- The Great Michigan Read 2013-14
- Michigan Notable Book for 2010
- A Washington Post Book World's "Best Books of 2009," Memoir
Annie would spend the rest of her life shut away in a mental institution, while the family erased any hints that she had ever existed. Through interviews and investigative journalism, Luxenberg teases out her story from the web of shame and half-truths that had hidden it. He also explores the social history of institutions such as Eloise in Detroit, where Annie lived, and the fact that in this era (the 40s and 50s), locking up a troubled relative who suffered from depression or other treatable problems was much more common than anyone realizes today.
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.40(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Steve Luxenberg has been a senior editor with the Washington Post for 20 years. He lives in Baltimore, MD. This is his first book.
Read an Excerpt
ANNIE'S GHOSTSA Journey into a Family Secret
By Steve Luxenberg
HYPERIONCopyright © 2009 Steve Luxenberg
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSpring 2000
"Who the heck is Annie?"
My younger brother Jeff was on the phone from Boston.
After Mom's death, he had taken on the unenviable task of dealing with her final tax return, her outstanding bills, and her forwarded mail. In March 2000, a solicitation arrived from Hebrew Memorial Park, the cemetery where Mom's parents, our grandparents, are buried. Spring was around the corner, and the cemetery was offering to plant flowers on the grave sites. Cost: $45 each.
Except the solicitation listed not two graves, but three: Hyman Cohen, Tillie Cohen, Annie Cohen.
Annie. Just one word and yet it made Mom's sister so much more ... real.
The solicitation also should have raised doubts about Mom's claim of ignorance regarding her sister. Mom obviously had been receiving these letters for years. But strange as it seems, that didn't occur to me at the time. Still the trusting son, I thought instead: What a shame this didn't come to light earlier. Mom could have learned something about what happened to her long-lost sister.
"That must be the sister," I said.
"What sister?" Jeff asked.
As proof of how lightly the secret had skipped acrossthe family surface five years earlier, Jeff had no recollection of ever hearing about it. Our memories conflicted. I could have sworn that Sash and I had told Jeff and Mike about it at the time, even debated with them whether the story could be true, sought their views about whether to ask Mom. Jeff, however, said that it was all news to him. So did Mike, when he heard about the cemetery's offer.
Curiosity took over now, as I imagined what we might find out. I assumed that Annie must have died when she was quite young, and that my grandparents probably had decided not to tell their older daughter, believing that it was better for her to be in the dark about her sister's fate than to endure the pain of losing her entirely. That kind of thinking was typical of the older generations in my family, which seemed to have a collective amnesia about anything sad, tragic, or pre-American. So I grew up with only the fuzziest of notions about my family's origins. Mom's parents were Polish or Russian Jews, while Dad's came from somewhere in what is now northeastern Poland, and all of them, from both sides, had arrived before 1920.
Beyond that, it was pretty much a mystery. Our family tree had no branches older than our grandparents; we didn't know whether we descended from farmers or merchants or soldiers or rabbis. We didn't know if our grandparents had left behind relatives in Eastern Europe, and if so, whether they had survived or perished in the Holocaust. We heard no stories about life in the old country, and what's more, we didn't much care-we were a modern American family, looking ahead rather than back, determined to make something of ourselves, freed of whatever injustices or circumstances had held back our European ancestors. "Mom taught us to move on, to go forward," Mike reminded me. The past wasn't just past. It was irrelevant.
But for me, Annie was different. She belonged to my mom's generation; born here, lived here, died here, buried here. If we could find out about this unknown aunt of ours, why not try? If for no other reason, it seemed important for our kids to know the reason for her institutionalization, in case there was a genetic basis for whatever disability she had.
Jeff put a halt, temporarily, to my speculation. How did we even know, he said, that this Annie was Mom's sister? With the last name of Cohen, she could be Hyman's sister, or cousin, or some other relative. The reply Jeff sent to the cemetery office, even before he called me, had reflected his uncertainty: "Beth Luxenberg passed away this past year.... Could you tell me the relation of Annie Cohen to Hyman and Tillie Cohen, if your files so indicate?"
Elaine Klein at Hebrew Memorial Park was only too happy to help. Several weeks later, we had photocopies of all three burial records. Annie's consisted of a single page, couched in the language of officialdom. Deceased's name: Annie Cohen, of 3710 Richton in Detroit. Time of death: 4:30 A.M. Place of death: Broadstreet Medical. Occupation: None. Parents' names: Hyman and Tillie Cohen. Martial status: Never married. Citizen: Native. Date of death: August 7, 1972. Age at death: 53.
