“In the estuarine plains of crisscrossing information, history, society, and culture collide and intersect with genetics, like tides. Some waves cancel each other, while others reinforce each other. No force is particularly strong — but their combined effect produces the unique and rippled landscape that we call an individual’s identity.”
– Siddhartha Mukherjee
“Is who we are the same as who we believe ourselves to be?”
– Dani Shapiro
As one of the 135,000 children adopted in the United States in 1964, I was possibly — let’s say probably — conceived in error and birthed in shame, then taken away to become another couple’s dream come true. But I don’t know for sure. For decades, thousands of adopted individuals seeking to fill in the blanks of their beginnings have started by requesting their original birth record from the vital statistics office where they were born. Today, if I wanted to know how I came into the world, any of the consumer DNA test kits that have emerged on the market would seem to offer a shortcut to hunting down not only my birth mother, but other relatives as well. Yet I couldn’t be less tempted.
Apparently I’m in the minority. Back in early 2019, MIT Technology Review estimated that more than 26 million people had added their hereditary material to commercial health and ancestry databases, and the market is expected to be worth almost $1.1 trillion by 2026. For a while those kits seemed to be what everyone was giving or receiving as a gift, or simply ordering for fun. If the Internet headlines were to be believed — “I took 9 different DNA tests and here’s what I found” — some folks were leaving no chromosome unturned.
Indeed, so many people seemed to be swabbing and spitting that I began to wonder if I were missing something. Maybe there were rewards to becoming acquainted with one’s genome that I had failed to imagine. I’d never given the ratio of the length of my index finger to that of my ring finger a second thought, but maybe discovering it would unlock some life-altering insight. And if that happened, what might learning the genetic type of my earwax tell me about my place in the human family?
To try to understand the appeal of genomic self-knowledge, I polled friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who had taken a DNA test about their motivations. They were all generous and open with their answers. A few offered straightforward, even practical reasons: a coworker, who’s adopted, wanted insight into her potential medical risks. A Black friend wanted to counter the longstanding unknowability of her ancestry due to the lack of vital records for generations of African Americans. A former colleague wanted to test the truth of the rumor that her grandfather was part Native American. (He wasn’t.)
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But mostly people said they were simply curious; a lot of that curiosity was “what’s my background” general, while some was “why am I the only one in my family with brown eyes” specific. The husband of a friend said — only half-joking, I think — that traveling to the British Isles to research the forebears he’d learned about through his test results was a good excuse to drink great beer and whisky.
One woman offered deliciously, “Being a melted version of a lot of others made me want to know my ingredients.”
Apart from some misgivings about privacy, no one I asked reported being especially worried as they shipped off their saliva, and except for being startled when they found out just how Neanderthal they are, no one related any bad surprises — except for one friend. This woman is a force of nature — smart and sassy, with a long and successful career in communications at Ivy League medical schools. She also has two daughters, both adopted and in their 50s, like me. A couple of years ago, she got DNA kits for her family on a whim, and got more than she’d bargained for.
Not only did her husband discover he had a niece he’d never heard of (someone his brother swore he knew nothing about — hmm!), her daughters each “found” their respective (and very different) birth families and are now in contact with them; one daughter has even met some family members in person. Even as she admitted that her daughters’ meeting their biological relatives was an understandable next step, did that step make my normally fearless friend feel insecure? Yes, yes it did. While fully supporting her daughters’ choices, she found herself fighting off the question, “Will they like their birth families more than our family?”
* * *
These DIY DNA companies now possess billions of records and have generated millions of family trees. Their success might partially lie in their marketing, which is undeniably alluring. A pretty array of rainbow-colored chromosomal pairs parades across the 23andMe saliva collection kit, whose seductive tagline murmurs “Welcome to you.” AncestryDNA beckons with the slightly more ominous “Every family has a story” and the sort-of-clever “Know your story from the inside.” Its website features tales of men and women who, seeming to have solved the mystery of themselves, went on to radically change their lives. After learning that her adventurous spirit was “in her bloodline,” we’re told, Heidi left her job and found her “rightful place” leading eco tours through the Florida swamps. That’s great for her, but still I wondered why she thought her adventurous spirit had to come from someone else. Why wasn’t it enough that it was hers?
I understand groups for whom kinship derives from lineage. And I get that the burgeoning genetic databases enrich the work of genealogists. Genealogy surely has its pleasures: it’s historical, microfiche-y detective work that can reward patience and perseverance with entertaining or astonishing discoveries. It imposes order on the chaos of the past, bringing blurry individuals into focus — individuals whose coming together eventually led to one’s own here-and-now. And it can simply be beautiful. Those branching, cascading genealogical charts have a fractal elegance to them that is part military parade and part ballet, like the grand finale of an Ice Capades show.
