This year’s Great Michigan Read selection is Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, by Steve Luxenberg.
The autobiographical memoir tells the story of one man’s surprising discovery of his aunt, Annie, who he only learns of after his mother’s death. This is a fascinating read: its part mystery story, part family history and part exploration, as the author relearns who his mother and aunt really were.
This week, host Jennifer White talks with the author, Steve Luxenberg about why it was important for him to write such an intimate story about his family.
“My mother had a secret, which she kept her entire life. She didn’t tell her children that she had a sister who was institutionalized for 31 years at a Michigan Hospital called Eloise. When we found out about this, I needed to re-imagine my mother and my entire family story because when my mom was growing up she told elaborate stories about how she was an only child. Those stories turned out not to be true," Luxenberg said.
Keeping family secrets isn’t unique. According to Luxenberg, all generations keep secrets as conditions change. In his mother’s generation, the stigma surrounding physical and mental disability caused many people to hide family members who had those ailments.
“For me this is story that’s a universal one. It’s a story of identity, the identity that my mom reinvented for herself, certainly a story familiar to many other people, as she became a grown-up and decided that she was going to hide the existence of her sister. She destroyed a lot of her background and didn’t talk about that part of it that would refute her only child story that she had told us. For my aunt I think it was losing her identity, she went to a hospital where she became anonymous. For me, as the inheritor of all of this, I had to look at my own identity and who I thought I was.”
Although Luxenberg’s family was initially divided on whether he should write the book or not, he knew the story could help other people whose families are carrying around a secret.
“Here’s a story that could be told, and could help other people whose families are carrying around a secret. The affirmation for that for me was after a talk I gave a couple of years ago. Somebody approached me with a book in their hand to sign and said ‘I brought your book to my Thanksgiving dinner. We had a secret in our family that we had been unable to talk about. We are now able to talk about it because I told them, Please read this book because it will make it feel like it’s safe to talk about it.’ I think that was the most important moment for me in these last couple years," he said.
For more information about the book and the author, click here.