Here was conclusive evidence: Annie was Mom's sister. But beyond that, I was more confused than ever. Fifty-three years old when she died? Had she been in institutions for more than half a century? If that were true, why did the burial record list her place of residence as 3710 Richton? That was where my grandmother, my Bubbe, was living when she died in 1966, six years before Annie's death. (I was nearly a teenager before I understood that "Bubbe" wasn't her name but was Yiddish for grandmother, which also explained why every other Jewish grandmother I knew was named Bubbe.)
My grandparents had moved to the Richton apartment in the mid-1950s. Had Annie lived there with them at some point? That didn't seem possible. Growing up, I had visited that apartment every Saturday for nearly a decade-I took a weekly allergy shot at Dr. Bernstein's office close by, and stopping at Bubbe's was a required part of the trip. I still remember the sounds and smells of the place: the scary, creaky elevator with the heavy accordion-like inner gate; the Old World scent that permeated my grandmother's furniture, her clothes, and her hair; the vanilla wafers that had a permanent place on her kitchen table.
Dropping by Bubbe's wasn't my first choice for a Saturday activity; I saw it as a detour on the way to an afternoon of basketball. But while I might have been impatient about the visits, I wasn't oblivious-if Annie had lived there, I would have known it.
The burial record raised still more questions: It listed the "informant" for Annie's death as "Northville State Hospital Records." I vaguely recalled that Northville was a place for the mentally ill. I turned the page over. On the back, under "Survivors," there was a single, startling line: "1 sister-Mrs. Jack (Beth) Luxenberg, 22551 Fargo."
If Mom had lost all contact with her sister, how had the cemetery-or was it Northville-known my mother's whereabouts?
I stopped thinking like a son and began thinking like a journalist. "I'm trying to figure something out from what you sent my brother," I told Elaine at the cemetery office when I reached her, a bit shaky at the implications of the question I was about to ask. "Can you tell from your records who handled the arrangements for Annie's burial?"
Elaine said she would cheek the file. I was at work, where I was supposed to be editing an article for the weekly commentary section of The Washington Post, which I oversaw at the time. Instead, my mind raced with the jumble of possibilities: If Mom knew about her sister's death in 1972, maybe she wasn't telling the truth when she said she didn't know what had happened to Annie. If she knew about Annie, did she tell anyone else? Did my dad know?
My mind drifted back to what I was doing in August 1972. I was home from college that summer. Had Mom managed to bury Annie without my knowledge?
Was I that clueless?
Elaine's answer was intriguing but not definitive. A rabbi had conducted a service of some kind; typically, the family would make that arrangement. But the file was old, she reminded me, and the cemetery didn't keep a copy of the payment. So she couldn't say for sure.
I didn't feel stymied, though-the burial record contained plenty of leads. I could check birth and death records, newspaper death notices, and old Detroit city directories, just the kind of detective work I relished during my investigative reporting days.
Later, the debate would begin. My siblings and I would talk about whether it was a good idea to unearth this information, whether the secret-whatever it was-should remain buried. After all, we had decided not to ask Mom about it when she was alive. Now that she was no longer here to add her two cents to the debate, was it right, or fair, to go ahead without knowing her views?
Those were tough questions, and ones that I would eventually have to confront before deciding whether to write this book. In the spring of 2000, however, a book wasn't on my mind. I had no idea what I was going to do with the information I was collecting. It just seemed like something we should know. Mom had a sister. We had an aunt. What could we learn about her?
A month later, I placed a call to the Michigan Department of Community Health, overseer of the state's mental health system. Unsure what to say or even whom to ask, I talked to several employees before landing in the hands of a woman who served as the traffic cop for this busy intersection of government in Lansing. Trying to be brief, I told her the bare bones: The family had recently discovered that our mom had a sister who might have been a patient at Northville. We wanted to find out more.
"You and five thousand other people," she replied.
What did that mean? I was well aware that state asylums had once held thousands of people, and that many had remained there for decades. But the deinstitutionalization movement had ended that era years ago, back in the 1970s. Why, I asked her, would so many people be seeking information about their relatives now?
"I get dozens of calls a month from people just like you," she replied.
Now I did start to take notes.
Who's making all these calls? I asked.
