Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg: Book Review

Disclaimer: I purchased this book and have received no perks or compensation for this review.

During the past couple of years, I’ve become a fan of genealogical mysteries, of the historical fiction type. Annie’s Ghosts is a different kind of mystery, but non-fictional family history.

I don’t remember how I became aware of this book, unless it came up as a suggestion on Amazon, which is likely. Annie’s Ghosts isn’t a new publication by any means – it’s been available for over a decade, having been published in 2009.

The subtitle, A Journey into a Family Secret, provides the mystery part of the story, which initially drew me to the book, as I thought it might be a DNA discovery narrative. As I began to read the story, it kept my interest for a second reason – I’m a retired special education teacher.

The motivation for author Steve Luxenberg’s journey to learn about Annie was provided by a cemetery letter inquiring about the care for three graves, those of his grandparents and a third female, Annie Cohen, who was unknown to him and his siblings.

Annie’s story needed to be told for two reasons – (1) With her physical and mental impairments, she was hidden away from her family for decades and has no direct descendants and (2) it tells the sad story of how families, the medical profession and institutions dealt with the handicapped during the mid-20th century. I’m not sure which of the two reasons had the stronger pull drawing me into her story.

It was evident from the time of Annie’s birth that something wasn’t right. Her low birth weight and her “bent leg” were the beginning of a life filled with unhappiness. Her physical disability was immediately apparent and made life difficult for her parents and sister. The onset of her mental distress leading to her hospitalization in 1940 caused her to become the family secret.

Annie’s existence and the milestones of her life were not a Point A to Point B to Point C research experience. Luxenberg’s mother, Beth Cohen, kept the secret of Annie’s existence from the time of her marriage in 1942 until her death in the 1990s.  What was most astounding to Beth’s children was that a sister who reportedly died as a toddler lived for over 50 years until passing away in 1972.

By the time the letter from the cemetery arrived, most of the people who could shed light on Annie were long gone. Instead, clues were followed from person to person to institutions to governmental agencies to the courts. The tidbits learned were just small pieces in a big puzzle that eventually began to paint a picture of institutionalized life in the 20th century.

While Annie is rightly the star of this story, there are two underlying stories being told at the same time. Luxenberg has woven in the history of American hospitals and their attempts to care for both physically and mentally challenged people in the last century.

Life in Jewish Ukraine – the birthplace of his maternal grandparents –  from the start of the 1900s to the post-World War II era and how that life and culture influenced family choices made after settling in America is the second story.

Both are necessary to understand why each entity made the decisions it did that so profoundly affected Annie’s life.

The author is a journalist by trade and is a master at telling Annie’s story. Although her life was undeniably heartbreaking, Annie won’t be forgotten now.

I loved this book because Luxenberg peeled away all the onion layers, so to speak, chasing down each and every prospect that might tell him more about his aunt’s life. Social history is such an important part of of understanding lives in a given time period. Including an overview of care of the disabled and life during Ukraine pogroms and the Holocaust made Annie’s story even more powerful and put it all in perspective.

I highly recommend this book. It is sad and eye-opening, but understandable given the time in which Annie was born.

Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret is available online, both in hard copy and Kindle formats.

 

 

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