Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Review: Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg *****

The starting point of Annie's Ghosts is when journalist Luxenberg hears that his elderly mother, who always claimed to be an only child, has mentioned in a talk with her doctor that she had a disabled sister, who was "sent away" as a young child. Several years after his mother's death he learns the sister's name, Annie, and that far than being a brief presence in his mother's young life, she was actually committed to a mental institution on the eve of her 21st birthday.

The remainder of the book is Luxenberg's account of his attempt to learn more about his aunt, who lived a further thirty-two years after her commitment, and to understand why his caring, loving mother had felt the need to hide the fact of her sister's existence from everyone in her life. Along the way, he interviews many of his parents' old friends and relatives, archivists and psychiatrists, as well as visiting the town in Russia where his family originated. He also weaves in information about the history of mental health care in twentieth-century America, the eugenics movement, and the lives of Jewish immigrants in the early to mid-twentieth century.

Annie's Ghosts is a moving meditation on family secrets; the stigma all too often attached to disability, both physical and mental; and a son's coming to terms with the fears and cultural attitudes that informed his mother's choices in life.

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