In a recent Scientific American guest post, Matthew Van Dusen wrote, essentially, who cares about genealogy.
He meant specifically “distant genealogy,” and was responding to a summer New York Times article about his massive family tree. He titled his piece “Going Dutch: I’m one of the Van Dusens of New Amsterdam. So what?”
I agree, too greatly esteeming a pedigree obscures the potential for rebirth that is our American legacy. What does it mean, or matter, if your tenth cousin twice removed was once president, or your great-great-great-great-uncle was Genghis Khan?
But for many average Americans like myself, simply finding out the names of relatives two or three generations back is a challenge. The shuffle of immigration, the legacy of slavery, adoption, an American zeal for total make-over, all make family history less of a given for some. Yet genealogy, distant and recent, gives meaning to personal and shared historical experience. It can also place genetics, especially of the medical variety, into a larger context.
It has helped me, a Johnson from Wisconsin, anyhow.
I’m a neuroscientist-turned-journalist, and this summer I worked on a genetics and genealogy documentary scheduled to air on PBS in March. I was inspired by "The Sedgwick Pie," a cemetery arranged in concentric circles belonging to the ancestors of guest Kyra Sedgwick, and decided to use something similar as a research tool. It turns out that the worksheet I created is a way genealogists sometimes teach their craft to children, so I sort of re-invented the wheel, but no matter.
Researching a celebrity’s genealogy as an intern, I often referred to my own ancestors to understand relationships (“he’s her father’s mother’s father,” huh?), and finally made a circular-patterned chart for myself (in my free time, of course!). A (literally) self-centered format forced me to consider each ancestor from each generation as a potentially equal contributor to my genome. Suddenly, I realized how little I knew about the people whose genes mingled to make me. Their histories became more real.
I sketched in my dad’s side quickly, with data from a genealogy-obsessed uncle. Then I used online tools and remembered gossip to start filling in my maternal side. One ancestor led to another. In concentric circles representing six generations, there are 126 individuals. I knew maybe a dozen names to start. Now I know about three times that.
The maternal line is the only source of mitochondrial DNA. It is passed down without recombining, from mother to child. So, along with the Y-chromosome in males, it is one of the main ways to trace genetic ancestry. My maternal line is also where I had a hand-me-down fear of some rotten branch of mental illness, corrupting the stability of my whole tree. I began to trace the path to the past. I know my mother’s maiden name. I also happen to know her mother’s maiden name. But my maternal great grandmother’s first name was a mystery.
You see, my mother’s middle name is Therese. She despises it. Quizzing her for her grandma’s name, she recalled maybe it was Therese. Or maybe it was Angeline, her mom’s middle name? The oral history is murky, with good reason. Since childhood, I’d heard vague stories that when my grandmother was very young, her mother stopped speaking and was put in an institution. I heard rumors that she lived there for her entire life.
But the Internet is a remarkable thing. A few clicks and there she was, a ghost materialized as a name in the 1930 Milwaukee census. Not Therese but Theresa (plus an obscure Polish last name), age 23, in a list of 706 patients at “The Milwaukee County Hospital for Insane.” My maternal grandmother, Theresa’s daughter, would have been six years old at the time.
A few clicks later and I was looking at Theresa’s death certificate - she died on New Year’s Day, 1973, age 68, in Wauwatosa, the suburban location of the County Hospital and nowhere near the family homestead on Milwaukee’s South side. Another quick click and I read an article about lost graves at the hospital cemetery, with a slideshow, and praise for an orderly from the 1949 for no longer keeping patients under constant restraint. Alas, poor ghost!
In a sense, while filling in my genealogy worksheet, all this became just “data.” Reducing lived lives to data points is genealogy’s curse, but also its blessing. Filling in more blanks, I think I’ve found Theresa’s parents in Northern Wisconsin, on a happy dairy farm, two doors down from a nun’s residence. My mom recalls perhaps Theresa moved to Milwaukee to become a nun, then married instead. A blow to the head from her abusive husband (my great-grandfather) may have been the ultimate precipitating cause of Theresa’s hospitalization. Unfortunately, the deeper details of her story are more than a click away, the hospital no longer exists, so my research into the circumstances of her institutionalization is ongoing.
Laying my family tree out in concentric circles reminded me that many traits can “run in the family.” Theresa is just one of my four great-grandmothers in the 1930 census. There’s also Helen, Mary Edna, and Rose, each one living a hardscrabble life in the Midwest. They had 17 babies between them by 1930, and husbands working as railroad engineers, or metal finishers, or with older sons supporting the family as office clerks. These were tough women, women of faith, first and second-generation Americans. Honoring ancestors can grow tiresome, but these women are more than ancestors. They are my family, and the source of my genes.
With a history on paper, the holistic nature of genetics is more obvious, and suddenly my tree asserts its health. There’s no single gene for any psychiatric disease, and all can be influenced by life experience. I don’t yet know much else about the one possibly sick member of my family. But, as sad as her story is, it is one of many. Nothing to brag about, but nothing to be ashamed of either.
I would say to the Van Dusens of the world, it is much easier to deny thy father and refuse thy name, once you know what those are.