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A Journalist Uncovers His Family's 'Ghosts'

Steve Luxenberg is an associate editor at <em>The Washington Post</em>.
Steve Luxenberg is an associate editor at The Washington Post.

As a journalist, Washington Post editor Steve Luxenberg is experienced at uncovering inconvenient truths, but it wasn't until he was in his 40s that he learned of a family secret his mother had kept for years — and that she nearly succeeded in taking to the grave.

Growing up, Luxenberg believed his mother to be an only child; there was no reason to believe otherwise, since she described herself that way quite vividly. But later in her life, when a doctor was taking a routine medical history, Luxenberg's mother mentioned that she had a disabled sister. A social worker overheard this conversation and reported it to a family member.

"So one day out of the blue, I received a call from my sister saying, 'You're never going to believe what I just heard: Mom has a sister,'" Luxenberg tells Robert Siegel.

Luxenberg proceeded to unravel the story of the aunt he never knew he had, a process he chronicles in his new book Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family's Secret.

It was a long, slow road to discovery; when the secret emerged in 1995, Luxenberg and his siblings didn't know their aunt's name, and they never asked their mother directly about her.

"Because my mom was quite ill at the time — she obviously had been keeping this secret for a long time — it seemed almost a betrayal to confront her with this," says Luxenberg. "So we never asked her and she died without ever talking to us about it and without us ever asking her."

But, as Luxenberg writes in the book, "secrets have a way of working free of their keepers." In 2000, the family received a letter from the cemetery, asking if they wanted to have flowers planted on their grandparents' graves — except instead of listing two graves, there were three.

The third grave belonged to Luxenberg's aunt, whose name, the letter revealed, was Annie.

Luxenberg called the department of mental health in Michigan and spoke to a woman whom he describes as a "traffic cop" for families who learn of long-lost disabled relatives.

"'You and 5,000 other families,'" the woman on the phone said after he explained the situation.

Luxenberg learned that Annie had been institutionalized in 1940 when she was 21 and his mother was 23. She remained institutionalized for another 31 years — during which time, Luxenberg's mother never visited.

Luxenberg says he wrote the book as a way of understanding Annie's life, as well as his mother's pain:

"My mother at the end of her life was a different person to me than she had been earlier," he says. "We all had a sixth sense that there was something we weren't understanding. At one point, because she was hospitalized for depression for two weeks, she pleaded, 'Don't leave me here. You don't understand, I can't stay here.' And I truly did not understand. Because I couldn't see ... that she had left her own sister in such an institution and not visited her."

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