The Answer to Ancestor Trouble

Updated: Jun 14



Genealogy and family history are in vogue these days, boosted by popular websites and services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe. But what happens when we delve into our family's past and don't like what we find? That's what happened to Maud Newton. When she began researching her ancestry, she discovered a range of troubling stories: slave-holding and racism, religious fanaticism, struggles with mental health, and even murder. Yet rather than bury these dark chapters, Newton used them as a springboard to explore complex questions of intergenerational trauma, identity, epigenetics, and spirituality. She ultimately published her research and reflections in a memoir, "Ancestor Trouble," that has received widespread acclaim. Newton's experience underscores an important point: Families, just like other organizations, benefit from understanding and reckoning with problematic pasts rather than suppressing or whitewashing them. To do so, they have to go beyond family trees and DNA testing, which often obscure more than they reveal. They need to dig into the stories, characters, and context of their family story, warts and all. By grappling with these episodes in a sensitive, complex, rigorously-researched way, families and individuals can better come to terms with how this heritage may have unconsciously shaped them. Even more importantly, they can begin to recognize the ways in which genetics and ancestry are not their destiny—that their future ultimately belongs to them. In other words, by more fully understanding the parts of their family story that they do and don't want to repeat, families are better equipped to write the next chapter in their story—one that reflects their own present-day values, aspirations, and visions for the future.


Arielle Gorin is a Saybrook Senior Consultant. She is currently at work on a multigenerational family history and a research study for a leading tech firm. This post originally appeared on Saybrook's LinkedIn page.