Early in her debut nonfiction book, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, Maud Newton writes, “The alchemy between our genes and our individuality is a mystery we keep trying to solve. … The stories we tell ourselves about our ancestors have the power to shape us, in some ways nearly as much as our genetics do.” Newton confronts the question head-on that many people struggle with daily: Will the predetermined genetic history of my family follow me into adulthood and beyond?
Prompted by her own fascinating and troubling family, Newton was inspired to explore her genetic history. Newton’s maternal grandfather, raised during the plight of the Great Depression in Texas, was believed to have 13 wives, one of whom he shot to death. In an effort to proclaim his “purity,” Newton’s openly racist and eugenics-obsessed father traced his own lineage to the Revolutionary War. And her mother, who suffered from mental illness, became a religious fanatic, eventually acquiring 30 rescue cats and hosting church ceremonies in their living room.
Newton’s discoveries and reckonings with her family history serve as a doorway into a vast and beautifully reported story of the power of our own genetic makeup. She dives into topics like the ethics and realities around the multibillion-dollar genetic-testing industry (such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com), the power of genealogical knowledge, and how this tool can help in the process of healing social ruptures like the racism that plagues the United States today.
Shondaland spoke with Newton about epigenetics, ethics, the possibilities and limits of genealogical and ancestral healing, and more.
SARAH NEILSON: You write in the book about the intersection of genetics and lived experience. Can you briefly describe what epigenetics is and your own experience of this discipline as a researcher, writer, and person within your own family?
MAUD NEWTON: Epigenetics is not a change to the DNA itself, but it’s a change in the expression of the DNA. Certain aspects of RNA can be turned on and off. As a layperson, my understanding of it — despite all my research, it’s still a little limited — is a change in the expression of genes. There is some research that suggests that these changes can be passed down. There’s a lot of controversy around the research and humans, but it has been shown to be a fact in some other species that this occurs. It occurs in earthworms, for example; there’s some dispute around the research in mice, but there is pretty good emerging evidence that it occurs in mice. And personally, I think the idea that humans are some special, exceptional category that is not subject to the same sort of scientific phenomena as other species is problematic. But it is the case that science so far has not shown to the satisfaction of some geneticists and scientists that intergenerational epigenetic transfer can occur. It is believed pretty widely that changes to the environment of a grandmother could affect her own eggs, and potentially the reproductive parts of any future human beings that are contained in those eggs, so that would go down to the grandchildren. But the idea of changes beyond that is really controversial. I was really interested in delving into this debate. I always like to really understand what the arguments are, what we know and what we don’t know, and what we maybe can’t know. As I say in the book, ultimately I don’t believe that our imagination around all of this should be constrained by what current science shows, because I believe that most of us have had an experience of some reaction to something that really can’t be explained by anything that we’ve been exposed to. And then many of us will find that there’s some sort of similar echo in our prior generation that we weren’t aware of.
SN: How does all of that relate to your experience of, and research around, mental illness and its presence in your family and families in general?
MN: I write in the book about my own fears about my ancestors and what their mental-health struggles might mean for me. My great-grandfather died of “exhaustion from manic depressive insanity,” according to his death certificate. His son, my grandfather, supposedly married 13 times. My mom started a church in our living room and was obsessed with demons and is a real force of Christianity. And I see aspects of all of that in myself. On my mother’s mother’s side, her sister died in a mental institution and was diagnosed with something called dementia praecox, which is usually described as a sort of precursor to a schizophrenia diagnosis. Where my father is concerned, there was a pretty astonishing lack of empathy. So, I have always really worried about what that might mean to me. My mom’s mother explicitly warned me to think about this for myself, to be alert to the possibility of mental illness in myself, because of her sister’s experience. As I write in the book, my mom, once after a fight with a boyfriend, jumped from the second or third story into a dumpster. And I myself had these sort of moments, these flashes of trying to jump out of a moving vehicle or jump off of a dock, that seemed to come from nowhere like it was some sort of programming that got switched on. So, I was just really interested in understanding as much as I could about possible genetic components of that. I’m not sure that I really came away with a more ironclad understanding of how that might work exactly, but my research did intensify my own suspicion and belief that there is some sort of epigenetic or similar component to that sort of experience.
SN: You spend a lot of time in the book on the possibilities and the pitfalls of mainstream genetic testing. Can you talk about your journey with that tension and what you think is most exciting and most dangerous about it?
MN: I went into genetic testing with a lot of concerns about privacy for people who are related to me. I am by nature a really curious person, so at every step of the way my curiosity has overridden my concerns. But the dangers are really significant, in my opinion. Humans have a tendency to over-extrapolate based on genetic data. We’re not very good, as a species, around nuance. So, that in and of itself is alarming. The racist uses of genetic data in the past are highly problematic, dangerous, and scary, and I don’t see any reason to hope that we would be different in our current world. As I’ve also written in the book, there are already a lot of really troubling and murky things happening with this data. There’s a company that’s trying to create mug shots from DNA despite the serious limitations of our knowledge of DNA in terms of predicting what they call phenotypes — eye color, other physical characteristics. At the same time, I’ve read amazing books, like Dani Shapiro’s book Inheritance about finding her father through DNA testing. Obviously, for people who lost family members in the Holocaust or people who are descendants of enslaved people, it can be really transformative in terms of suddenly knowing who you’re related to biologically. I don’t want to dismiss the comfort and meaning that that can bring to people, but when I think about DNA testing, I feel more worried about it than happy about it.
