Steve Luxenberg - Official Website

Saturday, May 30, 2009

You're Invited! A Conversation about Family Secrets at New York's Tenement Museum

Memo to New York City readers of Annie's Ghosts (and anyone from nearby towns in New Jersey and Connecticut who is interested in the book and its author):

This Tuesday, June 2, at 6:30 p.m., I'll be speaking at the Lower East Tenement Museum, 108 Orchard Street in Manhattan. Okay, if that isn't enough by itself to get you on the subway and down to the Essex Street-Delancey Street station (the nearest one to the museum), here's why this particular author event is special: Two authors for the price of one, and the admission price is ... free. (Both our books will be available for purchase and signing, and need I say that Father's Day is right around the bend. But the talk/conversation is absolutely free.)

I probably wouldn't write a blog about this event if I were appearing alone, but I have no hesitation about plugging the other writer. Erin Einhorn's book, The Pages in Between: A Holocaust Legacy of Two Families, One Home, came out last year in hardcover, and last month (April) in paperback. We don't know each other, but our biographies suggest that we should: both Detroit natives, both journalists (Erin's a reporter for the New York Daily News), both with mothers who were secret keepers.

Erin's journey into her family history took her to Poland in search of the family that sheltered her infant mother from the Nazis. Erin went looking for the past, and unexpectedly found herself in the middle of a very present-day dispute,. "Six decades after two families were brought together by history," the book synopsis says, "Einhorn overcomes seemingly insurmountable barriers — legal, financial, and emotional — only to question her own motives and wonder how far she should go to right the wrongs of the past."

I've read Erin's book, and I'm looking forward to hearing more about her journey, and how it compares to my search to understand my mom's motivations for hiding the existence of her disabled sister. My quest also took me to places I didn't expect.

Please join us for what I believe will be an engaging discussion of the risks and rewards of exploring family history.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Letting Go of Annie's Ghosts

Every author event has the potential for a conversation like this one, which I had the other day at an appearance in Washington:

A woman told me that when her husband had a "nervous breakdown" in the 1970s, she didn't tell anyone. He recovered, and then last year, had a second episode. This time, she said, she told everyone. "I needed the support from my friends," she explained. "The first time, I went through it alone. I wasn't going to do that again."

Nor did she think that silence was necessary. The attitude toward mental illness had changed dramatically in those 30 years, she felt. She was right: Her friends gathered around her, sustained her, helped her.

Secrecy (and its benign cousin, privacy) has its benefits. Families, as I write in Annie's Ghosts, need not live their lives as open books for anyone to read. But when a secret causes pain, for yourself or others, then it's time to think about whether to let it go. I wish my mom had been able to let go of hers. I don't think she intended to keep it for her entire life, and I'm certain it caused her considerable pain (and guilt).

Since my last blog (more than two weeks ago!), the book has garnered a good deal of attention, and much praise from reviewers, both in print and online. I'll probably never get comfortable with the self-promotional part of book writing, so I'll just mention a few here (a full list will appear soon at the part of the website reserved for self-promotion, the Press page, under About the Book).

Barry Werth, in a Washington Post review, called Annie's Ghosts "a poignant investigative exercise, full of empathy and sorrowful truth.”

Elaine Margolin, reviewing in the Jerusalem Post, wrote that "Luxenberg dons many hats in this masterful piece of work; he is simultaneously a historian on Jewish immigration, a Holocaust researcher, an investigative reporter, a memoirist and always a grieving son.”" (I'm not sure I can adopt the "always a grieving son" part, but I'm open to "masterful.")

Kyle Norris, of Michigan Public Radio, took me on a walking tour of the places that I visited in Detroit while researching Annie's Ghosts. Her piece, which ran four minutes, bores in on the personal side of the story, and the tenuous balance I tried to maintain as both a son and a journalist. (Speaking of balance: It is possible, I learned, to walk and talk in a microphone at the same time, without tripping. Well, maybe an occasional stumble, primarily in the talking department.)

One online reviewer, C Wahlman, wrote at amazon.com: "The simple task of finding Annie turns into a debate about secrecy, morality, privacy, the wishes of the deceased, and the obligations of the living."

I wish I had written that.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Connecting to Annie's Ghosts: An Interview and a Reviewer

As I watched the computer screen at WPYR-FM in Baltimore, the calls began stacking up.

"A sister no one talked about."

"A half-brother I never knew existed."

"An uncle airbrushed out of family photos."

During an interview yesterday about Annie's Ghosts on "Midday," Dan Rodricks's public affairs show, listeners jammed the phone lines to talk about the secrets in their own families. We only had time for three calls, unfortunately. Each story was compelling, and each secret was different. Some involved institutionalized relatives, like my aunt Annie, while others involved some other taboo or shame of the generation when the secret was born -- the uncle was gay, the half-brother was from a now-secret previous marriage.

