This episode, as with every post-premier episode this season, was preceded by the last week’s episode, which I suppose is better than “Armed Amish Militias” or whatever drek TLC is pushing on us. I’m curious about the ratings for last week’s show though, because if my blog is anything to go by, Chelsea Handler is not particularly popular. My review of Christina Applegate’s episode was still the top viewed post almost every day this week. Hopefully, more people will care about Zooey Deschanel and her family’s story. Not sure if I do.
To pan or not to pan, that is the question. Every week when I start to watch an episode, I wonder how I will enjoy the rest of my night. A good episode is a worthwhile hour (or 30+ minutes and commercial breaks), but it is a very difficult to write about. Ideally, I want to do something beyond just recapping, but when an episode is very good, there is very little to say. Admittedly, this is a rare occurrence. That brings me to when the episode is… less than very good. A pan is a lot more fun to write, and hopefully more fun for you all to read. The few hours that it takes to write and edit (one edit so that I can have it published before I go to sleep–hence the typos) provides the enjoyment that I couldn’t get from watching.
The downside of a pan is that I am tearing apart the hard work of many good and decent people. I squirm when I think of how heartbroken those involved in Who Do You Think You Are were when NBC cancelled the series last year. This is a labor of love as well as money, and here I am just trashing it.
What also makes a pan both fun and cringeworthy is that I am taking down a celebrity who has come across in a really bad light. Sometimes I fear that what makes the celebrity seem so repellant is just an issue of editing. I try to consider that maybe it’s the director’s fault. On the other hand, when people like Paula Deen and Gwyneth Paltrow do their best to make themselves seem so reprehensible beyond their appearances on this show, I feel less bad for airing my gripes. (Not that how I feel matters to them in any way, shape, or form).
Then there are those celebrities who have this annoying habit of desperately needing to show off what they believe to be their own amazing qualities by transposing them on the ancestors that they just discovered. Until today the foremost example of this was Ashley Judd, who went on and on ad nauseam about how important religious freedom was to her, only to discover–lo and behold–that her ancestor was a Pilgrim who fled England because of religious persecution. (Never mind that those same Pilgrims turned around and persecuted those who did not comply with their own strict Calvinist vision of the universe.)
It’s almost like these celebrities are told ahead of time what these historians found and then frame their entire on-show personae around those findings. Could reality television possibly be scripted? Say it ain’t so!
Which brings me to this week’s episode. Zooey Deschanel seems to be one of those celebrities people just love to hate. I don’t share in that hate–not that I actively go out and search for her dramatic and musical output (I wouldn’t delete a She and Him album from my iPod if I were given one). But dear Lord, was she intolerable tonight. It was like Ashley Judd redux; Zooey calls herself a “gung-ho feminist” and someone who came from a long line of feminists; therefore every action of this week’s featured ancestor, Zooey’s fourth great-grandmother Sarah Henderson Pownall, was framed through the lens of modern feminism. When you consider that said ancestress died only four years after Seneca Falls, that may be the wrong approach. In fairness, I will acknowledge that early American feminism largely came from the same women (and men) involved in the abolitionist movement, to which Pownall firmly belonged. Also, many of the early feminists, most famously Lucretia Mott, were, like Sarah Pownall, Quakers. Nevertheless, Sarah’s abolitionism and Quakerism did not mean she too was a feminist, just that she had a strong (and correct) moral compass when it came to slavery.
(And as a side note, I beg you WDYTYA, please stop focusing on one ancestor only. That’s four weeks in a row, and I’m feeling really claustrophobic.)
Our story began with intrepid explorer, Zooey Deschanel discussing her recently-deceased paternal grandmother Ann Orr Deschanel. Ann sounds like she was one incredibly cool lady. She was a Quaker and a human rights activist who was passionate about ending worldwide slavery, and at age 80, she was arrested for chaining herself to a fence to protest nuclear war. Zooey said she sees her grandmother in herself, and in one observation she managed to capture the ethos of the episode. It’s all about her.
Zoeey was particularly curious to know where Ann came from, because she was told she came from a long line of abolitionists. Her first stop was to her parents Caleb and Mary Jo Deschanel where they… I’m not exactly sure they did. Caleb showed Zooey a picture of Ann’s father Adrian Orr. Adrian was a young boy in the photo, which was a family portrait. He stood behind his parents Joseph Orr and Martha Pownall Orr. Then Zooey’s dad told her that her first stop should be the Free Library of Philadelphia. It struck me as odd how specific his recommendation was.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note I am from the Philadelphia, and lived in and around the city for most of my life. I was very excited to see Philadelphia on television, even though it looked much nicer and cleaner on my screen than it does in reality. And while the library is a very large and pretty building with a huge collection (and some genealogy collections), I have always thought of it as a gigantic homeless shelter with some reading material.
