The idea of ancestry, of finding one’s roots by digging up family histories, has become quite a trendy topic over the past few years. But, as we eagerly swab our cheeks and spit into tubes, we should remember that the problem with fetishizing your family history is that the more you look into it, the better the odds that you’ll find something that won’t impress people at dinner parties. Everyone wants to hear they were descended from, say, Napoleon or Catherine the Great—nobody wants to find out they were the great-great-great-great-great-grandchild of a medieval peasant or a scullery maid.
And history is full of obscured, tangled, and just plain ugly roots, a fact that is being discussed more widely now despite resistance from those who would rather ignore it or pretend it doesn’t matter.
Maud Newton’s gutsy new book, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, looks squarely at her troubled family history, which includes some overt racists, disturbingly intense evangelicalism, and a checkered cast of characters, one of whom married 12 different women. There are deeply researched chapters about genetics and the possibility of inherited generational trauma, among other issues, but the book is also a sprawling and lively family saga, telling very human stories that intersect with some of the darker currents of American history, from plantations to the Puritans.
Examining the various skeletons in her family’s closet, Newton finds much to deplore about the way some of her family thought and acted. Her race-obsessed father explicitly set out to create physically superior offspring, which Newton amusingly reports didn’t exactly pan out: “I’m living proof that having the same muscle composition as an ‘elite power athlete’ guarantees nothing.”
Wisely, Newton doesn’t fill the pages with endless liberal mea culpas over what her messed-up family members did or said. Nor does she hold her often thorny family tree at arm’s length. Instead, she works through how those legacies are part of who she is now, which means that she is uniquely qualified to criticize them. When she says that the book would not be possible if not for being her parents’ child, you can tell how much work it took to get to that mental and emotional place. It might offer a way, to borrow from the book’s subtitle, to reckon with what being an American truly means, and might even point towards a possible reconciliation with the past.
The Daily Beast talked to Newton via Zoom from her apartment in New York City, about why she wanted to write about her ancestors, being “a fervent agnostic,” what it’s like to be utterly uncoordinated, why we need to talk about the history of immigration and slavery, and what it means to be a “filial son.”
What made you want to write a book about your family history?
I had been working on a novel for a really long time, which involved a lot of the same themes. I started researching my family history as kind of a distraction from my real work, and so I wrote this piece for Harper’s, which kind of became a launching pad for the book. And my agent asked me if I wanted to write a book about ancestry, and I said, well, maybe one day when I’m older, but right now I want to write the novel. She was supportive but also encouraged me to consider whether there was a version of the book I’d like to do right away, what that would look like.
I realized that I write to do the kind of book I did with Ancestor Trouble: this very personal book but also this book with a lot of really deep research into a lot of things I was very curious about but didn’t have intimate knowledge of yet. So it gave me an excuse, kind of, not only to spend a very long time writing about my family, but also thinking and feeling about ancestors in the context of genetics, epigenetics, mental illness, inter-generational trauma, racism, creativity, and spirituality. I wanted to write a book that looked at these inheritances with deep attention.
At one point in the book, you talk about the spiritual importance of ancestors. Say a little more about that.
Well, so that was an idea that was just sort of coming to the fore for me as I started writing the book. And I really wasn’t sure what that would involve. As I write in the book, I grew up in this super evangelical household. My mom in particular was extremely religious, she was interested in the spiritual world, talking to spirits and all of that. And I reacted to that as an adult by becoming what I call “a fervent agnostic.” I don’t know, I’m fairly certain I’m not a Christian, but I also know that by nature I’m not an atheist. I’m not a dogmatic person who’s like, here’s how it is, here’s the catechism, and all the rest of it.
But I was really interested in exploring the spiritual significance of ancestors for people across the world and across time. Because the more I worked on my own ancestry and talked to other people, before I was even writing the book, I had this sense that there was a kind of yearning around this, for some people, maybe a lot of people, that wasn’t empirical so much as it was a psychological or even spiritual yearning.
And so I started researching the importance of ancestors in many Asian, African, and Indigenous cultures, and I became interested to see what I could find about the importance of ancestors in the white, European West before Christianity or at least before the Enlightenment. In a lot of cases, it’s hard to know, particularly in England for example—when Christianity came in, all the old records went away or were syncretized with the Bible—but I was really interested to find that in ancient Rome, ancient Greece, ancient and contemporary India, there was a sense of a continuing relationship between the living and the dead. That’s become really important to me. I do feel that I have this spiritual relationship to my ancestors, but I also am not really invested in the objective reality of that.
