When the second season of the American version of “Who Do You Think You Are?” premiered on February 4, 2011, I posted a favorable review on this blog, noting with pleasure that most of the problems with the first series had been corrected. Not long afterwards, I received this comment from the British writer Matthew Sweet:
“I wonder whether these shows are exerting a subtle effect upon our attitudes to the skeletons in our family closets? I've just finished a book for which I've interviewed the children and grandchildren of people caught up in some of the less auspicious events on the British Home Front during the Second World War, and I've been amazed by how ready they've been to hear that their stepmother was a Nazi double agent, or that their father left a girlfriend to die from the results of an illegal abortion. I'm sure this wouldn't have been the case 20 years ago... Is the fact that Martin Freeman has been filmed absorbing the shock of discovering that his grandmother suffered from syphilitic blindness made the job of the historian that little bit easier?”
(To read a summary of the Martin Freeman episode, click here. For summaries of the American episodes, click here. Matthew Sweet’s book is called "The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels", and is due from Faber & Faber in November.)
It was certainly very striking how many British subjects found and blithely displayed the skeletons clattering in their family closet. Another example was the show devoted to the actress Amanda Redman. Here are some excerpts from the BBC press release about it: “What I discovered was that my grandfather William was not only a drunk, but very abusive and violent towards my grandmother. ... The film then focuses on ... Redman's grandmother's first-born son Cyril. ... Cyril had a long-running affair with a married woman and fathered a son – while leading a double life with another woman and fathering a daughter.” We also learn that Cyril was born out of wedlock to an unknown father, stole a train, and spent some time in reform school.
|Distinguished Service Cross|
By contrast, the first season in America was not just upbeat, it was triumphant. Not everyone could match Brooke Shields’ discovery that she was descended from the French king Henri IV (grandfather of Louis XIV, the program emphasized, probably assuming correctly that most Americans would not know who Henri IV was). But Matthew Broderick’s ancestor was a medic in World War I, wounded at the battle of Meuse-Argonne, and winner of a Distinguished Service Cross, the 2nd highest award for heroism in the American army. Sarah Jessica Parker’s foremother was the last woman accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts; she escaped the death penalty because the court was abolished before her case was concluded. Emmitt Smith and Lisa Kudrow are descended from families that heroically survived two of history’s greatest evils, slavery and the Holocaust.
|Gwyneth's rabbinical ancestor|
The second season began with similar stories. Vanessa Williams’ and Lionel Richie’s journeys took them back to pioneers in the fight for equal rights for blacks. Tim McGraw, who had already hit the ancestral jackpot long before the show was conceived, when he learned that his real father was the famous major league pitcher Tug McGraw, followed that line back into 18th-century Virginia, where an ancestor was a pal of George Washington. Rosie O’Donnell came from another family of survivors; they left County Kildare in Ireland after the great Irish Famine of the 1840s. Gwyneth Paltrow’s ancestry included a famous rabbi from Novograd, celebrated for his knowledge of Kabbalah. Ashley Judd ended the season discovering that her 10-great-grandfather was William Brewster, a signer of the Mayflower Compact, who got in trouble in England for standing up for his beliefs, a streak of feistiness Ashley reckons she has inherited.
|The Knights of the Wise Men, one of whom is Lionel's Richie's ancestor|
Kim Cattrall was the first exception to this pattern. The mystery she set out to solve was why her grandfather abandoned his family, when her mother was eight years old. It turned out that he was, as one of her aunts put it, “a bastard”. He simply left his wife and children in poverty, moved to another city, married another woman, and started another family, which he treated better the first one, but he forced them to move to Australia, against their will and for no apparent reason. Kim’s episode, however, had first aired in Great Britain, where she was born. I was relieved that it was not prettified for the American series, but still not convinced that American celebrities would willingly bare the unappealing facets of their past.
Steve Buscemi has finally reassured me. He, too, has a bigamous forebear, who was charged for a murderous assault, ran away from his wife and children, suffered from suicidal depression, deserted twice from the Union army during the Civil War, and left his second family in poverty when he died quite young of tuberculosis. For the last, at least, he cannot be blamed, but as the website summary says, “in some ways, Steve wishes he didn't find out everything he found out; still, he's trying not to judge.”
Trying not to judge is progress. Many of the ills our ancestors suffered were the consequences of judging too quickly and too harshly, and blaming the child for the sins of the father. It sounds as if Matthew Sweet’s interviewees no longer worry about that. If so, let’s be grateful. And if “Who Do You Think You Are?” has contributed to a more liberal attitude, then let’s thank the program and its makers, too.
Americans’ Pollyanna-ish optimism probably stems from the fact that we are a nation of immigrants. Almost all of us have ancestors who arrived here under difficult conditions, and our common myth is that the future will be better. “Tomorrow is another day,” says Scarlett O’Hara. “I love you, tomorrow,” sings little orphan Annie. We usually look ahead, and if we look back, it’s to measure how far we have come. Maybe instead of looking for famous ancestors and hoping to bask in their inherited glory, we should ask ourselves: “What do you think you would have done?” and hope that we would have done as well.