"Family members," she said, "who have just discovered that they have a relative they never knew about."
And what can you tell them? I said.
"I can't tell them anything," she said. "State law doesn't let me."
But I'm next of kin, I told her.
Doesn't matter, she said. You'll need a court order, and even then, you'll need a good reason, such as a concern about something genetic.
That doesn't make sense, I said. My aunt's been dead thirty years. What's the harm?
She laughed-sympathetically, I thought, if a laugh can be described that way.
"It's known as the Patient Protection Act," she said. "But sometimes we call it the Hospital Protection Act."
She seemed in no rush to get off the phone. She talked about how she had once helped a twin look for her deinstitutionalized sister by providing a key bit of information. The twins later reunited and sent her a photo of their reunion. I could tell she wanted to help me, if she could just figure out a way within her interpretation of the law.
"Do the Northville records exist?" I said. "There's no point in seeking a court order or suing to get the records if they don't."
"They might have been destroyed," she said. "The hospitals are supposed to keep them for twenty years after discharge, but there are so many records that they don't always get around to destroying them."
Would you be willing to check for me?
She said she had a friend at Northville she could ask. Trying to make myself into more than a disembodied voice, I gave her my address, and my home and office phone numbers. When I hung up, however, I thought pessimistically: dead end.
Several weeks later, she left me a voice mail. It took me half a minute to place the name. I called back immediately.
"No luck," she said. "My friend couldn't find any records."
Just accept it, I thought: A dead end, for sure.
A few days later, a hastily written note appeared on the fax machine at work. "My computer is down so I can't type this note," it said. "I just heard from Northville, and they did find Annie's file.... Her discharge summary is being faxed to me tomorrow and I'll fax it to you."
I arrived at the office early the next morning, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, hoping to get a good start on the day's tasks. The promised fax was already there. I sat down for a quick look.
On a sheet with the heading "Eloise Hospital" (what was that?), next to the line "Date of Admission," I saw, "4-26-1940." Directly below was Annie's date of birth: "4-27-1919." Couldn't be. According to this record, Annie wasn't two years old when she went to the institution. She was a day shy of twenty-one.
And Mom wasn't four.
She was twenty-three.
It's rare to learn something so head-snapping, so mind altering, so frame-shattering. Annie: twenty-one. My mother: twenty-three. They had grown up together.
If each of us has a personal time line, then this new fact had no place in my mother's. She had told us so many stories about her childhood, and told them so often, that we had a standing joke when she repeated one. "Number 32," we'd chime, much to her good-natured annoyance. Sometimes, to drive the point home even harder, we'd go to three digits. "538," one of us would say. "Or wait, was that 422?"
I knew the stories so well that I had images to go with the text. There was Hyman, the tall, gaunt, junk peddler who rarely spoke, and whose English, when he did speak, made clear that he did not feel entirely comfortable in his adopted homeland. There was Tillie, the diminutive woman with kindly eyes, a permanent hint of sadness in her smile and a severely rounded back that made her look much older than her age. And there was Mom, the only child, living with her parents until well into her twenties, forced by circumstances to remain at home, struggling to withstand the ravages of the Depression. She and Hyman and Tillie, just the three of them, in their cramped walk-up apartment on West Euclid Street in Detroit.
Now, Annie. A fourth person. In my mind's eye of life on Euclid, I had no space for Annie, no idea where she fit. Accommodating her required more than revising the old stories. We couldn't just call them 538a and 422b. We needed to re-imagine, re-consider, re-interpret, rewrite.
At first, I could not imagine. I thought of Josh and Jill, my two children, also born two years apart. They weren't even out of high school, but already they had a lifetime of shared experiences, documented by our photo albums: the mundane and the memorable, the silly and the serious. Whatever their relationship as adults might become, could either one construct a world, a childhood, or a life in which the other didn't exist?
And what about Annie? What was her personal narrative?
I turned back to the faxed pages in my hands. Three of them came from the beginning of the case, standard forms that recorded biographical data at the time of Annie's admission to Eloise Hospital. The other three came from the end-they documented Annie's move to Northville in January 1972 and, after several months of evaluation, her transfer to a nursing home in Detroit. The final page recorded the nursing home's call to Northville on August 7, 1972, to report that Annie had died.
