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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

Silicon Valley Reads 2019: Books on Family History

Silicon Valley Reads “is an annual community program that selects books focused on a contemporary theme and offers free events throughout Santa Clara County to engage the public in reading, thinking and discussing the topic. The goals are to encourage the love of reading and learning and to have a welcoming forum where our diverse community can come together to share different perspectives.”

This year’s theme is “Finding Identity in Family History.” The SVR brochure introduces the topic thus: “Everyone has a family history – some they know and some they have yet to discover. The surging popularity of genealogy research is encouraging more people than ever to find out more about their ancestors and how their actions and decisions affect who we are today."

Silicon Valley Reads (SVR) selected three books telling the stories of individuals whose lives were changed on learning new and unexpected things about their families. Two of the books are discussed here. (The third book, is “It’s All Relative” by A.J. Jacobs.)

Here is an account of two events with appearances by Bill Griffeth, author of “The Stranger in My Genes: a memoir.” The first was the SVR signature event which I attended, and the second was one I moderated: a community event organized by the Indian Business and Professional Women Network at the India Community Center.

SVR Signature Event with Paula Madison and Bill Griffeth, February 27, 2019.

This event was presented at De Anza College in Cupertino, CA. The event was presented with the Commonwealth Club Silicon Valley and De Anza College, and was introduced by Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan.

Bill Griffeth, author of “The Stranger in My Genes: a memoir” and Paula Williams Madison, author of “Finding Samuel Lowe” were in conversation with Sal Pizarro, San Jose Mercury News columnist and member of the SVR Community Advisory Board.

Pizarro started by asking the writers about their Origin Story: when did you decide to write about it?

Paula Madison responded that she did not initially want to write about it. In May 2012, she decided to chronicle it as a documentary. Her family owns the Africa channel, a television channel showing travel, lifestyle and cultural series, specials and documentaries that reflect the land, people, culture, and history of Africa. She did a documentary. After that, she wrote the book in 5 ½ months, over 4-5 trips to China.

Bill Griffeth said he wrote as a way of getting his angst out - he found writing incredibly cathartic. When he took the DNA test, he didn’t know what he was expecting. The book is two and a half years old, but interest has continued to grow.

He provided some numbers on surprising findings. He cited a statistic from MIT that 26 million people have taken a DNA test. The founder of (through which Griffeth had his DNA tested) thought that 10% of people had surprising findings which would mean 2.6 million. Even if it were half that number, 1.3 million people (a staggering number) have had surprising findings.

Paula Madison took off her glasses to show her eyes as evidence of her Chinese heritage. Her mother looked Chinese, she said. Madison learned that many Chinese-Jamaicans had come from a group of North Chinese who had been driven from their homes to South China. They were called the “Hakka” and every four years the Hakka descendants held a reunion. In 2012 she went to the Toronto Hakka conference. At the conference, at the age of 58, she said “I’m part Chinese,” and for the first time, no one laughed. One of the people there said we’re going to help you find your family. She named as an amazing resource.

Things moved really fast, she said, with emails flying around between Hong Kong and the United States. Six weeks after the emails started, she met her relatives in China. I learned more about Madison in a wonderful interview with her and also read a poignant account of Samuel Lowe’s life in Jamaica, his return to China and the family that Madison found just a few years ago.

On the topic of emails, Griffeth said it was via email that he learned the news that shocked him: that the man who raised him was not his father. Previously, he had gone to courthouses and cemeteries, traditional ways of establishing genealogy. His cousin took a DNA test, and in August 2012, Bill took it. He learned that the man he had known as his father, who had raised him, was not his biological father. Chaos ensued, he said. And he started journaling right away as a coping mechanism.

Madison’s husband is an African-American from New Orleans. With his Creole heritage, he could pass for white. His grandfather married a dark woman and his family immediately disowned him. When Madison started the search for her relatives in China, her husband, keenly aware that a racist reaction could ensue, asked her “What are you expecting?” And when she shrugged and replied that she didn’t know, he then bluntly followed up with “Do you know you are black?” It turned out for the best, with her family in China embracing her into their fold.

