The author, troubled when she discovers that her white Southern ancestors owned many black slaves, sets out to search her family history. She visits her Southern relatives, pores over public documents and private letters, studies books on Southern culture, and reflects deeply upon her own past. Impressions and emotions flood over her as she grapples with her evolving ideas during this tenaciously investigative memoir.
The author discovers that the family tree can be the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, with their intertwining mysteries. In writing story after story, and thought upon thought, she is undergoing a journey of the mind into human nature at its worst and best. Her expedition Into the Briar Patch uncovers the complex moral psychology of a family passing through five generations. From the twists and turns of her family history, the author brings to light some new ideas about the roots of racism, the interplay of culture and soul, and the lasting repercussions of family and race relationships over time.