Cynthia Nixon , Who Do You Think You Are?

Bear with me for a minute.  My brother is a fan of American Ninja Warrior, an imported Japanese game show in which extremely fit people sate their masochistic impulses by attempting (and failing) to conquer a ridiculously difficult obstacle course.  My brother complained that he preferred the Japanese version because the American version spends too much time on story and pathos of the competitors.  This is an opinion I share, but I have voiced similar complaints about the Olympics.  The focus on back story seems to be a peculiarly American phenomenon, and I often wonder who determines it, the audiences or the networks.  Do they show us the human interest story because we want it, or are we subjected to it because they determine that is what we want to see?

I often feel this way about Who Do You Think You Are.  In order to ensure pathos, authenticity is often needlessly sacrificed.  At its best, WDYTYA follows where the evidence leads.  Take, for example, the episodes in which Christina Applegate and Rita Wilson researched their grandmother and father respectively.  They had no preset agenda other than to learn.  Those are examples of how finely crafted WDYTYA can be.  Each climaxed in terrifically, aching moving resolutions without rewriting the historical record.

The flip side of this is that more often than not, WDYTYA does not let the evidence lead, but rather makes it subservient to a prefabricated story.   Celebrity of the Week knows nothing about his or her family but hopes to find something in particular–usually someone who shares a trait that Celebrity sees in him/herself.  Celebrity is then led to a particular ancestor and does his/her damnedest to find that trait in said ancestor.   Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not.  At its worst, WDYTYA becomes a show about personal vindication of the present rather than an exploration of history.

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Cynthia Nixon is now the third of the four Sex and City stars to have appeared on the show.  Like Sarah Jessica Parker’s episode and especially Kim Cattrall’s, it was a worthwhile watch (your story better be good, Kristin Davis).  Also like her costars, Nixon learns about an ancestor with a less than stellar reputation.  Whereas Parker’s ancestress was an accused witch in colonial Massachusetts and Cattrall’s maternal grandfather was a bigamist reprobate, Nixon’s 3rd great-grandmother, Martha Curnutt Casto, was a convicted killer.

(Side note: Cynthia Nixon is a fantastic actress, and I admire her desire to be outspoken on issues like marriage equality.  I think Nixon may even be the first LGBT celebrity whose activism and same-sex spouse have actually been mentioned on the show.  Who knew that the “gay agenda” spread to genealogy?)

Nixon’s parents (both deceased) divorced when she was young, and as she was much closer to her mother, she chose to research her father’s family.  This is one of those moments where I wondered if “chose” is WDYTYA code for “the producers could not find an interesting story in her mother’s family.”

Even from the beginning, this episode showed signs of the producers’ heavy hand.  The family tree she received at the New York Historical Society has a big question mark next for the maiden name of Nixon’s 2nd great-grandmother Mary M. Nixon.  It’s like a flashing neon sign that screams, “This is where we are headed.”  As it turned out, Joseph Shumway, the genealogist who presented Nixon her family tree, also got Mary Nixon’s death certificate where we discover her birthplace (Missouri), and mother’s maiden name–Martha Curnutt.  Notably, Mary’s father’s name, and, thus presumably her own maiden name, was unknown.  Using a certain genealogical website that sponsors the show (first plug 5 minutes in), Nixon discovered that Martha Curnutt married Noah Casto in Missouri.

(Speaking of that certain genealogy website, my dear reader, do you use it?  And if so, are you aware of the outrage that Ancestry.com has produced by closing down its services like MyCanvas and the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA sites?  There is some real (and in my opinion, deserved) fury over the clumsy and unthinking way Ancestry botched the DNA closings.  Given that I have never used any of these services though, I am curious what other people think, especially those who have.  Does this also make you hesitate to try Ancestry’s autosomal test?)

Back to Martha.  Shumway shows Nixon the 1850 Census, the first to list family members instead of just heads of household.  Although there is no Martha Casto, there is a Martha Curnutt who has three children, Sarah (age 6), Noah (age 7), and Mary (age 10), Nixon’s ancestor.  All the children have the surname Curnutt, and Noah Casto is not in the picture.  Seven minutes in, we get our first commercial break and the promise of a shocking secret.

Noah Curnutt served and died in the Civil War.  Nixon went to Washington DC and found his pension record, which Martha, as his mother and therefore survivor, filled out.  The pension file stated that Noah the father died in 1842, when his daughter Mary was only two and his son Noah was not even born.  Which inevitably led to the question of who was Sarah’s father.

