Your Mother's Eyes, Your Father's Smile and "The Stranger in My Genes" by Bill Gri
We look at a child’s smile and match that smile to her mother or father. Resemblances, in appearance, in a laugh, in a gesture, in exceptional sporting abilities, in gifted artistry, make us feel connected. We are drawn to features of those we love, even when they appear on another’s face.
“You have your mother’s eyes," were the last words spoken by Severus Snape as he lay dying, to Harry Potter. They were about Harry’s mother Lily, the woman Snape had loved all his life.
When my daughter was in elementary school, a geneticist friend suggested, as an introduction to genetics, a lesson / game that went over the genetic traits in Harry Potter: the red-haired Weasleys, the blond Malfoys etc. My daughter and I, both fervent Harry Potter fans, thoroughly enjoyed the exercise and she learned why children resemble their parents.
Learning about inherited traits and why we are the way we are, is a huge draw to many people as it helps us understand deeper questions. Who am I? Where did I come from? We want to know. And today, with the availability of DNA testing and personal genomics layered on top of many years of genealogy research, such explorations have become much easier.
Many of us have heard stories from our parents and relatives about some intriguing turn of events in the family, some historical event, and a relative who somehow stood out, was famous. It is quite attractive to try and trace those events, add more detail to the story, our story.
Here are some of the compelling, seductive, irresistible exhortations on the websites of some prominent DNA testing companies.
“20 million members have connected to a deeper family story. Take a DNA test and uncover your origins. Build a family tree to see your story emerge.”
“Discover more about your DNA story. More regions. More connections. More ways to discover what makes you, you.”
A Genome Biology paper published in 2018 is appropriately entitled “Consumer genomics will change your life, whether you get tested or not.” It reports that as of the beginning of 2018, more than 10 million people got their DNA tested, and projects that more than 100 million individuals will be genotyped by 2021.
Sometimes, we discover more than we expect to. Almost every day, there are stories in the news about the surprises that have emerged following DNA testing. In many cases, people discover family secrets, and are shocked and dismayed. For some, there are joyful reunions, and for others there is sadness and disenchantment.
Issues of privacy have come up. People who never wished to be found are being found. Anonymous sperm donors have been identified as a result of their offspring performing DNA testing, precipitating legal action in some cases.
Law enforcement authorities have used genealogy databases to pinpoint a crime suspect. Debates rage on the defensibility of such actions and potential civil rights violations, and DNA testing companies have taken stances on whether they will provide authorities with access to such data. Some will not, they have stated, without a subpoena.
In a blow to a long tradition of secrecy in the Roman Catholic Church, DNA testing has revealed beyond doubt that priests have fathered children. There are many such “children of the ordained” as the Vatican calls them, recently confirming that it has general guidelines for what to do when clerics break celibacy vows and father children.
Genetic testing has started conversations and controversies where technology and humanity meet.
Bill Griffeth has written a compelling memoir, “The Stranger in My Genes.”
In his introduction to the book, he sets the stage by telling us that he has been the unofficial historian of his family, visiting places where his family story began in England and the Netherlands. He did research for a book about his specific line of the Griffeth family. Along the way, as a part of this effort, he took a DNA test. The findings were unexpected and his research came to a dead stop.
Why is he telling the story he asks? For two reasons: first he’s a journalist and tells stories for a living. Second, writing the book helped him maintain his sanity as he grappled with his discoveries. He wants to tell others going through a similar experience that they are not alone.
Bill Griffeth learned about the results of the DNA test at an event which honored distinguished graduates of the Wharton school of the University of Pennsylvania. His humor is sprinkled throughout the book: he refers to some of them as members of “the lucky genes club.”
There is a vivid description of the moments after he learned the results of his DNA test. He had just read an email from his cousin Doug with the information that Charles Griffeth, the man who raised him, was not his father. His response was visceral.
“My body responded before my brain could. I experienced a strange sensation of floating, and I could no longer feel the chair I was sitting in or the blackberry I was holding. My breathing became labored in shallow and I heard a roaring in my ears like ocean waves crashing off in the distance. Time stopped. It was as if a movie director had yelled, “cut!” But life in the newsroom continued all around me. Phones kept ringing, my colleagues kept talking and laughing, and the dozens of television monitors surrounding the room flickered in unison. But I was no longer a part of it I might as well have been 1000 miles away. I felt a deep and profound aloneness.”
He shares his findings with his brother and his cousin Nancy. Understanding his pain, Nancy writes to him “No matter what, you are a Griffeth. You were raised as a Griffeth and you will always be a Griffeth!”
He grapples with his findings, thinking through what family means. “If genealogy had taught me anything, it was that when our lives are stripped to the bare walls – no job, no money, no possessions – we are left with the fundamental truth that defines us, and it’s family. Careers and professional achievements are filed under “what we do.” It’s family that makes us “who we are.”… “But now this DNA test told me that I had been pursuing falsely. These people were not my family.”
To cope with his increasing feeling of desolation and isolation, he goes to see his physician. “Life has been a struggle to get through lately,” he told him. His doctor offered him two options: first, psychotherapy, which he felt was important and a better option as it would be a longer-lasting solution. The other option was an anti-anxiety medication. Overwhelmed by his feelings and wanting immediate relief, he opted for the medication.
The first part of the book lays out his family tree, replete with rich details of the places where his relatives lived and significant events in their lives. Bill was the youngest child born to his parents, after a long hiatus. His oldest sibling had children of her own, and the next youngest was already a teenager. His mother referred to him as their “pleasant surprise.”
He agonizes over the implications of his findings—he couldn’t have imagined that his mother had been unfaithful to his father, and he knew nothing of the circumstances.
In the second part of the book he tells his mother about the DNA test, seeking an explanation for what happened, who his father was. When he learnt the story from his mother, he asked himself whether he wanted to find these relatives. “If I did that, though, what would be my goal? I imagined this was a question adoptees must ask themselves. But in most cases adoptees known for a long time that they were adopted. And for some of them something was truly missing in their lives and they had vital questions about their biological parents and the lives they might have had. Essentially they were asking, 'Who am I? Where did I come from?'" His situation was different, Bill muses. He had never felt anything was missing from his life. What could be gained from reaching out to these relatives?
In the third part, he tells us about his search for information about his biological father.
In his path of self-discovery, he tells us about the path he chose. “The pastor of our church had recently preached about living a life of simplicity rather than one of duplicity. In a duplicitous life, he said, you show one face to the public and you wear another in private. At some point you have to decide which one is the real you.”
Bill’s wife Cindy is a tremendous partner. Her compassion, resourcefulness, and unflinching support shine through this book. When Bill’s mother falls silent and does not seem to want to speak anymore, Cindy comforts him. “You’re going to have to be gentle and patient with her, this will be like digging up a fossil. You can’t just use a shovel and start digging. You have to use small tools and brushes and gently remove the dirt.”
Father’s Day comes, and is a loaded, poignant day. He thinks of his two fathers. “One man gave me his genes and the other gave me his love.” Once again, his amazing family shows the great love for him. They give him as a gift a tree that was a signature of his biological father’s occupation. At the end, Bill states that he is finally at peace.
And I wonder…in the few years since the book was published, has he sought psychological help to cope with his feelings of shock, withdrawal and isolation?
This book is a moving account of Bill Griffeth’s journey through the discovery of his birth and parentage, and offers an important perspective for those who are embarking on a similar journey.
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