Review: “Annie’s Ghosts” by Steve Luxenberg

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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