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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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