What would you do if out of the blue you discovered that your mother, a self proclaimed “only child,” had a sister? If you were Steve Luxenberg and an investigative reporter, you would start researching your family in earnest.
Steve wrote Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret to tell the story of his quest that uncovered the truth of Annie’s existence and her life in a mental institution. What would cause his mother to keep Annie a secret from her husband and children for over fifty years? What was Annie’s story? Why was she institutionalized?
As the author delves into the records to answer these questions the story begins to unfold. In Annie’s Ghosts, our October book club selection, Steve Luxenberg takes us along on his journey to discover the family secret.
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As I read Annie’s Ghosts, I compared Steve’s journey to mine. Similar, but so different. One year ago I wrote “Do You Have A Skeleton in Your Family History Closet” about researching my great grandfather who spent the last 17 years of his life in a mental hospital. While researching Grandpa Harris’ life, I often became emotional, especially when I obtained his medical records and read his diagnosis as a “paranoid schizophrenic.” The difference between my story and Steve’s is that even though my family didn’t talk much about this part Grandpa Harris’ life, I did have a vague knowledge of it. What if my family had kept this part of his life a secret? Interesting food for thought. As we research our families, sooner or later we’ll stumble upon something that has been suppressed and we’ll need to decide what to do with that information.
I hadn’t researched the mental institutions of the first half of the 20th century, so reading Steve’s descriptions in Annie’s Ghosts was eye opening and disturbing. Throughout the book Steve provides us with an honest look at the attitudes of society towards mental illness in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Not content with just stating the facts, he puts the story into the context of time and place. He describes Eloise, the mental institution where Annie lived much of her adult life and interviews health professionals to learn about Annie’s condition. He reaches out to anyone who can shed light on the secret and in the process comes to terms with his mother’s secret.
As a family historian and researcher I was impressed with the scope of Steve’s research. I learned valuable lessons following his trail: don’t give up, track down every small lead, talk to everyone involved, learn the history behind everything. In short, question every detail and be thorough.
An excerpt from the Annie’s Ghosts website gives us a hint of what the book will include:
Through personal letters and photographs, official records and archival documents, as well as dozens of interviews, readers will revisit my mother’s world in the 1930s and 1940s in search of how and why the secret was born. The easy answer—shame and stigma—is the one that I often heard as I pursued the story. But when it comes to secrets, there are no easy answers, and shame is only where the story begins, not ends.
Employing my skills as a journalist while struggling to maintain my empathy as a son, I piece together the story of my mother’s motivations, my aunt’s unknown life, and the times in which they lived. My search takes me to imperial Russia and Depression-era Detroit, through the Holocaust in Ukraine and the Philippine war zone, and back to the hospitals where Annie and many others languished in anonymity. (“About the Book,” Annie’s Ghosts website)
Steve started his research in 1995 and published Annie’s Ghosts in 2009. Curious about the effect discovering and writing his story has had on his life since then, I connected with Steve through his website and he graciously answered my questions.
Diana: How has writing and discovering your family’s secret made a difference in your life?
Steve: Well, it allowed me to publish my first book, which has led to a second that is nearing completion (not about my family), so that’s one big difference! Discovering the secret also led, surprisingly, to a closer relationship with my mom after her death. That may sound odd, so let me explain. We were always close, but at the end of her life, she had a lot of health problems, and she was suffering (I came to believe) from some guilt in keeping her secret. Writing Annie’s Ghosts gave me a chance to know her as a twenty-year-old, as the secret was being created. Think about that: We can never really know our parents as young people, that era before we’re born. And yet, that age, early twenties, is such an important one in most people’s lives. Wouldn’t you love to have known your mom when she was twenty? In a sense, I did, and it brought me closer to her. I wanted Annie’s Ghosts to be a book of understanding, not of judgment, to allow readers to see the world through the eyes of the people in the book. It’s a universal story, as told through one family, the one I thought I knew, but didn’t.
Diana: How do you think the stories told in Annie’s Ghosts will help the younger generation of your family?
Steve: So hard to know the impact. I can say this: Every family has its stories, and those stories define us, for better or worse. I’ve always thought of Annie’s Ghosts as a book about identity — the “only child” identity that my mom concocted to hide her secret, the identity that my secret aunt lost when she went to the psychiatric hospital where she spent her adult life, the identity that I inherited when the secret finally emerged after my mom’s death. My children, both grown now, learned the story along with me. They helped me, by encouraging me and reading the manuscript, as much as I “helped” them by telling the story, probably more. Now the story is theirs as well, to do with it what they wish. The secret is free now, no longer able to hurt anyone.
Diana: What advice would you give someone embarking on telling their own challenging family stories?
Steve: Take several long and very deep breaths, and if you decide to plunge ahead, don’t be deterred by the first family member to push back. Secrets, by their very nature, were created for a reason. Whatever that sensitivity might be, it helps to remember that most people want to help, they want to be heard. As a family historian, you’re giving them a chance to do that.
I’ve often spoken at family history conferences about how to pursue the sensitive story. I offer this tip: Try not to anticipate too much. Meet people where they are, not where you think they might be. Don’t assume that feathers will be ruffled. Be open about what you’re doing. Often, I find, people are afraid because they just don’t know what to expect. If the feathers begin to flutter, you’ll know it soon enough. Here’s an approach that I think is a good one. If you’re interviewing a family member, and you feel that a question has caused some awkwardness or worse, say something like, ‘I think my question has upset you. I apologize. If you’d like to say why, I’m eager to find out. If you want me to skip that, we can always come back to it.” I think such an approach is respectful, open, and a simple way to acknowledge the sensitivity of the moment.
Diana: Have you pursued more of your family’s history since the book’s publication?
Steve: My family history has pursued me! Since publication, I’ve heard from a variety of readers, some of whom knew Annie before her institutionalization. What I’ve learned doesn’t change the essential narrative, but it has enriched it, added detail. The book was selected for a “one state, one book” program called the “Great Michigan Read,” which put me on the road throughout my native state in 2013-2014. I haven’t lived in Michigan since high school, so it was a great joy to travel to new towns and cities, and meet all sorts of readers.
The one piece of the puzzle that I’ve never found is a photo of Annie. I’ve kept searching. Why are there no photos of her? That’s a part of the narrative, too, as readers of Annie’s Ghosts will learn. That’s a good, final point for writers of family history to remember: Something absent can be just as telling as something found. It can speak volumes. In a story about a secret, is it any wonder that some important items have gone missing?
Steve’s website includes a wealth of information: details on his background as a newspaper editor and reporter; awards and honors given Annie’s Ghosts; an author Q & A, and much more. The section, “For Book Clubs,” includes a discussion guide with several thoughtful questions. If you haven’t joined The Family Locket Book Club on Goodreads, do so. Choose one of the questions from the website and let’s have a discussion!
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Thanks for the note!