A Journalist Uncovers His Family's 'Ghosts'

Annie's Ghosts cover
Annie's Ghosts
By Steve Luxenberg
Hyperion
Hardcover, 416 pages
List Price: $24.99

Read An Excerpt.

Steve Luxenberg

Steve Luxenberg is an associate editor at The Washington Post. hide caption

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As a journalist, Washington Post editor Steve Luxenberg is experienced at uncovering inconvenient truths, but it wasn't until he was in his 40s that he learned of a family secret his mother had kept for years — and that she nearly succeeded in taking to the grave.

Growing up, Luxenberg believed his mother to be an only child; there was no reason to believe otherwise, since she described herself that way quite vividly. But later in her life, when a doctor was taking a routine medical history, Luxenberg's mother mentioned that she had a disabled sister. A social worker overheard this conversation and reported it to a family member.

"So one day out of the blue, I received a call from my sister saying, 'You're never going to believe what I just heard: Mom has a sister,'" Luxenberg tells Robert Siegel.

Luxenberg proceeded to unravel the story of the aunt he never knew he had, a process he chronicles in his new book Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family's Secret.

It was a long, slow road to discovery; when the secret emerged in 1995, Luxenberg and his siblings didn't know their aunt's name, and they never asked their mother directly about her.

"Because my mom was quite ill at the time — she obviously had been keeping this secret for a long time — it seemed almost a betrayal to confront her with this," says Luxenberg. "So we never asked her and she died without ever talking to us about it and without us ever asking her."

But, as Luxenberg writes in the book, "secrets have a way of working free of their keepers." In 2000, the family received a letter from the cemetery, asking if they wanted to have flowers planted on their grandparents' graves — except instead of listing two graves, there were three.

The third grave belonged to Luxenberg's aunt, whose name, the letter revealed, was Annie.

Luxenberg called the department of mental health in Michigan and spoke to a woman whom he describes as a "traffic cop" for families who learn of long-lost disabled relatives.

"'You and 5,000 other families,'" the woman on the phone said after he explained the situation.

Luxenberg learned that Annie had been institutionalized in 1940 when she was 21 and his mother was 23. She remained institutionalized for another 31 years — during which time, Luxenberg's mother never visited.

Luxenberg says he wrote the book as a way of understanding Annie's life, as well as his mother's pain:

"My mother at the end of her life was a different person to me than she had been earlier," he says. "We all had a sixth sense that there was something we weren't understanding. At one point, because she was hospitalized for depression for two weeks, she pleaded, 'Don't leave me here. You don't understand, I can't stay here.' And I truly did not understand. Because I couldn't see ... that she had left her own sister in such an institution and not visited her."

Excerpt: 'Annie's Ghosts'

Annie's Ghosts
By Steve Luxenberg
Hyperion
Hardcover, 416 pages
List Price: $24.99

Prologue: Spring 1995

The secret emerged, without warning or provocation, on an ordinary April afternoon in 1995. Secrets, I've discovered, have a way of working themselves free of their keepers.

I don't remember what I was doing when I first heard about it. If I had been thinking as a journalist rather than as a son, I might have thought to make a few notes, as I often do when something strikes me as interesting or noteworthy. As it is, I'm stuck with half-memories and what I later told my wife, my friends, my newsroom colleagues — and what they recall about what I told them.

Just as secrets have a way of breaking loose, memories often have a way of breaking down. They elude us, or aren't quite sharp enough, or fool us into remembering things that didn't quite happen that way. Yet much as a family inhabits a house, memories inhabit our stories, make them breathe, give them life. So we learn to live with the reality that what we remember is an imperfect version of what we know to be true.

What I know for certain is this: On that spring afternoon in 1995, I picked up the phone and heard my sister Sashie say something like, "You're never going to believe this. Did you know that Mom had a sister?"

Of course I didn't know. My mother was an only child. Even now, I can hear her soft voice saying just those words. "I'm an only child." She told that to nearly everyone she met, sometimes within minutes of introduction. She treated her singular birth status as a kind of special birthright, as if she belonged to an exclusive society whose members possessed an esoteric knowledge beyond the comprehension of outsiders.

She suggested as much to my wife Mary Jo during their first getting-to-know-you conversation. That was 1976, four years before Mary Jo and I were married. The two of them, girlfriend and mother, were sharing a motel room while I recuperated from an emergency appendectomy that had abruptly ended a weekend camping trip. (I still wince at the memory, and I'm not referring just to the surgery.) As soon as Mom learned of my plight, she hustled to the Detroit airport and found her way to rural West Virginia. During their evenings together in the motel, Mom made a big point about how she felt an unusual connection to Mary Jo, her fellow traveler in the only-children club. "I understand what it's like," Mom assured her. "I know how it is to grow up without brothers and sisters."