Telling my family's story, and explaining the cultural forces that swirled around my mom as she decided to turn her institutionalized sister into a secret, clearly had resonated with Dan's listeners. It was quite an experience to sit in the studio, earphones on, and hear their stories.

It was also quite an experience to hear this review by Susan McCallum-Smith, which was broadcast Monday on WYPR.

No matter how other reviews turn out, I'll always have this one.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

On Mother's Day, Secrets and Their Keepers

At last night’s discussion/reading/signing at the Red Canoe Book Store and Café in Baltimore, I asked those in the crowd with a family secret of their own to raise a hand. That brought forth hands from about half the audience. Someone else stole my punch line: “You just don’t know it yet.”

From the crowd, knowing laughs.

Afterward, several people murmured to me as I signed their books, “I’ve love to tell you about my family secret.” Talking about my family’s secrets often seems to free others to talk about theirs.

That wouldn’t have happened as readily, or at all, a generation or more ago. In response to a question last night about how my mother managed to keep her friends from finding out about her institutionalized sister Annie, I recounted a scene from the book that involved my mom’s bridge game in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Every week, for more than a decade, the same four women got together to play cards. They smoked cigarettes and swapped stories, but they didn’t talk about Mom’s secret. Later, I learned that all three eventually came to know about Annie, but that Mom never realized it.

One of the bridge players, a woman named Ann, had two relatives with disabilities. She was upset and angry, she told me recently, that my mom had chosen to hide Annie’s existence. But Ann never said anything to Mom.

I asked her why. “It wasn’t my place,” she said. “It wasn’t my secret.”

Instead, the bridge players kept their silence, compelled—by custom, by culture, by circumstance—not to say anything to each other.

Something to think about on this Mother’s Day 2009.

P.S. It felt so good to do my first bookstore signing at the Red Canoe. Not only do authors and readers need to support the independents in this time of consolidation and change in the publishing industry, but it’s within walking distance of my house. How cool is that?

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Friday, May 8, 2009

On Tour, and On the Radio, with Annie's Ghosts

This week, as I began touring and talking about Annie’s Ghosts, I’ve been fascinated to hear how readers react to the book.

One book seller told me the other day, "It’s a love story. . . I don’t mean in the usual sense. I mean that there’s so much love in your family, along with all those secrets." Another wrote to me: "Every family has a secret. If someone says they don't, it's because they just don't know the secret."

On Tuesday, when Robert Siegel of NPR’s “All Things Considered” interviewed me for an eight-minute segment that aired that night, he seized on the universal nature of the story. (Listen to the interview.) Siegel asked me to read a passage from the book that he thought particuarly underscored that notion. It was too long for the segment that aired, but I thought readers of this blog might like to see what had captured Siegel’s attention.

Here's the passage, from pages 47-48 of Annie's Ghosts:

Without really trying, I have become a collector of other families’ secrets. Whenever I tell anyone about my detective work, the first question is invariably something like this: “Can you tell me the secret?” Sure, I say. The next question often is: “Want to hear my family’s secret?”

There’s no shortage of heirlooms in this attic: Hidden affairs, of course, but also hidden marriages, hidden divorces, hidden crimes, even hidden families. I have heard so many secrets that I started a list. One of the most memorable: A man who learned, as a teenager, that his father was leading a double life—two wives, two houses, two sets of children, all two miles apart in a Detroit suburb. Perhaps it’s a testament to the insular nature of suburban life that this master of deception managed to straddle these skew lines for more than a decade before his double life came crashing down around him.

Even when secrets do emerge, the reasons for the secrecy often stay buried. Families never learn the motivations, the circumstances and the pressures that compel people to choose deceit rather than honesty. In this shroud of silence, the secret takes on the characteristics of an artifact—interesting to examine and exotic to behold, but mysterious and often impossible to fathom.

Families need not live their lives as open books, for anyone to read. Just as a cure can be worse than the disease, revelation can be more devastating than reticence. That’s the fear that drives many of us to embrace silence or deception. But too often, I think, we’re just telling one more lie, this one to ourselves.

Now that Annie was no longer a secret, now that Mom wasn’t here, the revelation had lost its power to hurt anyone. Or had it? Would understanding Mom’s reasons make me wish that I, too, had left well enough alone?

Siegel said on the air that the book had "different levels of discovery." As I continue my conversations with readers at my coming events, I’m betting that their reactions to Annie’s Ghosts will reveal new levels that I hadn't discovered.

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