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Ghost song

One man's written journey into his family history reveals mental institutions, Holocaust survivors, post-World War II Detroit life and a long-lost aunt

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Published 7/1/2009

He pursued the story as a son, curious about why his mother hid the existence of her sister, and as a journalist, navigating bureaucracies, locating records and interviewing people who might explain both the social and cultural forces at work on his mother and what his aunt's life was like locked away in a mental institution.

Along the way, it became a book: the 401-page Annie's Ghosts, published earlier this year, written by native Detroiter Steve Luxenberg, who's now a senior editor at The Washington Post.

The story weaves the threads of Luxenberg's family with others in the tapestry of Detroit history to help understand why his mother — the daughter of poor Jewish immigrants who always portrayed herself as an only child — would hide Annie Cohen, her mentally challenged older sister. Part family drama, part social history, part examination of the Holocaust's effect on survivors and part documentary of 20th century life in Detroit, Luxenberg's book is one family's narrative that could've been anyone's.

The secret first came out in 1995 when his elderly mother revealed to a psychiatrist during a medical evaluation that she'd had a sister who'd been committed with mental illness, saying she didn't know what happened to her. Luxenberg, having no reason to doubt her, never sought answers while his mom was alive. But after her 1999 death, when he received a document from a Michigan cemetery about the burial plots for his grandparents and his aunt, he realized his mother had made arrangements for Annie's grave when she died in 1972. She had known the fate of her sister, who'd spent 32 years first in Eloise Hospital and then in Northville State Hospital.

Seeking to learn what he could about his aunt, her exact mental and physical conditions and why his mother would hide her, Luxenberg visits his family's former Detroit neighborhoods, pores over court and medical records, and interviews everyone who is still alive and might have known about his aunt. He fails in one of his goals: to find a photograph of his aunt.

But in his search and subsequent book about it, he completes a moving narrative about how universal forces of history shaped his particular family's experience.

"I hope this offends no one," he writes, "it is merely part of the story I am trying to tell — the story of a family secret, its origins, and the thinking that led to thousands of hidden relatives in America."

Metro Times spoke with him about creating the book.


Metro Times:
In 1995, after you first heard you'd had an aunt, why didn't you ask your mother about her?

Steve Luxenberg: I didn't have any reason to doubt what my mom had said about not knowing what happened to her sister. It wasn't until the letter arrived from the cemetery and when I confirmed that she had made the burial arrangements that I began to realize I'd been duped. 

MT: Do you know why she told the psychiatrist her secret?

Luxenberg: No. It's inexplicable except for the possibility that she was trying to sort of let it out and she wasn't able to bring herself to let it out entirely.

MT: How did you organize your research? 

Luxenberg: I broke the research down into two parts. I wanted to find everybody that I could find who would still be alive and could bear some weight on the story before I lost them because of age. I put aside things I could learn later that would be in books, like the history of Eloise, and instead I went after people. I thought that was the better part of the story anyway.

MT: What was your family's reaction to you starting the research?

Luxenberg: There wasn't a lot of great tension over it but it wasn't like anybody was encouraging me to write a book. But I was thinking about it as a journalist, I wasn't thinking about it as a son.

MT: Did playing those two roles create tension for you personally?

Luxenberg: When I was interviewing one of the women who knew my mother, she was describing my mom's behavior and claiming to quote my mom and I was thinking, "Wait a minute, that doesn't sound like the woman I know and that doesn't sound like the way she would say this." 

MT: Do you have advice for others who might want to search for similar family information?  

Luxenberg: You can go out and get court records for someone who is involuntarily committed. That's because the court system recognizes that they're public records and there's no issue with that.

MT: What about getting the medical records?

Luxenberg: I could get those by becoming the representative of my aunt's estate. That's a lot of work, energy, time and a little bit of money to go through when you're trying to seek information. I think it's going to be a deterrent to most people. I think the answer on behalf of the government is, "Well, too bad. It should be a deterrent for most people. We don't want people going down to Lansing and ransacking people's records."   

MT: Isn't there also the question of whether the records still exist?

Luxenberg: The state can destroy them after 20 years. 

MT: Is that the right policy?

Luxenberg: We have the means to digitize records now. I don't see any reason why we should throw anything away.

MT: What does your book reveal about the history of mental health treatment?

Luxenberg: What I came away feeling about that was a reminder that every generation thinks it's doing better than the last. It doesn't mean they are, but that's what they think they're doing. I wonder how 50 years from now people will judge what we're doing now with mental health. We don't have all the answers.

MT: What did you learn about the notion of "family" through your research and writing?

Luxenberg: There are two answers to that. One is that the way you relate to your family, and this is very personal, is not through the lens of journalism or writing or publishing a story about them. I think that the other answer is … we never know our parents at the age before they have children. So getting to know my mom at the age of 25 and getting to see the world through her eyes was fascinating to me. I actually became closer to my mom as a result of writing the book — or closer to the memory of my mom.

Steve Luxenberg discusses Annie's Ghosts and signs copies at 7 p.m. Monday, July 6, at the Westland Public Library (6123 Central City Parkway, Westland; 734-326-6123) and at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 7, at the Community House (380 S. Bates St., Birmingham; 248-644-5832.)

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or ssvoboda@metrotimes.com.

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