The truth will out (Steve Luxenberg's "Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret")
Journalist Steve Luxenberg has worked for more than 30 years as a newspaper editor and reporter. In 1991, he succeeded Bob Woodward as head of the investigative staff at the Washington Post, shepherding reporters through several major reporting awards, including two Pulitzers. He's spent his life excavating facts and assembling stories, but in 1995, he opened a trap door in his own family history and was confronted with an impossibly compelling mystery.
"The secret emerged, without warning or provocation, on an ordinary April afternoon in 1995," Luxenberg says in the prologue to Annie's Ghosts. "Secrets, I’ve discovered, have a way of working themselves free of their keepers."
His mother, Beth Luxenberg, had always made a point of identifying herself as an only child, but approaching eighty and in fragile health, she mentioned to her doctor that she had a "disabled" sister who'd been institutionalized as a toddler. Beth claimed to know nothing of her sister's fate, and after his mother's death, Luxenberg began digging. His mother's name was not Beth, he was startled to discover. And his aunt, Annie, was hospitalized at age twenty-one, not age two. The sisters had grown up together, but after Annie was consigned to spend the remainder of her life in a mental institution, Beth constructed a careful series of lies that erased Annie's face and name.
"Whenever the secret threatened to make its way to the surface," says Luxenberg, "Mom did whatever she could to push it back underground. Just as Annie was a prisoner of her condition and of the hospital that became her home, my mother became a virtual prisoner of the secret she chose to keep."
Luxenberg had to know why. Following the trail from Depression-era Detroit to imperial Russia, through the Holocaust in Ukraine and the Philippine war zone, Luxenberg eventually returned to the hospitals where Annie and countless others lived and died as shadows. The resulting memoir, Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret (out this week in hardcover from Hyperion), is a family saga, a flowers-in-the-attic mystery, and a tragic history of mental health care in the United States. Starred reviews and kudos across the board are praising the reportage, but I think what will resonate with many readers is the emotional journey of this book. A familiar ache of separation, a need to know, and certain realizations that come with coming of age.
Tomorrow Steve Luxenberg joins us for a conversation about Annie's Ghosts, the memoir process, and the nature of secrets. Meanwhile, click here to read the prologue.
And while we're at it...you might want to call your mom.