It never occurred to me that it was a little odd how often Mom worked those "only child" references into her conversations. I just accepted it as fact, a part of her autobiography, just as I knew that her name was Beth, that she was born in Detroit in 1917, that she had no middle name, that she hated her job selling shoes after graduating from high school, that she would have married a guy named Joe if only he had been Jewish, that she was the envy of her friends because of her wildly romantic love affair with my Clark Gable look-alike father, that she was kind and generous and told us growing up to, above all else, always tell the truth.

A sister?

"Where did you hear that?" I asked Sashie.

Sash and I are close, although she is 12 years older. When I first learned to talk, I couldn't say her name, Marsha. What came off my untrained tongue sounded something like "Sashie." The mangled pronunciation stuck. She is Sashie, or Sash, even to her husband and some of her friends.

As Sash would say, Mom was not in a good place in the spring of 1995. Her health, and her state of mind, were often topic A in the long-distance phone calls among her children. (Our family, like many, is a complicated one. My parents, Beth and Jack, married in 1942 and had three sons. I'm the middle one; Mike is seven years older, and Jeff is three years younger. Sash and her older sister, Evie, were my father's children from a first marriage that lasted seven years. The girls lived with my parents for a large chunk of their childhood, particularly Sash, who thinks of herself as having grown up with two families and two mothers — and double the worry when both Moms began having health problems as they aged. Evie moved out just before I was born, so I never knew her nearly as well as I knew Sash, my "big sister;" Sash married and left the house when I was about eight, but our relationship remained close as we managed that tricky conversion from childhood to adulthood.)

My mom was still working at 78 years old, still getting herself up every morning and tooling down one of Detroit's many expressways to her bookkeeping job at a tiny company that sold gravestones, a job she had been doing for more 30 years. But her emphysema, the payoff from a two-pack-a-day smoking habit that began in her teens, had gotten worse. So had her hearing; she fiddled constantly with her hearing aid, frustrated that she could no longer understand the quick mumbles that punctuate everyday conversation, but also frantic to avoid the sharp whines that burst forth from the tiny device whenever it picked up a sudden loud noise, such as the shrieks of happy grandchildren.

On top of Mom's periodic trips to the ER for shortness of breath, her doctors believed that she was suffering from anxiety attacks. It was a chicken-and-egg problem: The shortness of breath made her anxious, and her anxiety triggered the feeling that she couldn't breathe. She emerged from a February hospitalization with a fistful of prescriptions and a fear that her days of good health were behind her. The Xanax made her less anxious at first, but within a few weeks, she was fingering the medication as the cause of her insomnia and jitters. "It makes me want to crawl out of my skin," she said.

As if that wasn't enough of a roller coaster ride, she was following doctors' orders to quit smoking. She called cigarettes her "best friends" in times of stress, and these were certainly stressful times, for her and for us. There was so much going on with her — the nicotine withdrawal, the reaction to Xanax, the shortness of breath, the sleepless nights — that it seemed impossible to find a way back to the equilibrium that had once ruled our lives. We bounced back and forth, thinking one minute that everything would work out if she would just give the medication a chance; the next, thinking that, no, this was crazy, the medication was the problem, maybe everything depended on getting her doctors to switch her to some other magic pill.

She had been feeling so lousy that she didn't even want to drive. That was a bad sign. Henry Ford himself would have smiled to hear her talk about driving with my father during their courtship days, the feeling of flying along on the open road, your hair free in the wind, the sense that the world was yours for the taking as long as you had wheels. Not even Dad's sudden death in 1980, which sent her reeling like nothing else I had ever seen, had slowed her down. Her Chevrolet Beretta wasn't just a car; it symbolized her independence, her vitality, her youth and her freedom.

But for several months now, Mom had left her car at home, relying instead on a counselor at Jewish Family Service, social worker Rozanne Sedler, to take her to various doctors' appointments. Rozanne had gotten to know Mom pretty well during their car rides and counseling sessions, and had urged her to visit a psychiatrist. Mom, who had always disdained psychiatrists and psychiatry, consented to go. Another sign that she was not in a good place.

When I heard Sash's voice on the phone, I assumed Mom had landed back in the hospital. But a sister?