For any potential family historians with Philadelphia roots reading this, I would recommend other places to begin your search before the public library, which doesn’t really have all that much in terms of vital records. Go to the Philadelphia City Archives, the Pennsylvania Office of Vital Records, or the Historical Society of Pennsylvania first. (Or City Hall if you want to find a marriage license after 1915–be warned though, it takes several days for the staff to get said license, you cannot get a copy or take a photo of the license, and the staff may not get you the correct license on the first several attempts.) Why did Zooey go to the Free Library then? Because it’s a library, it’s famous, it’s big, and it has a very nice room to film in. If you notice though, no research was actually done at the library, and Zooey’s ancestors came from outside of Philadelphia.
At the library, the Quaker historian handed her an entire family tree going back to her fifth great-grandparents. The focus was on the ancestors of Zooey’s second great-grandmother Martha Pownall Orr in case you were wondering. The “here’s your entire family tree” bit is something that really frustrates genealogists because unless you are royalty, it is almost never that easy. Those genealogists have a point, but I can overlook that because of time constraints of the episode and the fact that there was a team of researchers working for months in advance. I was frustrated for a different reason; giving Zooey the family tree telegraphed exactly how her story was going to play out. She seemed awfully interested in her 4th great-grandmother Sarah Henderson Pownall of Lancaster County for no apparent reason. There was something rote about the whole process.
The tree began with Sarah’s parents, Thomas and Elinor (Brinton) Henderson. Just before researching them (and giving Ancestry its contractual plug seven minutes in), Zooey and the Quaker historian made a big deal about how Quakers were virulently opposed to slavery, which is also true. (Fun fact: Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn to be a refuge for English Quakers, who were persecuted pretty much everywhere, and freedom of religion was enshrined in the colony’s charter from the very earliest days–take that, Ashley Judd!)
But as it turns out, when they looked at the Pennsylvania Septennial Census, Thomas Henderson owned one slave. Oops! Zooey was in a state of disbelief until her fearless Quaker historian pointed out that Thomas Henderson was not actually a Quaker. The Quaker in the family was Elinor. This led to the question of why Elinor, someone whose religion taught her that slavery was a moral evil, would marry someone who blithely partook in said moral evil. The Quaker historian tried to smooth it over by talking about how Quakers encouraged women to marry for love, which may have satisfied Zooey (who called Elinor a “strong Quaker woman” despite knowing nothing about her beyond her name, dates and places of birth and death, and religion), but it did not satisfy me–not that it matters. The Quaker historian’s answer inevitable brings up the more uncomfortable question of how a woman who believed slavery is a moral evil could fall in love with a slave owner. As I see it, there are three alternatives: (1) she hoped to covert Thomas to the path of righteousness; (2) she didn’t really care about slavery one way or the other; or (3) she was an unscrupulous person. (The latter two are not mutually exclusive, and would both indicate that she was not a strong Quaker woman). But hard questions are not what WDYTYA wants to address because they get in the way of feel-good storytelling.
The Quaker historian sent Zooey to Swarthmore College “just down the road” to find out more about who Sarah Henderson Pownall was. Swarthmore, Pennsylvania is home to the Friends Historical Library, which I imagine from the name has a very large holding of Quaker-related documents. (I object however, to Swarthmore being depicted as “just down the road” from Philadelphia. I mean, it’s easily manageable by car or train, but it’s not a hop, skip, and a jump away.) Left unsaid, or at least as far as I heard, was that Zooey’s beloved grandmother Ann actually grew Swarthmore. Which you think might be kind of important. But what do I know? I’m just some fool with an Internet connection.
At the Friends Historical Library, Zooey sees the minutes from the Sadsbury Township Friends Meeting from 1845-1852–Sadsbury being the town in Lancaster County where Sarah Henderson Pownall and her husband Levi lived. (Sometimes the editing of the show makes it hard to figure out why particular places are important.) Unlike her mother, Sarah, was unquestionably an ardent abolitionist. Apparently it was dangerous to be an abolitionist at that time, although Lancaster, Pennsylvania was a hotbed of abolitionism, which I imagine made it somewhat easier. Nevertheless, Zooey went on and one about how brave and courageous
Zooey Sarah was. (You may know that Lancaster is one of the major centers of the Amish in the United States. I am sad that TLC passed up the chance for cross-program synergy.)
In 1847, when Sarah was around 51, the Sadsbury Township Friends Meeting appointed a committee of 12 members (six men, six women–there’s that feminism again) to draw up a letter stating their position on slavery. Sarah was one of the women. Zooey teared up reading it. It is a powerful letter, and the show did no favors by selectively editing quotes. The committee railed against the institution of slavery and the federal government for allowing it. What it meant in practice, and which was not spelled out until later, is that the Quakers of Sadsbury threw down the gauntlet, announcing that they would refuse to obey any law that aided slavery and slave owners. (Lest anyone think that the Quakers would go all John Brown, Quakers have historically been among the foremost practitioners of non-violent resistance.)
Zooey was excited because Sarah now had an identity rather than just being a name on a family tree that was handed to her. (Not that this stopped her from speculating about Elinor.) She said she wanted to see a picture of Sarah, and immediately I knew that by the end of the episode she was going to see a picture of her.
