A Journalist Uncovers His Family's 'Ghosts' It wasn't until he was in his 40s that Steve Luxenberg learned of a family secret his mother had kept for years. In Annie's Ghosts, he chronicles his efforts to learn about the aunt he never knew.
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A Journalist Uncovers His Family's 'Ghosts'

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A Journalist Uncovers His Family's 'Ghosts'

A Journalist Uncovers His Family's 'Ghosts'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Steve Luxenberg set out to unravel a family secret. He's a journalist, an editor at the Washington Post, so he was experienced at uncovering truths so inconvenient that they'd been hidden away. His book, "Annie's Ghosts," is his story of uncovering a secret that his mother hid away, and that she nearly succeeded in taking with her to the grave. His pursuit took him to a time when mental illness and shame played very different roles than they do today.

Steve Luxenberg, hi. Welcome to the program.

Mr. STEVE LUXENBERG (Editor, Washington Post; Author, "Annie's Ghosts"): Thank you. Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: "Annie's Ghosts" is the title. Who was Annie?

Mr. LUXENBERG: Annie was my mother's sister, and she was my aunt that I never knew about until nearly in my 40s. And even then, I didn't know her name.

SIEGEL: And your lack of knowledge about her wasn't merely an omission on your mother's part. Your mother was someone you described as commonly describing herself as an only child.

Mr. LUXENBERG: Until I was in my 40s, I had no reason to question her biography. She was an only child, and she described herself that way quite vividly. In fact, when I was growing up, I had images of the walk-up apartment where she lived in a room by herself, walked to school by herself, and lived only with her parents.

SIEGEL: What happened to Annie?

Mr. LUXENBERG: Well, first, I think it's important to say that my mom, seemingly, inadvertently, or for reasons that we're not quite sure about, told a doctor during a medical visit that she had a disabled sister when he was taking a routine family history. A social worker heard that and reported it to us. So one day, out of the blue, I received a phone call from my sister saying, you're never going to believe what I just heard. Mom has a sister.

SIEGEL: And it turned out that the sister was disabled, as you say, and the disability is complicated. There's a deformed leg. There are symptoms described of mental illness, and there are suggestions of, also, mental retardation.

Mr. LUXENBERG: Yes. And none of these things were known to us back in 1995, when the secret first emerged. Then, all we knew was what the social worker had reported to us, which is that my mom was 4 and her sister was 2 when she went away to an institution - not described either as an institution for the physical or the mental illness.

SIEGEL: This is what your mother had told somebody.

Mr. LUXENBERG: And that was all we knew. And because my mom was quite ill at the time, and she'd obviously been keeping this secret, it seemed almost a betrayal for us to confront her with this. So we never asked her, and she died without ever talking to us about it and without us ever asking her.

SIEGEL: Well, it turned out that your mother and her sister had lived together for a lot longer than until she was 2 and the other was 4.

Mr. LUXENBERG: Yes. When I was - in 2000, I decided to pursue this after we received a letter from the cemetery. And what it said was that - would you like to have flowers planted on your grandparents' graves? But instead of listing two graves, it listed three, and it provided a name: Annie.

SIEGEL: What did you figure out about what Annie's problems really amounted to? And where did she spend her life?

Mr. LUXENBERG: I made a phone call, first, to the Department of Mental Health in Michigan. And I was surprised when the woman who I finally was directed to -she's sort of the traffic cop for families who learn of disabled people. On the burial record, it had said that my aunt, Annie, was in a hospital called Northville, which she only was in for a short time. But it was a state mental hospital, so that gave me a clue. And she startled me, this woman, when she said - and as I said, I'd like to find out something about my aunt - her reply: You and 5,000 other families.

SIEGEL: Meaning?

Mr. LUXENBERG: Meaning that she gets calls, she said, every month from lots people who have just learned that they had a relative in a state mental institution and would like to know something about how they got there.

SIEGEL: Because, in this case, it was the early 1940s. Certainly before that and for some years after that, people were put away, and often a great source of shame to the family that locked them up.

Mr. LUXENBERG: Shame is really just where the story begins. It's not where the story ends. My mother, I learned from the records that I eventually got, was 23 and Annie was 21 when Annie was hospitalized. And she stayed another 31 years in the institution. So, at the time, that was close to the age of my own children. I could not imagine my son denying the existence of his sister. So it was quite startling to me. And the image of my mother, the only child, now exploded in front of my eyes.

SIEGEL: Yes. I mean, there are different levels of discovery here. One is about what happened to people who were mentally ill in the 1940s, and what kind of institutions they lived in. But it's also figuring out who your mother was after all this time, and what made her tick.

Mr. LUXENBERG: It was. And I sort of started this quest, this search, with two ideas in mind: Why had my mother done this? And also, returning Annie's identity to her. That was important to me. I wanted to be able to describe what her life had been like, even if it was not a happy life.

SIEGEL: The world that she lived in for many years was a place called Eloise, which I'd like you to describe.

Mr. LUXENBERG: Eloise was a county mental institution, which in the state of Michigan, meant it was - stood alone. All the other ones were run by the state. And it was the place where not only Wayne County's mentally ill went - Wayne County being the jurisdiction that encompasses Detroit - but also where homeless people went during the Depression. At its height, Eloise had 10,000 patients or homeless people living there. It was truly a small city.

SIEGEL: It's ironic. In many ways, homelessness and mental illness comingle, in those days, inside institutional walls. In our time, we might expect to see them comingled out on the street somewhere. But in those days, everyone was institutionalized.

Mr. LUXENBERG: It was a remarkable time for mental illness because by that point, Michigan, like other states, had decided that it owed treatment and care to the mentally ill, to the disabled, to what they called the feeble-minded. That was their term for retardation. And at that point, you begin to see inexorable, mathematical certainty that the system will grow large and that it will have to take care of many people, even though one-third of Eloise's inmates - as they were called under the terms of the time - were paroled each year. That left two-thirds to stay there and remain.

And when I interviewed a psychiatrist about Annie and described to him her difficulties - her deformed leg, which was amputated at the age of 17; she was given a wooden one - and her slight mental retardation and also her mental illness - she began to exhibit paranoid behavior when she was 19 and was hospitalized at 21 - he said, she's the kind of patient that we consider to be a custodial one. She will probably not go home because the family didn't know what to do. She couldn't really work in that age. And so that's what happened to her.

SIEGEL: Steve Luxenberg, that you very much for talking with us.

Mr. LUXENBERG: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Steve Luxenberg is the author of "Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family's Secret."

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