Looking back, it's startling to me that I can sum up all we learned initially about Mom's secret in just a few sentences: Mom had mentioned, at a medical visit, that she had a disabled sister. She said she didn't know what had happened to this younger sibling — the girl had gone away to an institution when she was just two years old and Mom was four. Rozanne was confused when she heard this; Mom had already informed her, during their many times together, that she was an only child. So Rozanne called Sash to resolve the contradiction.

That was it. So little information, so many questions. Institutionalized? For what? Was Mom's sister severely disabled? Mentally ill? A quick calculation: If Mom was four, then her sister went away in 1921. What sort of institutions existed in Michigan during that time? I had no clue. Was it possible that her sister — my aunt — was still alive? What was her name? Could we find her? Would Mom want us to find her?

Sash and I had long conversations about what to do. The dominant word in our discussions, as I remember them now, was "maybe." Maybe it wasn't so odd that Mom hadn't mentioned it. Maybe Mom called herself an only child because she never knew her sister. Maybe it wasn't our place to ask her about it. Maybe we should let her tell us.

So we decided not to ask Mom about it. After all, we reasoned, Mom had chosen to hide her sister's existence all these years. She hadn't told any of us before, and even now, she hadn't told us directly. We weren't even sure that Mom knew that we knew. In fact, we were pretty sure that she didn't. Rozanne had only brought it up because she was perplexed by the discrepancy. She couldn't know that her simple query would land like a bombshell.

Besides, this wasn't the best time to probe Mom's psyche. Her anxiety level had reached a point of incapacitation. Mom's psychiatrist, Toby Hazan, had concluded that depression, not anxiety, was at the root of her problems. He wanted to take her off Xanax and treat her with an antidepressant that, in rare cases, could lead to respiratory arrest. Mom's emphysema increased the risk. Hazan didn't feel comfortable putting her on the medication at home; he recommended that Mom voluntarily enter a psych ward for a two-week treatment regimen, which would allow him to monitor her closely for any adverse side effects.

Naturally, Mom was resisting. Whenever I called her, as my siblings and I were doing almost daily, concern about her health trumped any curiosity about an unknown sister. It didn't seem fair to ask her now, when she was so vulnerable. Best to wait, I thought, for her return to the strong, independent, self-sufficient woman we had always known.

Besides, she was as much in the dark about her sister as we were. It seemed pointless to ask her a lot of questions. She might feel betrayed if we revealed that we knew, and to what end?

***

That question still hung in the air when Sash went to visit Mom several weeks later. Her report wasn't good. "I just spent the worst night of my life," Sash told me during an early morning phone call. Mom had sat on the side of her bed most of the night, moaning and groaning, Sash said, and yet didn't seem physically sick. She wasn't eating well, and she was too jittery to keep up with the cleaning, so the apartment wasn't in its usual spit-spot condition.

"You want me to come out there, don't you?" I said.

"Yes."

Sash has no trouble being straightforward; that's been her modus operandi most of her life. I learned long ago to deal with her no-nonsense style, and even to appreciate it. If nothing else, it simplifies decision-making that otherwise might drag on, to no one's gain. By early evening, I was sitting in Mom's apartment.

That night was a rerun of the previous one. Moans, groans, no sleeping for Mom, or for us. The following afternoon, in a hastily arranged meeting in Dr. Hazan's office, Mom reluctantly agreed to sign herself into the geriatric psych ward at Botsford Hospital so she could get off the Xanax and start taking the antidepressant.

It seemed the best of the options, and we needed to do something. We took Mom there the next day around 5 p.m., as soon as a bed became available, and left her there for the night. At 7:30 a.m., the phone rang. "Steven," she said, panic evident in her voice, "you have to come take me home. I can't stay here, Steven. You don't understand. This is not the right place for me. I made a mistake coming here."

I stalled for time to think, unwilling to say anything I might regret. Inside, though, I had plenty of sympathy for her reaction. I had seen the other patients on the ward; everyone was suffering from Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. Grim was not too strong a word for what she was facing. "Mom, we'll be there soon," I said. "We can talk about it then."

"You don't understand," she said. "They took away my pencils. I can't even do a crossword puzzle." That was bad. Finishing the daily crossword, she often said, was her way of proving to herself that she still had all her marbles.

"We'll be there soon, Mom."

If that earlier night had been the worst of Sash's life, then that Friday was the worst day of mine. On the way to the hospital, Sash warned me that Mom would put on a full-court press, begging to go home. Sash had already concluded that Mom needed to stay, but I was ambivalent. "If you decide to take her home," Sash said, with her usual directness, "I can't be a party to it." So the pressure was on me.