SN: How has your experience of ancestry and genealogy and genetics work been of value to you personally, and how important do you think it is or could be in dismantling white supremacy?
MN: I definitely believe that for those of us who have access to genealogical information, and whose ancestors enslaved Black people or committed genocide against Indigenous people or took their lands, that we really should strongly consider unearthing that information and coming forward with it in a personal way. When we have these sort of finger-wagging debates as a society about whether or not we should teach this [history], we can short-circuit some of that by saying, My family did this. I come from this. I acknowledge this history, and there’s real power in personal narratives. And while the things that my family did are unique and affected very specific people, those histories more broadly are not unique. They permeate our society. And the longer they go unacknowledged, the more systemic toxicity there is and the more invested as a society we become in not reckoning with these histories.
I don’t feel that I can really speak to the role of DNA in that because I feel that as a member of a relatively privileged group, I think it’s really important for those of us who are white to listen to people who are descended from those who were enslaved, to listen to Indigenous people who survived the genocide and the forced relocation, and think about the healing and acknowledgment work that needs to be done more broadly in light of what people who are most affected and most harmed have to say about it. At the same time, to the extent that people who have suffered from those harms find value in what’s unearthed by DNA, which is something that Alondra Nelson talks about, I think that’s something really worth listening to.
SN: How can ancestor work be healing for people, and what are the limitations and possibilities around that healing?
MN: As a general matter, I believe that the truth can set us free. And the more that we unclench around these terrible histories, and the more that we allow ourselves to really acknowledge them and not be invested in hiding them, then the healing that’s available to each of us individually is huge. And if it were to become a mass movement, I believe that the healing that would be available to us as a society would be huge. Which is not to minimize the problems that exist or say that acknowledgment would settle the systemic racism that exists. But to me it’s a logical starting point, and a really individually transformative starting point.
SN: You write about needing to change your relationship to your family search and ancestry work, stating, “I wanted a truth that would set me free in some way I hadn’t identified yet.” How did your relationship to your own family research change over the course of writing the book, and how has it changed since? What truths are you working with and toward, and what freedoms?
MN: My father’s extreme racism forced me to have a relationship to what my ancestors had done. I did not have the ability to go through life ignoring it. And I am grateful for that. Years ago, before I was working on the book, when I started researching the various parts of my family, I had really different motivations for researching the separate sides. On my mom’s side, it seems really juicy and exciting, despite all the history of mental illness. I really identify with that side, and I don’t view mental illness necessarily as problematic. I like a lot of the ways in which my brain works and I’m a little different from a lot of people. So, despite my fears around it, it also just seemed really exciting and sticky. The research into my father’s side wasn’t much fun. I write in the book that I just wanted to pull all the skeletons out of the closet and parade them up and down the block. His family is very Mississippi Delta proper, and I have some wonderful relatives on that side, but growing up, I just did not relate to that side. And without realizing it, I separated my family into the racist side and the non-racist side, or the not-fundamentally-racist side. And as I researched, I found ancestors who enslaved people on my mother’s side as well. That was a gut punch, but it was also very important because I realized that there wasn’t a good side and a bad side and I could affiliate myself with the good side there. This was the history of my family. Obviously, it’s not the only history, but it forced me to really fit with the histories in a different way.
This work has taken on a more spiritual component for me over time. And that’s been really important. I was really afraid about where my interest in that would take me in the book, but across the world and across time, there’s been a belief in many, if not most, cultures and people that the relationship between the living family and the dead affects the living. The Enlightenment kind of curtailed that for people in parts of the world that are dominated by white European thought for the most part, [but it’s] not true everywhere. Thinking about that and feeling my way into that and allowing myself to be creative around that has been really important for me personally with this.
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SN: You do write at one point that family mysteries are kind of like ghost stories. You also write about going to an ancestral lineage healing intensive and contacting your dead ancestors. What are your thoughts about the mystery of death and how people experience loss?
MN: I went to a few different retreats, and I also have worked with some different teachers over time around that. In my research, I discovered that in ancient Greece and ancient Rome — and quite possibly in what we now call England and Scotland, certainly in Ireland and Wales — there were these practices around ancestors. That was interesting to me. I was very concerned about questions of appropriation and how to find a way into thinking about possibly trying to experience ancestor spirituality without feeling like I was stepping into someone else’s tradition. And I have had a lot of experiences that feel very real to me around my ancestors and contact with them, and a sense of healing in lines over time after death, which has been important to me. I recognize that that’s not something that a lot of people in the West might be interested in participating in. So, what I would say is that I find it really helpful to just allow imagination to be around all of this, and to be creative, and just contemplate our ancestors quietly and not really worry about what is spiritual and whether or not something is real or not real. One person who does this kind of work said to me at one point, “Why should we assume that what we would imagine about our ancestors would be separate from their legacy in us?” As I’ve pondered on genetics and debates around that, I’ve also really found recourse in this idea that we don’t necessarily have to arrive at some ultimate subjective, rational conclusion; we can allow our imagination to guide us more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer. They can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote.
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