Ancestor Trouble (A Reckoning and A Reconciliation) by Maud Newton
Published March 2022 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review
Maud Newton’s ancestors have vexed and fascinated her since she was a girl. Her mother’s father, who came of age in Texas during the Great Depression, was said to have married thirteen times and been shot by one of his wives. Her mother’s grandfather killed a man with a hay hook and died in an institution. Mental illness and religious fanaticism percolated through Maud’s maternal lines back to an ancestor accused of being a witch in Puritan-era Massachusetts. Maud’s father, an aerospace engineer turned lawyer, was an educated man who extolled the virtues of slavery and obsessed over the “purity” of his family bloodline, which he traced back to the Revolutionary War. He tried in vain to control Maud’s mother, a whirlwind of charisma and passion given to feverish projects: thirty rescue cats, and a church in the family’s living room where she performed exorcisms.
Her parents’ divorce, when it came, was a relief. Still, her position at the intersection of her family bloodlines inspired in Newton inspired an anxiety that she could not shake, a fear that she would replicate their damage. She saw similar anxieties in the lives of friends, in the works of writers and artists she admired. As obsessive in her own way as her parents, Newton researched her genealogy—her grandfather’s marriages, the accused witch, her ancestors’ roles in slavery and genocide—and sought family secrets through her DNA. But immersed in census archives and cousin matches, she yearned for deeper truths. Her journey took her into the realms of genetics, epigenetics, and the debates over intergenerational trauma. She mulled over modernity’s dismissal of ancestors along with psychoanalytic and spiritual traditions that center them.
Searching, moving, and inspiring, Ancestor Trouble is one writer’s attempt to use genealogy—a once-niche hobby that has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry—to expose the secrets and contradictions of her own ancestors, and to argue for the transformational possibilities that reckoning with our ancestors offers all of us.
Had I shared with you recently that I've been thinking about taking a break from blogging and focusing that time instead to genealogy? A number of things have been driving me that direction and this books is one of them. I don't have nearly the colorful family history that Newton does (a friend once commented that my childhood was like something out of a sixties television program) but I'm yearning to learn more about the reality of our families, not just their names and dates of death. Newton, on the other hand, had some (well, a lot) of questions to be answered in her research, not the least of which was to understand why she is the person she is.
Newton's father routinely severely punished her for things like getting a B+ (he is no longer a part of her life). Newton's mother did nothing when Newton told her mother that her stepfather had raped her. Her granny warned her to watch for signs of mental illness in herself (Granny's own sister had spent most of her life in a mental institution after having danced naked in the streets). How could she be the product of these people Newton came to wonder.
As Newton begins to research her family history, she discovers that it's not simply enough to know about her ancestors. She needs to know the "why" of how she became the person she is because of who they were. This leads her to research epigenetics (I keep coming across that study since I read Jamie Ford's The Many Daughters of Afong Moy, which introduced me to the idea), neuroscience, genograms, and spiritual practices. Newton ties a piece of her own personal ancestry and life with her research into each of these subjects making them more understandable for the lay person.
You know you've read a book that's important when it doesn't just inspire and educate you, but when reviews of it show up on NPR and in the New York Times (and I highly recommend looking up those reviews because they are certainly more eloquent about this book than I am).
Newton asks a lot of questions, many of which can't be answered. But this book certainly has me asking questions and hoping to find answers of my own. Although, as Newton found out, we won't necessarily like the answers we find when we begin looking into our ancestors.