Thursday, May 30, 2013

Q&A with author Steve Luxenberg

Steve Luxenberg, photo by Josh Luxenberg
Steve Luxenberg, an associate editor at The Washington Post, is the author of the family memoir Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, which has been chosen as the Great Michigan Read for 2013-14. It examines the story of his late aunt, Annie Cohen, who had been institutionalized for decades; Luxenberg and his siblings only learned of her existence long after her death. Their mother kept her sister's existence a secret. Luxenberg, who worked for The Baltimore Sun before joining the Post in 1985, lives in Baltimore.

Q: When did you first decide to turn your family’s story into a book?

A: I always had [the idea] in the back of my mind once I heard more about the story…After I began to learn some things, I thought it would make an interesting story, more a magazine story than a book.

Frankly, it was my agent who gave me the confidence that it could be a book. If my agent hadn’t said we could sell this, I’m not sure I would have pursued it. You need someone more enthusiastic than yourself to [see] that it could be a universal story.

Q: How difficult was it for you, as an investigative reporter, to do this kind of reporting about your own family?

A: Fortunately, I had [enough] distance from myself to evaluate whether what I was hearing was enough to turn into a book. There were moments where my emotions were leading the way rather than my judgment as a journalist, but not too many.

I don’t see the book [so much] as catharsis as a story that needed to be told. I was fascinated by my mom’s motivations, by Annie’s unknown life, and whether I could turn them into a story.

I was always a son and I was always a journalist when I was doing the book. I don’t want to forget I’m the son. On the other hand, I’m not mostly a memoirist in this book, I’m mostly an investigative reporter…I wasn’t present for most of the events.

Q: What was the reaction to the book among your family members?

A: When I was working on it, and writing it, I did speak with everybody, and I did tell them what I was planning to do. Only my older brother had genuine misgivings, and they were not about the family reputation or about making our mom look bad, but were based on his own personality. He’s not someone who looks back a lot, but he said if I couldn’t interview my mom, I couldn’t test what I was learning from others. … I teased him and said Lincoln’s been dead for many years, and it doesn’t stop people from writing about him. …

Now, everybody feels [that] the book is a respectful, nonjudgmental attempt to understand what happened.

[In one interview after the book came out], the interviewer was saying, "Why aren’t you angrier at your mother for this fraud?" I was taken aback… I said later that it seems that anger comes from a part of your personality that feels wronged. All of this took place before I was born. If I make it about me, I’m being literally selfish. It wasn’t that difficult for me to keep that in perspective. My mom didn’t create a secret to do anything to me.

Q: How did Annie’s story change your impression of your mother and her life?

A: It threw everything up in the air. It required me to reconstruct the picture. But it was important for me to remember that my mother was not [just] her secret; it’s [only] a portion of what defines her. The kind, generous woman who raised me still exists.

I chose to include the italicized memoir sections because I was concerned that [the reader] would think my memories of my mom were all about the secret.

There’s a joy in getting to know a parent at an age before you were born. We are not even sentient until we’re about 8, 9, 10 years old, and most 8, 9, or 10-year-olds only think of [their parents] as parents. …Here I am examining my mom’s life, and a major decision she made at 23, and it was exhilarating [for me. I felt closer] to her than to the woman who was ailing at 80. We are left with the memories we have when our parents die, and here I am having the opportunity to reexamine [my mom's life]….

I’m asked, "Would my mother have wanted this book to be written?" and I pause for a Seinfeld moment, [and say], "Of course she wouldn’t have!" But she would have been pleased that someone cared enough to know why she [kept her sister a secret], and she would have been pleased with the description of her love affair with my father.

Q: In the book, you describe writing a note to yourself about Annie that says, “Born at the wrong time.” What might have happened to someone like Annie today?

A: I do think her life and her choices would have been a lot better. But it’s also a mistake to look at ourselves and think we have the answers and the people in the 1940s were primitive. That misses the point as well. Fifty years from now, people like us will be having a conversation about what they did wrong 50 years ago. …

What would happen to Annie today? Her deformed leg and the amputation would have caused psychological issues, and [those treating her] would have recommended counseling at an earlier age, provided that the family, which was poor, had access [to services]. With counseling, maybe the mental health wouldn’t have been a sudden issue.

Q: Are you writing another book?

A: I am. It’s not about my family….It’s a story of race. I tell the personal stories of the people involved in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think one of the things I feel strongly about is how you write about the past, families, memoirs. One of the main things in Annie’s Ghosts is the fragility of memory. …

When I’m listening to people, I try to filter out what they knew at the time from what they learned at a later time that might color that memory. Annie’s Ghosts attempts to keep memories and its challenges at the forefront of the book.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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