I totally get why ancestry is important—it’s your own flesh and blood, your connection to history, and so forth. But at times I feel like the obsession with ancestry becomes more like an affect, a way of doing personal branding. I’m curious what you might think about how people might use ancestry to make themselves sound more interesting and cosmopolitan than they actually are.
Right, sure. I think that to some degree, especially if you’re talking about genealogy, using it to aggrandize one’s self is a practice that goes back at least as far as Plato. He was making fun of people who did that in his own writing. It’s a very complex question. You don’t want to be essentialist, right? One thing that I think the Enlightenment got right was that you do have an ability to affect the direction of your life, and that we shouldn’t be forced to do what our ancestors did.
At the same time, this sort of weird Western thing happened, where we like to pretend that we’re all individuals navigating the world equally in a contextless space. You know, there are a lot of critiques of “whiteness,” how that became a category and how meaningless it really kind of is when you look at things through a historical lens, and how it’s shifted over time. I think it’s really sad that we did that.
But the idea that we’re not affected by our ancestors, or that we can just come into the world without a historical context, I find that a bit sad and a bit odd. When you look at humanity, what we can know of it over the millennia, across the world, we are the aberration in that sense. I know there’s a lot of understandable criticism around Americans trying to make themselves more interesting, and the Americanness of this search, there’s a lot of validity there.
Yet at the same time, the reason why so many people of white European descent whose ancestors colonized this country are looking for meaning in ancestry is because we have no idea about our ancestors in some ways. We might know where they came from, but who were these actual human beings? What do they mean for us? An Indigenous organization I support, the Manna-Hatta Fund, offers settlers several answers to the question “What else can I do?” One of those answers is “know where your own people came from.”
I think there’s a big question about essentialism. For instance, living in New Orleans, as someone who is comes in from outside, there are definitely people who are all about being New Orleanians, and who have distinct opinions of what that’s truly about. And you hear people say, “He’s more New Orleans than me,” which you can say about anywhere really: “He’s more New York than me, or he’s more Brooklyn than me.”
On some level, I’m open to the idea that there’s an essential meaning to being from a certain place. Yet at the same time, it’s pretty easy to see why there’s a huge problem with that kind of mentality, especially where race is concerned, which you’re tackling head-on.
Oh, sure. And when people in America are all about claiming a specific place, you know, unless that person is member of an Indigenous people who populated that place before our ancestors got there, it’s kind of like well, sure, maybe in the shorter term historically you have some sort of claim on this, but in the longer term that’s just not the case.
And since America has been making up what America is supposed to be pretty much from the start, if you’re improvising your identity as an American, then on some level it’s not essential at all because you’re just figuring it out as you go. Yet on another level that idea of being an American might cause you to make decisions that end up defining your life.
I think that’s a really interesting point. I think for me, it’s NOT about essentialism, it’s about knowing these histories, not because they force me to be a particular thing or show me to be a certain thing. It’s important because knowing them helps me to figure out how I want to live, and how to sort of show up in the world, with this knowledge, with this additional context.
There’s definitely a concern, let’s call it, in this country right now about immigration. Who gets to come here, who gets to call themselves an American. And I think this goes to the heart of what you’re saying here.
I like to say, as a pro-immigration person, if we’re going to play the game of how authentic an American you are, well, some of my ancestors came over on the Mayflower, so if people are using ancestry as a way of pulling rank here, then I guess I outrank you, and so I say everybody is welcome! But it’s funny, because up until about a hundred years ago, you just showed up and were designated to be an American, whatever that meant. And officially that was the policy until about the twenties, I think.
Yeah, it was, at least for white people.
Right, so we can’t start getting hot under the collar about how authentically American we are just because of our ancestors.
I agree. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I am fairly certain that I’m also descended from someone on the Mayflower, whose last name was Brewster. I believe I’m descended from his daughter, whose name was Fear Brewster. (Laughs) But I don’t view that as any get-out-of-emigration-and-colonization free card. There were many people here before that. So it wasn’t like a vacant land that was just crying out for settlers.
One thing that I find really interesting about ancestry and genetics is that you can very much inherit things like depression and mental illness, but that doesn’t mean it’s your destiny. It’s not the final say on your life or who you are.
