Here’s what made me decide to read this book:
“Annie’s Ghosts is perhaps the most honest, and one of the most remarkable books I have ever read.” –Bob Woodward.
If Bob Woodward liked it, who was I to disagree.
This is the true story of a family secret discovered by Steve Luxenberg after the death of his mother, Beth. In handling some of the paperwork after her death, Steve learned of a sister named Annie. No one could believe it. His mother had repeatedly introduced herself as an only child. And, she was a stickler for honesty.
This must be a mistake or a misunderstanding, thought Steve and the family. Steve is a veteran journalist whose career has been spent uncovering hidden stories. He was compelled to dig deeper.
He found records that proved there was, in fact, a second child in his mother’s family. Steve and his siblings were perplexed, but they reasoned that this was probably a sister who died at an early age. Steve’s instincts told him there was more to the story.
He began digging through old records and he interviewed a wide variety of people. Through dogged determination, sophisticated journalistic techniques and plain old detective work, Steve uncovered the truth. Annie lived in the family home with her parents and her sister (Steve’s mother) until she was twenty-one and his mother was twenty-three. She went on to live to the age of fifty-three. What? How come no one knew about her? Why did his mother keep her existence a secret? Who was this sister and what happened to her? What’s Annie’s story? These questions drove Steve on.
Although Annie had been invisible to them, surely someone knew of her existence. Through fascinating detective work Steve gradually uncovered a lost cousin, old friends of his mother’s, state workers and doctors who helped him understand Annie’s life.
Born with a deformed leg, Annie spent her early years as an invalid, a handicapped person. Against her will she was “incarcerated” at a state “insane asylum” where she spent the rest of her life. Steve’s curiosity led him to learn what life was like for Annie inside the Eloise Hospital. It also led him to know more about his immigrant grandparents and where they came from. And he leaned more about the lost cousin who was a Holocaust survivor.
This was not an easy book to read but I’m so glad I did. The time period of Steve’s grandparents and his mother and Annie was the same of that of my grandparents and parents. The stories reminded me of the culture of that era. It helped explain some of the behavior of my own family. Although it was slow going for me, there is a very good section on the history of the mental health system in our country. I came away with an understanding of the actions of Steve’s grandparents and his mother’s as well.
This was an extremely well written book. Steve might be a great journalist, but he’s a master storyteller as well. His thoughts are well organized and logical. I especially admired his interviewing techniques. He was careful to let each person tell their story in their own way so as not to lead them on. He remained neutral in his conversations, even when he wanted to make statements in his mother’s defense. He was careful, too, with us, the readers, to tell his story in chronological order.
My recommendation: Read this book if you are interested in digging through your family’s past. It’s much better than looking at those family-tree charts. Also good for journalism students, mental health care students, family mystery buffs, or memoir lovers.
About the author: Steve Luxenberg is currently an associate editor at the Washington Post. He has worked for more than thirty years as a newspaper editor and reporter.
Check out the website: Annie’s Ghosts. It includes information not only about the book and the author, but there is an excellent page of sixteen questions for book clubs. This would be an excellent book club book.
Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg, Hyperion, 2009
UPDATE: Read another review of this book at Experiments in Reading.