Looking for Trouble: A Conversation with Maud Newton


In her debut memoir, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, the essayist and critic Maud Newton combines personal narrative and cultural criticism to dig at the roots of her troubled family tree and parse the universal urge to explore our ancestral past.

In Ancestor Trouble, Newton turns to ancestry websites, DNA data, court documents, and newspaper clippings to uncover uncomfortable and unexpected truths behind her American Southern lineage. By examining generations on both sides of her family—her passionate, rebellious Texan mom and her unapologetically racist, Delta-born dad— Newton manages to get at a deeper truth: Understanding our more troubling inheritances can be a transformational act.

Newton’s multi-layered narrative weaves in everything from the debate over intergenerational trauma and epigenetics, to the moral and literal debts left by America’s legacy of slavery and genocide, to the ancient and modern spiritual practices associated with ancestor reverence.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Newton about her problematic—but not wholly unique—American family history, the intoxicating pull of discovering our forebears’ secrets, and how connecting with our ancestors can help us reckon with our country’s difficult past.


The Rumpus: Ancestor Trouble originates from your 2014 essay in Harper’s magazine, “America’s Ancestry Craze,” itself an outgrowth of weekend ancestry posts on your blog. Initially, though, what sparked your desire to look more deeply into your family’s past?

Maud Newton: My entry point to all of that were these stories that my mom told about her family: my grandfather who was married 13 times and then his father killing a man with a hay hook. So, I wondered, Are these stories true? Did my great grandfather really kill someone with a hay hook? Was my other great grandfather really a communist? I didn’t expect to find answers when I started searching—it was just sort of an idle thing to look up, but then I did start finding answers, and that was very exciting. Early on, as I was just doing my own research, I discovered I had an ancestor who was an accused witch in 17th-century New England, and I was surprised because I thought my whole family was Southern on both sides. At first, I thought it was so cool to be connected to American history in this way, but then, as I researched her more over the years, the story became a lot more complicated, and I realized that an ancestor can be both someone who was persecuted and someone who persecuted other people.

On my father’s side, I knew I had ancestors who had enslaved people, and I was always disturbed by that, so I felt the need to reckon with it in some way that never really landed for me until I started writing the book. I think because my father was so explicitly white supremacist, it was never possible for me to detach that part of my family from the history of slavery, but on my mother’s side, it was a real gut punch to find out that they also enslaved people. Ultimately it was really important and transformative for me to discover that and sit with that, but it was definitely not something I was expecting to find.

Rumpus: Ancestor Trouble is not just a straightforward memoir. It is wide-ranging, delving into science and spirituality, genealogy and anthropology, relationships and mental illness. Did you start out aiming for a mix of personal memoir and empirical research?

Newton: I didn’t want to write a book that was limited to my family. When I was deciding whether I wanted to write this book rather than the novel I’d been working on, I realized that the only way would be if I could look at my family alongside really big questions—genealogy, genetics, the body and what’s passed down physically, emotions, generational trauma, generational wealth and the lack thereof, spirituality, and creativity. I knew from friends and books and art that I love that these are questions of universal interest, and while my own confusing family history propelled me toward the subject and served as the lens through which I explored everything, the larger questions of ancestors and the power they hold over us were just as important to me to write about as the details of my personal family.

Rumpus: During your research process, as you made inquiries, searched for answers and pored over historical records, did you encounter any emotional territory you didn’t expect?

Newton: The book was really an extension of the kind of emotional excavating I had been doing for a long time. I had been in therapy for many years, and while I wasn’t a dedicated meditator, I did have a practice, and both of those things have been helpful to me in thinking through my own family. But when I started writing the book, I was scared of the spiritual aspects while also being really drawn to them. Allowing myself to delve into the role ancestors have played for people creatively, psychologically, and spiritually over time and across the world was healing for me in a way. It enabled me to think about these painful histories I feel a responsibility to reckon with individually and that I believe we need to reckon with culturally. Writing this book gave me an expanded way of dealing with that.

I think the kinds of ancestry searches I write about in the book that examine the spiritual role of our ancestors, have such positive, creative, transformational potential. I realize many people are not going to be interested in putting that kind of spiritual exploration into practice, but I do think the more we can open ourselves up to the idea that our ancestors were complex people, the more we can be open to the idea that, going back through time, our ancestors might have been more wonderful and more tender and more open than we can imagine. It can be a useful, creative psychological exercise to let ourselves meditate on the positive possibilities without shirking our responsibility to seriously look at any harms our ancestors might have done.

Rumpus: Did your research take you in other directions you didn’t anticipate?

Newton: One of the more surprising avenues I went down with my research was speaking with the son of one of my grandfather’s many wives, the woman my grandfather was having an affair with while married to my grandmother. My mom is of the opinion that this woman, whose name was Christine, was the only woman that he ever loved. I knew they were married for a number of years, which was unusual for him, and I knew they had been divorced at least once. I decided to write his son a letter and really didn’t expect to hear anything from him, but he gave me a call and said he would be willing to talk. We spoke for maybe twenty minutes or half an hour, and he was surprisingly generous, talking about how smart my grandfather was and what a great guy he was in a lot of contexts, what a great businessman he was. And then he added the caveat, “when he wasn’t drinking.” I already knew that he was an alcoholic, but he told me a story of my grandfather beating up his mom and having to hit him over the head with a whiskey bottle. So, I didn’t expect that. No individual fact was a surprise, but it was surprising to have someone be so willing to share that painful history with me.