Exactly! Sometimes something is passed down that someone has to reckon with for their entire lives. But for many of us, if not to some degree all of us, there is the potential for change within that inheritance. To move in a better direction than their tendency. I intuitively tend to come down on the side of, yes, mysterious things are being passed down. We can see odd recurrences in our lives and in other people’s lives. But with the empirical part of our brains, we know that’s not the whole story.
I liked the line you had about supposedly having the genetic makeup to be a varsity athlete while actually being terrible at sports.
Yeah, I’m so uncoordinated. I think I have a form of physical dyslexia. I’m as terrible at sports, I’m as bad at sports as I look like I would be.
You write, “Some people are wired to live within operating systems, and some want to find a way out.”
When we’re talking about private cosmologies and what certain people in family history really mean to you, then you’re talking about the idea that some Americans have about what this country is supposed to be like. There’s often a ready-made set of values and actions that people think of as being truly American. You mention your great-great grandmother’s awful approval of the death of Dr. King.
Sometimes I think there’s a sense of “get with the program” that comes with being American. You mention your dad canceling all your plans over a weekend to rant about why slavery wasn’t that bad, mapping out Civil War battles, and explaining the importance of cotton. I think some people in America are totally happy to follow the script of what an American is supposed to be, while others refuse to go along. I wonder if the fiercely evangelical upbringing you talk about in the book is a part of that.
Oh, definitely. On the one hand, there are people who are really committed to the idea of America, the ideal of the Puritans, and to not acknowledge anything that’s problematic in the context of that. We see these laws now being enacted in a state like Florida, where people are not allowed to talk about a subject like slavery and other histories that might make people—by which they pretty much always mean white people—uncomfortable. I think that when we talk about white people in this way there’s a certain segment of the population that feels immediately attacked.
We need to be willing to acknowledge the harms of slavery and its perpetuation by the church, and that the success of this country was built on these extremely oppressive systems. It can be very easy for people to finger-wag, and blame people for not acknowledging that, and I’m not saying that’s inappropriate. But I believe those of us who had ancestors who were enslavers, who were involved in the genocide of Native people, need to look at our own individual family histories right now. We need to come forward with those.
To the extent that there’s a didactic point of the book, it’s that. Acknowledgment is not everything, there’s a lot of work that needs to follow from the acknowledgment, but a lot of us haven’t even gotten to the acknowledgment stage.
So really looking at our family’s complicity and involvement in these systems, not to berate ourselves, but in a way that says OK, let’s sit with this and think about this, let’s be transparent about this, and then let’s all find a better way forward together. I think the more you make it personal, it becomes a lot more vulnerable and a lot more tender. That’s usually a better way of changing hearts and minds.
I liked how the book explored the fact that there are some messed-up parts of your family tree, things that you yourself find morally repugnant to look back on, and yet you express your disapproval of that legacy without disowning it completely and claiming that it has nothing to do with you now. I think that’s a much more compelling and subversive approach, and the most American way to think about the issue—your ancestry isn’t the whole of who you are, but you couldn’t be who you are without it.
I love that. You know, one book that was really important to me when I was writing my book was Frank Ching’s Ancestors. It’s a very wide-ranging book, flowing in part from his difficult relationship with his dad, and I mention toward the end of Ancestor Trouble how Ching says that, in terms of Confucian ideals, writing his book seems in some ways like the worst thing that he could do. There’s an idea that you owe your parents everything because you came from them. To do anything other than honor them would be the worst kind of betrayal.
And so Ching writes about how “filial sons,” that was the term, would be in the family tree. But if you were decreed not a filial son, then you would not end up in the tree. And the book is so beautiful and inherently filial in its own way. He delves into 900 years of his family, the dysfunction as well as the positive things that he took from his ancestors. He traces this family back to the Song dynasty poet Quin Guan, who was a very important part of Chinese culture but had been repudiated after the Communist revolution.
Ching found Quin Gran’s neglected grave, and now thousands upon thousands of descendants of this man gather at his grave for Tomb-Sweeping Day to honor him. What could be more filial for each of us than to say, this is the best way for me to honor my ancestors, to embrace the gifts, to acknowledge the harms, to work against those legacies and strive not to repeat them, and to bring forward what’s valuable and good and unique to each of us.