Long story short, Noah Casto’s death was not natural, and we find this out, first in a prosecution against Martha and then in a fantastically gossipy newspaper account which contained this description of Noah, “A man whose name our informant had forgotten.”  Martha killed him with an ax to the head while he slept and was found guilty only of manslaughter.  A perusal of a contemporary newspaper showed that Noah was a vile man who abused and possibly raped his wife and threatened to kill her the night she killed him.  This probably explains why she was found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder.  At the time, women were stripped of their rights and privileges once they were married, so even a divorce would not have protected Martha.   Murder, according to WDYTYA, was Martha’s only option, and the jury was sympathetic to an extent.  As it happened, she became only the second female prisoner in the history of the Missouri State Penitentiary, and was the lone female in a prison full of men.

As one would expect of any prison run by private corporations for profit, the prisoners were treated abominably, which was described in a book by a former inmate whose sentence was concurrent with Martha’s.  He wrote about Martha and described the abusive treatment the prison authorities dealt to her and to the child (Sarah) who was born while she was in prison.  Given the timing of Sarah’s birth, it appears that she was indeed not Noah’s daughter, but possibly that of a warden or guard who may have raped Martha.  In fact, Martha’s treatment was so horrible that the petition for her pardon was signed by many people, including prominent politicians.  Indeed, she was pardoned not even two years into her five-year sentence.  It was a pretty awful story, and I have no desire to trigger readers any more than I already may have by recapping it in full.  It certainly hit Nixon pretty hard, although I do wonder from time to time, given that many of these celebrities are actors, are these emotions genuine?  And if so, is it because of story of because of how draining the journey is?  It is one thing to react when a parent or grandparent is involved, but to get so emotional about a distant ancestor who you never knew existed until a few days before–that seems a little different.  Of course, this could also be a natural empathic reaction, and I could be a horrible cynic.

Regardless, the story was pretty powerful, so I will not fault Nixon for her emotion.  Where I believe she is on less solid footing is this supposition, typical of WDYTYA, that Martha helped usher in prison reform (specifically a separate prison for women and the recognition that they too commit crimes).  Two minutes earlier, we were told that so many prominent politicians petitioned the governor for her pardon precisely because they may have been opposed to such reforms.  Additionally, it is hard to see Martha as anything more than a passive figure in whatever prison reform movement may have occurred.  More likely, given the sparseness of the historical record, Martha wanted to move on with her life and get as far removed from that time as possible.

Using FindaGrave.com, a site Ancestry now owns but WDYTYA left unnamed, Nixon discovered Martha’s grave where she was buried with daughter Mary and son-in-law Samuel Nixon.  Nixon visited the graves and left flowers for Martha.  Then she spoke at length about Martha’s strength and she ran up against history and changed it.  Which, honestly seems quite a bit of a stretch, but these are definitely qualities that Cynthia Nixon has in spades.

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Next week, WDYTYA continues its foray into the “gay agenda” with Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the third openly gay celebrity in a row, following Nixon and Jim Parsons.

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12 responses to “Cynthia Nixon , Who Do You Think You Are?

  1. I agree with you on the scripted “surprises” that regularly await the celebrities, and have been following a forum whose criticisms of the show’s actual genealogical expertise is fierce (and fun). I just wanted to say, however, that your comments “Who knew that the gay agenda spread to genealogy? ” and “WDYTYA continues its foray into the gay agenda with Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the third openly gay celebrity in a row, following Nixon and Jim Parsons” are distasteful to me. First of all, Nixon’s family was barely mentioned (especially in comparison with some other straight celebrities, who have parents or spouses shown waiting for them at home) – maybe a total of 5 seconds – and that does not constitute an agenda, it is simply factual. Secondly, I don’t know what a “gay agenda” is, exactly, but if I used this show as a sample I’d say it’s simply a “human agenda” – having a family, a career, and an interest in one’s ancestors. Clearly, you have a different definition of “gay agenda,” and it’s not good. What’s your beef? Did Cynthia Nixon rip off her clothes and physically molest another woman on the show? Did she insist that she be given more screen time to make up for all the screen time straight celebs get? Did she go into ecstasies over the joys of being in bed with her wife? I mean, just tell me where the gay agenda is here. Sorry, I’m not returning to your page.

    • I am sorry that you are so angered you are not returning to my page. I would however like to respond to your criticism whether you ever see it again or not. If you looked at my blog, other than this one post, you would see (1) that I am gay, and (2) I am a very strong supporter of LGBT rights. My “gay agenda” remarks were made tongue-in-cheek, and perhaps that did come through over the Internet.

      I made the gay agenda joke because WDYTYA has had a few LGBT celebrities over the course of its five seasons and this is the first time to my recollection that we ever saw a spouse or a partner, or the fact that their sexuality was mentioned. Many people might say, “who cares?” but I am of the opinion that this is important for visibility reasons, so it was a very big deal to me that Nixon’s personal life and activism were mentioned.

  2. This quote from the link below it, offers some input as to who may have actually fathered Casto/Curnutt’s baby, Sarah. It also offers possible insight into the reason for abuse and motive “Mrs. B” (as recorded by the prison memoir) could have had to leave Casto/Curnutt and her infant child to die from neglect in an isolation cell.