With my newspaper deadline looming, I could do little more than scan the pages. In May 1972, a social worker and a doctor at Northville, preparing for Annie's transfer to the nursing home, had summarized her history, her condition, and her chances for improvement. More than thirty years in institutions, compressed to fewer than a dozen paragraphs. The phrases, each more eye-opening than the last, flew by like a high-speed ticker tape: "52-year-old female patient ... born with congenital leg deformity ... leg amputated when she was 17 ... attended special schools ... although retarded, was an outgoing bubbling person ... about a year before hospitalization, she became withdrawn, seclusive, dependent ... patient's mother felt somewhat guilty about patient's illness and related that the sins of the parents are paid for through their children."
I put the pages down, aware that I was trying to catch my breath. "Sins of the parents"? Was this just an expression of my grandmother's guilt, or did this refer to some sin in particular? Almost reluctantly, my eyes went back to the doctor's notes, and his concluding words: "Patient has had no visitors in years ... she remains being incoherent and irrelevant much of the time ... final diagnosis (1) Mental Deficiency (moderate); (a) Schizophrenia (Chronic) Undifferentiated Type ..."
Too much to absorb. Too much, too fast. And more on the way: My Michigan contact informed me that she had several other pages from 1940 to send, but the photocopies had turned too dark to be readable if she faxed them. She would mail those. Fine with me. I needed time to think about what I had just read.
Excerpted from ANNIE'S GHOSTS by Steve Luxenberg Copyright © 2009 by Steve Luxenberg. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsPROLOGUE: Spring 1995....................1
ONE: Spring 2000....................9
TWO: Looking for Mom....................27
THREE: The Rosetta Stone....................41
FOUR: Unlocking the Door....................57
FIVE: Missing Pieces....................73
SIX: Actually Insane....................91
SEVEN: Welcome to Eloise....................107
EIGHT: I Am Family....................125
NINE: Lost and Found....................141
TEN: Castles in the Air....................157
ELEVEN: The Old Neighborhood....................175
TWELVE: The Cigar Laborer....................191
FOURTEEN: One of the Thousands....................227
FIFTEEN: The Ghosts of Radziwillow....................247
SEVENTEEN: Dad's Secret....................281
EIGHTEEN: Uncontoured Ills....................299
NINETEEN: Always the Bridesmaid....................317
FAMILY MEMBERS AND RECURRING FIGURES....................359
What People are Saying About This
Annie's Ghosts is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read . . . From mental institutions to the Holocaust, from mothers and fathers to children and childhood, with its mysteries, sadness, and joythis book is one emotional ride. (Bob Woodward, author of The War Within and State of Denial)
...a scrupulous, detailed account of one dogged reporter tracking down a family secret. Call it a personal Watergate investigation.... When you close the book, you can't help wondering what secrets your own family hides, buried in family gravesites or the inner recesses of an aging mind. CBC: Ideas
Steve Luxenberg sleuths his family's hidden history with the skills of an investigative reporter, the instincts of a mystery writer, and the sympathy of a loving son. His rediscovery of one lost woman illuminates the shocking fate of thousands of Americans who disappeared just a generation ago. (Tony Horwitz, author of A Voyage Long and Strange and Confederates in the Attic)
This is a memoir that pushes the journalistic envelope . . . Luxenberg has written a fascinating personal story as well as a report on our communal response to the mentally ill. (Helen Epstein, author of Where She Came From and Children of the Holocaust)
I started reading within minutes of picking up this book, and was instantly mesmerized. It's a riveting detective story, a moving family saga, an enlightening if heartbreaking chapter in the history of America's treatment of people born with what we now call special needs. (Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don't Understand and You're Wearing That?)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
ANNIE'S GHOST is a true account about a son who who discovers after his mother's death that she had a sister her children never knew about. The son's investigative search tries to found out about Annie and why his mother lied about never having a sister and what affect that lie had on his mother, the family, and friends. This excellent book reads like a novel. The author includes historical information which tries to explain why people acted as they did. It's a satisfying book which leaves the reader thinking about people's choices.
The family mystery is very intriguing. The author throws in a lot of other facts and little tidbits of information which don't necessarily have anything to do with the story of Annie, and could easily have been left out. He made some of these add-ons quite lenghty, which made the book boring at times. Overall, I enjoyed the story of Annie immensely, and you really start to feel for this person. Would recommend.
