Un-editing the family tree
Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg is an intriguing book about the uncovering of family secrets. His mother, Beth, often spoke about how she grew up as an only child. After her death, he discovers that she had a sister who was institutionalized at the age of 19; his mother was 21 at the time. Beth had grown up with a sister named Annie who was born with a deformed leg and mental challenges. But no one in Steve's immediate family knew that Annie had existed. Tracking down information about Annie proves very difficult. Slowly, he manages to locate court records that hint at the decades of struggle his mother's family went through. In telling Annie's story, Luxenberg also delves into the history of America’s mental institutions and psychiatric care. At times, these digressions seem a bit long, but they highlight the point that Annie’s tragic story, and the silence surrounding it, are far from unique. A poignant aspect of Annie’s story is that the photo on the book’s cover was chosen by the publisher; Luxenberg scoured photo albums saved by relatives, and the families that lived his grandparent’s neighborhood, but no photo of Annie exists. Luxenberg also pieces together not only Annie’s story, but the story of his mother's deception. When did Beth start claiming to be an only child? Did she mention Annie to anyone later in life? Ultimately, he struggles to reconcile his memories of a loving mother who taught her children the value of honesty with a woman who turned her back on her sister and lived a lie. The book also interested me as a story of genealogy research. Perhaps a lot of your family's records are handwritten, like mine. After reading this book, you might look at those lists of names and wonder - is anyone missing?