2009, 401 pages
Steve Luxenberg, editor for the Washington Post, grew up hearing his mother Beth tell everyone that she was an only child. Imagine his surprise when he learns from a social worker that his 78-year-old mother mentioned she had a disabled sister who was sent away at 2 years old and that she doesn't know what happened to her. Since Beth's health is precarious, he and his half-sister decide not to confront her with any questions. After Beth dies, Steve's brother discovers an Annie Cohen buried with their mother's parents and asks Steve who Annie was. The journalist in Steve takes over and he attempts to find out all he can about Annie and why his mother kept this secret. His first surprise is when he learns that Annie was 52 when she died and that she was institutionalized at 21, not 2 as Beth had said!
Along the way, Steve learns much about his immigrant Russian Jewish family and living relatives he never knew existed, how the mental health system evolved from the beginning of the 20th century to the present, what life was like in his ancestors' Russian village, as well as what the trip across the ocean and life growing up in an immigrant family in Detroit would have been like. "Annie's Ghost" is a real-life mystery as well as a memoir of Steve's family and a social history of the mental health system in the United States.
My family also had secrets, and as I researched my Eastern European immigrant grandparents, I learned that my grandmother had not died in the 1920s but was in fact placed in a mental institution when she was 40. I also found that my grandmother's niece, like Beth's sister, was similarly handicapped and also placed in a state institution around the same time as Annie. I found the research and the personal conflicts Steve confronts on his journey fascinating. Perhaps my family history influenced my enjoyment of this book, but it did receive starred reviews in Booklist and Kirkus Reviews.
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