What do we owe our ancestors and what rights do they have over us? How to assume the heritage of their faults, sins and crimes? These questions cloud the history of our country and gnaw at the conscience of anyone who wanders into the weeds of Ancestry.com and came across a handwritten will revealing that their ancestors owned slaves (and shared them with their children when they died). Genealogy sites like Ancestry, which combine DNA testing with a massive computer base of records and searches, have opened the door to stories of silent heroism, hidden wickedness and unimaginable pain.
For his mostly revealing new memoirs, “ancestor problem“, blogger, critic and essayist Maud Newton has spent the last few years considering the personal and historical legacy of his ancestors, beginning with his fractured immediate family and working back in time, through and beyond his great-grandparents.
In Newton’s birth family, some ruptures never healed. She is permanently estranged (and disinherited) from her father, a Mississippi lawyer who viewed slavery as “a benevolent institution that should never have been dissolved”, who painted the faces of brown children in his storybooks ( with her mother’s nail polish, if you’re wondering). For seven years she did not speak to her mother, an evangelical Christian minister, because her mother refused to acknowledge the harm caused by the fact that at age 12 Maud was molested by her stepfather. “I loved my mother with fierce intensity and wanted her to be right,” she wrote. The injustice of her mother’s blindness was devastating.
The more Newton goes back, the hairier he becomes. His paternal grandparents, wealthy plantation owners who relied on black labor to work the fields, traded cotton in the Mississippi town where Issue up to was lynched. His fourth great-grandfather prospered by buying and selling slaves. His maternal grandfather, a bipolar Texas Lothario who married at least 10 times, was shot in the stomach by one of his wives, and his maternal great-grandfather killed a man with a hay hook. A New England ancestor got rich by swindling Native Americans out of their land; another was considered a witch.
It’s rich material for an introspective memoir, but in “Ancestor Trouble” Newton aims for more than a retelling of family secrets. It reviews and synthesizes what we know about inheritance today, a wealth of new insights from the sequencing of the human genome and the explosion of genetic research that followed. His search for his personal legacy leads down many roads (and many dead ends) as Newton pieces together the lives of long-dead relatives from newspaper articles, city directories and patient records in asylums. ‘alienated. Her journey is by turns revealing, funny, and delightfully sad, as she tries to come to terms with the unraveling of what were once strong, loving family bonds.
Newton’s method in each of the eight sections (“Nature and Culture”, “Physics”, “Temperament”, etc.) is to begin by focusing on the personal – a grandfather’s mental illness, hyperthyroidism of a grandmother. She then delves deeper into history, theology, culture, and science, returning to understand what it means to her. There are chapters on the development of genetics, eugenics movementthe heritability of family traits and the field of epigenetics, which studies whether our genes can be altered by experience (short answer: it’s complicated).
This combination of personal revelation and synthesis works, for the most part. Newton is a logical thinker and keen observer, blessed with a prodigious memory and heartbreaking honesty. She is a transparent and sometimes lyrical writer: a grandmother’s ring, which she inherited and which she lost, was “the Platonic ideal of a ruby, the color of the blood of a test of sting”.
It balances blame with credit. “What I’ve wanted most in my life is to be like my mother: creative, quirky, happily intractable,” she wrote. “What I also feared the most was being like her: impulsive, fervent, self-destructive and rebellious, devoting myself to projects that I later burn.”
In an act of generosity, Newton lays his writing ability at the feet of his father and his family, “the way I return to subjects again and again, from different angles, explaining my thoughts and feelings to myself as and as I went, then building them into an argument to satisfy myself and anyone else who might, along the way, be persuaded.
It’s disturbing, then, when after many pages of lucid observation, she goes off the rails about ancestor worship — its ancient origins and its modern incarnations. Newton accepts the idea that his ancestors are there, ready and willing to give advice. She takes a “Beginners Ancestor Worship Course” (available in New Orleans, Brooklyn, Asheville, North Carolina and Portland, Oregon), which aims to help participants contact their ancestors to get help.
The course materials state, “In addition to supporting reparations with living family, our ancestors foster healthy self-esteem and help us clarify our destiny, relationships, and work in the world. (Here, I was trying to imagine my paternal grandparents, who raised 10 children on a tough Tennessee farm, boosting my self-esteem from beyond the veil.) This search for his parents and bloodlines” healthy”, taking care to escape the dangerous ‘sick’ death, leads in Newton’s case to an encounter with a spirit linked to an ancestor who apparently wandered from the Disney studio grounds, “a sort of fairy insect… she had a big blue-green body like a caterpillar, big blue wings, and a blue human face.
It’s as if Newton’s analytical mind took a vacation from the struggle to reconcile its conflicting feelings. This deviation in tone and intent, so late in the book, bewilders the reader. If family reconciliation is the goal, the results unfortunately seem incomplete.
But then, how is reconciliation possible without reciprocity? Newton and his living family can always apologize, atone, but without woo-woo rituals, the other ancestors cannot. Nor can their descendants do it for them.
Newton is on a journey, and perhaps his search for ancestral spirits is just one stop on the road. She believes in answering for the sins of her ancestors — she supports organizations that help Natives reclaim land – but how to fully account for such massive injustice remains a thorny question. “I’m just getting started – and still wondering how – to make amends,” she wrote.
On a cold December day, she visited the home of her ninth great-grandparents in Massachusetts, people who appropriated Native lands and became wealthy from them. “The place was dark and bewildered, a dubious monument that should be redesigned,” she wrote. “I asked for forgiveness from the land and its natives, living and dead. On the worn earth at the foot of a bench, I emptied a bottle of wine as an offering.
Gwinn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lives in Seattle, writes about books and authors.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.