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.


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