Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Knowing That You Want to Know

The Truth is out there, of course, but that doesn't always mean we want to find it.

It's been nearly a year since I received that email from my mtDNA exact match, the one I've often called my mystery cousin. My post last November 16 delved into some internal conflicts on just what it was like to realize that someone in my family might have had a child about whom the rest of us had been unaware. Since then, as I've shared, this mystery cousin—thanks both to DNA tests and some tenacious research prowess—has gone on to speak with one half-sibling by phone and, much more gratifyingly, meet his birth mother in a face to face reunion. In less than a year, he is now finding himself preparing for a trip to meet some other members of his birth family.

That's one of many such adoptee reunion stories with a happy outcome. Not all turn out that way.

I keep remembering the doleful tale of one highly educated scientist—quite enthused, at first, to become an early adopter of direct-to-consumer DNA testing technology—whose unexpected discovery subsequently turned that family's relationships upside down. As it turns out, the publication which carried this anonymous scientist's personal story—Vox—went on to offer a follow-up article a month after my own mystery cousin and I initiated exploration of just how we might be related. Bottom line: the author asked, "But do we really want a private company to decide" whether consumers can choose to learn about their own DNA—and everything that knowledge entails?

Sometimes, that knowledge could be destructive.

While I certainly don't advocate whatever agenda Vox might have entertained in publishing those two DNA articles, I can agree that such knowledge can come as a surprise. Sometimes, not a very welcome surprise. Rather than complain that a "private company" has too much power to "decide" or, on the flip side, advocate for replacing that prerogative with governmental control—I personally see it as a matter of private, personal choice, not corporate nor political—we need to equip ourselves with the understanding of the consequences that may be brought on by our own choices.

Whether by the new technological prowess of DNA tests or by the rather old-fashioned rigor of tried and true genealogical methodology, we as researchers are already equipped to dig up the dirt on bygone generations. There is so much that is out there—from small town newspaper archives yielding the world's gossip from long gone decades to Freedom of Information Act liberties to riffle through formerly confidential documents—that we can find out much more than our ancestors may have bargained for. What's not been captured in print can be inferred by connecting the dots.

That is exactly what one genealogical friend stumbled upon, just the other day. A researcher in Mexican heritage, she was delighted to discover—thanks to my passing along to her blogger Randy Seaver's heads-up about's recent upload of multiple files from across the border—that she took the weekend to dig in earnest through the treasure trove of material.

The weekend did not end on a cheerful note. A phone call from my friend revealed the painful discovery: a relative had been born after her supposed father had died. Years after.

Suddenly, connection to one side of the family was no longer a blood connection. Yes, I know, family is what you make of it. Our family is who we think they are. And all those platitudes about mind over the matter of just who we consider our relatives. In my friend's case, the sound coming from her side of the phone line was the sound of mourning.

There have been times, when discussing the power of the science that goes into DNA testing, that I've heard people dismiss it with non-committal responses. It reminds me of my father's comment when, as a child, I told him I wanted to know more about his family. "You don't wanna know that" has become code speak for, "I don't want you to discover something." While I still don't know what that deep dark family secret might have been, I've uncovered enough about my paternal line to know there must have been something. It may likely be the same for those who shy away from DNA testing.

Others, however, may not give it much thought—or perhaps don't realize the power of the science to reveal such personal information. It is for people such as these that warnings may be necessary.

Then again, there is so much out there that we don't even know that we don't know. Yet, rather than close the opportunity to everyone for the chance to spare an unwitting participant potential mental anguish, wouldn't it be better to equip people with the understanding that there might be uncomfortable discoveries out there, waiting to confront them? You know, the old caveat emptor?

After all, if we are into genealogy—and we wouldn't likely be laying down the bucks to spit into a tube or scrape our cheeks into a vial if we weren't—it's a pretty safe bet that we want to know. It might help, though, to be provided with a reminder of the possibilities. Full disclosure may seem as boring as the fine print of an online company's Terms of Service, but at least that way we'd cover the bases for those who hadn't yet realized that they didn't want to know what they know now. 

Above: 1890 oil on canvas by Russian landscape painter, Nikolay Nikanorovich Dubovskoy, known both as "Before the Storm" and "Silence Has Settled." Courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. The Truth is what it is... I don't think there is any need to cover up or be "prudish" about it.

    I wouldn't want an ancestor that was hung for being a serial killer - but if I had one - so be it. It's not like I had anything to do with it.

    1. True, we are not our ancestors. There's no need to feel negative reactions for the choices of others--especially those we've never met.

      However, another angle to this situation is the consternation experienced by those who have discovered something uncomfortable about closer members of their family--all because of genealogical research, and especially on account of revelations from DNA tests. Those participating will want to go in, eyes wide open. There can be unexpected fallout from the experience.


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