Griffeth talked about the ethics of DNA testing that he discussed a few days previously at Santa Clara University with a professor of ethics. He learned the term “biographical family” distinct from “biological family.” He talked about the conversation he had with his mother on her 95th birthday. What Bill would have called a “fling,” his mother called a “mistake”. Which devastated Griffeth, as he took that to mean that he was a mistake. He went through the various stages of grief: denial, depression, very strong anger, and then acceptance. Through it all, he journaled like crazy. Eventually, he said, you need to get to a point where you can ask important questions of the people who can answer them.

For an adopted person, something has been missing from their lives. Bill had no such void in his life. Madison, on the other hand, felt incomplete. Her mother had feelings of abandonment and growing up, her home was always a safe haven for abandoned kids. Madison’s daughter Imani is now a forensic psychologist and said to her, “You know grandma was bipolar, right?” It was a profound realization that her mother was mentally ill. And mental illness runs in the family in China, she learned. On other parts of her family tree, she has discovered the Brown Family Winery in Napa, which is Jamaica- owned, and that family is related to her.

During the Q&A session, Bill Griffeth was asked “Did you get any more out of mom?” He answered “Oh yeah.” He learned that his dad was a builder and his mom was an office manager at that company. He was conceived at a Catholic church in Reseda, Los Angeles, St. Catherine of Siena. Incidentally, that church featured in the movie “Boogie Nights.” His mother may not have known who the father was. His biographical father was left-handed, and Bill is left-handed. And so perhaps that was settled in her mind.

His biological father retired in 1980. Bill started his career in TV journalism in 1981. He wondered if his father had watched him on television. His biological father died in 1999. This poignant longing to be connected with his biological father is a thread that runs throughout his book. Since the book was published, Bill has reached out to his biological family. He joked that he “monitors”, not “stalks” people on Facebook. He found a woman who is his niece, and lives in the SF Bay Area. In fact, she was in the audience that day, and stood up at his request. It was her birthday, and earlier that day, she had given him a present: a wood carving made by his dad. And this was clearly such a precious gift to him. He carried it in his pocket, and joked that his wife wondered if he would be sleeping with it that night.

His mom turned 100 last year and passed away not long after. She was cremated, and he was wearing his mom’s wedding ring, which she wore for 83 years. Getting the wood carving that his father made somehow completed the picture for him.

I went to meet Bill Griffeth and get my book signed by him. I introduced myself and said I would be speaking with him at an SVR community event on Sunday March 3, at the India Community Center in Milpitas. I asked if I could take a picture with him holding the wood carving his biological father had made, and he gladly obliged.

Bill Griffeth with a carving made by his father

Very pleased to have met him, as well as my fellow panelist Marty Riker, I headed out, already thinking about the Sunday book event.

Annual Book Event of Indian Business and Professional Women (IBPW), Sunday March 3, 2019

A few weeks ago, I told my 13-year-old daughter about the book event, and asked if she planned to come with me.

“Of Course!” she replied, and I was pleased. That day, she and I drove to Milpitas for the book event. I briefed her on the story in advance, so she would be prepared for what Bill had learned.

I received Bill and his wife Cindy at the entrance to ICC and we walked in together. “You are the hero of this book,” I said to Cindy, and Bill concurred, calling her his “co-author.”

IBPW Executive Directors Shubhangi Vaidya and Deepka Lalwani introduced SVR and IBPW.

Shubhangi Vaidya

Deepka Lalwani

We began with my introducing the author, my fellow panelist Marty Riker and myself, and then inviting first Bill, then Marty to talk of their interest in genealogy. Bill spoke of the traditional ways in which he had gone about assembling his and his wife’s family histories, through court houses and cemeteries. Property records, added a gentleman in the audience.

