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Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret Paperback – May 11, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Throughout her life, Luxenberg’s mother, Beth, reveled in her status as an only child. Then, a few years before her death in 1999—and utterly out of the blue—she admitted to having a mentally and physically disabled younger sister named Annie, who died in 1972. Beth’s failing health precluded Luxenberg and his siblings from learning any more. After Beth’s passing, Luxenberg set out in search of answers. His dual roles as reporter and son proved both blessing and curse; the journalist dug furiously for facts, while the son wondered if long-buried secrets were best kept that way. His questions were many: What prompted Annie’s commitment, at age 21, to Eloise Hospital, southeastern Michigan’s sprawling psychiatric facility? Why was there next to no record of her early years? Most baffling of all, why did Beth, two years Annie’s senior, refuse for so long to acknowledge her sibling’s existence? Armed with superb investigative skills and relentless determination, Washington Post senior editor Luxenberg tracked down remaining family and friends and interviewed an exhaustive list of experts who might shed light on Annie’s plight. Part memoir, part mystery, part history of the mental-health movement, Annie’s Ghosts is a fascinating account of a life lived in the shadows and a family beset by despair. --Allison Block --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"Annie's Ghosts, his wise, affecting new mamoir of family secrets and posthumous absolution. . . . Beth told her son often that she loved him. Annie's Ghosts is his elegy in return, a poignant investigative exercise, full of empathy and sorrowful truth."―The Washington Post

"Steve Luxenberg sleuths his family's hidden history with the skills of an investigative reporter, the instincts of a mystery writer, and the sympathy of a loving son. His rediscovery of one lost woman illuminates the shocking fate of thousands of Americans who disappeared just a generation ago."―Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic

"Annie's Ghosts will resonate for many, whether the chords have to do with family secrets, the Depression, memories of a thriving Detroit, Holocausts horrors, or the immigrant experience.
"For me, the word to describe this book: Unforgettable."―Detroit Free Press

"Annie's Ghosts is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read . . . From mental institutions to the Holocaust, from mothers and fathers to children and childhood, with its mysteries, sadness, and joy--this book is one emotional ride."―Bob Woodward, author of The War Within and State of Denial

"I started reading within minutes of picking up this book, and was instantly mesmerized. It's a riveting detective story, a moving family saga, an enlightening if heartbreaking chapter in the history of America's treatment of people born with what we now call special needs."―Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don't Understand and You're Wearing That?

"This is a memoir that pushes the journalistic envelope . . . Luxenberg has written a fascinating personal story as well as a report on our communal response to the mentally ill."―Helen Epstein, author of Where She Came From and Children of the Holocaust

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Hachette Books; Reprint edition (May 11, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1401310192
  • ISBN-13: 978-1401310196
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.2 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (277 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #126,576 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Steve Luxenberg, an associate editor at The Washington Post, has worked for more than 30 years as a newspaper editor and reporter.

Steve's critically-acclaimed nonfiction book, Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret--part detective story, part history, part memoir--revolves around his mother's decision to hide the existence of a sister, Annie, who was institutionalized for 31 years in an asylum near Detroit. Annie's Ghosts was named to The Washington Post's Best Books of 2009 list, and was honored as a 2010 Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan. It made the Heartland Bestsellers list, representing the independent bookstores of the Midwest.

It has been featured on NPR's All Things Considered. The Michigan Humanities Council has selected the book as "The Great Michigan Read" for 2013-2014; it will be the focus of a year-long series of events and discussions throughout the state.

Steve's newspaper career began at The Baltimore Sun in 1974. He joined The Post in 1985 as deputy of the investigative staff, headed by assistant managing editor Bob Woodward. In 1991, he succeeded Woodward as head of the investigative staff. Post reporters working with Steve have won several major reporting awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for explanatory journalism.

From 1996 to 2006, Steve was the editor of The Post's Sunday Outlook section, which publishes original reporting and provocative commentary on a broad spectrum of political, historical and cultural issues.

Steve has given talks and workshops about journalism issues and nonfiction writing at universities and discussion forums, and has made occasional guest appearances on radio and television shows to discuss the media. He also has a television "credit": Look carefully, and you'll see him as an extra in the fifth and final season of HBO's dramatic series, "The Wire," which aired in 2008. (Hint: It's a newsroom scene in episode three, and he's shaking his head.)

