Have you taken a DNA test for the fun of discovering your ethnicity estimate only to be blindsided with an unexpected relationship? If so you are not alone. With more people taking consumer DNA tests, family secrets from long ago and not so long ago are being revealed. How does one deal with a new half sibling or biological parent? These questions and more are addressed in Libby Copeland’s new book, The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are. We’re reading this intriguing book for our spring book club selection. If you’d like to weigh in on the discussion, join the Family Locket Book Club on Goodreads.
The main story line follows the journey of Alice Collins Plebuch who was an early adopter of autosomal DNA analysis. With the DNA testing companies making it easier and easier for us to make discoveries, reading of Alice’s laborious data analysis made me grateful for the advances we’re now using to our advantage. The mystery in Alice’s family was finally solved with DNA, but not before the journey took many twists and turns.
Libby Copeland is a journalist and researched extensively to give the reader an unbiased look at the world of DNA testing. She consulted with DNA experts like CeCe Moore to learn more about each facet of genetics and DNA testing. Seventeen chapters cover the beginnings of the consumer DNA testing companies, the science of DNA, adoption, law enforcement, ethnicity, and more. Being involved with DNA testing since 2004, I recognized many of the players in the field and appreciated the look back at where this all started.
The final chapter titled “Where We’re Going” includes this poignant statement.
The fundamental lesson of the DNA age is that the past is not over. We may feel we are leading modern lives, having left behind certain tragedies and injustices, certain mistakes and anachronisms, but it is all still there. It is etched into us, and it only requires technology to be revealed. . . . We get to decide who we are, but DNA allows us to inform that decision by understanding the truth of how we got here, of how we came to be. It forces us to look back and examine the circumstances under which difficult and life-altering decisions were made. It gives us context. (pp. 272-3)
Having personally helped many individuals solve mysteries about their past using DNA I can attest to the healing that eventually comes from learning the truth. We can’t separate our identity from our genetics, no matter how we may try. What The Lost Family gives us is perspective. A look at the consequences of DNA from all angles. Something with which to make informed decisions about our own use of DNA in our genealogy.
I reached out to Libby with some questions about her own involvement with family history and genealogy.
I write about the intersection of science, culture, and human behavior. In 2017, I wrote a story for The Washington Post about the family surprises generated by home DNA testing. The article focused on the riveting tale of a woman named Alice Collins Plebuch, who took a DNA test and found that half of her DNA was not what she expected. She thought that her family was of Irish, Scottish, and English heritage and learned instead that half of her heritage is Ashkenazi Jewish from Eastern Europe.
The explanation for this mystery was surprising and unusual, and took her two and a half years of intensive genetic genealogy work to unravel. The article generated an enormous response from readers, who emailed me by the hundreds to share their own experiences with DNA revelations. It became clear that the phenomenon of home DNA testing and its implications deserved an in-depth look. Alice’s story now frames the deeper dive that I’ve taken into this phenomenon in The Lost Family.
How did you approach the book differently from the article?
By telling the stories of how DNA testing has impacted the lives of adoptees, the donor-conceived, the children of NPEs (“non-paternity events” or “not parent expected”) and many others, the book provides an opportunity to explore the profound cultural and psychological impacts of this phenomenon. Like the article, the book begins with Alice’s story, but that story now provides a framing mechanism that allows exploration on many levels.
The first is, of course, the human level: how does home DNA testing – and the surprises that millions of Americans have experienced – inform who we are and how we think about family? The second is the cultural level: over 30 million Americans have now tested, and that creates a tipping point that we are just starting to recognize. The third is the industry that home DNA testing has spawned. April 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of home DNA testing for ancestry purposes, and we are only beginning to comprehend where this industry will go and how it may change us.
Were you already interested in genealogy?
My father has been interested in genealogy for decades, and I shared his interest. We live in the same small town in New York State that his grandparents emigrated to over a century ago – my kids are fifth generation here – so I’ve long had a strong sense of curiosity about what brought them here. But I work full-time and have two young children, and I just hadn’t had time to pursue much family history research. A 23andMe test kit that my father had gifted me for the holidays sat unopened at home when I started writing the article for The Washington Post. I have since taken the test, and two others, and, with my parents, embarked on more research along both my maternal and paternal sides.
Did you find any surprising results?
Not in the dramatic sense of Alice’s story or of other surprises that I explore in The Lost Family, but we did discover two second cousins of whom we had not previously known: one in Sweden on my father’s side; the other, on my mother’s side, born in Ukraine and now living in New York City. The fascinating thing about the cousin born in Ukraine is that he represents a branch of the family we didn’t know had survived pogroms and World War II. It’s extremely unlikely we ever would have found either of these cousins without DNA testing.
You talk about a tipping point in home DNA testing? Would you say more about that?
With more than 30 million Americans having been tested, it’s not a matter of if family secrets will come out but when. Even if you don’t spit into a vial or swab your cheek, you are impacted by this technology because relatives – maybe even cousins you’ve never met! – have tested. That means two things: First, anyone with a family secret would be well advised to be transparent about it. Your relationships with loved ones will fare better if you’re upfront about the news, rather than letting family members discover the truth from their 23andMe results. Second, the implications for using the data collected through home DNA testing grow enormously.
We have already seen test results used to solve cold-case murders, which has led to a debate among genetic genealogists, legal experts and the broader public about how privacy and civil liberties should stack up against the desire for public safety, solving cases and giving families answers. Similarly, some experts worry about whether existing laws sufficiently protect Americans against genetic discrimination, as well as what would happen if genetic data were compromised, or transferred if one company were sold to another.
What can home DNA testing teach us about the past?
I think DNA testing demonstrates how different the past was from the present – and yet, at the same time, that the past is not terribly far away. Perceptions around something like donor conception can change radically over the course of someone’s lifetime, so that a person conceived 60 years ago within a culture that encouraged secrecy for the use of a donor is now living in a radically different context, one in which most donor-conceived people are told the truth about how they came into the world. And yet, that donor-conceived person’s parents (if they’re still alive) may not wish to disclose the truth, for a variety of reasons. We live in a culture that values authenticity and transparency, that values knowing and speaking one’s own truth. It can be difficult and incredibly painful for us to bump up against the intransigence of past cultural practices.
What advice do you have for people who are thinking of taking a home DNA test?
Don’t do it on a whim. Think about it carefully and be sure that you recognize the possibility of a surprising result. That result can be revealing in a very positive way that illuminates your heritage and provides a fuller sense of your background. But it can also unveil secrets in the past that some people would rather keep there.
Thanks Libby, for your candid look at the world of DNA and for giving us much food for thought!