The American Scholar: Gene Therapy

Flickr/briannalehman

Ancestor Trouble: a settling of scores and reconciliation by Maud Newton; Random House, 400 pages, $28

A better title for Maud Newton’s new book would be Ancestor obsession. She takes readers into a sort of personal haunted house where she goes on a single-minded quest to rebuild the scaffolding of her family genealogy and, in doing so, erase her ghosts. Her family history is full of madness, incest, child abuse and multiple hellish marriages. However, his attempt to “account and reconcile” with this sordid past is more of a case of wishful thinking that ends with the setting up of an ancestor altar in his home and “ancestral lineage healing” therapy. – an updated version from the 19th century. spiritualism in which she speaks to the dead to forgive them. She even finds the burial place of her mother’s grandfather, who died in an insane asylum, and places a new headstone on his grave.

Newton’s obsession with heredity is a disturbing counterpoint to the toxic embrace of his abusive father’s eugenics. He is portrayed as an angry, controlling, and lying man, convinced that he chose his wife to raise smart children and carry on his own bloodline. Newton’s mother is the opposite: a free spirit, creative and generous, who adopts cats, trees and stray animals of all kinds and finds her imaginary world in evangelical religion, setting up a church in the family living room. Maud Newton (her birth name is Rebecca, the pen name evidently borrowed from her “mysterious great-great aunt”) describes her own traits in terms of what she sees coming from her parents. Like her father, she is detail-oriented, stubborn in finding facts that match her thinking. By exerting control over knowledge, she hopes to be able to justify writing a 300+ page book about herself and, as her mother might imagine, find mystical peace with her cursed parents.

Along with smartphones and other forms of visual media, the rise of memoirs as a popular genre already suggests an increased level of narcissism in recent American culture. But here the word obsession seems to make more sense. Obsession originally meant “military headquarters”, according to its Latin roots and use in early modern English; Newton’s memoirs and self-help guide are relentless in their aim to bring down his people. Obsession also evokes possession or entrapment, Newton trying to escape from a real cage. But nowadays, it seems, instead of fearing the obsession, people tend to revel in it: binge-watching is encouraged. As Lennard Davis observed in Obsession: a story (2008), modern society has taken obsession and made it the magic potion of genius, success, and dedication while redefining eccentricity, at least among liberal upper-middle-class elites, as a sign of eccentricity. ‘authenticity. Davis, who teaches English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has expertise in genetic testing, disability studies and ancestor research practices, classified the obsession as a “portal to modernity ” ; her work helps explain Newton’s impulse to fashion a kind of time-traveling adventure of her own, recording the dysfunctional pathways of her ancestors so she can return whole when the journey is over.

Throughout, Newton displays a love-hate relationship with his ancestors. She can’t escape her own fascination with what I call “popular genetics”: seeing family resemblances and inherited patterns. She admits her biases but can’t quite give up the enchantment. “Over time,” she writes, “I had a dawning sense of something good and true and numinous at the core of my ancestry compulsion, a desire to heal by accessing some kind of divinity which was only mine.” His path inevitably leads to self-affirmation. Ultimately, she arrives at her modern self, somewhat paradoxically, via ancestry.com, epigenetics and new-age spiritualism.

What is truly odd about this book is Newton’s reluctance to explore how his story fits into a Southern literary tradition. Its roots encompass Texas, Mississippi and Florida. She cites many writers in her book, hardly any of them from the South. What interests him most are the ancient ancestral customs – Roman, Chinese – distant and safer than the fetishism of the monuments of his region. She briefly explores her family’s slave ownership and asks for atonement, but that’s it. His favorite grandmother aimed to erase all traces of Confederate nostalgia, throwing away 50 years of his mother’s plantation journals, so perhaps Newton internalized his no-frills grandmother, who looks like JD Vance’s Mamaw in Hillbilly Elegy-a basic character of rural fiction.

Much of the territory covered by Newton echoes some of the South’s greatest writers, such as Katherine Anne Porter, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty, who all dealt with similar cases of incest, abuse, and insanity. Porter, whose maternal grandmother was placed in an asylum, feared for her own sanity; Faulkner’s books have been denounced for their abnormality, and his characters, like Welty’s small-town eccentrics, have tackled the past as it haunted white Southerners. Disconnection may or may not be intentional – Newton does not specify. Perhaps her obsession with cataloging family traits reflects her professional training as an estate lawyer: she compiles her family tree as if gathering major assets in a will and is less concerned with fleshing out cultural and broader histories at work.

The other strange omission is her sister. A third of the book, Newton tries to apologize (but how sincere?) to his sister for the “misfortune of having a memoirist for a brother” by writing: treat. Although we’ve always been close, she’s much more private than me, and her small footprint in this book is intentional. Perhaps the older sister seeks to protect the younger one, but she freely dissects and psychoanalyzes all the other members of her extended family. She jokes that her parents “knew since I was very young that I wanted to be a writer and they chose to carry on like they did anyway.” This statement is revealing. Newton has every right to seek redress on the printed page for the damage inflicted by her parents, but the reckoning and reconciliation she seeks seems incomplete.

Permission required for reprint, reproduction or other uses.

Comments are closed.