Review

Annie's ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret

by Steve Luxenberg

Steve Luxenberg was a grown man, with a family of his own, when
he learned that his mother had been hiding a terrible secret all of
his life and most of hers. In a conversation with her therapist,
Beth mentioned she had a sister who died long ago. Her adult
children didn't think too much about it; after all, she was nearly
80 years old and in failing health, and they had more important
things to deal with. But less than a year after Beth's death, this
mysterious, kept-secret sister came up again. This time, Luxenberg
decided to find out if she really existed and what became of
her.

ANNIE'S GHOSTS recounts Luxenberg's search for the aunt he never
knew he had. In trying to find out what he could about Annie Cohen,
he learns a great deal about his family, especially his parents,
and is challenged by the realities of mental health, social
pressures, and the history of violence and oppression that
culminated in the Holocaust. All of these factors, and several
more, contribute to Annie being kept a secret for decades and the
tension just below the surface of the Cohen-Luxenberg family.

Beth was, famously, an only child. It was something she would
tell people within moments of meeting them. As her son learned,
however, this was far from the truth. Beth's younger sister, Annie,
had been born with a deformed leg, and as she grew, it seemed she
had some learning disabilities. But in the 1920s, ’30s and
’40s, when Beth was growing up, her sister was called
“crippled” and “retarded,” and after a
frightening encounter (possibly even an attack), the already
mentally and physically fragile Annie took a turn for the
worse.

By turns catatonic and furious, Annie was eventually
institutionalized by her family. And, as Luxenberg demonstrates
with his fascinating and horrifying exploration of the asylum
system in the U.S., if Annie wasn't severely mentally ill when she
entered the hospitals in which she was to spend the rest of her
life, she was after just a short period of time. And over time, she
became more and more isolated in the hospital, visited only
occasionally by her mother --- never by her father or her sister.
In fact, Beth took the opportunity provided by this absence to
recreate her own biography, trying to erase all evidence of Annie's
life.

ANNIE'S GHOSTS is an intense book. Part memoir, part history and
part cultural study, it examines many branches of Luxenberg's
family tree and paints a vivid picture of American society and
immigrant society in the early decades of the 20th century as well
as the dismal state of mental health care until very recently.
Luxenberg, true to his journalistic background, excels at research
and following leads, and for the most part his tale his tightly
woven. There are, however, a few threads that are dropped and some
truths he never fully divulges out of respect for his late mother
and others he knows. Still, these are only minor distractions.

There is really no happy ending to ANNIE'S GHOSTS, but it is a
story worth telling and worth reading. As Luxenberg discovered, his
family secret is not an uncommon one. Many American families have
secret members, hidden away, forgotten, despised or feared. In
telling Annie's story, the story of his mother, and the story of
his path to discovery and attempts at understanding, Luxenberg
brings to life what otherwise could seem like an extreme or
isolated situation.

Readable and compelling, emotional and just plain interesting,
ANNIE'S GHOSTS is a tragic family saga that pushes the narrator to
examine his role as a son versus that of a writer and asks readers
to find some sympathy and understanding for a family damaged by
secrets and lies, and yet still bound by love and hope.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 22, 2010

Annie's ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
by Steve Luxenberg

  • Publication Date: May 11, 2010
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 1401310192
  • ISBN-13: 9781401310196