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?