Steve Luxenberg grew up believing his mother, Beth, was an only child. About five years before his mother's death, he learned that she had a sister who was institutionalized when they were both young children. He never spoke to her about it, but when she died in 2000, the family learned that Beth's sister, Annie, died in 1972 at the age of 53. Luxenberg wondered how it was that he and his siblings knew nothing of their aunt and why there was no evidence at all of Annie's existence -- other than the notice from the cemetery about placing flowers on the family graves, which triggered the investigation into his mother's past.
Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret is the story of Luxenberg's mission to learn about Annie's life and why his mother went to such great lengths to conceal her existence. The book details each step on his journey, from the initial questions about whether it was right for him to dig up his mother's secret to a reassessment of his mother's life.
Luxenberg learns early on how difficult it is to obtain Annie's medical records, despite her being long dead and his being her next of kin, but he eventually manages to dig up some of the records and begins piecing together Annie's life. It's not an easy endeavor; Annie was institutionalized in 1940, and many of her medical records were destroyed. Also, a number of people who knew Beth and her family before her sister was institutionalized had passed away.
In Annie's Ghosts, readers go along with Luxenberg on his journey, as he presents information in the order in which he uncovers it. We learn that Annie was born with a deformed leg, which ultimately was amputated and replaced with a wooden prosthetic. She had a low IQ, was diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia, and was institutionalized without any hope of being released. But Luxenberg, in his quest for the truth, goes beyond presenting the simple details. He speaks with numerous doctors and mental health experts to find out how Annie's condition was perceived from the time of her institutionalization in 1940 to her death in 1972 and compares it to how she would have been treated today.
Along with Annie's story, he tells the history of the public mental health system, particularly in Michigan, where his family was from originally, so that readers can understand Annie's world. Although these sections of the book moved a bit slow, overall I thought the story was riveting. Luxenberg pushes to the forefront the issue of family secrets, whether they should be brought to light, and what to do with them once exposed. He expresses frustration with the fact that his mother essentially wiped Annie out of her life and did all she could to keep Annie hidden, but he wants to understand her motivations and doesn't cast judgment.
Luxenberg also tells the story of his cousin, Anna Oliwek, who knew Annie during her institutionalization. Anna, a survivor of the Nazi massacre of Jews in Radziwillow, has a fascinating story of her own (but you'll have to get your hands on a copy of Annie's Ghosts to find out for yourself).
Annie's Ghosts is an emotional story about mental illness and the limitations of the public mental health system and raises the question of how far someone would go to keep a secret from those closest to them. We all have family secrets, but Luxenberg was brave enough to sort through his. Luxenberg's more than 30 years as a journalist (he's currently an associate editor at The Washington Post) shines through in his writing, and he knows just the right questions to ask to get the information he covets. Annie's story is heartbreaking, but Luxenberg does his best to give her the voice and recognition she didn't have during her life. I highly recommend this one.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Annie's Ghosts from Hyperion Books and the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program for review purposes.