Monday, May 18, 2009

Annie's Ghosts

It's amazing how many mystery stories revolve around family secrets. One of my favorites, Thomas H Cook, has built a career writing books that deal with the emotional toll of family secrets and family history. Writers as diverse as Harlen Coben and Edgar Allen Poe have used the hidden history of families to tell their sorrowful tales.

Of course, real families have secrets too and Steve Luxenberg, of the Washington Post, found a doozy. Late in life, his mother, who had always made a great deal about being an only child, revealed that she actually had a sister. Digging further after his mother's death, Luxenberg learned that his unknown aunt had been committed to a mental institution in her late teens and that she had lived the rest of her life there. In Annie's Ghosts, Luxenberg has documented his quest to learn who his aunt was and why his mother hid her from her children.

Luxenberg has structured the book as a mystery story, with false leads, missing documents, bureaucratic blocking, and the uncovering of additional mysteries, such as the true story of his father's service in World War 2 and the dire tale of his mother's cousin who escaped death at the hands of the Nazis by posing as a German and working for the Wehrmacht. Although the stories in and of themselves, which include the shifts in the mental health industry, the Holocaust in the Ukraine and immigrant life in 20th century Detroit are interesting, the suspense driven narrative greatly enhances the read.

Although his story is personal, Luxenberg does note that thousands of people disappeared into homes because they were considered different or even shameful. In not all cases were they erased from family history, but in many they were. This opens up all of the other reasons people were hidden, some of which he explores on his blog.

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