Must There be an ‘I’ in Incest?

It was my dad’s 65th birthday this year and I decided to make him a big family tree going as far back as I could to our Austrian/British roots. I knew very little about my family’s history and wanted my dad to help me record what he could while he still remembered. I was curious about where I came from and if I had any relatives whom I took after.

I signed up for and started searching ‘Litner,’ our last name, hoping to find some famous writer in our blood lines or some European royalty, at the very least. It was so interesting reading through all the old records, learning about past people who shared my name. I thought it curious, though, that my great-grandmother’s maiden name was the same as her married name. Huh. When I gave my dad the tree I had created thus far, I was interested to learn anything else he knew about our family.

“By the way,” I asked him, looking over the tree together, “what was your grandmother’s maiden name?”

“Litner,” he said.

“No, no, not her married name. What was her maiden name?”

“It was Litner.”

Was his health starting to decline so soon after his birthday? I was worried, but then he went on to explain: “My grandmother married her uncle, her father’s brother.”

My momentary relief that my dad wasn’t sick after all was quickly replaced with the horrifying realization that our whole gene pool was sick! I composed myself though so I could handle the situation with maturity and grace.

“Ewwwww. Seriously? That’s so gross!”

He agreed: “It’s not great.”

At least I now have an explanation for why my family is so short.

Feeling like I was generations removed from that relationship, I was able to overcome my initial revulsion to my family’s geneological skeleton in the closet.

Perhaps inter-family marriage was just something new immigrant families did way back when? I tried justifying to myself.

But when Anderson Cooper did a show on tracking family roots online, my nauseau resurfaced. Anderson was talking to three women who had embarked on the same family tree exploration and discovered that they were somehow related to him. There the women sat, on the couch in front of him, each wearing bright tee-shirts that read: “I am Anderson Cooper’s Cousin!”

Are you kidding me? I was furious. Do you mean to tell me that these people learned they get to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with Anderson et al. while in the same exact process all I uncovered was the fact that I’m inbred? It seemed really unfair.

“What do you want me to tell you, honey?” my dad said, “I’m sorry you’re not a Vanderbilt.”

Apology not accepted.

“I think your great-great-grandfather might have been the president of some council or other back in Galicia?”

“Galicia? Come on! Work with me here, dad.  There’s got to be somebody noteworthy in our family history. A famous historian? A nobel laureate? I’ll even take a good Holocaust survivor story.”

“No, our whole family had left Europe well before World War II.”

Damn it!

“Well, there was one person,” my dad said, looking off thoughtfully.  “A quirky aunt of mine. Aunt Violet. I think she wrote poetry, always wanted to be a writer. She moved out to New York and my parents sent me to visit her once a year. She was eccentric and fun. Definitely marched to the beat of her own drum.”

I was elated. I had a great aunt! Aunt Violet! Who had the heart of a writer! This was wonderful news. Coming from a family of dentists, doctors and other people with a proclivity for the sciences that I never showed, I can’t help but feel left out sometimes. My dad and my brothers have always provided me with unconditional support and because I will always be the baby of the family, I think they are always proud of me. But I am not a dentist like my dad, and I’m not a doctor like my brothers. I get queasy just seeing commercials for Grey’s Anatomy. Sometimes I feel different, like the odd one out, and I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like for my dad to watch me graduate from dentistry school or to become a doctor too like my brothers. How much more proud could they all have been of me? But now, knowing about great aunt Violet, I feel rejuvinated in pursuing my life’s calling. I come from a family with a writer! I’m a writer. I’m quirky. I’m just like my great aunt Violet!

“Looking back I think she might have been a lesbian,” my dad continued, “she worked really hard, don’t think she ever published a thing.”

Okay, maybe I’m not exactly like her, but I’ll still take it. She wasn’t famous or royal but to me she’s inspiring. I’ll take a quirky ancestor who may have written her heart out and never published a thing. Because at least she tried. At least she lived authentically. And, come to think of it, it really is for the best that Anderson and I aren’t related. If we were, how could we ever possibly get together? I think one inter-family marriage is more than enough!