By Barry Werth
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 16, 2009
By Steve Luxenberg
Hyperion. 401 pp. $24.99
Looking backward was not part of Steve Luxenberg's upbringing. Growing up Jewish in a mostly Catholic neighborhood in Detroit in the 1950s and '60s, hiding his asthma from his high school basketball coach to avoid being benched, reaching Harvard on a scholarship, he took his cues from his striving parents and poor immigrant grandparents, who "seemed to have a collective amnesia about anything sad, tragic, or pre-American."
"We heard no stories about life in the old country, and what's more, we didn't much care -- we were a modern American family, looking ahead rather than back, determined to make something of ourselves," Luxenberg, a longtime Post editor, recalls in "Annie's Ghosts," his probing, wise and affecting new memoir of family secrets and posthumous absolution. "The past wasn't just past. It was irrelevant."
Anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom knows the adage "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." In 1995, Luxenberg's 78-year-old widowed mother, Beth, who'd often lectured her children about the loneliness she suffered growing up as an only child, confessed to a social worker that she'd had a sister who'd been institutionalized. Since Beth was sick and depressed and near death from emphysema, her eldest son never brought it up with her while she was alive.
After her death, he decided to look into the life of this phantom aunt, Annie Cohen. The second daughter of Tillie and Hyman Cohen, Ukrainian immigrants, she was born in 1919 with a deformed leg and with mental challenges that today would classify her as borderline mentally disabled. The first secret that Luxenberg uncovered -- the one that would propel him to dig far beyond Annie's unhappy life to the "ghosts" of the title -- was that she'd been sent away not, as his mother told her social worker, when she was 2 and Beth 4, but after suffering a psychotic break when Annie was nearly 21 and Beth 23, unmarried and still living at home.
Not only had Beth not been an only child, as Luxenberg himself had written in the obituary he prepared for the Detroit papers, but she also had lived up until adulthood under the same roof as Annie, along with the shame and stigma of having a damaged family member at a time when mental and physical deformities were poorly understood and worried over as darkly hereditary and reflective of everyone in the household.
How was this possible? Why had his mother hidden Annie? Had his father known the secret? Who else knew? As Luxenberg wades into each question, the reader journeys with him not just into his family's past but also into the world they inhabited -- a world of secrets and lies and name changes (some at the hand of immigration officials, others intentional) that became deeply imbedded in his parents' generation's efforts to move ahead and assimilate. As Luxenberg discovers, his family buried tragedy not just because it was painful, but also because it could block the future.
Without having his mother to ask, he structures his investigative quest around the fundamental question: Why? Why did his mother bury Annie 32 years before she died?
His pursuit takes him through countless government offices and archives; to the homes of anyone who knew Beth Luxenberg in the 1930s and early '40s, when she was Bertha Cohen and living at home with a crippled sister; to experts on subjects from orthopedics to schizophrenia to the Holocaust; and ultimately, to the small town in Ukraine where his grandparents had grown up, apparently first cousins.
Luxenberg is an exhaustive, meticulous reporter, and he worries about the things good reporters worry about: making too much of a fact or a connection; the failing memories of his sources, whom he invites to remember conversations and unspoken feelings a half-century old. He's consistently careful not to lead witnesses, lest they tell him what they think he wants to hear. He occasionally goes too far in describing the minutiae of his reporting challenges or else dumps his notes into an overlong digression on, say, the history of Detroit's mental hospitals and barbaric practices like insulin shock therapy that, in the end, Annie was fortunate to avoid.
At the same time, he is Beth's son and Annie's nephew, and he has deep feelings about each new secret he uncovers and, I suspect, considerable awareness that he is a beneficiary of his mother's fierce determination not to be burdened by the past.
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.
Werth is the author, most recently, of "Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America."