Steve Luxenberg never really thought it odd that his mother made a point of telling nearly everyone she met that she was an only child, often during their first meeting. It was just a part of her identity, like her name, that she thought was important and wanted to share right away. However, in 1995, Luxenberg learned that his mother had a sister, and he had to ask why she insisted on telling this untruth to new and old acquaintances. This book tells the story of Luxenberg’s investigation into the life of his aunt, Annie, and his quest to understand why she was hidden.
Steve’s mother, Beth, was born in Detroit in 1917 to a family of Jewish immigrants and died in 1999. Her sister, Annie, born two years later, had a deformed leg that was eventually amputated. Just before turning 21, Annie was placed in Eloise, an institution for the mentally ill, and remained institutionalized until her death in 1972. As Luxenberg, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, began asking questions about Annie, he learned that she was only one of thousands of who were institutionalized and never spoken of again. How could such a thing happen?
This book is more of a story of the investigation than a story of Annie herself. Luxenberg talks about the bureaucracy that prevents family members from accessing information. He talks to mental health professionals and looks into how mental and physical disabilities would have been perceived at the time of Annie’s institutionalization. He talks to distant relatives and former friends that his mother lost contact with. He achieves some lucky breaks, but a lot of information is simply gone. The people who did know something are mostly dead, and the few people who are still alive are old, and their memories may not be entirely reliable.
Sometimes his investigation leads him in entirely new directions. For example, one cousin, Anna, seems so angry at Luxenberg’s mom that he has to wonder if there’s more to her resentment than just anger at Annie’s treatment. And so he starts looking into Anna’s life in Ukraine during the Holocaust, in hopes of understanding her point of view. At times, the side investigations run too long and take away from the main story. I found myself wondering if he was just trying to make sure he had enough material for a book because the information on Annie was so scarce. This isn’t a huge problem, though, and much of the information Luxenberg finds in his slightly off-topic research was fascinating.
This book was a terrific follow-up to The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and The Secret Scripture, both novels about women who were sent to mental hospitals and forgotten. Luxenberg does a nice job of telling the facts without being judgmental. He clearly believes that Annie’s treatment was tragically misguided, but he recognizes that the people making decisions had different understandings about mental illness than we do today. Annie’s tragedy is, at least in part, a tragedy of being born at the wrong time. I must confess that I was furious at Beth and find her position hard to understand, but as a son, Luxenberg is going to want, even need, to find a way to make his mother’s choices understandable. The nice thing is that he presents an argument for her behavior in a fairly dispassionate tone. He’s not excusing her behavior, but he provides some reasons for it that make sense. Her reasons for keeping Annie a secret seem preposterous to me, but would I have felt different had I been in Beth’s shoes? A tough question, and a tough story.