AncestryDNA. MyHeritage DNA. 23andMe. There is no current scarcity of genetic testing companies offering to unlock their client’s secret family histories. But according to Libby Copeland, author of “The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are,” like Pandora’s Box, once old family secrets spring out from these kits, it’s tricky to shut them back in.
The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore held a discussion and book signing with Copeland March 5. There, Copeland took questions from Jennifer Mendelsohn, former People magazine special correspondent and member of the board of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland. That was followed by a Q&A session with the audience.
“I’ve started to think of this age that we’re in as the age of genetic reckoning,” Copeland said, “because if there’s a genetic secret in your family, it’s going to come out or it already has.”
Copeland got involved in the subject when working on a story for The Washington Post about a woman named Alice Collins Plebuch, who believed that she was Irish on both sides of her family.
“Instead, what she found was that she was half Ashkenazi Jewish,” Copeland said, taking Plebuch on a two-and-a-half yearlong “genetic detective mystery.”
After writing the story, Copeland asked readers to send any good genetic testing stories they had to her email. She soon was inundated with “hundreds upon hundreds” of emails, saying, “I’ve got to tell you what happened to me. This changed my life. This rocked my world.”
There are several different types of people who tend to use these kits, according to Copeland. There are amateur genealogists, who before taking a genetic test were already interested in piecing together their heritage. Then there are testers who suspect they may not be descended from who they’ve been told they’re descended from, and adopted children or the children of sperm donors looking for family they’ve never met. Lastly, there are those who mostly just take the test for fun, or because they received it as a gift, and then receive far more than they bargained for.
“And then Easter dinner becomes awkward, because the test has revealed something strange,” Copeland said. “And the question ‘Why is it saying I’m half Greek?’ becomes a curiosity, which becomes a nagging doubt, which becomes a family conversation no one will ever forget.”
In one particularly colorful metaphor, Copeland described being offered these testing kits as “a hiker who spies an old grenade from a long-ago war on a beach.”
One story she remembered was that of Rosario Castronovo, a name he had picked himself based on his mother’s stories that they were Sicilian in origin. “He is somebody who was always kind of searching for identity,” Copeland said. “He was looking for his place. He was looking for his anchor.” He changed his name to Castronovo, meaning “new castle” for his new life and identity, converted to Catholicism, studied opera, and married an Italian-American woman after proposing to her on Italian soil.
“It turns out he’s not Italian,” Copeland said. In truth, Castronovo’s mother is biracial, descended from a white mother and a black father who was incarcerated for the relationship in a Vermont jail.
Castronovo’s mother experienced a great deal of discrimination in her life, and promised herself “I’m not going to tell my son that he’s black,” Copeland told the audience. “I’m going to tell him that he’s Sicilian.”
Copeland also mentioned stories of a child of a sperm donor who later discovered she had 24 siblings and stories of “nonpaternity events” where a son or daughter needed to reevaluate their relationship with both their genetic father and the father who raised them.
Mendelsohn then brought up one story of a Jewish woman and her husband who had converted. Experiencing fertility issues, they both were tested.
“It turned out that her husband, who had converted to Judaism, was actually Jewish ethnically,” said Mendelsohn, “and his great-grandparents had reinvented themselves in America.” His “aha!” moment came when he said, “Well, this explains why we always had matzah ball soup for Easter dinner.”
In three interviews, Copeland heard what she called “the lonely boat metaphor.” These people “talked about how all of a sudden they … felt unmoored. They felt adrift. They felt as if they had been put on a raft and pushed out to sea. … It’s very disorienting, like I said, to suddenly discover that like you were standing here and all of a sudden you have no idea where you are.”
“I thought [the event] was terrific, and very thought provoking,” said Steve Snyder, a bookseller who works at Ivy Bookshop. “It is really the first book on this topic, but it will not be the last. People will have other personal stories, and they will share them, but Ms. Copeland has really framed the topic for everyone who will come after.”