Mr. Luxenberg has thoroughly researched every facet of his family's history in his quest to learn more about his deceased mother and the secret she took to her grave. Simultaneously, this book reads like a novel, a revealing history of mental illness treatment in the U.S., a memoir of WWII-era European-Americans, and a compassionate look at the interior lives of this professional writer's ancestors. I was totally absorbed from start to finish, drawn in by Mr. Luxenberg's detailed fact-finding and his unwillingness to give up his search for the truth. I am fortunate to have found an advance copy three months prior to its publication.
Early ReviewersAnnie's Ghosts is a very enjoyable read, an attempt to understand why Annie was placed in a mental hospital at a very young age on what we might describe today as a temporary certificate and then left to spend her entire life in institutions. She was not however immediately abandoned. Her mother, Tillie, (the author's grandmother) visited her daughter weekly until Tillie herself was elderly and too infirm to keep up the visits. That left Annie's sister, Beth Cohen (the author's mother) as Annie's only remaining relative. But Beth had rejected her sister long ago and did not even tell her own husband and children about Annie. The author attempts to reconstruct Annie's fate and in doing so reveals other family secrets. Of more interest however is the history of the treatment of mental illness duing the time Annie lived in institutions. She was admitted in 1940 and died in 1972 during her fifties. After Tillie died, Annie was alone and forgotten. She had no advocate or friend who might have questioned her treatment or the need to keep her in hospital for the rest of her life. And so she languished.The author attempts to understand how his loving mother could have chosen to not only abandon her sister but actively erase her memory from the family history. This is a modern detective story of the search through public and private records to reconstruct events that occurred many decades past.
The author discovers the existence of an aunt he never knew he had. His mother's sister had been institutionalized, and the family had done what it could to hide anything that might reveal her existence. As a genealogist, I was immediately intrigued by the plot and began verifying the story through census research even before the author got around to it. He does an admirable job of navigating available records and the "system" to learn more about his newly-discovered family member. This was a story that I did not want to put down.
Secrets. We all have them. Luxenberg's book is about secrets - his family's secrets. The story revolves around a phone call that the author receives after his mother¿s death. The caller asks about his mothers¿ sister. His mother doesn't have a sister. She always talked about her childhood as an only child and had even mentioned to new acquaintances that she was an only child. This book is about the quest to find the elusive sister. The author's siblings are not so sure that the endeavor is worth pursuing - let the dead rest in peace. In the quest for truth, the author had to overcome many barriers, from the Michigan Department of Social Services to the turn- of- the- century social stigma of mental illness. The story setting takes place in Detroit, Michigan - my hometown. I remember my father, a retired Detroit Policeman, talking about fancy hotels like the Book Cadillac, the riots, and downtown Detroit, when it was alive and thriving ¿ all part of the background of Annie¿s GhostsThis story is a page turner. A perfect book to share with all your friends. Who knows, maybe this story will induce others to investigate their family secrets.
This was a fascinating read. Every family has its secrets, but how does someone hide a person for decades? Steve doesn't find out until after his mother's death that she had a sister. He embarks on a journey to find out all he can about his aunt and learns about his parents along the way.
This is a personal story told by a journalist who uses investigative skills to solve the 'secret' revealed after his mother's death. It is an intriguing story as the author Steve Luxenberg picks through medical records and old letters for any glimmer into his mother's childhood. He grew up never really knowing anything of his mother's childhood and what his mother did say, that she was an 'only child', comes to light as a lie. What was so horribly wrong about this lie and why did she feel the need to lie, is the premise of this memoir. The story winds through WWII, the Holocaust, and the Depression. Though I enjoyed reading the story, and there were definitely parts were I really couldn't put the book down, I found the book much more than advertised. There is involved stories of distant relatives, history of the mental health treatment in that era, and the transformation of Detroit of the 1900's. Though this info gives great background to the plight of his grandparents, I felt pulled away from the main story of his mother and her desire to 'erase' her sister from her life.If you get a chance to read "Annie's Ghost," you won't be disappointed. Just be prepared for the story to have many 'side' stories that can be distracting.
Luxenberg finds out as an adult that his mother was not an only child, as she has said repeatedly throughout her life, but actually grew up with a younger sister. The sister was institutionalized one day before her 21st birthday. Luxenberg searches for more information about this unknown relative, and more specifically, why his mother would pretend that she had never existed.I requested this book, so obviously I was interested in the story. When the book arrived, I finished it in two days, staying up until the wee hours. It is WONDERFUL , exactly what a memoir should be - factual as far as possible, but also is clear about where it is subjective. The historical background and research is solid (covering the Depression, mental health care in the 50s, and the Holocaust), and the relationships are carefully built to show how subjective our memories are. The book is not about Luxenberg's aunt, but about the investigation itself. I definitely enjoyed it, and will be recommending it to others.