    “…The next female prisoner, Martha Casto, was not as lucky as Amelia had been. As soon as she arrived, special arrangements were made for her to live and work in the home of one of the lessees. While there, she became pregnant. She was horribly mistreated by the man’s wife and ran away. Apprehended the next day, she was returned to the prison and given an isolation cell. There she later gave birth with assistance from one of her fellow convicts-a man-and both the mother and baby girl remained imprisoned until a year and a half later when Casto was finally pardoned.”

    http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Life_in_a_Missouri_river_town_in_the_1840s

      • Thank you for your reply.

        You are very welcome. Also, note that later in the link, it identifies who were the two prison lessees at the time of Casto/Curnutt’s internment from August 1843-44.

        “…and a second group was given responsibility for the prison in 1843. The new lease was entered into with Ezra Richmond and James Brown and, in an effort to curtail escapes, the lease stipulated that convicts would no longer be allowed to work outside the prison walls. From the start, Richmond and Brown ignored that stipulation. Inmate work details were still seen outside the walls quarrying rock and gathering other building materials…. ”

        (So, from this, I am assuming that “Mrs. B’s” husband was James Brown. From this link’s information, the show and the prison memoir, I am leaning toward the conclusion that James Brown was baby Sarah’s father and therefore, Mrs. Brown/Mrs. B had motive to abuse, to the point of possible death, Casto/Curnutt and infant Sarah.)

  3. Pingback: Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Who Do You Think You Are | tracingthetree

  4. I understand the comment regarding Martha Curnetts part in changing the way state prison’s handle women prisoners , that was quite the assumption and I did roll my eyes at that jump of conclusion.
    But we are starting to see now how ancestry.com / L.D.S. company is gobbling up all our sources of genealogical information , such as find-a-grave , which was a volunteer based website in which many people dedicated so much of their time and money visiting graveyards and posting all the information on what we all believed would remain free . As I suspected decades ago all our efforts are being sold off. Most genealogists I know give their findings freely to relatives or at cost to copy. And ancestry.com is asocieted with the LDS who have interest in gathering all genealogy for the Church’s beliefs . So the church is getting richer from all this . Genforum was a wonderful site and we were promised it would stay free but its changed also , technically its free, but its pushing the users to subscribe.
    I now wish I had never posted info there.

  5. Though I haven’t seen many episodes, I do love WDYTYA! The ones I’ve seen have been so interesting, rewarding, and encouraging. I have often wondered what goes on beforehand and behind the scenes of the making of an episode. Like, do genealogists just do a cursory search, then only lead the celebrity down the most interesting path? Or do they present a more thorough family tree and info to the celebrity, but only record/edit it down to the most intriguing branch to actually be included in the episode, even if the celebrity winds up with notebooks of research that was unaired? Personally, I think if I were working as a genealogist on the show, continuing to “work the tree” would be irresistible to me… I would want to see what all I could find, lol!!

    There were a couple of things in your commentary about Nixon’s episode that I found a bit unfair. One was to wonder if she (or any other featured celebrities) perhaps were not genuine in their emotional responses to news about “a distant ancestor that never knew existed until a few days before.” Technically, that’s not true… Cynthia did know that Martha existed (otherwise, Cynthia wouldn’t exist!), she just didn’t know her name or circumstances. And, as her 3G grandmother, that’s not that distant, at least to me. A 10th cousin, 6 times removed… THAT’s distant… though possibly quite interesting, lol!! I know that while I love researching my whole tree, there simply are people who are more intriguing, or who draw my interest in a special way. And i imagine that learning about someone who DID have such a riveting, noteworthy life by being in the actual places and touching the actual documents would be sure to elicit an emotional response… I think that’s quite natural!

    Also, you said that “Two minutes earlier, we were told that so many prominent politicians petitioned the governor for her pardon precisely because they may have been opposed to such reforms.” When did you hear that said? What I heard the man say was that many prominent politicians petitioned the governor because they didn’t want the embarrassment/backlash of the community if Martha’s baby were to die while she was in prison… to me, that’s consistent with acknowledging reforms needed to be made, even if they couldn’t be made/enforced quickly enough to make a difference for Martha’s baby’s very current, and very real, needs… PARTICULARLY if an unscrupulous warden or guard was to be in a position of power of enforcing those reforms, while being simultaneously the father of Martha’s illegitimate baby!

    Even though she never lobbied for changes, certainly as the 2nd woman in Missouri’s penitentiary, and the first to give birth, she DOES have a place in MIssouri state penal history.

    The only thing that was indeed far-fetched to me was Cynthia noting at the end that perhaps her grandmother had a part in prison reforms for women nationwide. Unless Missouri, or someone inspired by Martha”s experience, was at the forefront of that, then it’s just fantasy.

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