As a book that delves deeply into personal choices and social history, Annie’s Ghosts offers a wealth of material for book club members to discuss and debate. Here is a list of suggested questions to add to your own.
- 1. A secret stands at the center of Annie’s Ghosts, a secret potent enough to change lives even as it remained buried for nearly 60 years. But the book isn’t just about that secret. Steve Luxenberg has said that the book is also about freedom and identity. What do you think he meant?
- 2. Annie’s Ghosts revolves around three people: Steve’s mother, Beth; Steve’s secret aunt, Annie; and Steve himself, the journalist-son who pursues the secret. Why do you think the author chose “Annie’s Ghosts” as the title rather than “Beth’s Ghosts”? Why does the title refer to multiple ghosts rather than to a single ghost?
- 3. Learning about Annie forces Steve to abandon his image of his mother’s childhood. He finds this hard. “In my mind’s eye of life on Euclid, I had no space for Annie, no idea of where she fit,” he writes (p. 17). What importance do you place on what your parents told you of their younger selves?
- 4. At the end of Chapter One, Steve describes his relationship with his mother as close. Pursuing Beth’s secret, he says, wasn’t a way “to settle any scores or revisit old arguments” (p. 25). Does Steve succeed in remaining non-judgmental in his quest to understand his mother’s motivations? Do you think it’s possible to be non-judgmental when it comes to writing about one’s own family?
- 5. Social worker Mona Evans, describing Annie’s mother, Tillie, wrote in a 1940 report: “She is a poorly dressed, middle-aged Jewish woman. She talks in a complaining, whining voice, expressing a great amount of antagonism toward the Welfare, various hospitals, etc.”(p. 45). Discuss how and why Tillie might have felt this way. Did her immigrant status shape her views? If so, how?
- 6. As Steve pursues the secret, he finds people are eager to tell him the hidden stories of their families. He calls himself a “collector of other families’ secrets” (p. 47). How and when do you think it is appropriate to tell a secret? Which secrets are better not revealed? Do you think Steve would have written Annie’s Ghosts if Beth were still alive?
- 7. Steve calls Annie’s Ghosts part memoir, part history and part detective story. The book doesn’t fit neatly into any one of the traditional nonfiction genres. How does the book differ from other memoirs you have read?
- 8. Steve and his brother Mike don’t agree on pursuing the secret. Mike tells Steve he doesn’t understand Steve’s quest. “We can’t stand in their shoes,” he says (p. 105). He also warns Steve that digging into the past might lead to other secrets, and asks Steve whether he is prepared for what he might uncover. Would you want to know more about a family secret if one came out? How would your family react?
- 9. Steve sprinkles the narrative with multiple memories of his parents, always in italics. Several themes and emotions pervade these vignettes. Discuss how these vignettes add to the portrait of Beth and Jack. How does the author try to establish the trustworthiness of his recollections? Why does it matter in this particular story?
- 10. Beth and her cousin Anna Oliwek, a Holocaust survivor, argue about the secret sometime in the early 1950s. Steve’s attempts to understand each woman’s point of view enmeshed him in Anna’s story of pretending to be German and getting a job as a translator for the Wehrmacht during World War II. Do you reject Beth’s decision to hide her sister’s existence, as Anna does, or do you see her more sympathetically? What would you have done if you were in Beth’s shoes, at that time and in that place?
- 11. The nature of memory is a recurring theme in the book. For example, in recounting his frustrations in interviewing Anna Oliwek about the details of her argument with Beth, Steve writes: “Those nuances lie beyond my reach. I cannot wrest them, undistilled or unvarnished, from Anna’s memory” (p. 131).What do you think he means? Why is that important?
- 12. Annie’s 31 years at Eloise span two strikingly different eras in the treatment of the mentally ill. In 1940, the state of Michigan viewed treatment as an obligation but patients had few rights; today, patients generally cannot be forced into treatment if they object, but serious mental illness goes untreated more often. Discuss the tension between care and civil liberties. Have we struck the right balance with today’s laws?
- 13. Hospital records provide the only way for readers to hear Annie’s voice, and the author has only a small portion of those. Steve writes (p. 212) that he tries to “inhabit Annie’s world” through interviews and visits to places where she spent time, including her school. How does Annie’s anonymity change the nature of the storytelling?
- 14. Changes in federal and state laws over the past 25 years have emphasized privacy over disclosure, in part to protect living patients from abuse and discrimination. That trend puts obstacles in the way of telling stories like Annie’s. Have we gone too far in protecting the privacy of patients long dead? Discuss the conflict between privacy and history.
- 15. Gravesites serve as an important continuing locale in the story. What is the relationship between the Jews killed in the Radzivilov massacres during World War II and the former residents of Eloise Hospitals buried in the potter’s field. What role do the three burial sites in Annie’s Ghosts play in preserving or obscuring identity?
- 16. An online reviewer observed that the book “is not a true story that reads like fiction (a description that has fallen under suspicion these days), but is, in the best sense, a true story that reads like a true story.” What do you think she meant? Do you agree?