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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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