Excerpts from a July 2009 interview with Steve Luxenberg on his memoir, which traces the discovery that his mother had an institutionalized sister whose existence she kept secret from her children for more than half a century:
How long did you spend researching Annie’s Ghosts? How long did it take to write?
I had a bit of a head start with some digging I did in 2000, but the real work took place from March of 2006 to April of 2008. I did seven months of research before writing the book proposal. I weighted the research toward finding and interviewing people, because so many of them were older, and I didn’t want them to die before I got to them. I started writing full time in May of 2007 and finished in April of 2008.
In the book, you write about how memory tends to fill in gaps and resolve contradictions. Can you talk a little about the challenge of sticking to the truth when you can’t even figure out what the truth is?
I’ve said before that I favor the rough edges of memory. As a writer I became interested in that. But it makes it harder to write about things in that very authoritative, emotional way that people sometimes enjoy.
I did a piece for The Washington Post Magazine in 1988 on a friend who was killed by lightning. My kids and I were right there with him. My friend’s widow asked me to find out what happened to those 45 minutes of her life. She was sitting next to her husband and was struck by the lightning, too. I have this very vivid scene in my mind of her wandering around looking for him. She has no memory of this.
I wanted to tell her the truth. And I could tell her some truth, but I couldn’t tell her what happened. I could tell her that the church was struck and why it conveyed lightning to the ground, and I could tell her that the church caught on fire. But I couldn’t tell her the important things.
I tracked down everyone who was injured. And apart from the lack of memory caused by being hit by lightning, they just didn’t remember it the same way. There were things that some people insisted had happened that couldn’t have. There were things that were in conflict with other accounts.
There was no reason for anyone to make anything up. This wasn’t a politician trying to cover up a lie or someone taking credit for winning the Cold War. This was people honestly telling me what they remember and not remembering it the same way. So in doing my book, I didn’t expect—or want—to descend into 65 year-old memories and come out with pristine prose that was ready for Hollywood.
You struggle in the book with the fact that your mother hid a vital part of her life and her family history from her own children. Annie’s Ghosts communicates your grief, but I didn’t sense any anger, which was a little surprising.
I was on a panel with Karl Greenfeld, the author of Boy Alone, who wrote about his life as a sibling of an autistic brother. The autism became focus of his family life and of his father’s professional life. I said to him, “You’re kind of my mother. You’re the normal child who grew up with the disabled child.” Later, he turned to me and said, “I think you pulled your punches.” I think the implication was that I must have been angry with my mother.
Why am I not angry? It seems to me that anger comes out of something about yourself. When we’re angry, it’s because we’ve been wronged, or put in a bad situation by someone. I don’t think my mother’s situation is about me—it doesn’t center on me. How is this story about me? It’s mostly not. To twist the story so that it becomes “Why didn’t you tell me, Mom?” doesn’t make sense. The only moment in which that’s true is when she’s standing in front of me in the hospital saying, “You can’t leave me here.” It’s in her best interest to tell me then. That to me is where the grief is at. That’s painful for me—that she couldn’t tell me. But I’m not angry at her.
I wish I could explain it better. I have the emotion in the right place. It’s simply in the grief quadrant and the pain quadrant—not the anger quadrant. I don’t feel like my mother denied me any great experience. It would have been no picnic to know my aunt. She was ill. She was in a situation where she wouldn’t have wanted to see me.
I don’t have anger that my mom would do that to another person. Maybe I’m just too forgiving. It’s easy because she’s my mom to think that she had some sort of responsibility for her sister. But I think that’s the wrong place to start, because it was really her parents who had that responsibility.
Did you worry that putting the ruptured nature of your family narrative front and center might interfere with people’s ability to follow it as a story?
I hoped that the overarching hunt in the book made the story easy to follow, and I tried not to lose control of the narrative. I chose the structure I did not because it was unconventional, although I knew it was. A few readers weren’t willing to stick with it. The response I’ve had overwhelmingly is how touched people are, how moved they are, and how much they can identify with my mom.
Some of the reaction I’ve gotten is generational. If you’re in your seventies, you don’t need to stretch to understand my mother’s motivation to pretend she didn’t have a sister. People in their thirties and forties, they’re much more judgmental. It borders on anger against my mother.
I don’t excuse those old attitudes, but I embraced my mother’s behavior to find out what it was about. If I’m not able to show my mother is Everywoman or nearly every woman, I’ve failed as a writer. Reinventing yourself in order to survive is an honored thing in American life, but to do so sometimes requires you to do awful things.
Your book shines a light on some of the less inspiring aspects of American history in the 20th century. Publishers are reportedly not looking for nonfiction that has little to offer in the way of a happy ending. Did you have trouble getting represented or published?
No. I was fortunate. My agent is Gail Ross. She had called me around 2004 because she had read a couple things I had written in The Post. She wanted to know if I had any ideas for a book. We had lunch. I figured if I couldn’t interest her in a half an hour, I probably couldn’t interest a publisher.
I certainly didn’t decide to write the book in 2000, when I got the family records. My instinct was to leave them on a table at a family reunion—to share the records. Of course, I’m a writer. I like to tell stories. But if no publisher wanted it, I wasn’t going to write a book. If Gail hadn’t called me, would I have pursued the story further? I don’t know. But I was heartened that someone who didn’t need to make me feel better had an interest in it.
Annie’s Ghosts seems like the kind of project you could have kept researching forever. How did you know when you were done?
It was a little bit of feeling that I was done and also having the deadline with the publisher. Probably more that I came to a point where I didn’t know who else to look for, because I had tracked down my mom’s circle of friends from the 30s, and her bridge group. I kind of felt that once I had talked to her closer friends, I had found what I was going to find. At some point, I had to say I’ve made my best effort to find everyone who likely has information to bring to bear.
The [publisher’s] deadline also worked for me as a disciplining force. I was out of the newsroom and had no structure except the one I imposed on myself.