The author of this book, Steve Luxenberg, is a journalist who finds something to investigate in his own family. Shortly after his mother's death, an offhand comment reveals that his mother had a sister named Annie, who had been placed in a mental institution and kept a secret for virtually all of her adult life.The book is a memoir not just of Annie, but of Luxenberg's entire family. Although he is very American, his descendants were "old country" Russian immigrants who fled from the Holocaust, and it is interesting to hear their stories. Everyone has secrets and pasts they would not like to share - but is it better to reveal them anyway? This is also a memoir for other families who have lost descendants to mental institutions during the twentieth century - they number around five thousand patients, hidden or unclaimed. Luxenberg did substantial research into twentieth century psychiatry, and the crowded and poor conditions of the "insane asylums" established during this time. But mostly it is just a memoir to Annie, his aunt he never knew, with the hope that this book has "given Annie a place in Mom's world" when she was too ashamed to speak of her sister herself.
What happens when shortly after your mother's death you learn that she had a sister that you never knew existed? You further learn that this sister had been institutionalized, had died and that her funeral had been arranged by your mother during your adult life and yet you never heard a whisper of it. The author, Steve Luxenberg, takes a leave of absence from his work as a journalist to pursue the questions he has on his long lost aunt. Under what diagnosis was Annie institutionalized and most important why and how did his mother and others keep it a secret?The search reconnects the author with a far-flung family and old friends of his mother with whom he has had little contact over the years. In the process he learns of other family secrets and of the Ukrainian town from which his mother's parents emigrated to the US early in the century and of the horrendous events that happened there in WWII to which his mother's cousin was a witness. He learns why his father couldn't vote and about his early medical discharge from the Army.As is usually the case in such searches, not all family members were in favor of finding the answers to these questions. Better to let the past rest in peace. But there is often one member with a journalist's curiosity to investigate all leads and the tenacity to overcome the entrenched bureaucracy that does its best to frustrate entrance to documents so vital in a search.From personal experience I know what it is like to live with a family member who is mentally ill--always uncertain of behavior and outbursts. For a teenager particularly it is often something not readily discussed with friends. Like many great traumas such as an experience of war it is often repressed, but not to the total exclusion that the author found in his mother.Steve Luxenberg does a commendable job in journalistic research with many diversions into discussions of mental illness, its treatments, and the cultural attitudes towards mental illness in the middle of the 20th Century before the great exodus from our mental institutions in the 1970s. His research also leads him to give a history of the institutions to which Annie was committed and what her life would be like there, although perhaps the book would have been better with a tighter focus on the personal search without the lengthy, scholarly descriptions along the way. The author deals with a very painful family dilemma revealing in the end the heavy burden borne by his mother in dealing with the trauma and the guilt of what was done.
This book was interesting in that it takes you on a real journey through a families past to reveal its secrets. It is well written and I enjoyed getting to know the characters some. However, I would have liked to know the characters in the memoir better. While immersed in the mysteries there are very few descriptions that let the reader really sit with the author as he asks the questions.The cover on the front haunted me throughout the book. I won't say how, because it will ruin the book. But if you read it and remember me...write me and tell me what you think.
Annie's Ghosts is the story of a son trying to understand his mother's decision to keep her sister who was mentally ill, retarded, or both, a secret from him and his siblings, as well as from most of her own acquaintances. He pursues his mother's reasons through hospital records, and interviews with people who knew her. He fails, but the journey is well worth taking with him.In the end, the book seems somehow incomplete. The story is tied to the past--to the anonymity of institutionalized mental patients, and to the yearning of a cousin who lost everything in the Holocaust to reconnect with her family and her identity. What was missing--what I expected, and was disappointed of with each turning page--was some connection to the current condition of the mentally ill. There is an obvious parallel between the anonymity of an institution like Eloise and that of a homeless camp under a bridge.
