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Book Review: Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg

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Steve Luxenberg’s narrated memoir, Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, is a true mystery tale from beginning to end. After a lifetime of telling her family “I’m an only child,” Luxenberg’s aging mother nonchalantly reveals to her doctor that she had a sister named Annie. Annie had been placed in an institution when she was only two years old.

Luxenberg and his sister find this hard to believe because their mother raised them to be up-front with people; to tell the truth even when it proved difficult. This ghost of an aunt haunts both kin. Luxenberg cannot let Aunt Annie rest. Questions obsess him:

  • Why did she die at such an early age?
  • What caused her death?
  • In what way was she disabled?
  • Why did his mother and family keep Annie’s existence a secret?
  • Where was this mysterious institution?

Annie's Ghosts reveals that toward the end of her life, Luxenberg's mother begins to suffer severe anxiety attacks. She spends sleepless nights moaning and groaning in seeming fits of agony. Her eating habits change and her overall health deteriorates. Extremely thin and too weak to properly care for herself, Luxenberg and his sister seek medical help.

Although mentally sound, their mother becomes horror-stricken when placed in a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. She becomes overwhelmed with terror about being locked in, especially when she isn’t permitted a pencil to work out the crossword puzzle in the daily newspaper. She pleads with her daughter and son to take her home.

Luxenberg wonders why his mother has such a dreadful fear of this modern hospital. He promises to sign her out, but only after her evaluation. He entertains that her emotional state might be induced by painful memories of her baby sister Annie — ghostlike Annie — so many years ago. Because of his mother’s severe anxiousness, Luxenberg will not ask her direct questions about Aunt Annie. His opportunity for answers ceases altogether when his mother passes away.

Assuming the role of family detective in the story, Luxenberg attempts to find out who his mother’s sister was. As a journalist used to tracking fascinating stories, he begins a relentless search for information about the mysterious Aunt Annie, whom he never knew existed. He talks with distant family and elderly family friends and old neighbors.

To his shock, he learns that Annie was institutionalized at age 23, not age two. Annie and his mother would have spent many years together; why was Annie’s existence a forbidden family topic? Why had his mother died remaining mute about her own sister?

Luxenberg visits a special school Annie attended and searches through academic records. Later he pursues hospital and court orders. Through letters, documents, and fragments of past information he obtains with great difficulty, he interviews Annie’s hospital caretakers; bit by bit, he collects segments of his aunt's troubled life.

  • She lived at home with family in a tiny apartment for the first 20 years of life.
  • Because of a severely deformed right leg, she attended Leland School for Crippled Children.
  • She fell far behind other students and was given a faux degree from 9th grade at age 18.
  • Her badly impaired leg was amputated in favor of an artificial limb.
  • Her ongoing mental deterioration became an embarrassment to family and relatives.
  • She was dismissed from a vocational school because of strange, disturbing behavior.
  • Although Annie claimed she was sexually assaulted, her family did not support her.

Annie’s mental state continues to decline. A neurologist at Harper Hospital issues a diagnosis of “Congenital cerebral anomaly,” which Luxenberg understands as brain damage during birth. A later diagnosis was two-fold: Mental Deficiency and Schizophrenia. This profound verdict insured Annie's placement in Eloise Mental Hospital.

Although the understanding and treatment of mental illness is quite different from what it was in Annie’s early years, sadly enough, Luxenberg wonders all through Annie’s Ghosts why it was so shameful to admit her plight. He still has the greatest respect for his mother, but it is difficult for him to imagine the disgrace her family must have suffered to turn Annie into a nameless ghost.

I would recommend this book to any reader seeking a good novel, even though it is mostly a narrative. Between various chapters, Luxenberg tells his own story about the difficulties of growing up in Detroit. His personal tale gives the reader an awareness of the dignity, respect, and honor families held for one another. Interestingly enough, you will see how other Depression-era secrets of the Luxenbergs were cleverly shoved aside and buried.

Steve Luxenberg paints his characters carefully. He gives away Annie’s secret and other secrets with enough caution to make you want to keep turning pages. His story explains why a child, who began to act psychotically, could easily bring revulsion upon a Jewish family with a good, “decent” name. Hopefully, Annie’s Ghosts will promote positive thinking toward people with mental disorders.

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