Sunday, May 17, 2009
Here's a passage from pages 47-48 of Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxumberg:
Without really trying, I have become a collector of other families’ secrets. Whenever I tell anyone about my detective work, the first question is invariably something like this: “Can you tell me the secret?” Sure, I say. The next question often is: “Want to hear my family’s secret?”
There’s no shortage of heirlooms in this attic: Hidden affairs, of course, but also hidden marriages, hidden divorces, hidden crimes, even hidden families. I have heard so many secrets that I started a list. One of the most memorable: A man who learned, as a teenager, that his father was leading a double life—two wives, two houses, two sets of children, all two miles apart in a Detroit suburb. Perhaps it’s a testament to the insular nature of suburban life that this master of deception managed to straddle these skew lines for more than a decade before his double life came crashing down around him.
I caught a moment of Steve Luxemberg's interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and his voice and story compelled me to check this book out of the library. I was not disappointed. From the very first page when he discloses his family secret: he had an Aunt he never knew about locked away for more than 30 years in a state mental institution, I was captivated by his tale and more importantly by the investigative process he uses to uncover his mother's secret--never telling him or any of his siblings about the sister she had.
This is two stories: The sad tale of Annie Cohen and her invisible life while on this planet and the story of a middle aged man as he wends his way through a complex bureaucracy of health and medical records, meets relatives he never knew he had, and tracks down old friends and neighbors to check on their memories of the invisible Aunt. Each story, twined with the other, creates a compelling, can't-put-it-down narrative.
No big reveal in the end. This is not fiction. No final letter from his mother telling the story of why she kept this secret from her children. No big folder with pictures and stories from a nurse who cared for Annie. Simply a story of the hidden ones and a man's attempt to give some visibility to someone so invisible. The saddest parts of this narrative is his attempt to locate a picture of this women and none (that he can find) exists, and the image of the monument free cemetery where thousands of patients at Detroit's Eloise hospital died and were buried in obscurity.