Sunday, September 20, 2009

Annie's Ghosts

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg has been the latest book I finished over the weekend. This non-fiction look at one family's secret: a handicapped aunt, was an interesting look at the history of mental illness and how treatment for the person and of the person have changed over time. It is also a personal account of one family's realization of an aunt they never knew and a secret their mother kept from them her entire life.

Steve Luxenberg's mother, Beth, always called herself an only child. Growing up, Steve knew little about his mother's family. When her doctor comments to Steve and his sister that their mother had a sister, neither one question their mother about this, only wanting her to return to health, believing their will be time in the future to ask her about this sister. While their mother does get better, they never bother to find out more about the revelation she made to her doctor. So, after his mother's death, when Steve is confronted with some more information indicating his mother was not the only chid she claimed to be, he sets out to learn more about his aunt, Annie Cohen. While he is unable to unearth some information, much is left to speculation. What is certain is that his mother hid his aunt's existence from her children. Whether or not his father knew of the secret is one thing Steve researches. By contacting old friends and relatives, Steve tries to piece together the need for secrecy and also learn more about his aunt. Initially believing that perhaps this aunt died at a young age so that perhaps his mother felt like an only child, or that she was sent to a home at a young age, Steve is astounded to find out that his aunt lived with his mother and her parents until the age of twenty one. Every image he has of his mother's childhood must change to fit this news. And what were Annie's problems exactly. While it is known that Annie had some sort of problem with her leg it is never determined if it is genetic or something that occurred at birth. Her leg is amputated as a teen and she is fitted for a prosthetic. She was also perhaps a slow learner, perhaps mentally retarded, yet there is no definitive answer to that, either. Steve begins to look at the home where Annie spent many years and tries to find out about her life while she was there. What he soon realizes is that there were many, many people much like Annie - not known by their family.

Luxenberg is able to answer some of the questions he set out to, and others he is left doing his best at making educated guesses based on what he knows about his mother and the times she lived. While this is a look at his family's story, it is also the story of many others of that time period. Hard to put down, I wanted to know more about Annie myself and how she felt, what she thought and what led Steve's mother to believe no one should know about her sister.
Vist the author's website at


Steve said...
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Steve said...

Dear Tina,

Thanks for the kind words about Annie's Ghosts. I just wanted to add that Parade Magazine featured an interview with me, headlined "How We Think About Mental Illness," in its Sept. 27, 2009 issue. It's available at

Also, the American Booksellers Association has chosen Annie's Ghosts for the Independent Booksellers Fall/Winter List of Recommendations for Reading Groups, in the "A-List for Nonfiction" category. Thanks to you and other book bloggers for extending the book's reach.

--Steve Luxenberg, author of Annie's Ghosts