We all have skeletons in our proverbial family closet and some are buried deeper than others. John Mancini’s search for his skeletons took years of digging. What he found out was not what anyone in his family expected. Immigrant Secrets – The Search for My Grandparents is the true story of one man’s quest to find out what really happened to his grandparents.
I had the opportunity to interview John and I asked him these ten questions.
1. What was your motivation for writing Immigrant Secrets?
JM: After a bit of prodding and poking by beta readers, I finally realized that what I was trying to do was something more than just solving the mystery of my grandparents. I realized that what I was really trying to do was understand my father and his origins story.
2. How long did it take for you to do your research?
JM: I started researching the story over five years ago. As I went along, I began to do blog posts documenting my research. These were pretty straightforward posts describing how and where I went about the process of finding out about my mystery grandparents. This was a good exercise for me because it got me thinking about more than the facts of my grandparents’ lives—it got me thinking about their story and bringing them and their story to life.
3. How long did it take to write the manuscript?
JM: As I got into the research, I became intrigued with telling the story of my grandparents along two tracks. The first track—the story of the search itself—is a rather typical family history journey, albeit one that revealed things I never could have imagined about our family. One thing I have found along this journey is that genealogy people are incredibly helpful. I spent a good portion of the last 20+ years of my career hanging about with records managers and archivists. I will admit that in the rush to embrace the latest and greatest technology and shiny gadgets, I didn’t always understand or appreciate them. But I do now.
The second track—given that documentation about my grandparents was incredibly difficult to find—was a bit of historical reconstruction. The story of my Italian grandparents in the book is, in fact, a story. But it is, as they say in movie previews, “based on a true story.” The facts that surround the story of Elizabeth and Frank are true, but obviously the texture that surrounds those facts and the story incorporating the facts are my own creations to give them life.
Once I really understood the two tracks of my story—I always love books that flip back and forth in perspective—it took me about two years to bring it all together. It was a long time before I even admitted to anyone that I was trying to do this.
4. Without giving away too much, what was the biggest surprise?
JM: The biggest surprise—and there were many along the way—was actually the first one. The only thing my father ever said about his Italian immigrant family was that his parents died in the 1930s, shortly after arriving at Ellis Island. Except they didn’t. Once I began the search for my grandparents, I mostly ran into dead-ends. Until the 1940 Census. My grandparents magically appeared in the Census, but as inmates at the Rockland Insane Asylum.
5. Was there anything you expected to find that you didn’t?
JM: I was not prepared for how unreasonable privacy policies are with regards to access to the health records of those long dead. New York State is among the worst in the nation. I still find it amazing that being the nearest living relative of my dead grandparents is not sufficient to get access to their health records. These records are basically being kept for no useful purpose, with access denied to the only people who would care about viewing them.
6. Where did you do your most informative research?
JM: For all of the basic facts, Ancestry.com was critical. The work that Ancestry.com and the LDS Church have done in digitizing paper and microfilm records is just incredible. Without digitization, finding and accessing information about ancestors is a monumentally more time-consuming task, if not an impossible one.
As I encountered more and more “access denied” responses to my requests for health records, I got lucky. I came across a terrific book by Steve Luxenberg, a former Washington Post writer. Annie’s Ghost describes his somewhat similar journey across the psychiatric commitment landscape. When his mother died, Luxenberg discovered he’d had an aunt, warehoused for many years in a Detroit mental hospital. Why? Why hadn’t he and his siblings been told? He launched an investigation into his aunt’s history, which led to an investigation into the asylum system itself. Each discovery raised more questions.
I contacted Steve and asked him if he had any ideas on how to proceed. He suggested that I go down the path of finding the original commitment papers. His point was that legal documents have a different set of privacy restrictions associated with them than do health documents. So that’s what I did.
7. When there were frustrating moments, and I’m sure there were many, did you think you wouldn’t be able to find the answers you were seeking?
JM: Without giving away too much, I had a key record in my hand that told an important part of my grandmother’s story—but I could not open it because the record had been sealed by the court. I thought for a long time that that part of the story would just be an unknown, until an unexpected source entered the story at the last minute, like a death row pardon from the governor. But I shouldn’t say more than that.
8. If so, how instrumental was your family in helping you continue?
JM: Once I got rolling with this project, my brother, Joe, was the most interested in helping. We made a good team—he cares much more about the pure facts and figures, and I care more about the story that the facts imply. My sister, June, is a child therapist, and her insights on the nature of childhood trauma were key to helping me understand the impact of trauma on a young child.
9. What advice would you give to others starting their ancestry research journey?
JM: First, carefully document early and often. I spent more time than I needed going back and “re-finding” things that I had already discovered because I wasn’t careful enough early on. Second, be prepared for surprises. Not every origins story has a happy ending. Third, remember that every family—every family—has secrets. Most families are convinced that all other families are far more normal than their own. They’re not. And lastly, view genealogy not just as a way to collect facts and figures, but as a way to shed light on the stories and lives of those who came before.
10. And finally, what do you hope your readers take away from reading this book?
JM: I think our origin stories are so important in discovering who we are. I hope readers will embrace the origins story perspective of the late Rachel Held Evans:
“…we look to the stories of our origins to make sense of things, to remember who we are. The role of origin stories…is to enlighten the present by recalling the past. Origin stories are rarely straightforward history. Over the years, they morph into a colorful amalgam of truth and myth, nostalgia and cautionary tale, the shades of their significance brought out by the particular light of a particular moment.”
Bonus Question: How can readers purchase your book?
Immigrant Secrets is available on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Immigrant-Secrets-Search-My-Grandparents-ebook/dp/B09JB1745Z/. A lot of the background documents that form the basis for the book can be found on my blog, The Search for My Grandparents.
John weaves an almost unbelievable ancestral tale combining fact and his version of what his grandparents’ lives had been like to tell this incredible story.
If you are interested in ancestry and genealogy, you have to read this book.