Entering the Prism of Family: On Maud Newton’s “Ancestor Trouble”

March 29, 2022   •   By Lesley Heiser

Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation

Maud Newton

“I HAVE LOVED my father and I have feared him, and I have lain awake in the dark late at night worrying what it means to have half his genome inside me, but I have never understood him. Sometimes I have felt that if I could just reach down far enough into myself, I would find the answers: what he wants, what he fears, what he loves.”

With these words, Maud Newton sets the course for her debut memoir, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation. With these words, she enters the prism of family. Before she is done, she will have examined many ideas — about ancestry across cultures and across time, on genes and individuality, and from the philosophical world that underpins how we think about ourselves. She will have built a perspective on today’s internet-inspired genealogy and what it can mean in our lives.

But through it all, her quest will remain intensely personal. Love for her mother is her most abiding inspiration. Like her father, her mother is a riddle. She became hard to reach after the “swift and feverish” religious conversion that happened in Newton’s childhood. With her eyes on heaven, she began to see ancestors as “harbingers of trouble” and possible demons with the power to infiltrate her and others.

At her own mother’s gravesite in the mountains of North Carolina, Newton’s mother was desperate to leave. But Maud insisted on staying until the coffin was covered. She worried that her grandmother had wanted to be buried in Dallas — where she had been born, had lived her life, and had once bought a plot. Despite her mother’s discomfort, she witnessed the entire burial.

In this moment, the younger Newton adopted a particular sensitivity to the dead that she takes much further in Ancestral Trouble. This sensitivity contains the seed of the idea that, depending on her own actions, her grandmother might or might not exist as a “well ancestor,” one accorded the proper rites, settled and at rest, and able to enjoy her connection to the living.

Such exquisite care is threaded subtly through all Newton’s pages. She considers that humanity’s greatest crimes are connected to our neglect of the ancestral. With our wars against ancient cultures, and our lack of connection to those who have gone, we are stunned and bereft and don’t really realize it. We wander impoverished and lost. We make the same mistakes again and again.

Of course, there is only so much that one human being can do. Newton sees her task as “reckoning and reconciliation.” She wants to look back as far as she can into her family’s past. Her parents had a terribly strained marriage and are long divorced. But further down the line, the saga deepens. Men fight to the death. Pitiless battles of the sexes abound. Sexual assault is part of the narrative. And that is not all.

Trained as a lawyer, Newton brings meticulous research to bear on uncovering her family members and their lives: in the United States Census, on genealogical websites, in legal documents, in her own genome, in photographs, and in actual and remembered conversations — her parents are living, but as she writes she is not in touch with them.

She finds, as she knew she would, people benefiting from white supremacy in Texas and Mississippi. She finds, as she knew she would, racism and slaveholding. But her explorations are even more painful than she expected because slaveholding characterized not only her father’s side of the family, which she loves less, but also her mother’s side, which she loves far more.

With her scrupulosity, she faces hard facts. With her artistic sensibility, she wraps herself around them. Her sorrow at the slaveholding is great. She, too, is a beneficiary of corrupt mini-empires built on subjugation and suffering. Yet her exploration still glints — with her relatives’ real and hoped-for good qualities, with real or hoped-for moments of grace.

Through it all, the gods of her book remain near. Her father and especially her mother. Both have acted in ways that individual readers will have to consider. The painful nature of some of their actions colors this book. But they are drawn with careful detail and given great consideration. On the page, they seem illuminated yet protected.

Ultimately, Newton herself emerges as a hero, one who confronts the dark truths of humanity simultaneously on a personal, familial, and historic scale.

And no matter how connected or disconnected from others we may feel, she suggests, if we are resourceful, we can expand our sense of how we are networked with the dead and the living. Looking into our roots, thinking about the “emotional recurrences” that happen in our families, and taking guided inner journeys to connect with our deep pasts are just a few of the alternatives she investigates. By the end, Maud Newton’s great openness to and evocations of all the journeys she took turn into Ancestor Trouble’s great beauty, poignancy, and power.

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Lesley Heiser’s reviews appear in the Baltimore Sun and The Rumpus, her fiction appears in Boulevard and The Nervous Breakdown, and her nonfiction can be found in DIAGRAMMs.Puerto del Sol, and Taproot among others. The winner of two Maine Literary Awards, she is assistant editor of creative nonfiction at the Los Angeles Review of Books.