Secrets and memories (a conversation with "Annie's Ghosts" author Steve Luxenberg)
"Part memoir, part detective story, part history," Steve Luxenberg's riveting memoir Annie’s Ghosts is the story of a journalist's search for his own hidden family history. (Read more about it on the Friday edition of BtO and click here to read the prologue.) The book is out in hardcover from Hyperion this week, buzz is healthy, and Luxenberg is making the rounds...
Steve, I was really taken with this book, and I appreciate your taking the time to pay us a visit. I have my theories about the healing properties and “cosmic cartography” of memoirs. Was it just the journalist in you that couldn't resist the secret your mother had so painstakingly kept or is something larger at the heart of this memoir?
There's a personal journey involved in any memoir, and there's one in mine as well. I wanted to apply the discipline of journalism to ferret out the reasons why my mom kept hidden the existence of a disabled sister, a secret she kept for more than more than 50, and never revealed to her family. But I didn’t want to push aside my feelings—they were part of the story, too.
As readers of Annie's Ghosts will learn, quite early in the book, there's a painful day for my mom and me. She's begging me to take her out of a psychiatric ward where she's supposed to stay for two weeks, and I'm unsure about what to do. She keeps repeating, "You don't understand, I can't stay here." Because I didn't know her secret, because I didn't know she had a sister who had spent 31 years in a psychiatric institution, I truly didn't understand.
It would be inaccurate to say that Annie's Ghosts arises from that single day. But the events of that day—-and the emotions that went along with them—-certainly were central to my desire to find out as much as I could about her reasons for creating and keeping the secret.
I'll try hard to avoid spoilers here, but as you say right up front in Annie's Ghosts, "secrets have a way of working themselves free of their keepers.” You also mention early on that your mom constantly brought up the fact that she was an only child. Was it possible that she was baiting you? That on some level she wanted her brilliant journalist son to uncover the truth? Perhaps you are the "savior" she yearned for in her love letters to your dad.
Thanks for caring about spoilers! I don’t mind revealing a bit of the story—-the prologue is available on my website, and I don’t want to frustrate your readers with vague answers.
Baiting me? I doubt it. My mom, whose name was Beth, created the secret before I was born. I can’t imagine that I became central to her thinking about whether to let it out.
Then, in 1995, she inexplicably told a psychiatrist as he was taking a routine family history that she had a disabled sister. She didn’t tell the psychiatrist that she was hiding her sister’s existence, and he didn’t take any particular note of it. But a social worker had heard Mom describe herself as an only child, and so she asked my sister, “Did your mom have a sister?” That was our first inkling of the secret.
Characterizing herself as an only child, sometimes in vivid detail, was a necessary part of my mom’s deception, it seems to me. She had to believe it, otherwise she might stumble when asked her about her childhood. She took the lead, heading off questions by telling people, upon first meeting, “I’m an only child.”
By the way, I'm not sure I can accept your kind characterization of my talents. A "brilliant journalist" might have felt his antenna quiver when he heard the first wisps of the secret from the social worker. But I was reacting as a son, and the son didn't suspect that the few details Mom had volunteered to the psychiatrist weren’t true.
Part of what kept pages turning for me was a growing emotional investment as the story of your mother and her sister peels like an onion, but I felt guilty at moments. As if I was rummaging the top drawer of this woman’s nightstand. At the same time, Annie's story reveals the damaging nature of secrets. How did you define the "need to know" parameters as you crafted the story?
That question—am I invading her privacy?—stayed with me throughout my search. But I didn’t feel I was rummaging in her drawer. I can’t imagine I would have written this book if she were alive. But her death changed the parameters. It triggered the events that caused the secret to emerge a second time, and with enough information to suggest that there was a larger story here.
If my mom were still alive, and the secret had come to the surface, it would have been her story to tell, not mine. Annie’s Ghosts is largely my story, a combination of detective story and memoir, as I try to put myself back in my mom’s place and time so that I can understand her decision. At the same time, it’s also an attempt to restore my secret aunt’s identity, to describe her life as best as I could.
As Dickens once wrote, every family has its secrets, and I think that's why so many early readers are connecting to the book. People can identify with my mom, and the trap that she set for herself by carrying this secret. I've come to believe that her secret became a burden, and that she wanted to let it out, but felt she couldn't.
Should my mom have revealed her secret? I think so. I don’t believe that all secrets are damaging, or that we should live our lives as open books, for anyone to read. But here’s a simple rule that I think helps: If a secret is causing pain, to you or those close to you, then it’s time to consider whether to let it go.
Your quest is going to resonate with anyone who's into family history (and anyone who loves a good mystery), but the cultural aspect of this story took you way above and beyond the casual visit to MyFamilyTree.com. During the writing process, did the balance come naturally or were you making conscious choices about how to integrate personal story and social comment?
Good writing always involves conscious choice. I saw my mom, and my aunt, as being part of a much larger canvass, and I wanted to connect them, seamlessly if I could, to the social forces that shaped them—immigration, poverty, Depression-era Detroit, wartime, the evolution of public mental hospitals into huge institutions, aided by a legal system that handled allegations of insanity as more akin to a crime than a medical problem.
Readers will visit a time and place that is familiar to them, and yet will seem very different. My aunt’s stay at the hospital known as Eloise—which at its peak had more than 10,000 residents, half of whom were psychiatric patients—spanned two eras in the treatment of the mentally ill. That allowed me to marry the narrative of her life to the narrative of the revolution in mental health treatment that occurred in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
The memoir genre has taken some serious hits in the last few years with high profile books turning out to be BS, buyers and reviewers getting skeptical, and legal reviews intensifying. Care to wax philosophical about any of that?
On a Facebook discussion recently, the question came up: How far should memoir writers go in reconstructing scenes and dialogue?
The answer might seem obvious, but as you said, a few high-profile memoirs have gone beyond reconstructed dialogue. Some memoir writers even argue that invention (based on memory, of course) is legitimate — because truth, they say, is in the eye of the beholder anyway.
I draw a harder line. I favor the rough edges of memory over neat and pretty reconstructions. (More interesting, usually.) Invention? That's why we have novels.
Readers, I think, are smart. They know that most writers don't have notes or documents to back up dialogue from long ago. So what's the problem? In a word: Credibility. As a writer, I want readers to grant me some license to tell my story. But if I present lengthy dialogue as fact, I risk losing their trust—and their interest. Bad deal for me.
Steve, thanks for your time. Before I let you go, I have to ask: What are you reading?
Never enough! As a nonfiction writer, I often myself gravitating toward fiction when I leave the keyboard for the day. I love history, but writers of history tell their stories at lengths that require a kind of monogamy that I’m not always willing to spare. I spent a month last fall immersed in Team of Rivals, a book that I wish I could call my own.
Since then, I’ve read Charles Lane’s remarkable account of a post-Civil War massacre in Louisiana, The Day Freedom Died; a collection of novelist Michael Chabon’s essays, Maps and Legends; novelist Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day (set in Boston at the time of the 1918-19 police strike), and novelist Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News.
Two memoirs that have stayed with me for several years: Roya Hakakian’s Journey From the Land of No, about growing up in revolutionary Tehran, and Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, perhaps the most honest writing about friendship I’ve had the chance to read.