The Pitfalls of Identifying with an Ancestor #Memoir #Genealogy


American Ghost (2015) sounds like a ghost story based on its title, but it’s not. It’s a memoir tracing the author’s family history, starting with an ancestor rumored to be haunting a Santa Fe hotel. To justify the title, the author, Hannah Nordhaus, alternates standard genealogical research methods with less conventional ones, “exploring [her] Victorian ghost in the company of modern ghost hunters: mediums and psychics, tarot card readers and dowsers and intuitives.”

The chapters on these unconventional methods are fine, but I prefer the drier history-based portions of the book that follow the experiences of Nordhaus’s German Jewish family in the American Southwest and Germany in the 19th and 20th Centuries. This is one family’s story, but it fits into a wider historical framework that includes the family histories of many of us. As a result, this genealogical tale has the potential to appeal to a wider audience than Nordhaus’s relatives.

Julia Staab, Nordhaus’s paternal grandfather’s maternal grandmother (a.k.a. great-great grandmother), arrived in the United States from Germany in 1866 as the wife of Abraham, a wealthy dry goods merchant who made his fortune on the Santa Fe trail. Julia traveled the trail by stagecoach, and Nordhaus sees the experience from her ancestor’s perspective.

When describing the “challenges” Julia faced on the trail, Nordhaus writes:

Natives were also a problem for European settlers. Julia’s journey took place during the height of the Indian Wars; the plans were dangerous. After the Civil War, the Indians had stepped up their campaigns against travelers through their territory–emigrants were streaming west and the tribes knew that they would bring only trouble… The Comanche and the Kiowa were feared above all… The winter that Julia traveled the trial, six soldiers were scalped…

Nordhaus admits that the European settlers “would bring only trouble” for the tribes. However, her description of the events is from the settlers’ perspective, and she relies on the journal of a European nun who also traveled the trail (but not with Julia) to describe an incident when “the Kiowas’ death whoop preceded the sling of hundreds of arrows.”

After this conflict, from which the settlers escaped by distracting the Kiowas with a barrel of whisky, Nordhaus concludes: “This is the path Julia traveled.”

Nordhaus’s one-sided portrayal of the travelers’ conflict with the Comanche and the Kiowa to evoke sympathy for her ancestor is unsettling. Her ancestor, like many of our ancestors, was an invader, and modern authors need to be careful when describing these historical events. Nordhaus’s ancestors may have viewed the conflict with the tribes from a European settler perspective, but she shouldn’t view it that way too (even in a milder way).

Nordhaus’s tendency to view the past through her ancestors’ eyes also resulted in a series of unsettling descriptions of one of Julia’s children. Her son Paul, born in 1872, had severe epilepsy, a medical condition that has been historically stigmatized. Nordhaus writes, “What sadness [their son’s medical condition] must have brought Julia and Abraham when they came to understand his infirmity.”

Yeah, I get that, but it doesn’t excuse the author’s pejorative references to Paul’s condition throughout the book:

  • “[Julia] still had six healthy children–seven including the disabled Paul–while many mothers of the era saw few infants grow to adulthood.”
  • “Their family was, by all appearances, thriving. The children–Paul excepted–were healthy.”
  • “Paul, the invalid”
  • “There was Paul, nervous debility made flesh.”

What does that last one even mean? It would have been better to refer to Paul by his name without repeatedly referencing his medical condition.

Apart from these flaws, Nordhaus’s book is an interesting portrayal of 19th and 20th century events as her ancestors lived them. I only wish she hadn’t fallen into the trap of subtly promoting their antiquated perspectives.

_____________________________

*I read this book as part of the 2019 Nonfiction Reading Challenge (hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey).

**The image is a portion of the cover of American Ghost: A Family’s Extraordinary History on the Desert Frontier

10 comments

  1. I think I’d have less of a problem with the author’s comments if they were clearly being said by the character. When out-dated thinking is in the narrator’s voice, it makes me much feel less certain if the views belong to the character or to the author.

    1. I’d like to think the author is just putting herself in her ancestor’s shoes, but you’re right. She wouldn’t have promoted these antiquated views if she didn’t believe them.

  2. I’m glad you pointed those things out, those are troubling and odd, actually, that there wasn’t more consideration from an editorial perspective about how to frame this story..not to mention the repeated descriptions of his medical issues, what’s up with that?I read this a few years ago but don’t remember it all that well, only that I wasn’t crazy about it. Really appreciate your analysis of it!

    1. This would have been a much better book without this framing. There were aspects of the book I liked, but I’m not surprised to hear you weren’t crazy about it. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Oof! Those excerpts are not great to read. I’m always fascinated when people get really into genealogy and then don’t actually think about the implications of the lives their families lived — I guess it’s not surprising that people don’t want their “learn neat facts” genealogy mission to turn into “grapple with my inherited privilege,” but oof, it’s unpleasant to read.

    1. Well said, Jenny. I agree that few people want to grapple with their inherited privilege. In this case, the author’s family was incredibly wealthy. Her great-great-grandfather was something like the fourth richest man in New Mexico (I haven’t gone back to the text to double-check). That said, this memoir also addresses the tragic deaths of members of her extended family in the Holocaust. Those chapters were hard to read but important.

  4. I read a memoir called Annie’s Ghost, which was about a man’s search for who his aunt — a woman he hadn’t even known existed — was. She had a bad leg, which was constantly referenced as an embarrassment, and as she got older, it seemed that she had some mental difficulties. I half wondered if she struggled mentally because people ostracized and hid her away due to her leg. It was hard and confusing to read about.

    1. That definitely sounds hard and confusing to read about! I’ve never heard of this memoir before. It doesn’t sound like something I would want to read.

  5. I totally see wanting to side with my ancestors, but it’s tricky. They might have been good people, but our standards are different now. I really can’t imagine anyone today calling epilepsy “nervous debility made flesh.” I’m surprised this memoirist did.

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