Rumpus: For other people interested in investigating their own potentially painful family histories, can you suggest how they can approach the process in a healthy, healing way?

Newton: One thing I would urge people to do in this era where there is understandably a sober call for people to take responsibility and recognize these broader histories, is to start with intimate conversations with family members who are resistant to that. In my case, I could say something like, A little more than 150 years ago our ancestors were enslaving people, or, We’re living on land where the Lenape people have lived for thousands of yearsThis is how that makes me feel, and I’m wondering how that makes you feel. I’m not saying those conversations will always be fruitful, but they seem like a good way of personalizing it for people. And as states outlaw discussions of these broader cultural histories, it’s even more important for people to be willing to come forward with their personal family histories, especially in these states where everything is being called “Critical Race Theory,” and there’s a lot of discussion about not teaching subjects that will make people uncomfortable. When we bring our personal family histories and experiences into those contexts, particularly those of us who are white, whose families are implicated in or have benefited from these troubling aspects of American history, it makes the conversation less abstract and harder to wave away.

There are also local organizations that can be helpful in undoing some of these legacies of harm, like Coming to the Table, which seeks to create dialogue around reparations between people who are descendants of enslavers and descendants of people who were enslaved. I’ve also found myself being creative with existing structures. Ancestry.com has made it harder to unearth documents about slavery in certain contexts, so I’ve started creating entries for some of my ancestors that very explicitly say, “Jesse Newton enslaved nine people.” Then I list each person by the age and biological sex given in the census form, so that if someone is searching, it just makes it a little easier for them to find their own family history.

Rumpus: Since you signed on to write Ancestor Trouble in 2014, more people seem to have become open to acknowledging the legacy of white supremacy, but there has also been a strong backlash. How do you feel about your book coming out at this cultural moment?

Newton: When I started writing this book, my editor encouraged me to start with my father. Traditionally, I found that people were put off by those stories of my father and my family’s history and slavery, and I particularly found that white people were resistant to hearing about any of that in detail. On the one hand I felt like, this was happening not that long ago, so maybe we should be talking about it. It wasn’t just my family. On the other hand, I’d think, maybe they’re right, maybe my fixation on this kind of history is unhelpful and unique to me. I was obviously really disturbed by Trump’s election and by way of that, how white supremacy came out so fully into the open, mirroring so much of my own family history and my father’s very overt racism. But it also did feel like a validation, that what I was writing about was important and was something we all needed to be doing, to be thinking about our families’ involvement in these aspects of our history. So, in that sense, what was happening in the culture made my book seem more urgent to me, and I hope it will be something that people find over time that won’t necessarily be tied to this moment, even as the culture becomes more willing to reckon with these issues.

Rumpus: In considering how your origin story as a writer relates to the big questions you address in your book—why people are the way they are, genetics or acquired individual traits, nature or nurture—where would you say your affinity for writing comes from?

Newton: The first story I know of that I wrote was when I was about five or six. I found the piece of paper and it said, “There once was a girl who did not obey a stop sign. She fell into a hole and a snake killed her.” I think it was probably an assignment from my evangelical Christian school where I was supposed to write about the importance of obedience or something, and that’s what came out. So, I see that as very of a piece with the kind of writer I turned out to be—fascinated with trouble of various kinds and moral questions. So, as I write in the book, I associated my writing all my life with my mom who’s just an amazing storyteller, and her mother, my granny, was also just really hilarious, a completely different kind of storyteller but very persuasive and funny and could capture the truth of something in very few words. They both had a huge influence on me as a creative storyteller when I was young, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see the ways my father also influenced my storytelling. He was always holed up with law books, always writing on legal pads, always revising things. It seemed so boring to me at the time, but it also gave me a model for hard work, and that kind of discipline is something that came later for me. It’s definitely something I can’t disentangle from his example.

Rumpus: You ended up following in your dad’s footsteps, becoming a lawyer and then a legal writer. Did the investigative skills you honed in those jobs help during your research?  

Newton: I do think my experience writing about super complex and arcane legal issues was helpful for some of the deep dives I had to do into genetics, ancient philosophy, religious history, things like that. It’s always a question for me, whether that training changed the way I think about things or whether it just brought forward an obsessiveness that was already there. It was probably a combination of the two.

Rumpus: Now that you’ve made it through the publication process, where will your writing take you next?

Newton: Right now, I’m interested in writing fiction, but I believe I’ll be interested in everything I write about in the book forever. I look forward to continuing to talk about and explore that, but I think I’ve gotten writing about it out of my system for the moment. I really want to immerse myself in something that’s less tied to my literal background, but I think these are just the things that will always interest me: the dynamics between people and families and how different generations influence each other. The projects I’m working on right now feel thematically related to that.




Author photo by Maximus Clarke


Liz Button is a marketing copywriter in Boulder, Colorado. While working as senior writer for the American Booksellers Association, she interviewed authors such as Michael Chabon, Ottessa Moshfegh, Colson Whitehead, and Tara Westover. She has also worked as a reporter for several newspapers in Westchester County, New York. More from this author →