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Bad Seeds

Coming to terms with rotten ancestors

Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation by Maud Newton. Random House, 400 pages.

Flannery O’Connor, who knew something about poisoned historical legacies, once wrote that anyone who survived their childhood already has enough information about life to last the rest of their days. She was discussing a specific sort of person, though: an attentive writer, someone who would “never be ashamed of staring.” Being a member of a family often means staring like a wide-eyed child; it also means that your relatives’ stories, histories, and beliefs will inevitably shape your own whether or not you want them to. That’s probably one reason for our current ancestry craze, which often takes the form of highly publicized and often rather formulaic memoirs, movies, and TV shows that are advertised as “celebrating” how a person’s ancestral past informs their present. It’s a nice concept. But there’s an inherent risk in putting too much emotional stock in one’s ancestry. History is an inventory of ghosts. The more you uncover them, the harder it is to celebrate.     

In telling the somewhat gothic tale of her ancestors, Maud Newton traces the overlapping stories of her troubled family history over several generations, with deep roots in Texas and the South generally yet also stretching much further back to include a woman accused of witchcraft in Puritan Massachusetts. Newton judiciously investigates what we talk about when we talk about ancestry, including such queasy topics as eugenics, intergenerational trauma, and what we the living owe for the sins of the past.

Newton finds herself “not merely respecting traditions of ancestor reverence but advocating for them.” Yet as she searches for “the spiritual importance of ancestors,” she looks to Black or Indigenous traditions and can’t quite connect, explaining at one point, “I struggled with questions around appropriation: my ancestors had already taken so much.” Ancestor Trouble isn’t so much about Newton chopping down her family tree as climbing as far up into it as she can, plucking some of the rotten fruit and clearing out some of the overgrown brush in order to see it better. Her family memoir is imbued with the hard-won perspective that comes from having achieved the necessary mental and emotional distance from her twisted family roots.  

The way Newton describes her “amateur eugenicist” father and religious fanatic mother, both of whom came from checkered family histories of their own, it’s clear that Newton was immersed in some of the darker currents of American history at a tender age. “In fifth grade I’d learned in school that, before the Civil War, enslavers frequently cut off the toes of enslaved people who escaped and were recaptured. When I told my father this at dinner, he was so angry, he seemed to levitate. He canceled our weekend plans and spent that time sketching Civil War battlegrounds, lecturing me about the benevolence of my ancestors and the importance of cotton.” 

Believe it or not, that’s one of the relatively milder stories Newton tells about her highly intelligent but morally and emotionally blinkered Mississippian father who married her Texan mother explicitly intending to create genetically superior offspring. One shudders to think what their courtship must have been like. It’s already pretty weird to treat your family as a kind of living science experiment, but it goes deeper than that. Newton is fully aware that her father’s gross racial attitudes aren’t just because he’s a creep; they come with a historical baggage all their own. 

She explains, with sober frankness, that her fourth great-grandfather’s

enslavement of human beings wouldn’t have been something Grandaddy wanted to hide. He and Mamma both were openly, unremittingly— “jubilantly” is not too strong a word—racist. They passed along to my Dad the idea that the slave system was humming along perfectly until Northern “bleeding hearts” started meddling and destroyed a good thing that had been working for everyone. The day Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated Mamma was happy, and said so.

It certainly sounds like an old biddy’s casual ignorance—some would like to argue that they acted like that back in the day. Yet pointing this out subtly suggests that Mamma’s casual bigotry wasn’t as extraordinary as it might have seemed even in her heyday and it hasn’t exactly disappeared since, either. What do you think she said to the rest of the family?

As Newton describes her “amateur eugenicist” father and religious fanatic mother, it’s clear that Newton was immersed in some of the darker currents of American history at a tender age. 

Pair this with an intensely religious upbringing. Newton had a complex response to her parents’ passive aggressive way of converting her to the faith by telling her that she will consign herself to the flames of hell if she doesn’t accept Jesus as her savior. “So I repeated after them, inviting Jesus into my bosom. And then, for years afterward, I lay awake half the night, fearful of my own heartbeat, worried about what the savior might be doing in there. I was filled with doubt, which was a sin, but I was also anxious enough about eternal damnation to endlessly beg the Lord’s forgiveness for doubting.” 

