Review: “Annie’s Ghosts” by Steve Luxenberg

Book Cover: Annie's Ghosts

Annie’s Ghosts

Steve Luxenberg’s Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into A Family Secret will remain with me for some time.

The book details journalist Luxenberg’s investigation of the pained life of an aunt he had never known. Toward the end of his mother Beth’s life, and then more pointedly just afterwards, it became clear to Luxenberg that his mother had not been “an only child” as she long contended, but one of two children.

Her sister, who was born with a leg that did not straighten, and developmental disability, was eventually institutionalized as insane after her leg was amputated. Luxenberg’s mother then hid the existence of this sister with some success for the rest of her life.

Luxenberg wanted to know not only what really happened to his aunt, but what led to the series of deceptions, lies, and silences at the heart of his family’s life in mid-twentieth century America.

To find out what he can, he probes the history of Detroit, before, during and after World War II. He delves into the migrations before and after the Holocaust from his family’s ancestral stetl in present-day Ukraine, He investigates the massacre of Jews in that stetl, as well as the story of one Holocaust survivor.

The book is at turns poignant and funny. Luxenberg writes clearly and directly, with some art, and with a clear journalist’s eye toward the telling detail.

For genealogists, this will be a compelling read, as the story includes the legal hurdles he had to go through to get access to his aunt’s mental health records. (With his family’s agreement, he became his mother’s representative, and then, through that agency, his aunt’s, in order to get to what records remained.) He finds many family members and friends from 50 years prior, and dredges up more than one deception.

By the end of the book, in fact, it almost felt that every major personality in the tale had been deceiving some or all of the others. As genealogists, we are often presented with such a series of self-serving stories, or half-remembered, half-invented ones, and we need to gather are sort through the evidence we can uncover to drive toward as likely an explanation as the evidence will support. Luxenberg tells his story in the order that the research took, so it is as much the tale of his struggle to come as close to the truth as he could, as much as it is the story of his lost aunt.