Cue Banjos

I was a kid when I fell in love with my cousin, L. Among all the people in my mix-breed family—mix-breed but bred primarily in the cold and damp of northern Europe—L was and remains exotic, like the result of a random-number generator applied to genetic material: straight, dark hair; olive skin; and a Disney heroine's diminutive nose. Black eyes. Bones like a hummingbird's. And smart.

And this was how I found myself laying atop her, out back of her house in the canyons, behind her dad's cooing pigeons: I told her that I loved her, that I wanted to marry her, that I wanted to spend forever with her—that in a life just started, my one certain goal was that I was picking her to die with. She replied with equal passion: she would not (she said) settle for my company merely on family birthdays, major rites of passage, and the Rose Parade, where we kept ourselves warm one New Year's Day morning, groping blindly in the same sleeping bag on Colorado Avenue. Not just then, she said, but always.

We were 13. Maybe 12. Probably 13.

I announced my intention to my parents, and my mother—who once angrily told me that she did, too, know what the F-word meant ("It's when someone sticks their finger in your bottom!")—actually wept.

And then I found out why cousin loving is among the loves that dare not speak their names. It's because of your mother.

Mom said a lot of things about the vile nature of my thoughts, the impurity of my ambition and my simple spiritual ugliness, but I remember these six words very clearly: "Loving your cousin is a sin."

I recall just now a song—Luther Ingram's "If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don't Want to be Right." But Ingram's song came out in 1972, and I wasn't born till a few years later, so my memory that the song was in heavy rotation when L and I broke up—and my memory that the song gave voice to everything I felt about L—is a fiction, an implanted memory.

And there's this evidence that Luther Ingram's song wasn't anything like my voice: I was a coward. You see, I did want to be right, and right in the sense that my Catholic parents used the word—right before God, right before what my mother understood to be the Genetic Code of Nature: Don't marry your cousin, you freak.

So I didn't marry my cousin. I tried to stop thinking about her.

It wasn't easy. My mom's powerful sense of shame didn't (doesn't) stop her from broadcasting her very personal torments, and soon every family function was an event with L and me as the headlining act. Reaching for fruit salad that first Christmas post-L, I could feel stares like a weight laid across my back.

And I grew up and apart from L. We married different people. She moved to Washington, D.C. I stayed in Orange County.

And then, studying the basics of genetics in grad school, I learned that marrying your cousin ain't no big thing. Charles Darwin's interest in evolution was spurred, in part, by the fact that he had married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood. Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin, Myra, and the only casualty was his career; she was 13.

There are, of course, counterexamples. I've never seen the movie, but I know the theme song to the 1972 film, Deliverance. Between Luther Ingram and Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith—the man whose 1950s tune "Feudin' Banjos" inspired the movie's "Dueling Banjos"—1972 was a year when a lot of Americans had cousin loving on their minds. That same year, a female Speke's gazelle arrived at the St. Louis Zoological Park. She joined two other females and a male in producing what was, for years, the only captive herd of Speke's gazelles. Zookeepers hoped to breed the animals, but they worried that their limited genetic pool would produce abnormalities.

"Some studies had shown, however, that small founder populations could adapt quickly to inbreeding," the zoo's Zoogoer magazine reported in a brief history published in 1997. How do animals adapt quickly to inbreeding? Apparently by copulating like Jenna Jameson, "increasing numbers as rapidly as possible in attempt to eliminate—through death—the deleterious genes from the population."

The emphasis is mine.

The program worked. Fucking like animals, the Speke's gazelles produced healthy survivors—for a while. By 1991, the Speke's gazelle population at St. Louis Zoological Park crested at 40, "but shortly thereafter, the population began to suffer . . . dipping to 24 individuals by 1994." The introduction of two new females from Africa invigorated everybody's sex drive and boosted the herd's population again.

Inbreeding goes on all the time, sometimes quickly (as in St. Louis), sometimes slowly (as at my house). I'm inbreeding right now, not while I type, of course, but when I make children with my wife. That's because inbreeding, it turns out, is not a game of ones and zeros, of on and off switches, but a spectrum. It turns out that we really are all God's children, and we're all having sex with one another all of the time.

"You couldn't be here without a little incest—actually quite a lot of incest—albeit at a genetically discreet remove," says science writer Bill Bryson in his A Short History of Nearly Everything. "With so many millions of ancestors in your background, there will have been many occasions when some distant cousin from your mother's side of the family procreated with some distant cousin from your father's side of the ledger."

"In fact," Bryson concludes, "if you are in partnership now with someone from your own race and country, the chances are excellent that you are at some level related. . . . In the most literal and fundamental sense, we are all family."

Some parts of the country are more family-oriented than others. Louisiana didn't outlaw first-cousin marrying until the 1980s, and even then there was a fight. One state senator, James David Cain ("I've got three names, and they're all in the Bible," he likes to say) of Dry Prong, insisted that cousin marrying should stay legal, not just for the sake of his constituents, but for all of us. "Inbreeding," says Cain, "is how you get the best racehorses. Ask any breeder." But Cain was unable, and the inbreeding-o-phobes carried the day. Cain's other notable piece of legislation was a law to ensure that elections are never held on the opening day of squirrel-hunting season—to save his constituents the wrenching choice between civic duty and the joy of shooting a bagful on opening day; alas, that effort also ended in failure.

I could, then, have married my cousin. And not merely because of Cain, Bryson, Lewis and Darwin, but because quite recently, in a dramatic moment seemingly stolen from a movie on the Oxygen network, L revealed to our family that her parents had let her know just two years ago that she was adopted.

I looked steadily at her for signs of regret. There were none.

L continued. Following a nationwide hunt involving Mormon church records, a private investigator, an adoption support group and the Internet, she had just met her birth mother.

L went on to reveal that she had become an evangelical Christian and Republican, supported the president's invasion of Iraq, and was praying for the Second Coming.

Thanks, Mom!


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