Newton’s innocent anguish over the various cultural assumptions that were passed down to her, and which are inevitably a part of her life whether she actually agrees with them or not, shows us the paradox at work in so much of Newton’s reckoning with her family’s poisoned history. Biology isn’t destiny. And neither, for that matter, is ideology. There will always be inquisitive, willful people who consciously and painfully break out of the entrenched mold of familial and social conditioning. 

Even so, that iconoclasm will sooner or later force you to understand that the mark of that conditioning is on you whether you like it or not: “Even if I’d felt comfortable leaping into someone else’s belief system and making it my own, my fundamentalist Christian background was both an impediment and the place I was unavoidably starting from. It was a reality I had to work through.” Years of hard-fought insight went into admitting this awkward truth. In a time when it’s easy to be a scoffing atheist, good on Newton for being strong enough to cop to this vulnerability.   

Along with those family traditions, there’s the issue of DNA inheritance. While investigating such companies as 23andMe, which offer genetic testing, she finds her own test results off the mark. Though the genetic test suggested “likely no cheek dimple,” she reports that her pronounced dimple caused people to call her Shirley Temple when she was a child. She also was found to have the muscle-composition marker common to “elite power athletes . . . a miscasting I greatly enjoyed.” Newton cracks wise about how foolish and misguided her father was to focus so heavily on genetics: “In many ways, making predictions based on DNA analysis has as much risk as utility. I’m living proof that having the same muscle composition as an ‘elite power athlete’ guarantees nothing.”

As engaging and informative as Ancestor Trouble often is, the book’s true moral power comes from the way in which Newton refuses to let her understanding of her family’s worst legacies define her, especially when she admits to trying her hardest to escape from it. She remembers arguing vehemently for years against the notion of family having any influence over identity. It would have been far too easy for Newton to beat her scrupulously liberal breast and utter endless mea culpas over her family’s many historical sins.

Instead, Newton takes the braver step of claiming what she thoroughly and bitterly critiques as her own. Rejecting your inherited cultural standards and assumptions isn’t easy whether you’re a parent, child, or citizen. You have to really know the terrain well in order to effectively work against it. Maybe the strongest criticisms come from a place of intimate familiarity, precisely because they are so difficult to make.

It’s obvious that Newton is no longer captive to the kinds of myopic assumptions that her family, and the larger national history they participated in, once expected her to take for granted. Getting to that separate peace clearly wasn’t easy—it evidently took a few hundred pages and years of research to come to terms with what it means to say that “this book would not exist if I were not Robert’s granddaughter.” As Newton states early in her story, “In terms of DNA, we are no more related to most of our ancestors than we are to the people around us on a train or at a baseball game. And yet without each of the people who came before, who contributed to the genes that ultimately contributed to ours, we wouldn’t exist as we do now.” 

If ancestry is to mean anything substantial, it can’t be about exoticism or self-congratulation. It requires a painful reckoning with one’s relationship to the past, which is the direct opposite of the solipsistic impulse to ignore or shrug off the immense pressure of history, and one’s own place within it. America has always been at odds with itself, always proudly putting our best foot forward while quickly shutting the door on all those rattling skeletons in the closet. 

Having spent some time in Salem, Massachusetts, a.k.a. “Witch City,” and also having some Puritan ancestors, I always found it kind of hilarious how many places around town advertised a connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Actually, Hawthorne wrote quite a lot about how he couldn’t stand the place and bitterly criticized those prim, hypocritical Puritans. Still, The Scarlet Letter was a huge bestseller. He even changed the spelling of his last name in an effort to further separate himself from an ancestor who was a judge during the witch trials, in the era when Maud Newton’s distant kin started to find herself in hot water.     

At a time when this kind of sincere reckoning with America’s past, especially when juxtaposed with your own, is happening more widely and comprehensively, and naturally receiving fierce backlash, we have to insist on telling these stories as honestly as we can. It doesn’t matter if it leads us into dark or uncomfortable territory; some say that history is precisely what hurts. Maybe that pain tells you that you’re really getting somewhere. If so, then we’re lucky to have someone as perceptive, witty, and gutsy as Maud Newton—a name she chose for herself—to tell us that story.