I read an excerpt of this book (about Anna) and was fascinated by the story, so when I got the opportunity to read this ARC, I was delighted. Given that what I knew of the story was the general premise and then Anna's story, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. The Author spins a great tale of learning about a family secret, a hidden aunt who was never spoken of and spent her life institutionalized. It's fascinating to follow the author as he researches and learns more and more about Annie and her life and what both she and the rest of the family must have gone through. But this is more than just Annie's story. This is the story of so many people, young and old, who were shunned from society due to mental illness or disability, and how their families were forced to hide that fact out of embarrassment. It makes you glad that we have moved past those days.I felt as though the book ended a bit abruptly, but it's not fiction, this is real life. Life doesn't always tie things up so neatly. I wonder if the publication of this book will bring more people out of the woodwork and the author may learn even more about Annie and her life.
Written by Steve Luxenberg, a Washington Post journalist, this book is a memoir about his search for family history which was buried by time and secrets. When I first read the description of this book I was thrilled to have the chance to read and review such interesting subject matter and I dove into it as soon as I could. Sadly, I was quickly disappointed. While sections of the book would draw me deep into the story and the search, they all seemed to amount to dead-ends or more questions. While this is probably the way it Luxenberg went on his journey of discovery, I was hoping for a little more polished search. Annie¿s Ghosts was written in a very journalistic fashion which is commendable considering how close Luxenberg was to the subject matter, but I found myself being reminded of his position as a journalist more often than I would have liked. I can understand how trying to balance his position as a son and a journalist can be very difficult, but I would rather he address that problem all at once. I loved the idea of this memoir, it included aspects of our history which automatically incite emotion, and yet I had an extremely hard time getting excited about them. There were golden nuggets of family history and information about the mental health system in the early twentieth century, but they were overshadowed by Luxenberg¿s use of questions. There were so many questions which he could not answer, but which were posed to the reader, that an extremely powerful tool in a writer¿s toolbox was reduced to an annoyance. Questions can make a very poignant statement or draw a reader¿s attention to a specific issue, but when whole paragraphs are filled with questions which cannot be answered, it takes away from the momentum of the story. The photographs included in the text helped to give a visual image to the characters and places which Luxenberg described, but I found myself wondering about the cover image. The photograph of two women with one faded out and obscured is obviously symbolic, but is this a real photograph? Often in the memoir Luxenberg comments about how there were no photographs of Annie and it makes me wonder if this was an artist¿s creation or a genuine image. It is never explained in the book, but the powerful image haunted me as I learned more about the family. The journey which Luxenberg went on to create this book is admirable, and the subject matter is fascinating, but the way it was handled slows down the story and leaves the reader wanting more.
I received a copy of this through early reviewers, but unfortunately I can't give it more than 2 stars. I was just so disappointed! :-( The first third or so of this book was amazing, I read it very quickly and it created enough suspense that I was rearranging my schedule so that I could read more. But then it just STOPPED.... Suddenly it was pages of slow dialog, description, and musings. It ended up being such a disappointment I had to struggle to finish it. Sorry to give what seemed like such a great premise just 2 stars.
Steve Luxenberg's memoir based on a secret his mother kept all her life rang true with me and this era because if your parents lived in this time you know how this generation lived and how they kept everything in the family. It was the times.......before television, computers and news coverage on things like mental illness or disabilities or a slow child in the family. They just didn't talk about these things. I liked the book even thought it sometimes got slow with going back and trying to find out more information during his mother's life. He couldn't understand how his mother could have kept a secret of a sister that was put away in a mental institution from her children and her husband all those years. Believe men, it could have been done back then.
The author tries to cover a ton of territory in this book, giving quick takes on subjects that deserve their own books - e.g. immigration in the early 20th century, the history of Detroit, the changes in the treatment and care of the mentally ill in the 20th century, euthanasia, civil commitment of the mentally ill, and much more. This is all in the context of the author's discovery very late in his mother's life that she had a secret - a sister who was physically disabled, mentally retarded and mentally ill, and who spent her adult life in institutions for the "insane" - and his efforts to find out her story and try to understand why his mother chose to keep her hidden.At the beginning of the book, I found it hard to care about the author's family history that forms the core of the book. But, I kept reading and eventually came to in that aspect of the story also.It did annoy me how the author would at times come to a conclusion about what might have happened with respect to the events and his family's motives, without enough real evidence to support his beliefs.
I guess I am in the minority. I really wanted to love this book, and in fact found it quite interesting for the first 100 pages or so, but then it got quite boring. I thought there were too many details in the conversations a I struggled to finish it. Interesting subject though, recommended if you are interested in family history.
