Newton, who knew nothing of this 1969 episode because it happened before she was born — threatened to hurl herself out of a window during college over a spat with a boyfriend. She concedes that, at the time, she was prone to “barn-burner rages” as a by-product of her dysfunctional upbringing. In moments of self-awareness, she began to consider the possibility of behavioral continuities within her lineage, which had always been veiled in secrecy.
Newton understood the physical characteristics she shared with her relatives, e.g., her cherished Granny’s bad posture, or “hunch.” But, she wondered, “Beyond environment, were all of us who came from this tangle of acrimony and mental illness — also struggling against something innate?” Was there, as Granny said, something “hiding in my blood”?
So begins Newton’s two-decade quest, using the genealogy websites 23andMe and Ancestry.com, plus extensive archival research, to build her contorted family tree. Subsequently, “Ancestor Trouble” becomes a vast, captivating melodrama spanning centuries and stuffed with character sketches that are tragic and stupefying. (The book has a wonderful family album identifying many of the players.)
Newton’s maternal grandfather was a Dallas dress cutter who was overly fond of alcohol; one of his 13 wives shot him in the gut, perhaps a little high of the mark. A great-grandfather killed a close friend with a “hay hook” and ended his days in a “mental institution.” (Newton locates his unmarked grave and arranges for a headstone.)
A glamorous great-aunt paraded down the street naked and, later, “pulled a knife on her mother in the bathtub.” She died in the North Texas Lunatic Asylum. Going further down the rabbit hole, Newton’s ninth great-grandmother, a self-reliant 17th century Puritan, was charged by Boston patriarchs with “[entering] into familiarity with the Devil.”
Wide learning and roving speculation distinguish “Ancestor Trouble.” From Pythagoras to Mendel, Newton moves this way and that, exploring over two millennia of genetic speculation and experimentation before the breakthrough of human genome mapping in 2000. She also covers recent developments in the field.
As an erstwhile attorney, Newton’s conclusions regarding the nature vs. nurture debate are finely composed: “Current science tells us that depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are at least partly hereditary,” but “even the most comprehensive efforts to pinpoint a gene that dictates mental health characteristics haven’t been successful in a productive sense.”
Cautiously, however, she allows herself some wiggle room: “I do believe in patterns across generations that seem nearly supernatural in their virulence.”
Which brings her to a harsh reality: “To this day, whenever I try to add up all the human beings my ancestors subjugated on this continent … the number is in the hundreds, if not thousands,” she writes.
She’s crestfallen to learn that her great-great aunt in Mississippi, Maude Newton, whose forename the author assumed because she was a writer, expressed segregationist sympathies in newspaper columns in the ‘60s. Newton recovers from this blow and concludes: “As the world shows more clearly every day, pretending racism doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go way. Giving myself her name deepened and sharpened a reckoning I knew from my youngest years was inevitable.”
Normally a skeptic, always tenacious, Newton finds a pathway out of her despair, hoping to make peace with her remote family past through meditation and “ancestor veneration” practices, which she discusses at length.
“Somehow, I had to escape my agnosticism and my intellectual searching. I needed to find an entry point through my heart.”
In “Ancestor Trouble,” the Western scientific tradition collides with near-mystical inquiry. If only imperfectly, she admits, Newton endeavors to maintain the two as one, even if it means walking through a looking glass: “Over the course of our lives, in our own mirrors, we encounter many people who come before us. The past and present blur in our very being; the divide between living and dead becomes porous.”
“Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation”
by Maud Newton
Penguin Random House
400 pages, $28.99