Steve Luxenberg's mother was an only child, and she made a point of letting people know it.
"She told that to nearly everyone she met, sometimes within minutes of introduction," Luxenberg writes in the opening page of his book. "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."
Except that she wasn't. Bertha Beth Cohen Luxenberg had a very big secret -- a sister named Annie who had suffered from physical and mental illnesses and spent much of her adult life in institutions.
But, Luxenberg writes, "Secrets have a way of working themselves free of their keepers."
As Luxenberg, an associate editor at The Washington Post, explored what happened to his mother's nearly forgotten sister, he discovered that she was the biggest, but far from the only, secret in his parents' lives. His attempt to piece together the truth about his aunt, who was nearly erased from the family, is at the heart of this gripping story of shame, secrets and identity.
"Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into Family Secret," is the January selection of The Buffalo News Book Club.
After decades of misleading her children and friends, Beth Cohen first revealed her secret when she was 78 and in crisis from ill health and anxiety. She told a psychiatrist that she had had a disabled sister, who had been institutionalized when she was 2 and Beth was 4.
Although Luxenberg and his siblings were surprised to hear this, they focused on their mother's health, figuring that she could not have known much about her sister.
After their mother's death at age 82, Luxenberg's brother received a solicitation from the Detroit cemetery where his mother's parents were buried, offering to plant flowers on the graves -- three of them. In the plot with Hyman and Tillie Cohen is one Annie Cohen. "The secret had a name," Luxenberg writes. "Just one word and yet it made Mom's sister so much more real."
In an attempt to find out more about this mysterious aunt, Luxenberg starts with the cemetery records, which reveal that Annie Cohen was a patient in a mental hospital when she died. Luxenberg calls the state office that oversees the mental health system. When he tells the woman on the phone that he is seeking information on his newly discovered aunt, she replies, "You and 5,000 other people." She tells him they are all "family members who have just discovered that they have a relative they never knew about."
Unfortunately, most hospitals have destroyed their old records. But Luxenberg is lucky -- the state staffer finds a record and sends it to him.
In it, he learns that Annie was not sent away when she was 2 and his mother was 4; Annie was 21 and his mother was 23. "It's rare to learn something so head-snapping, so mind-altering, so frame-shattering," he writes.
This shocking discovery launches Luxenberg on a journey to piece together the truth of his mother's life, now including Annie. After he pores through her skimpy file from the mental hospital, he learns that in addition to her mental ailment, Annie was born with a deformed leg, which was amputated when she was 17.
His journey toward the truth that his mother tried so hard to hide takes Luxenberg to estranged cousins, distant aunts and one-time neighbors of his family, most of whom knew -- or knew of -- Annie. He researches Eloise, the massive state mental hospital named after the daughter of the local postmaster, where Annie lived for decades. He delves into the sometimes appalling ways people with mental illnesses were treated during Annie's life.
And he uncovers a few other family secrets along the way.
In a phone interview from his Baltimore home, Luxenberg muses about why his mother kept her sister a secret. "Did she do it because of my father, or for some other reason?" he says. "I always say it's inexplicable, and I mean it exactly as that word implies -- we can't explain it because we can't ask her. It's not beyond speculation, and I think that is a reasonable speculation, a reasonable guess."
Of course, as Luxenberg discovered, Annie's life and death were no secret in the neighborhood where his mother grew up. But perhaps to more effectively hide her sister from her husband and children, Beth Cohen severed the ties with most people who knew her before her marriage.
When he reconnected with those people -- friends, neighbors, even relatives -- Luxenberg says, "I got to really meet and understand and live a little bit of my mom's life and my dad's life when they were 20 years old, before they had children, before they had obligations, before they had a marriage. Meeting my mother and father across that divide at the age when I'd never known them was a great pleasure."
Luxenberg often speaks to groups, ranging from genealogy organizations, college classes and book clubs to a national conference of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He is sometimes asked if he would have written this book if his mother were still alive.
"After the pause for the punch line, I say, 'Are you kidding me?' " he says, chuckling. "It would have been my mom's story to tell, not mine. I would have allowed her control over that story."
At the basic level, Luxenberg says, "Annie's Ghosts" is a story about identity. "It's a story about my mother and how she reinvented herself, created a new identity for herself. It's about my aunt and the identity that she lost when she went into the institution and became essentially anonymous, and it's about the identities that we are all trying to seek and create for ourselves."
Steve Luxenberg's publisher, Hyperion, has sent The Buffalo News Book Club five hardcover copies of "Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret," signed by the author, which will go to five Book Club readers. Send an e-mail with the subject line "Annie's Ghosts" to email@example.com, with your full name and mailing address, and you may win a copy.
In addition, Luxenberg has agreed to conduct a Skype session with one local book club, to be scheduled at the convenience of both parties. To apply for that, send an e-mail with the subject line "Book club event."
Additional photos from the book are online at steveluxenberg.com.
Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
411 pages, $15.99