Annie's Ghosts is an ambitious part memoir, part investigative journalism effort by veteran reporter Steve Luxenberg, who discovers a family secret he can't leave alone. Unlike the usual tell-all, emotionally driven memoirs on the market, Luxenberg's background makes this an impeccably researched, thoroughly engaging account based in facts. Brief passages summarizing relevant personal memories give the story a personal feel that isn't found in the average history book, but the focus of the book is on the untangling of lies from a factual perspective. Luxenberg decides to tell the extraordinary story with the timeline of his own research and revelations rather than attempting to fictionalize past events, and this gives his story immense credibility.
When Luxenberg's mother is ill, he hears a hint of her deepest secret: a woman who drives her to doctor's appointments calls to ask if his mother had had a sister--she mentioned something about a sister who had been institutionalized as a small child. Luxenberg responds that his mother has always talked about her life as an only child, and more or less forgets the exchange until evidence surfaces after his mother's death that there was, in fact, a sister named Annie. Luxenberg's investigative reporting instincts kick in, and with his siblings' blessings, he digs around a bit, to find that Annie not only existed, she wasn't institutionalized until his mother was in her twenties. How can this be possible, with his mother's frequent discussions of being an only child? He looks for photos, anything at all about Annie from his mother's childhood, and comes up empty. He begins to widen his search, interviewing relatives and securing medical records (no easy task in this patient-protective society), to discover the heartbreaking fate of Annie and to look for evidence that would explain why his mother had kept this secret. His investigation dips into the Holocaust, the treatment of mental health and disabilities throughout the 20th century, and the American immigrant experience in an utterly fascinating narrative.
I don't normally read nonfiction: I usually find it either too dry or too fictionalized, but in Annie's Ghosts, Luxenberg has created a tale perfectly balanced between the personal and factual. The story is riveting, and told with such sensitivity and scrupulous reporting that I highly recommend it, even to those who usually avoid nonfiction.
Available in hardcover May 5. Pre-order it here!