But even taking into consideration the inspiring anecdotes of self-discovery or the fact that the databases are being used to solve decades-old murder mysteries, such as that of the Golden State Killer and several other cold cases, I still didn’t care what my deoxyribonucleic acid had to say. I mean, I’m adopted, not orphaned: I have not only a family but also a family tree, and a place on a branch of that tree. For me, blood and belonging are as unrelated as apples and rocks. I’ve tried, I really have, to conceive of feeling connected to my parents not because they brought me home but because of something in the blood running through our veins. But that’s like imagining sex as a man: I can sort of guess at what it’s like, but I’ll never really know in any embodied way. In her book, “The Girls Who Went Away,” the visual artist, filmmaker, and author Ann Fessler writes that “for adoptees the adoptive family is their family.” And it’s true: though they’re both dead now, my parents were always my real parents, my grandparents uncomplicatedly my real grandparents, my cousins, real my cousins. To flip this question, would I feel less connected to my children if I had not carried them in my body? The idea is absurd. I love who they became in the world, outside of me.
* * *
A bunny stuffed animal (Getty stock photos/Catherine Falls Commercial)
Of course, adoption stories are not always happy ones. To the poet and visual artist Mary-Kim Arnold, a Korean-American adoptee, adoption has felt very different than it has to me. In her fiercely intelligent and lyrical book “Litany for the Long Moment,” Arnold probes her sense of loss and longing — what academics might call “ambiguous loss” — for the missing details of her beginnings and the mother she never knew, and for the country, culture, and language that might have been hers but were not. In “Litany” she is “writing into the rupture,” trying to fill the void of her first two years — the “possible selves” she might have become — drawing on words, photographs, letters, and government documents, on records from the Orphans’ Home of Korea, where she lived as a baby, and on works by other artists, writers, and scholars. In the end, though, these are not enough to provide what she so badly wants to know. “Holding fragments,” she writes, “is not the same as making a broken thing whole.”
I’ve read “Litany” several times. I understand Arnold’s longing – and I recognize that a transracial, transnational adoption entails complications that I, as a white American-born baby adopted by white American parents, never had to contend with. But it was a longing I still didn’t feel. And to help you understand that, I have to tell you this: I have always cherished being a question mark, a cipher, a butterfly who can’t be pinned. As Fessler, who was also adopted, writes, “I loved . . . having a mysterious past . . . being my own person.” (Fessler went on to find and meet her biological mother, but only after the death of her adoptive mother — a protective urge I no doubt shared.)
That is why my way and Arnold’s way of processing adoption feel like that optical illusion of the duck and the rabbit: as we contemplate the blankness of our respective pasts, where she sees rupture and void, I find mystery and comfort. Whereas she wants “more of a story than there is,” I press my hands to my ears.
* * *
It’s worth pointing out, I think, that there can be bliss in ignorance. The ability to identify inheritable diseases aside, tying your identity to a double strand of chemical bases seems like risky business to me. What if your genetic signature tells you something you aren’t prepared to know? Just look at what’s happening to the offspring of donor sperm. As Pam Belluck wrote in her review of “The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are,” “reality as revealed by DNA may not match reality as actually experienced in families.” Lots of people are discovering that they are the issue of one of dozens of transactional, shall we say, gestures. According to a 2020 article in the New York Times Magazine, a young man named Eli Baden-Lasar (who had always known his “father” was an anonymous donor) learned that he had no fewer than 32 half-siblings strewn across the country, from Florida to Hawaii. The donor, he wrote, “represented this absence we all had in common.” But after meeting and photographing all of them, he noted that he and his half-siblings shared little or no sense of connection; they eventually fell out of touch with each other. In the end, Baden-Lasar felt like they had been “mass-produced” and found it was more interesting that his father “remain the missing and invisible figure he has always been.”
These “gift-wrapped bombshells,” as one journalist has called the kits, are also wreaking havoc with people’s sense of privacy — donors who thought they were anonymous are now being tracked down — as well as people’s sense of self, as in the case of fertility doctor Donald Cline. Unbeknownst to many of his patients, Cline used his own sperm to impregnate them, fathering nearly 50 children that way. One, Jacoba Ballard, became haunted by the possibility that some dark stain in the character of this man — a doctor who grotesquely abused his position — might exist in her. Other people conceived with donor sperm have come undone the moment they learned that they were always a family secret, or that “my father is not my father.” A recent headline puts it succinctly: “First came the DNA kits. Now come the support groups.”
