A review from Brittany Claytor:
The Steve Luxenberg's Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret starts with simple things, a phone call and a letter about flowers on a grave. Steve Luxenberg discovers through a series of accidental occurrences that his mother, Beth, was not the only child she claimed to be but had an institutionalized younger sister, Annie. In his nonfiction work Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, Luxenberg takes a leave from his job as a journalist for the Washington Post to discover what he can about this mysterious younger sister, who suffered from both physical and mental disabilities. His mission becomes not only uncovering who Annie was and why she was physically sequestered in various mental institutions for thirty-two years, but also learning why her memory was suppressed.
Luxenberg’s search takes him from the steerage berths of early 1900s trans-Atlantic ships to Holocaust-era Ukraine to the overcrowded corridors and rooms of Eloise Hospital, home of Detroit’s mentally ill, disabled, and indigent in the later half of the nineteenth century, during institutionalism’s waning years in America. Negotiating medical privacy and records laws that resemble Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dicken’s Bleak House, Luxenberg struggles with his own imperfect memories and the imperfect memories of those who knew about Annie:
Just as secrets have a way of breaking loose, memories often have a way of breaking down. They elude us, or aren’t quite sharp enough, or fool us into remembering things that didn’t quite happen that way. Yet much as a family inhabits a house, memories inhabit our stories, make them breath, give them life. So we learn to live with the reality that what we remember is an imperfect vision of what we know to be true. (10)
One of the book’s particular strengths is Luxenberg’s ability to look at the broader historical context of the events and time periods that affect his individual family’s story. Annie’s Ghosts is also a story of what might have been. Luxenberg investigates how Annie’s diagnosis, her treatment, and her place in the family and their Detroit neighborhood would be different had she been born today.
As he attempts to synthesize new knowledge about his family’s past, Luxenberg realizes that, while the desire for freedom in life may be rational, it is “rarely uncomplicated, in desire or reality” (316). Everyone involved in Annie’s life desires freedom--from physical and mental disabilities; from poverty and ignorance; from shame, stigma, and the past--and the family’s collective desires for freedom intersect to institutionalize Annie and her memory. Luxenberg’s desire for freedom from ignorance about his family and his past motivate his own search, but many of his questions lack definitive answers. While both Luxenberg and the reader emerge from the story with a clearer, deeper understanding of the forces--societal and familial--that buried Annie and her memory, the understanding remains imperfect. In the end, both Luxenberg and the reader are left with an understanding built from flawed memories and the anguished decisions made by flawed yet empathetically human, individuals.