some family members, through the ashes of the holocaust.

    The tale is always compelling. Luxenberg is not a flowery writer. Rather, he keeps things organized and allows the story to tell itself. For a book over 400 pages, it reads like it is half that. It’s no thriller, but the mystery as it unfolds keeps you on the edge of your seat.

    If there was a flaw with this book, it is that Luxenberg may at times be too organized. He sometimes leaves out a few pieces of information that he must have known earlier, mentioning them later where it suits the narrative. For example, he read all of his parents letters to each other near the beginning of his reasearch. At times, in the context of an interview or uncovering a new document Luxenberg brings out supporting evidence from a letter so that the readers’ ‘Aha!’ moment, clearly wasn’t the same thing for Luxenberg. On the other hand, I rather enjoyed being led through the story in this way. It may have been somewhat contrived, but it helped the book read more like a novel than a piece of cold journalism.

    I believe this book deserves five stars because it is masterfully written. It tells a universal story and teaches many profound lessons. As we learn about Annie and Luxenberg’s family, we learn more about ourselves. Highly recommended.

  • Marilyn Raisen says:

    Review by Marilyn Raisen for Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
    Steve Luxenberg has written a uniquely different kind of memoir. He employs many of his professional skills while revealing some genuinely heartbreaking family truths. His unflinching objectivity in reporting some disturbing facts surrounding Annie’s treatment only makes this a more devastating, as well as compelling read.

    Mr. Luxenberg learns that his mother, who proclaimed herself ‘an only child,’ had a mentally challenged sister. It would appear that Annie, Beth’s sister, was dually diagnosed. Actually, she seems more multi-handicapped than dually-diagnosed since she appears not only to have suffered physical disabilities but intellectual deficits along with mental illness.

    The reader is provided with a professionally dispassionate history of how the institutions for the mentally ill were operated. Again, the reportage employed makes this history even that more chilling. In attempting to discover as many clues as possible regarding Annie, Mr. L. delves into the lives of many other people. A number of these individuals bring their own histories. Juxtaposed against the history of institutionalization, Mr. L. provides some historical perspectives on the fate of the Jews under Nazism. This might be viewed as ‘chancy,’ however, its horrrors blends and contrasts with the horror that was Annie’s.

    Mr. L.’s mother never mentioned her sister Annie. Steven and his siblings never knew of her existence. It is with his book that Annie is restored to life, as well as some of the understanding and dignity that her life denied her. However, this reviewer carries a mental picture of Tillie [Annie & Beth’s mother] having to impose on others to drive her to see Annie every week.

    ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies,

    But in batallions.’ [Shakespeare]

    There is remarkable heart and humanity within these pages. Kudos to Steve Luxenberg for having revealing his family’s numerous secrets and for not judging.

    Coda: Parts of this book should be recommended reading for individuals entering Social Services. Your prodigious reportage in clinical charting is not only mandated but might, someday, shed light for the other Steven Luxenbergs searching for truths.

    Highly Recommended Reading Especially For Advocates Of The Disabled Since The Stigmas Still Lives….



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