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Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into A Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg

I was looking up a book about genealogy on Amazon a while ago, and as those things often do, that book led to another book led to this one, I think.  Or something like that.  I requested Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into A Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg through ILL.  I know that I always say that non-fiction and I don't get along, but lately that seems to be all that I'm reading.  And honestly stories like this that essentially are some sort of genealogical scavenger hunt or detective story tend to suck me in.  I like them because I have an interest in genealogy and have become by my own family's historian and keeper of the family tree--and anyone who has done any long term genealogical research knows that every family tree has its share of mysteries.

This story begins with the roundabout revelation of a decades old family secret.  At a meeting with her doctor and social worker, Luxenberg's mother, Beth, casually mentions a sister.  This information perplexes the social worker who was under the impression that Beth was an only child, so the social worker calls Luxenberg's older sister, who in turns calls Luxenberg with this piece of perplexing news.  Beth's sister was a secret that Beth kept from her children and from other family members, co-workers and friends as well.  Beth always referred to herself as an only child to anyone and everyone she talked to.  The author's account of his mother finding myriad ways to work into myriad conversations with family, friends, acquaintances and strangers alike that she was an only child reminds me of the old saying, "the lady doth protest too much."

The revelation of the existence of a heretofore unknown aunt four years before his mother's death was the first crack in the family secret.  Inexplicably the author never questioned his mother about her sister, and thus, the woman goes to her grave believing her secret is still buried.  It's not until some time after his mother's death that Luxenberg decides to do some digging to find out who his mother's sister was and why his mother kept her secret so deeply buried from so many people for so long.  But the more he digs, the more he unearths perplexing bits of information.  The hunt leads to the harrowing story of Annie Cohen, a woman whose story and identity still remains partially obscured by the passage of time and the destruction of records, photos and other documents.  Annie was two or three years her sister Beth's junior and life for Annie, from her birth, was not easy.  She was born with a deformed leg that was later amputated when she was teen.  And she was nebulously diagnosed with some form of mental impairment that later in some way led to mental illness that then led to her forced institutionalization when her problems became too big and too disturbing for her poverty stricken family to handle themselves at home.

Annie's Ghosts is Luxenberg's attempt to reconstruct Annie's story--from her birth and her first two decades at home with her family followed by three decades of her largely anonymous and forgotten life in an institution--and to place Annie's diagnoses in both the context of history and today's modern understanding and treatment of physical impairment, mental impairment, and mental illness.  As these things often do, the more Luxenberg pulls at the threads to unravel his mother's secret, the more secrets come to light and in turn illuminate his mother's secret.  His research leads him to the old country where his maternal grandparents were born to shed light on the customs and culture of the day and how it influenced the way the family dealt with his aunt's difficulties.  Luxenberg also uncovers the unspeakably tragic story of his mother's estranged cousin's survival during the Holocaust.  This is at its heart an account of family history colliding with world history and how these events shaped a family for generations.

The most interesting parts of this book were the parts in which Luxenberg shared his hunt for stories, photos, and other documentation regarding his aunt's life, his parents' marriage, and his family's history.  There is also the account of his mother's cousin Holocaust experience that is at once both heartbreaking and unbelievable--the story itself is almost like a movie. By necessity Luxenberg also examines the treatment and history of mental illness in America specifically in the early part of the twentieth century--these parts tend to drag a little bit.  Overall it's an engrossing, fascinating story.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie


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