* * *
For the writer Dani Shapiro, too, casually shipping off her spit led to a traumatic discovery. In “Inheritance,” one of her many memoirs, Shapiro describes her utter dislocation upon learning from her DNA analysis what both of her parents had always concealed from her: the fact that the father she loved so dearly was not, in fact, her father. Or rather that this beloved man was her “social father,” while a different man, a complete stranger, was her biological father.
On paper, Shapiro and I have several things in common, so I thought her book might help me at last grasp the importance of genetic connection. We’re the same age. Her Myers-Briggs Type is INFJ; mine is INFP. We’re both writers, we both practice yoga, and we both love going to Provincetown and stopping at Arnold’s for fried seafood on the way home. As children, we both stared at our faces in the mirror for long dramatic minutes. We both snooped around our parents’ bedroom. We both grew up adoring our dads. (She writes — a lot — about her blond hair; my dad used to call mine “corn silk.”) And we both sought out, more or less unconsciously, replacement families when we felt disenchanted with our own. For Shapiro, the staring and snooping and seeking, the yellow hair and blue eyes, and a keen yet ill-defined longing were the signs hiding in plain sight that she was somehow not of her family.
But don’t a lot of children feel like aliens in their own family? Don’t most kids at some point fantasize about being claimed by parents cooler, kinder, richer than their own? My mother often noted (wryly but lovingly) that I “feel deeply,” but I never ascribed my hyper-sensitivity or adolescent disenchantment with my parents to my status as an adoptee. They were stoic Yankee WASPs; I was a moody mystery girl. So what? In truth, the fact that my parents had chosen me only made me feel more intensely theirs.
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The “seismic news” that Shapiro didn’t share any genes with her father plunged her into an existential crisis. “My entire history,” she writes, “crumbled beneath me.” The august ancestors she had always revered, prominent Orthodox American and Israeli Jews who could be traced back to a pogrom in Poland, suddenly felt no longer hers. Who was she without this history, she wondered, and more essentially, “If my father wasn’t my father, who was my father? If my father wasn’t my father, who was I?” Yet having read hundreds of pages about her intense love and veneration for the man who raised her, I couldn’t understand why a lack of shared genetic material would suddenly stop him from being her dad. I remained stubbornly puzzled as to why it mattered.
It’s like someone suddenly telling me I’m not adopted, I thought glibly. Big deal.
And that’s when it hit me. It would be a big deal. A very big deal.
In the end, I am no different from Shapiro, or from Arnold, or from Heidi and Jacoba, or from anyone wishing to know what their DNA might tell them. We are all avid for story. It’s just that they sought theirs through knowledge, while I protect mine through not-knowing.
Because the other thing I haven’t said is that I do have a story. Or rather, stories. The first one is that I came from nowhere. The second involves sitting in a living room full of babies and being hand-picked by my parents. The third is much more deeply stored in the folds of my brain — so deeply, in fact, that I didn’t know it was there it until a few years ago, when my therapist asked me if I ever thought about the people who came before my parents and I heard myself say, “You mean the king and queen?” Without realizing it until then, my mind held a memory, like a movie scene. Maybe I should call it a memory-scene. The point of view is that of someone lying in the bottom of a small rough-hewn boat, like a pirogue, looking up at a king and queen. Clothed in wind-whipped shimmering blue robes, they stand together on a rock in a black sea while waves boil and froth at their feet. They bend down and gently push the boat away from them. They wave and wave to the boat as it recedes. I am the baby in the bottom of that boat.
This might seem fanciful, but I think it makes sense. By making such stories, what is my brain trying to do if not subvert my initial rejection? I see now that my myths — that I was spontaneously generated, or carefully selected, or launched like a girl-Moses of the North Sea — are nothing more than layers of nacre that my mind has applied to create a pearl out of the sharp-edged fact of my abandonment. I am not brave: unlike Arnold, I do not want to know why I was not kept. So while the truth about Shapiro’s conception is her Kryptonite, the well-preserved mystery of mine is my magic power.
Robin, one of the friends I polled, told me that she had traveled to Ireland with high hopes of feeling connected to the people there, and was disappointed when she didn’t. Then she decided it was OK. “Just like interpreting dreams, perhaps one’s adopted or inherited ancestry can be tapped into equally as places to search for what resonates, and what does not,” she wrote me. “A lot of it is a kind of magical thinking.”
Magical thinking, meaning making, storytelling. Claiming “These are my people” helps folks make sense to themselves. I simply polish the other side of the same coin.
As long as I don’t know where I come from, it can’t be anywhere, and I can be anyone.
More stories about stories, adoption and DNA testing:
https://www.salon.com/2021/12/07/adopted-dna-test-genetic-ancestry-identity/ 23 and Not Me: As an adoptee, I’m not even remotely tempted to take a DNA test