Originally created 03/28/04

Family secrets unearthed in moving memoir

This moving memoir by Beth J. Harpaz is not so much a story about finding the Annie Farrell of the title as it is about discovering the painful secrets of an entire family, as well as the author's own feelings toward her past and present life.

Annie Farrell was the author's mother, whose death led Harpaz to discover from a birth certificate found among her mother's possessions that Annie's real name was Lena. This sparks her investigation into her heritage and drives the story, which is rich with the landscape and characters of rural Maine.

It's a sad and compelling tale of a family whose struggles with poverty, alcoholism, neglect and abuse are recounted with drama and compassion. Harpaz is able to relate the stories of her aunts and uncles, as well as those of her grandparents, in haunting, detailed scenes. The deeper her investigation goes, the more surprises she unearths.

She finds that her mother had a baby brother who was run over by a car. Another was deemed retarded and sent to inadequate foster homes, and had his teeth removed after he bit someone. A third escaped being killed by his father. The sisters in her mother's family fared slightly better. Her aunts tell her that they were often left alone for days at a time with nothing to eat. One states matter-of-factly that she was repeatedly raped by her brother-in-law.

At the center of all these stories is Annie, who holds herself responsible for her mother's early death in childbirth. As a young girl, she was sent to the firehouse to call for an ambulance, but she stumbled in the snow and lost a boot, and by the time she reached her destination, crucial time had passed. When the ambulance arrived at their house, her mother was already dead.

Annie struggled with the heavy weight of this guilt throughout her life. A beautiful and self-possessed young woman, she left Maine for New York, with the hope of becoming a model. Her dreams faded, and she continued to long for Maine, to live in "a house by the side of the road." Paradoxically, she married a man who never wanted to own anything. Her husband, David, once bought her a small dream house in Maine but sold it the same day, terrified of the long-term responsibility.

Blows like these took a toll on Annie, and she suffered from grave depression. Eventually, she drank chronically and never left her apartment. She died at 61 in 1983.

Most fascinating in this memoir are Harpaz's encounters with her aunts, strong and noble women who live uncomplainingly with their past sufferings. To the author's credit, she compares herself to their hardscrabble struggles and appreciates their endurance and spirit.

Because of the powerful writing, the clear-eyed narrative and the detailed scenes in which these relatives come to life, Harpaz imparts the same feeling to the reader.

In one of the book's most touching moments, Harpaz asks her Aunt Peanut (so-named because she is "small and skinny ... funny and quick") why she never told anyone about the abuses she suffered at the hands of relatives and her husband.

Peanut answers: "I didn't have any words in my vocabulary to explain anything like that. I knew it was wrong, but I didn't have any words for it."

Harpaz has found the words, and has given voice to her family and its secrets. With "Finding Annie Farrell," these women and men are no longer silent.


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