It’s been a while since I posted a book review! Life hasn’t allowed me much time for reading. But at the recent Association of Personal Historians conference, Steve Luxenberg presented a keynote about Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, in which he described a writing process driven by obsessive detective work, investigating a gripping moral dilemma that faces more of us than you might think. I bought his book. Finished it this morning.
Quoting from Luxenberg’s website:
Part memoir, part detective story, part history, Annie’s Ghosts revolves around three main characters (my mom, her sister and me as narrator/detective/son), several important secondary ones (my grandparents, my father and several relatives whom I found in the course of reporting on the book), as well as Eloise, the vast county mental hospital where my secret aunt was confined—despite her initial protestations—all of her adult life.
As I try to understand my mom’s reasons for hiding her sister’s existence, readers have a front-row seat to the reality of growing up poor in America during the 1920s and 1930s, at a time when the nation’s “asylums” had a population of 400,000 and growing.
I found the book an enjoyable read; some of my colleagues said they couldn’t put it down, tore through it on the plane home from the conference, stayed up all night to finish–and at 358 pages not counting appendix, that’s quite a testament to Luxemberg’s narrative powers. While I wasn’t in the “can’t put it down” camp, I was consistently pulled along, interested at every turn to know what would happen next, and intrigued by the dilemmas Luxenberg confronted, including lack of access to essential hospital documents, the vagaries of memory among aging relatives, and as a journalist, knowing when to push and when to back off.
Luxenberg said something in that conference keynote that really caught my attention: “Changing social conditions create the environment for new taboos.” At the same time mental illness began to be destigmatized in the 1980s, people with AIDs were becoming the new lepers. Today we are more accepting of gay marriage and families, but struggle with how to blend the transgendered into our families and institutions (see recent discussions of Wellesley).
But I see I am straying from my intention to review Annie’s Ghosts.
Luxenberg’s story follows his research, which takes him from California to Eastern Europe to interview family members and visit scenes of family history, plus repeated research trips to Detroit’s suburbs where the Eloise Hospital was located. Along the way, he ponders the ethics of revealing family secrets.
Quoting Luxenberg on the legal debate over access to personal medical information: “…How can we, as a society, overcome the shame long associated with the mentally ill if state laws mandate that history be kept in the shadows?” This is why I said “the dilemma faces more of us than you might think.” From my memoir writing workshops, I’ve become aware that just about all of us have a madman somewhere up the family tree. Whether we know it, how we find out, and what we do with the knowledge holds the potential for a story as riveting as Luxenberg’s.
In his APH keynote, Luxenberg had this to say to historians about to let family skeletons out of their closets: “When keeping the secret does more harm than good, it is time to consider letting it free. In the beginning you control the secret. In the end, the secret controls you.”