Several years ago my sister and I were going through papers in my grandmother's house, and found a number of elaborate, handwritten legal documents, dating back to the 1930s and in Spanish. Although we don't speak the language, we were able to figure out they were birth certificate type documents for my grandfather's parents. It occurred to us that these were kind of strange for my grandfather to have so we asked my grandmother about them. She was in her 90s at the time and couldn't remember the circumstances exactly, but it seems my grandfather's mother wanted to leave her husband, and although in the end she didn't go through with it, he had collected all the documents needed to start the process of having her brought over to the US. We had never heard this story. Unfortunately, my grandfather had long passed, as had my mom and my uncle - there was no one left to ask. A lost piece of history that we didn't even know was lost.A year or two later we started reading through a large cache of letters belonging to my other grandfather, and discovered that my grandmother had been briefly engaged to one of his best friends from college. Wait, what? My Dad and Uncles were not aware of this piece of information.Annie's Ghosts is all about tripping across unknown family history - and having the nerve to follow up and learn more. I couldn't put this book down. The leads went to unexpected places, dead ends, and more mysteries. In the interim we see a compelling portraits of the 20th century mental health system, immigrant family life in the 20-40s, and a holocaust survival story. It is a highly personal story - and very engaging in its telling.Now, I guess I should go learn to read Spanish.
Annie's Ghosts has an interesting premise; the discovery of a "secret" Aunt after the death of the author's Mother. The book delves into the history of the family and the factors that lead to her being placed into a mental institution. The author does a good bit of research interviewing relatives and friends of his mother,and seeking out medical records however most of the information is lost to time. Medical records have been destroyed and most of the people who would have knowledge of his aunt have passed away. While I understand the circumstances that the author was dealing with I feel that he did not have enough information to tell a full story. There was little sense of closure at the end of the book, neither the reader nor the author satisfy their curiosity on the subject.I found the information on the mental health system during the 20's and the stigma of having a mentally disabled relative to be interesting enough to continue reading. I also found the story's visit to the holocaust interesting, especially Anna's.This book is a good light read, but if you are expecting something deeper and more fulfilling I wouldn't recommend.
¿Without really trying, I have become a collector of our families¿ secrets.¿ ¿Steve Luxenberg.Steve Luxenberg¿s memoir reads like a mystery. In the Spring of 1995, Steve finds out that his mother, Beth, had a sister, Annie, who was mentally and physically disabled. This and other family secrets unfold in a number of shocking revelations and frustrating dead ends.His story explores the history of mental institutions and how those patients had fewer rights than criminals. It explores the life of poor Jewish immigrants who tried to make ends meet the best way they knew how by sacrificing things they held dear. Most importantly it is a personal story of a man who wants to find answers to get closure from a life of secrets.Steve is a journalist for The Washington Post and the perfect person to do research for his families¿ story. Through interviews, letters, documents, and hospital records he traces Annie¿s history which kept this reader on the edge of her seat. I commend Steve for telling such a personal story which helps us to reflect on what is important to us in our lives.
it's taken me a long while to review this, even though i won it in the er thing. i didn't love it, but i did like it. i don't know. i feel bad saying so cause it's only a matter of taste in books. but i've also thought of the story often.what do you think about that? i'm not sure. i was really into history business when i read this but this stopped me cold - i think because i'm no good at history. i don't have a head for names and dates, and this book is full of 'em - a testament to the level of research that went into writing it, yes, but is there maybe a way to make that accessible to idiots like me? the more i think about it though, the more i think it's neat that we never get a definitive answer about this family secret. it's truthful and exposes a beautiful fact about humanity and our secrets and our family structures. and it's better written than this review. that's for damn sure.
This was an intriguing book. Once I got started, I didn't want to put it down, which is sometimes difficult when the book is non-fiction! I really liked how the author drew you in, with information not only about his 'new' aunt, but also with information about the mental health care system of the time and what patients the age of his aunt would have endured. I highly recommend this book; in fact, I loaded it to my mother-in-law so she could get ideas on how to trace the family tree!
Initially this book intrigued me. The storyline had the potential to be fascinating. Unfortunately, the extreme attention to detailing every phone call, conversation and discovered bit of information became too much. The author should have used much less dialogue and concentrated on major events. I wish I had come away with a real idea of who Annie was. As an Early Reviewer of this book I felt obligated to finish it but it was a real struggle not to abandon it before the final page.