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In 'Ancestor Trouble,' Maud Newton wrestles with her family history

Random House

In "America's Ancestry Craze," her 2014 Harper's cover story on genealogy, genetics, and the stories we tell ourselves about where we come from, Maud Newton writes that her research ("whole weekends spent mired in the U.S. Census, working backward through history") has sometimes "felt like a sickness."

What drove her obsession was the sense that being able to trace her ancestral lines back far enough might hold the answers to the mystery of the interplay between inheritance and individuality: "If I dug deeply enough, if I scrutinized my findings hard enough and long enough, I might understand why my mother became a preacher and I became a writer and my father was unable to love me in a normal fatherly way."

Newton still hasn't unraveled that mystery, but her vigorous book Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation deepens her investigation of both family lore (her maternal grandfather is rumored to have married 13 times, once to a woman who shot him in the gut) and our broader preoccupation with our forebears. Building from the backbone of her Harper's article, Ancestor Trouble represents decades of research into genealogic records, genetic science, and the cultural history of "ancestor hunger" and reverence — as well as Newton's own coming to terms with how to face and honor her family history.

Newton begins with her most troubling ancestor: her father, from whom she has been estranged for 20 years. A white supremacist lawyer from the Mississippi Delta who convinced her mother to marry him "in a kind of homegrown eugenics project" because he believed their babies would be smart, he was a fearsome, exacting, and overbearing presence in her childhood. Newton's genealogical research has been, in part, a way of reckoning with how her father became the kind of man who "cover[ed] the faces of brown children in our storybooks with our mom's nail polish." She writes, "The older I get, the more I search backward, as though if I could know everyone who led to my father, who made him who he is, I would know him too." She found a history of enslaving humans "in the hundreds, if not thousands" across her paternal family tree.

But it's not just her father's line that causes her anxiety. When Newton was 12, her maternal grandmother, a "fierce" Texan whom she called Granny, told her to guard for signs of mental illness in herself, her sister, and their children. Granny's sister Louise had died in a mental institution after dancing naked in the streets and pulling a knife on her mother. Newton had also grown up hearing stories of her maternal great-grandfather — the father of the man married 13 times — Charley Bruce, who had killed a man with a hay hook and "lost his mind." And Newton's own mother swings from one "all-consuming project" to the next, most notably starting a charismatic church in her living room and preaching about demons and generational curses.

These personal stories — and the research Newton undertook to unravel them — thread throughout Ancestor Trouble, which is organized around seven sections that form a patchwork of inquiry into heredity. The layers here echo the book's quilted cover, which, in turn, echoes quilts that Granny herself stitched. In each section, we begin with a short chapter or two of memoir before zooming out into research, cultural criticism, and reflection on the topic at hand, making for a rigorous wrestling with the anxieties of ancestry that is as deep as it is broad. In these pages, we touch everyone from the Hippocratics and their early beliefs on hereditable traits to contemporary thinkers like CeCe Moore, a forensic genealogist who calls herself the DNA Detective and believes we will all inevitably be able to identify our relations to one another on a "Universal Genetic Family Tree."

We meet Moore in an early section on genetic genealogy — the practice of marrying traditional historical research with DNA testing and analysis via companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA. Here, Newton starts with her own curiosity about what her genome could reveal about her father's family's secrets (her great-grandfather Newton was cagey about his own forebears) before moving into a sprawling critique of the opportunities, drawbacks, and dangers of looking for answers in our genes. As Newton notes, this kind of research is increasingly popular — but less revelatory and concrete than we might hope it to be. She applies deserved pressure on for-profit outfits like 23andMe, questioning what they are doing with our data ("Why should a company have more information about our genomes and what they say about us than we do?"), and demonstrating how their analysis thereof is deeply flawed.

In Newton's case, fluctuations in how 23andMe has assigned her genes to regions — she started out with 53.5 percent British and Irish ancestry, a category that the site now says makes up 91.4 percent of her heritage — "underscore its unreliability." (More "disorienting swings" are common for "people whose ancestry isn't predominantly European," Newton writes.)

Newton's critical eye shines in another section on the interplay between nature and nurture, which delves into the debate on epigenetics — how experience and environment affect the expression of genes — and the possibility of inherited trauma. Given the lineage she was born into, these are not idle concerns for Newton; she writes of feeling a sense of "fated doom" when she found herself repeating family patterns. Newton digs into why we are attracted to studies like one on Holocaust survivors and their children, which was interpreted by the media as proof that "epigenetic changes stemming from trauma could be passed down through multiple generations." These claims, and the study itself, have been disputed, but studies like these confirm what we already think we know about trauma and destiny.

Because Ancestor Trouble is structured less around Newton's own tracing of her family tree and more around broad categories of ancestral concern, we inevitably revisit the same biographic material multiple times across the book. Newton sometimes leaves readers hanging for many chapters before completely closing a loop of personal inquiry, like her research into her great-great-aunt Maude, the woman from whom she adopted her pseudonym (her real first name is Rebecca). And we read twice, more than 200 pages apart, of the coincidence that Newton's sister settled on a whim in Northampton, Mass., in the mid-1990s, only to later find that their ninth great-grandfather was a "founder" of the town.

I wasn't too convinced by this synchronicity until I reflected on the fact that I have been similarly awed by revelations from my own obsessive research. In 2020, I discovered that one of my great-great grandmothers, an Irish immigrant named Mary Fritcher, died of an aneurysm in a Brooklyn church that I had lived across the street from for years. I had known that both sides of my family had roots in Brooklyn tracing back to the early 1900s, but had never imagined that they were so close to my own life there.

I can't say that I ever felt Mary's presence protecting me, or that her living and dying in my neighborhood 90-some years before I moved there destined me to be drawn to it. But I have found myself yearning to understand more of her life: how she made ends meet while working as a washer woman after her husband's death, how she coped when her son died in the 1918 flu pandemic, if she dreamed of her home in Ireland (and where, exactly, that home was). Like Newton, I am drawn to "know precisely, in our bones, who and where we came from."

Kristen Martin is working on a book on American orphanhood for Bold Type Books. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.

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Kristen Martin