Marty, with whom I had had the opportunity to discuss the book and our event a few times over the past few weeks, talked of his belonging to the Church of Latter-Day Saints also known as the Mormon Church) and their work in establishing family histories. He talked of ancestors who had come to New York and owned land that was Riker’s Island!

Marty Riker

In my family, in the 1700s, three ladies from a prominent family in the Malabar region of Kerala fled the onslaught of Tipu Sultan and sought refuge in Alwaye, now Aluva. They were granted shelter by the King, the story goes, given land and a title, and were accepted into the community. On each plot of land, a house was built: Aluva Parat House, Desham Parat and Uliyanur Parat. My maternal grandmother grew up in Aluva Parat House, a multi-storey residence built of teak wood. At a family gathering recently, I went to that house. Although the interior and furnishings had been damaged by the terrible floods that had struck Kerala in the fall of 2018, the structure itself was intact as teak is resistant to water damage.

I saw the room, on the top floor, where my grandmother grew up. I told the gathering that I was inspired by Bill’s and Marty’s stories to construct my own family tree. A cousin has assembled the family tree that goes back several generations, and I plan to pore over it.

After one of the conversations that Marty and I had, I did a Google search using my grandmother's name, and my grandfather's name popped up! It was in a shipping record of a UK passenger list from 1947 of my grandfather, A K D Pillai (birth year listed as 1903), returning from England, from Liverpool to Sri Lanka! He had been Director of Education in Kerala, and had gone to England with some colleagues. There is a faded photograph of my handsome 6-foot grandfather in a suit and hat, he is the one at the very right.

The details (and presumably my grandmother's name) were behind a pay wall, and I chose not to sign up.

Back to the book event, next, I talked about DNA testing and a few interesting details: the Y-chromosome is used to establish the paternal line, and mitochondrial DNA is only passed on by the mother and therefore tracks the female ancestral line only. I asked Bill to talk of his DNA test and tell us what “haplogroups” were, which he did, explaining that a son would have a haplogroup that would be the same as his father’s, but Bill’s was very different from that of the man who raised him, his “biographical” father. He read a few lines from his book that describe his reaction when he learned this news: a visceral response of shock and pain.

A few months ago, at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, I met a fellow scientist, a brilliant man. I told him about Bill Griffeth’s book and the upcoming book event, and told him the gist of the story, Bill’s story. My friend seemed puzzled that Bill had taken the news so hard. “How does it matter,” he asked. I had no response. I simply recognized Bill’s pain and understood it. Marty Riker and I had discussed this very topic earlier and Marty too seemed to not understand Bill’s deep anguish at his discovery. So I invited Marty to pose a question on this, and Bill to respond. That was my response, said Bill. And he asks people who wonder about it to walk in his shoes.

Bill Griffeth

Privacy is a major concern with one’s personal data, and one’s genome is as personal as it gets. I have not had my DNA tested, I said. (I don't even have Facebook account!) I invited Bill to speak about privacy and read a section where he was contacted by “Steve” who claimed to be a cousin, and Bill’s annoyance on receiving that email. He did get over his annoyance in time, and found relatives via Facebook. She spoke of his niece and showed the audience the wood carving made by his father - clearly so meaningful to him.

Marty asked Bill about his support system through his journey, and recognized the incredible support from Bill’s wife Cindy. I was glad to have the opportunity to express how impressed I was with Cindy, and how I found her to be a model of compassion, understanding and support. I asked why Bill chose medication over therapy even though his doctor had advised him that therapy would be more important in the long run. He explained that he needed to feel better immediately. He continues to take SSRIs for anxiety.

Bill and Cindy had to leave to get to their next event, all the way out in Los Gatos. Marty and I continued a Q&A session with the audience who had questions and comments on a wide range of topics, from unexpected findings, to the accuracy of genetic testing, privacy issues and what insurance companies might do with genetic information.

A few of us met for chai and snacks later and continued some of the discussions that had begun at the ICC.

We all agreed that Silicon Valley Reads picked a fascinating topic for this year!

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