Mom wasted no time making her case. She was unrelenting. I can still remember sitting tensely in a chair, in the ward's bright and airy day room, with Mom draping herself over my back, cajoling, coaxing, crying, sweet-talking. "I can't stay here," she pleaded. "Steven, please, please. I'll do anything you say, if you just take me home." Our roles had reversed: She was the child, employing every manipulative trick to get her way. I was the adult, resisting, observing, comforting her as I tried to figure out the right thing — or at least the best thing — to do.

It took all my strength not to give in. I tried not to cry, and I failed. If seismographs could measure tremors in the human voice, I'm sure that mine registered a slight earthquake on the Richter scale. As gently as I could manage, I told her that we couldn't just go home, that she wasn't really able to take care of herself, that the hospital was the best alternative. I had no idea what else to say, and no idea that her obvious terror came from some place other than watching the demented patients around her. "I can't stay here," she repeated, like a mantra. "Please don't leave me here alone."

"It's two weeks, Mom, that's all," I said. "You'll be home in two weeks. We'll talk to you every day. You won't be alone."

I took a good, long look around, and what I saw depressed me, too: patients who couldn't feed themselves, patients muttering unintelligibly, patients exhibiting every form of senility I could imagine. Mom was the healthiest person there, by far, and it made me cringe to think that I would be leaving and that she would be staying. That vision of Mom, surrounded by dementia patients, trying to get a pencil so she could do her damn crossword puzzle, stayed in my head. I retreated to a nearby room to make some phone calls to other facilities, hoping to find something better. I found one with a much younger clientele, primarily teenagers who had tried or were threatening to kill themselves. What a choice: Suicide or senility. Take your pick.

As soon as I returned to the day room, Mom resumed her campaign. "Please Steven, please. I can't stay here." It went on for what seemed like hours. Late in the afternoon, the three of us — Sash, Mom and I — met with Hazan in one last attempt to settle her down. Hazan's notes on the meeting are part of Mom's hospital record.

If you leave the hospital, Hazan asked her, what will you do?

"I have no plan, I just want to go out," Mom said angrily. "I don't think this is the right place for me. This is not home."

Home, Hazan bluntly reminded her, had become hell — sleepless nights, moaning, groaning.

"My mind tells me I should stay here," Mom conceded. "Rationally, I know I should stay here." Then, desperately, she turned to me. "Please, I just can't take it."

Sash couldn't take it either. She left the room. I looked at Mom. The sight was not pleasant. Her glasses magnified the tears in her round, expressive eyes. Her face, so striking when she smiled, sagged under the pressure of the long day and the exhaustion of several sleepless nights. Her blouse hung loosely on her bony shoulders. She had lost 25 pounds from her 5 foot, 6 inch frame over the past two years, so she now weighed less than 100. My heart went out to her, but my head told that me that it would be a mistake to take her home.

"Mom, I think you should stay for a few days. As Dr. Hazan said, the law allows him to keep you for three. If you want to leave after that, even though he's saying that it's against his best judgment, you can sign yourself out."

I had abandoned her cause. Her son, her own flesh and blood, had gone over to the other side. Out of options, she gave up the battle, at least for that moment. The look of pure fear remained in her eyes, though — a fear that I wouldn't truly understand until much later, when I learn the truth about Mom's sister — and that's the image that stayed with me long after Sash and I exited the hospital and drove away in May's cool night air.

***

Two weeks later, her new medication working well, Mom went home. My older brother Mike flew in from Seattle to help her for a few days. A month later, she told Hazan she felt "fantastic." She had survived the ordeal; so had we.

While she was sick, it never seemed like the right time to ask her about her sister. Now that she was doing better, Sash and I thought she might reveal the secret on her own. But she never did. So we let it rest. Hard as it is for me to fathom this now, we never asked her about it; since she didn't know anything about her sister's fate, I guess I didn't see much point.

Mom went back to work, back to driving herself, back to the independent life that had once seemed gone forever. We cheered, even as we kept trying to persuade her that she might be better off moving closer to one of us. Then, catastrophe: On the afternoon before her grandson's wedding in September 1998, while smoking a cigarette outside the entrance to a non-smoking Seattle hotel, she was knocked off her feet by the automatic sliding door, breaking her pelvis and sending her into months of painful rehabilitation. Exhausted, she never quite recovered.

She died in August 1999, her secret intact, as far as she knew — until six months later, when it surfaced once more, unforeseen, uninvited, nearly forgotten.

This time, though, the secret had a name.

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