A family secret leads Washington Post senior editor Luxenberg to reinterpret his family history.
In 1995, the author learned that his aging mother had a sister she had never mentioned. It came up during a visit to the doctor; her parents had institutionalized their disabled two-year-old when she was four, she said, and she never saw her sister again. Since his mother was facing severe medical problems, Luxenberg felt this wasn’t the time to pursue the details. After his mother’s death a few years later, he learned that the sister’s name was Annie and she was buried with his grandparents in Michigan. Determined to discover the truth about Annie, he began his investigation with an endless list of difficult questions. He learned that Annie had a deformed leg, amputated in 1936 when she was 17, and mental health problems. Her parents committed her to a state institution in 1940, a time when such places served primarily to remove patients from society rather than to help them recover or become fit to live in the outside world. Luxenberg’s mother had been 23, not four, when Annie was committed. To the shame of being poor was added the stigma of having a sister in a state institution because they couldn’t afford anything better. She wanted a different future, and to achieve this she believed she would have to bury her sister and her own childhood; she began to deny Annie’s existence completely, telling people she was an only child. As Luxenberg slowly uncovers Annie’s story, he realizes that by exposing one ghost, he exposes thousands; by discovering one secret, he discovers those of his entire family. The author calls on his investigative reporting skills not just to uncover the facts, but to explore what happens when lies or omissions become truth, exposing the contradictions, contrasts and parallels that exist within every life, every relationship and every family.
Beautifully complex, raw and revealing.