According to an article in the MIT Technology Review, by early 2019, more than 26 million people had added their DNA to the four leading commercial ancestry and health databases. That level of interest cries out for an in-depth examination of genealogy’s broad appeal, and Maud Newton gives us just that in Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, a thoughtful investigation of genetics and inheritance as viewed from the branches of her own family tree.
Speaking by FaceTime from her home in Queens, New York, the red-haired and bespectacled Newton is relaxed and cordial as she sits in front of a wall of glass-enclosed bookshelves. She speaks thoughtfully but with evident passion about a project that had its genesis some 15 years ago, when she started researching her family on Ancestry.com. But it wasn’t until 2010, when she received her 23andMe DNA test results, that her interest in the subject took off. Even then, she admits, she was “puzzled by my obsession with it. I wasn’t really sure exactly what I was trying to get at.”
A 2014 cover story for Harper’s Magazine on “America’s Ancestry Craze” led to a book contract and launched Newton, a writer and former book blogger who briefly practiced law before her literary career began, on a long and sometimes circuitous path through subjects like the heritability of trauma and the spiritual importance of ancestors in various cultures. “As a layperson, my ability to understand the deep science was limited,” she says, “but I really wanted to do my best.” The broad reading list reflected in her book ranges from ancients like Aristotle and Hippocrates to the work of contemporary writers such as Dani Shapiro and Alexander Chee.
At the core of Ancestor Trouble is Newton’s complex and often difficult family story. She describes her birth as a “kind of homegrown eugenics project,” writing that her parents “married not for love but because they believed they would have smart children together.” The union between her father, a Mississippi-born lawyer and unabashed racist, and her mother, a Texas native who later in life became a fundamentalist minister who conducted exorcisms in the family living room, lasted only 12 years but left Newton with a colorful, though at times painful, lineage to explore.
Among the most memorable characters in her family line are her maternal ninth great-grandmother, Mary Bliss Parsons, who faced multiple allegations of witchcraft in 17th-century Massachusetts, and her maternal grandfather, Robert Bruce, who reportedly married 13 times. (So far, Newton has only been able to document 10 marriages, though she’s still searching.) Another is Charley, Robert’s father, who was accused of murdering a man in downtown Dallas with a hay hook in 1916. He died in a Texas mental hospital, but Newton became so engrossed in his story that she purchased a tombstone to mark his previously anonymous grave.
For Newton, the most problematic aspect of her ancestry concerns her family’s connections with slavery and with efforts to expel Indigenous peoples from their native lands. On her father’s side, that history hardly came as a surprise; he was, after all, obsessed with the Confederacy. But Newton was dismayed to discover that some of her mother’s ancestors also enslaved people and participated in genocide against Native Americans. “It was an unpleasant surprise, but ultimately a healthy and useful one,” Newton says, “to recognize that it wasn’t possible for me to divide my family into the part that enslaved people and that I didn’t relate to as much, and the part that I related to more that didn’t have this history. It was on all the sides.”
Though her family history is rife with material, Newton wanted to write a book that was more than a conventional family memoir. “The only way I wanted to write it was if I could . . . look at it through these different lenses, both through my own family history and in the larger historical, sociological, scientific, philosophical and religious history context,” she says.
That broad perspective magnified Newton’s reservations about online DNA research websites like the ones that launched her investigation. “I am very skeptical and very concerned about the data those sites are collecting and the lack of control we have over what is done with that data,” she says. “And I also continue to use both of those sites regularly. I objectively think they’re highly problematic, and on a personal level, I continue to be seduced by the tools that they offer.”
Newton’s comprehensive approach also led her to explore different ancestor veneration practices, such as Tomb-Sweeping Day in China and the Day of the Dead in Mexico. As she studied these rituals throughout history and the world, she came to realize that “we in the contemporary West who do not venerate ancestors or minister to them in the afterlife are the aberration, not the other way around.” That intriguing and moving investigation, she says, provided her with “a spiritual connection now, a healthy connection to my ancestors, including to some of the ancestors who were problematic when they died, with whom I had difficult relationships in life.” In the end, she says, “it’s less important or interesting whether there’s some objective reality to this feeling that I have of connection to my ancestors. What’s important to me is the healing potential that this inquiry can have.”
Readers will connect with many aspects of Newton’s vivid story, but there’s one—what she calls “acknowledgment genealogy”—that she hopes will especially resonate. This encompasses, as she puts it, “personal harms that we can acknowledge within our own family or larger harms that relate to the systemic problems that we’re facing now as a country. . . . If each of us can feel a little more comfortable coming forward and recognizing these harms and thinking about them and feeling about them in a larger context,” she says, “we’ll move a lot further along as a country toward the kind of conversations and healing that we need.” Newton believes this and brilliantly reflects it in Ancestor Trouble. After all, she says, “making it personal is the most powerful force we have for change.”
Maud Newton author photo credit: Maximus Clarke