Next stop: Lancaster. At the Lancaster Historical Society, Zooey found out that Lancaster was a hotbed of abolitionism because (1) a lot of Quakers lived in Lancaster; and (2) it was very close to the Mason-Dixon line, which meant that escaped slaves fleeing via the Underground Railroad would have refuge right at the border. And one of those stops on the Underground Railroad was the house of William Parker, a former–and fugitive–slave who rented land from Levi and Sarah Pownall. Parker was a conductor and station manager on the Underground Railroad. Zooey then traveled to what was once the Pownall farm to learn more about how Parker’s life intersected with her ancestors’.
It was at Parker’s house, where the Christiana Resistance took place in 1851. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which put the full force of the federal government behind hunting down escaped slaves and bringing them back into the South (and galvanized the abolitionist movement). One slave owner, Edward Gorsuch, rounded up a posse (including a federal marshal) and planned to attack Parker’s house for sheltering escaped slaves. Instead there was a violent standoff between free blacks in Lancaster and the slave owners. The long and short of it is this. Gorsuch was killed, his son Dickinson was seriously injured, the posse was driven away, and a reign of terror swept over Lancaster as black and white abolitionists alike were taken to the streets and beaten. The historian who told Zooey about this called it one of the important catalysts of the Civil War, although I would say that it was more likely a symptom of the tensions over slavery that lead to the War rather than the causer.
The aftermath of the battle was that 38 men were accused of treason, Parker, who was among the 38, had already fled to Canada. One man, Castner Hanway, was brought to trial as a test case. The jury came back with an acquittal after 15 minutes, and charges against the other men were dropped. According to a historian on WDYTYA, this acquittal deeply scarred and embittered a friend of Gorsuch–John Wilkes Booth.*
In all this history, what Zooey seemed most concerned about is how Sarah fared throughout the whole Christiana Resistance. She said she felt protective of her. It did not help that the historian who took her to the Pownall farm showed her that Sarah’s house was about a quarter-mile away from the fighting. But more than that Zooey was desperate to know that Sarah was involved somehow. Clearly she and her family did not fight, being Quakers. Moreover, Sarah had apparently unsuccessfully urged Parker to flee to Canada when they learned that Gorsuch was about to attack. That was not good enough for Zooey though. She wanted to know that Sarah actually helped out in other ways, especially after her realization that, “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but so many people assisted.” (Shocking!)
Her next stop was Moores Memorial Library in Christiana where she was handed “A Recollection of a Long and Unsuccessful Life” by George Steel (the husband of Sarah’s daughter Elizabeth). In his memoir (?), Steel recollected that the Pownalls took in the injured Dickinson Gorsuch to try to save him from dying. While he was in their house, the Pownalls orchestrated a daring escape for Parker, who eventually fled safely to Canada. Zooey took this as a sign, probably correctly, that the Pownalls were in fact deeply involved with the Underground Railroad. And then sure enough, she got a picture of Sarah Pownall. Zooey thought she had a kind face and said, “To me, she’s a hero. I admire her intelligence and her bravery.”
Sarah died in 1852. The historical record apparently does not state how she died. Zooey thinks that it might have been the stress of the Christiana Resistance. Apparently things like the poor quality of 19th century health care or rampant and unchecked maladies were not more likely options. Nope, it was stress. Because that’s what a good and brave person like Sarah would die from.
And just as two of the previous three episodes have ended, Zooey too went to the cemetery to visit the grave of her long-gone-but-found-again ancestor and pay her respects. Following that she spoke to the camera about seeing qualities of Sarah in her grandmother and spouts off a whole bunch of tiresome platitude such as, “You can’t put a price on being inspired.” If that is the case, then perhaps Ancestry.com needs a new business model.
Next week: Our first male celebrity of the season as Chris O’Donnell explores his past.
One final note, that I feel duty-bound to bring up but am nonetheless hesitant. There were some very uncomfortable racial overtones in this episode that I thought were very clumsily handled. I understand that Zooey Deschanel wanted to celebrate her ancestress, but the overexcitement bordered on patronizing. Have you ever seen the movie Philadelphia? Most of the gay people I know, including myself, hate that movie. We find it exceptionally condescending with it’s “look we’re people too” message and (especially) the idea that we need to be “saved” by an outsider because we cannot or will not do it ourselves. It’s that latter point that reminded me of this episode. There is something about the way Zooey and WDYTYA celebrated Sarah that had that same aura of condescension. The poor black people needed the special white lady to save them.
* Unmentioned in this episode was that one of the defense attorneys for the 38 men charged with treason for the Christiana Resistance was Thaddeus Stevens, Lancaster’s Representative to Congress and the all-powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Stevens is perhaps one of American history’s most unfairly-maligned heroes. When others, including Abraham Lincoln, wanted to go slow with regard to freeing the slaves, Stevens championed full equality. He was a man a century ahead of his time, and for reasons I cannot figure out, he was tarred for so long as one of the major American villains. One of the great services Steven Spielberg has done is the rehabilitation of Stevens for a mass audience in Lincoln.