Saturday, December 7, 2013

Hiding Secrets of the Heart

Title: Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret
Author: Steve Luxenberg
Date: 2010
Pages: 432
Publisher: Hyperion
ISBN: 978-1401310196

Family secrets have a way of surfacing, whether the secret keeper wishes it or not. For Steve Luxenberg, finding out that his ailing mother was not an only child began a quest to find out who the unmentioned Annie really was in life, and why her presence was hidden from family history by his mother, Beth. This true story follows Luxenberg's quest to uncover the secrets of Annie after the death of his mother. In the process, Luxenberg becomes the keeper of other family secrets and uncovering unexplored family tensions and stories.

As with many quests, Luxenberg's journey happens in bursts of activity with long months of inactivity. Researching the life history of someone unmentioned and deliberately hidden requires perseverance and patience, which is portrayed in detail throughout the book. However, when Luxenberg finally pieces together the story, he (and the reader) is still unclear who Annie really was and what Beth's motivation was to deny her existence.

Beth, born Bertha, was born into a work-class family in New York. Her sister, Annie, was born a few years later with an unformed foot and cognitive delays. When caring for Annie became nearly impossible, she was sent to a mental asylum in her teenage years in the 1940s. She spent her entire life in various facilities, at first being visited by her mother and aunt. However, Beth reinvented herself and her family story to deny the existence of Annie in order to present a marriageable facade. The only contact that Beth had with Annie was to bury her middle-aged sister in the 1970s. With only one slip to a hospital psychiatrist, Beth took her secret to the grave.

While investigating this family secret, Luxenburg interviews extended family members and people from Beth's old neighborhood. Each person provides a small snippets of the secret – some knowing nothing about Annie, and others sharing images and impressions of the family. However, Anna Oliwek, a Holocaust survivor and cousin to the family, had direct experience with Annie and Beth's inability to except her blight, which caused a family rifted that lasted until Beth's death. While interviewing Anna, Luxenberg learns Anna's secrets and how she survived Hilter's onslaught.

At the beginning of the book, all the plot points are revealed. Beth dies, Annie is a secret, and Luxenberg investigates. But, his journey leads through a century of major social and political change and an evolving understand of mental illness. Although he never finds a picture of Annie, nor does he get a real sense of who she was, Luxenburg's family provides a gravestone for Annie's final resting place, where in death she will not be unnamed.  It was a book that I regretted putting down and couldn't wait to get back to at the end of the day.