Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Personal history: Annie's Ghosts and the writing of historical memoir

In the heady days immediately before and after the birth of my son, Leo, I picked up this year's Great Michigan Read, Annie's Ghosts by Detroit native Steve Luxenberg. Annie's Ghosts is billed as a "journey into a family secret," but it is also described as an exploration of early 20th century views of mental illness in the Detroit immigrant Jewish community. For that reason, it has been enthusiastically embraced by my synagogue, Congregation Kehilat Israel (KI) in Lansing, which is sponsoring a number of programs around the book in the fall. KI has also taken the book as inspiration for focusing on the theme of "personal history" for the coming year.

Reading this book, on its own merits and in the context of the birth of my son, I find myself thinking critically about the concept of personal history. Personal history, written in the form of a creative work of nonfiction or memoir is at once public history as well as private history. While the author digs into a theme of deep personal significance, there is an assumption that the resulting story will be of interest to a "greater public" as well. Luxenberg certainly makes this assumption, never shying away from analyzing his feelings about his investigation of his mother's mentally disabled sister who died in an institution, kept secret from his mother's husband and her children. In fact, Luxenberg assumes that the public will be fascinated as much by his investigative process as by the outcome of his investigation. At the same time, he assiduously avoids generalizing his research beyond the context of his family history. Luxenberg is fascinated by the personal aspects of his search (his emotional responses, questions about whether such a secret should be aired at all) and by the web of connections that enables him to find answers, a notably journalistic preoccupation.

As a historian, I am troubled by the lack of generalization in this book.  The narrative vacillates between a how-to manual of investigative journalism and a memoir that questions the meaning of familial relationships and shifting centers of control over information and story. These are interesting themes that every historian should be aware of when conducting research, but they feel hollow to me when they are not placed in a larger social context.  Without that, I often find myself asking, why should I care?

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