Friday, June 5, 2009

REVIEW: Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, by Steve Luxenberg

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, by Steve Luxenberg. Published 2008 by Hyperion. Nonfiction. Memoir.

I read Annie's Ghosts courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

When I finished Annie's Ghosts, Steven Luxenberg's memoir/investigative piece about his mother's secret sister, I had tears in my eyes.

In April of 1995, as his aging mother's health was in decline, Luxenberg discovered for the first time in his life that his mother was not an only child, as she had long claimed. Later, after his mother's death, Luxenberg started to put the pieces together- slowly, laboriously, aided by his skills as a journalist and his drive to find out the truth about a disabled and mentally ill aunt named Annie, who lived for years in an asylum, with few visitors and no hope of ever returning home.

Not content to merely uncover the secret, Luxenberg wanted to know why- why Annie was institutionalized, why his mother kept her a secret, why other family members handled Annie's situation the way they did, and what other secrets ultimately lay dormant in the family. To this end, he investigated more than his family's history. He tackled the history of the Michigan mental health system, attitudes towards the disabled and mentally ill that would have informed his mother's and grandparents' attitudes, and how other family members would have viewed Annie's situation given the facts of their lives and the effects on some of the Holocaust, the Depression, and more.

Throughout this fascinating book, Luxenberg remains tightly focused on "the secret"- Annie's life and death- and his determination to find out all he can while the remaining witnesses are still alive to testify drives his seemingly boundless energy for answers. I was postively glued to the page, buoyed along by Luxenberg's easy and readable prose style. I was so impressed most of all by Luxenberg's lack of judgement when it came to his mother's decisions about her sister; it would be so easy to castigate someone for her approach, to judge her and think badly of her. I found myself in that position from time to time. Instead, Luxenberg works from a position of love to understand her and to make sense of her actions. In the end he brought me around, mostly because of his own obvious commitment to forgiveness and empathy.

Annie's Ghosts isn't exactly a light read; along with the emotional weight of his subject, Luxenberg tackles some pretty heavy topics and works in some pretty impressive detail along the way. I think the book would appeal most to those to whom issues surrounding mental illness and other disabilities are important. His research gave me some insight into the American experience of disability and mental illness as well as into American families in the early twentieth century, and I found it to be a riveting, addictive and rewarding read.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book from for a review to be shared with its users. LibraryThing is not affiliated with the publisher.


Teresa said...

I just read this a couple of weeks ago and liked it a lot. Like you, I was really taken by his ability to just describe what his mother probably did without seeming angry with her--and without white-washing her role in the whole situation.

Julie said...

It sounds really good, great review!

Darlene said...

This sounds like a fascinating book. I like reading books dealing with mental health issues so I think I would likely find this one good. Thanks for the great review.

fibrowitch said...

I wonder if I could borrow this book from you. I would like to read it myself.

Sorry I have not been doing a lot of blogging lately. Been running Tommy back and forth to auditions all week.

bermudaonion said...

I love memoirs and boy, does this sound like a good one! Great review!

Zibilee said...

I read another review of this book, and like yours it was very positive. I am looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this book. It looks great!

Becca said...

This sounds like a fascinating read. I love memoirs.

Anonymous said...

I'll look out for this one. It sounds really interesting. Good review btw.