Like most people, I assume that I know my parents. I assume that they stories they have told me about their past are fairly all-inclusive, and that the stuff they have left out is irrelevant at best. It is easy to forget that they were people long before they were parents, that they had their share of trials and tribulations, and that I didn’t come into the picture until most of their struggles had subsided. After reading Annie’s Ghosts, I realized that perhaps the most important parts of my parents’ pre-parental existence may very well have been the ones they chose to omit from their own personal narratives. I only know the condensed version, the PG version that was cleaned up for my child’s brain and never updated when I became an adult.
Annie’s Ghosts is the story of one family’s hidden history. A few years prior to his mother’s death, Steve Luxenberg discovers a skeleton in her closet. Beth, a self-professed ‘only child,’ had a younger sister. As the story goes, the child had been mentally ill and institutionalized when Beth was only four years old. Because of his mother’s declining health, both mental and physical, Steve and his siblings decide not to press her about the rumor. She passes away in August 1999, unaware that her children have discovered her long-buried secret, and therefore without divulging any information to them.
After his mother’s death, a strange new fact is presented. Beth’s sister, Annie, had not been institutionalized as a young child but as a young woman of almost 21 years old. And Beth had been 23. However, no one in Steven’s immediate family had known that the sister had even existed. He wonders how and why his mother perpetrated the secret, and begins to dig deeper into his family’s history.
What he uncovers is a maze of information that seems to add questions rather than answer them. (What was his mother’s REAL name? Were his grandparents first cousins? Did his father know about Annie? Why did his father end up in a military psych hospital?) In a journey through a different (though recent) generation, we follow Steve’s family through the holocaust and emigration to America, and their inability to attain the American dream. We also get a taste of the mental health care system that was in its infancy in this nation during the ‘40s, and follow its evolution through to the present day.
While many of the questions that are posed throughout the book are inevitably unanswered (a great many of the people who knew about Annie’s existence are deceased by the time Steve’s research begins), it is still a satisfying, four star read. It begs the question, “What do any of us really know about our family history?” It is also a shocking look into the way mentally and physically ill people were treated in this country as recently as 50 years ago. While we can’t change the past, shedding light on some of the dark times in our history may certainly prevent them from repeating themselves.