“I can’t recall whether it was my mom or Granny who told me that Charley killed a man with a hay hook in downtown Dallas,” begins one of Maud Newton’s stories. “I started my research expecting to find — if I could find him at all — an unapologetic swashbuckling hothead. Almost nothing I discovered about him fit the narrative arc I’d plotted.”
Newton’s beautiful and complexly nuanced “Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation” began as an attempt to seek answers to personally troubling questions about her white Southern family’s role in the slave trade. But as she researched further, she also became fascinated with the process of genealogical research itself. She brings her astute mind and her engaging writing style to explore why people are so intrigued by what they find in their ancestral past, and whether recent findings in genetics support notions of inheriting the temperaments or intellectual or athletic gifts of our forbears.
These are not idle questions for Newton. She writes: “I came into being through a kind of homegrown eugenics project. My parents married not for love but because they believed they would have smart children together.” Her father was both an Ivy League graduate and a white supremacist who extolled the virtue of slavery and covered the brown faces in the child Maud’s books with nail polish because “birds of a feather flock together.” (She and her father have been estranged for years.)
Where Newton’s father used to brag about his ancestors, her mother told Southern gothic horror stories from her lineage, including tales of those who died in mental institutions, one who married 11 women, and the one who had murdered their best friend. Newton tells the truths she found about these family lines, including her work uncovering documents that proved her family’s history of holding slaves or stealing land from Native Americans.
While Newton could have settled for comparing the stories she heard as a child with what she found through genealogical research to reveal a singular family portrait, she presents instead a rich and powerful understanding of the ways that linking ourselves to our family tree provides a sense of connection that helps us feel grounded. She does this by weaving together strands of research on epigenetics, trauma studies, funerary practices, and spiritual connections while also asking tough questions about how to atone for the histories we inherit.
Perhaps the epigenetics debate with which people are most familiar is whether the collective trauma of the Holocaust has been passed down through genetics to descendants. Newton points to the early nature of the research and whether it can be replicated, and asks whether white supremacy itself is transmissible. She quotes trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem who argues that most Americans “regardless of our background or skin color, carry trauma in our bodies around the myth of race” and that dealing with that inherited trauma is the only way to excise racism.
In recalling the ways that the myths of white supremacy she grew up with influenced her life in Miami, inspiring her to search for ancestors, Newton also reveals her fear of whom she might find. She also longed for the counterweight of other ancestors whose lives might illuminate struggles with mental health or against the prevailing attitudes of their times.
The memoir parts of Newton’s book read like a suspense novel, and part of the pleasure of the book is watching Newton play detective. I’m wary of giving away too much of what she finds. Suffice it to say that legendary characters often had different motivations than those told in family lore. She also found those whose lives had been excised from family stories because of battles with mental illness or “bad” moral choices. Newton gives them a place within the family pantheon by telling their stories.
She also cites writers such as Dani Shapiro, Emily Raboteau, Sarah Smarsh, Jennifer Teege, A.M. Homes, Alexander Chee, and others who have wrestled what it means to inherit stories and what obligations come with them. What do we owe — and own — to/from those who came before?
Family trees in Europe were established as a means of proving connection to inherited power or property. Access to power was tied to the purity of the line. Newton doesn’t shy away from the troubling connection between family trees and eugenics. She was the product of her father’s belief in eugenic superiority, and these notions of “purity” tie directly into myths of racial supremacy and continue to fuel the fascist faction of American politics. The legacy of eugenics cannot be dismissed.
Newton points out the connections between the treatment of the recently dead and fascination with the ancestral dead. For some, especially those whose pasts have been erased by the trauma of slavery or genocide, the connection to ancestry may offer a grounded sense of identity. For others, it’s a way of acknowledging fears of our own inevitable deaths and finding succor in notions of continuity. But American attitudes toward death illustrate an anxiety about mortality that causes many to separate themselves from hands-on interaction with the corpse. Newton participates in some of these rituals and finds emotional and transformational parts that, while difficult, help her move toward the “reckoning and reconciliation” for which her work aims.
When Newton was a child, her mother believed in the literal presence of demons and possession. “She said everyone was born with demons because our ancestors’ sins created generational curses that attached to a family line for seven generations. Our own sins also brought on demons that would be passed down.” In this brilliant mix of personal memoir and cultural observation, Newton shakes her family tree in search of those demons. What she finds is a dense wood in which the truth of her family’s fairy tales lay hidden.
Lorraine Berry is a writer and reviewer from Oregon. She tweets @BerryFLW.
Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation
Random House, 400 pages, $28.99