Title: Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
Author: Steve Luxenberg
No. of Pages: 2009
First Published: 386 pages
Synopsis (Courtesy of FSB Associates): “Washington Post associate editor Steve Luxenberg is a master of investigative journalism. The editor of two Pulitzer Prize-winning series, Luxenberg has now written his most compelling story: his exploration of his late mother’s secret.
Beth Luxenberg always claimed to be an only child, but a chance mention led to the discovery that she had been hiding the existence of a sister, Annie. The girls had grown up together, living in a series of cramped apartments until Annie’s commitment to a mental institution at the age of twenty-one. Why was Annie committed? How had Beth so thoroughly erased her sister’s existence? Why had she wanted to? Annie’s Ghosts is the engrossing, eye-opening story of Luxenberg’s search for the personal motives and cultural forces that influences his mother’s decision to create and harbor her secret. The deeper he digs, the more he finds himself in unfamiliar territory, struggling to balance his dual roles, the tenacious journalist and the empathetic son.”
Comments and Critique: How would you react if you found out that you had relative that had been kept secret for decades? This is the unfathomable position in which Mr. Luxenberg finds himself shortly before his mother’s death. His journey begins with his wrestling with the decision of what to do with the information – whether to confront his mother or leave it along – to deciding whether to dig a little further to find out who this missing aunt is and why she was kept a secret in the first place.
Mr. Luxenberg’s research takes him across the nation and even to Europe as he attempts to discover Annie and understand why his mother chose to keep her sister a secret. Throughout the novel, his personal struggles to approach the topic as an impartial journalist versus a very eager and confused son shine through. His journalistic background will not let him rest until he uncovers as much as he can, while his duty to his family and to his late mother make him tread with caution for fear of uncovering too many secrets. To me, this struggle is what makes this an incredibly poignant and compelling novel.
I first found out about this book from Book Blogs and was instantly intrigued. As much as there are times where I might not particularly care for my family members, they are still family. I can’t imagine pretending to the world that they don’t exist, let alone keep the secret for decades. Added to this intrigue is a history lesson on early mental health treatments and institutionalization, as well as a foray into the Holocaust. The subject matter is fascinating. Mr. Luxenberg does a tremendous job explaining how things used to be in the field of mental health while not making excuses for treatments or opinions that would be vilified today. He also succeeds in understanding Beth Luxenberg’s reasons for keeping Annie hidden from the world. We may not agree with it, but at least we, as readers, can understand why.
One other item that continued to amaze me while reading was the depths of research Mr. Luxenberg accomplished. He was able to essentially go back in time to understand public opinion, politics, and even the family and personal drama that was occurring at the time key decisions were made about Annie’s future. Upon reflection, I had to ask myself if any family secret was worth the time, money and effort he devoted to discovering Annie. In the end, I realized that this is more than finding Annie and understanding his mother, Annie’s Ghosts is a love story. It is a love story between a man and his family. As he immortalizes their triumphs and struggles, the good and the bad, he is doing so because he is proud to call them mother and father, grandmother and grandfather. For Mr. Luxenberg, it wasn’t a matter of discovering Annie but discovering his family and sharing them with the world.
I thought this was a fascinating read and have already recommended it to others. Thanks to Julie Harabedian at FSB Associates for giving me the opportunity to read and review this novel!