In his current role as a Post associate editor focusing on special projects, Steve has directed coverage of in-depth stories on the causes and consequences of the financial crisis that unfolded in the fall of 2008. One of those projects, on the rise and fall of insurance giant AIG, was a 2009 Pulitzer finalist.

He grew up in Detroit, where Annie's Ghosts primarily takes place. He and his wife, Mary Jo Kirschman, a school librarian, live in Baltimore. They have two grown children, Josh and Jill.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

69 of 73 people found the following review helpful By ck TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 18, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
At what point do you stop controlling a secret and find that it is controlling you? That's one of the questions at the heart of Steve Luxenberg's utterly compelling first book, "Annie's Ghosts" Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret. Part memoir, part biography and part investigative reporting, this book humanizes a subject that probably touches more of us than we might realize.

Luxenberg's journey begins as a son's quest to learn why his mother turned her sibling from younger sister to lifelong secret and expands to become an exploration of a particularly moving era in recent American history.

Several months after Luxenberg's mom died, the cemetery where her parents were buried sent the family a letter containing a simple question that was to lead Luxenberg and his siblings on a journey through their family's past. "Spring was around the corner," Luxenberg writes, "and the cemetery was offering to plant flowers on the grave sites." The solicitation wasn't for two sites, however, but for three. Suddenly, this whisper of a woman had a name, Annie. Her burial certificate answered some questions, but led to others that took Luxenberg deep into the dynamics of his own family as well as the evolving nature of health care in the United States during several key decades of the 20th century.

He soon found himself part of a wave of thousands of family members seeking information about relatives who'd been institutionalized--relatives they'd never known they had. "I couldn't write about all the `forgotten people,' but I could write about one," Luxenberg writes of his decision to ferret out Annie's tale.
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful By C.Vick on April 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The subject matter here is fascinating: the stuff of Hollywood films or interesting novels.

After his mother's death (and not from a "deathbed confession" as the book's current blurb claims), journalist Steve Luxenberg learns something startling -- He has an aunt.

Or rather, had.

A letter from a cemetery asking about routine maintenance for a grave helps Steve begin to coax this particular family skeleton out of the closet. See, his mother's sister, Annie, was institutionalized. And as much as Steve might try to justify the obvious shame and embarrassment (even hatred? resentment?) that his mother felt, his difficulties in rationalization increase when he discovers this wasn't some sister his mom barely knew, socked away as a child, or dying young -- Annie was institutionalized when Steve's mother was in her early 20s. His mother had spent a significant portion of her life living with Annie, and Annie didn't die young. She lived into her 50s. She must have been a fixture around the neighborhood. How had his mother kept this secret all these years, and why?

A journalist by trade, Steve begins investigating his own family history, immediately discovering the difficulties that even the state throws in the way of those who would like to learn more about its former wards. As Steve struggles to obtain records and interview family and friends, some of whom are dying before he can speak to them, the reader is along for an exciting ride. Steve's careful research on the institution Eloise, Annie's contemporaries' views on mental illness, and how a physical handicap (malformed leg) might have affected Annie, absolutely shine.
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful By S. Lionel TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I won't repeat a synopsis of Annie's Ghosts - the "Product Description" does a good job of that. I will tell you what went through my mind as I read through this remarkable book.

As the blurb says, Luxenberg made good use of his journalistic skills to dig into the mystery that was his aunt, Annie. I was amazed at the resources he was able to make use of, not the least was the welcome cooperation of government clerks who went out of their way to look for information. He also was able to locate and get the cooperation of relatives and friends of his mother, many of which he had never known or not seen since childhood.

What I wasn't expecting, from what I had heard of this book, were the side stories; about the history of how we treated the mentally ill in the early 1900s and how things would be different today for Annie, and about the Holocaust and the Russian execution of Jews. This last resonated with me because, like Luxenberg, I am the child of Jewish immigrants who fled the Holocaust and pogroms. I was amazed at the connections he was able to make and his luck, really, in not doing this even a few years later when many of his best sources would have likely been dead. It made me regret not learning more about my own family while I still could.

As the book progressed, and more and more secrets were revealed, it seemed to me that Luxenberg's quest was really more about him and desire to know as much as he could about his family. There's a lot of introspective prose which at times feels like filler. I also tripped over some places, mainly early in the book, where he quotes someone, a few paragraphs later repeats the quote, and then repeats it again on the next page.
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