Finding our families

Some thoughts, based on the experience of someone I love : about the irrepressible drive to find out who we are, and how technology and our increasing connectedness make it possible to find family connections where once there would have been a dead end.

A DNA test kit costs about sixty quid. The sort that people buy one another for a christmas present. You know the sort that gives you (in my view) pretty generic useless information about your so-say ethnic make-up. It’s only as good as the database, and not all ethnicities are well represented so I’m pretty ‘meh’ about these. (my proof-reading loved one interjects here to say that ‘I think it’s probably worth pointing out that ethnicity is actually about a common cultural or national foundation which is just as much a fallacy as putting everybody in boxes of ‘race’).

But what not everybody realises is that this is merely a gateway to much more powerful tools. DNA test kits also offer a chance to have an insight into personal health dispositions : Am I am I likely to develop lung cancer or die of heart disease etc? And for those with children, there can be a desire to be able to inform your own children about their physical and possibly mental/emotional inheritance.

Once you have submitted your DNA for testing you are offered a choice by the service you use to make your profile public and, separately, you can upload your data to OTHER services that will make them available to a new set of users – the sort that people can use to find distant relatives. Probably best not to do this by the way if you are a serial killer (top tip there) because law enforcement agencies can potentially use that to match you to all the DNA you left at those crime scenes. But in more positive applications you can use these databases to find fifth cousins once removed you didn’t know you had and to plug gaps in your family tree. Why not you might say? Although I suspect most adopted children now know that they are adopted, not every adopted person knows that somebody else is looking for them…not every relinquishing parent knows their child is trying to find them again. And not every looked for biological parent will turn out to match up to the idealised soft focus image in the minds eye…

Of course most of us have families with some sort of unspoken secret – as you get older you realise its par for the course, and so whilst these escapades online into our ancestry can be embarked upon without too much careful thought they can suddenly take an unexpected turn, when you discover a half sibling you didn’t know existed or some unforseen displacement of children within the family (typically children born out of wedlock and taken in by grandparents or aunts). I speak from experience when I say you may uncover things you’d rather you hadn’t, that you couldn’t have made up, or that just raise more questions you can’t answer.

Once you are on a DNA database and have ticked all the boxes that enable the websites to compare profiles and suggest possible relatives to you – and to suggest you as a possible relative to them – you begin to be sent suggestions with names and locations – this person might be your second cousin. Even if you don’t reach out and start a conversation to find out more, in combination with what you already know about family names, the family tree and particular surnames or key dates, this information can be powerful. And in some cases it can be enough to open up a whole other line of enquiry in finding a lost parent where you’d previously reached the end of the road. Because if you can find your second cousin, you can often work your way back combining names, social media profiles, public records and your own snippets of information – until wham. There is the facebook profile of your long lost sister, father, mother, child. Should you contact them? How should you approach it? What do they know about you? Will they welcome your contact? Do their family know about you? And of course you won’t be ready for it. Because who ever can be? And half of you always knew you would find them one day and the other half always believed it would never happen.

Some people will move in ever decreasing circles to find their lost person, and when they arrive there will be a hole, because that person has passed. But for many making contact with their surviving siblings, spouses or children may help you build a picture of the unknown parent or brother you never got to meet in person.

I often wonder what preparation adopters are given to handle this time in their child’s life, probably as a young adult – but maybe in their thirties, forties, later – when that gnawing need just to know, to see for themselves, bursts to the surface and has to be satisfied. I wonder what preparation and support is in place for the adopted children to safely manage this.

It’s one thing for a troubled teenager to look for his biological family on facebook – the grass of course is always greener when you are a teenager and your parents are trying to maintain boundaries – and every teenager is wresting with their own identity. For the adopted teenager this must all be magnified and overwhelming. That is its own world of worry for those who adopt. But even for those who weather the teenaged years are relatively unstormy, I tell you this stuff doesn’t go away. At some point that need to know can’t be ignored any more. And the potential for DNA databases to be used for biological parents and children and siblings to locate one another after adoption – even across international borders – is vast – providing of course one of them has made their DNA profile available and at least someone towards the other end of the family tree can be connected to.

I don’t hold myself out as an expert on adoption. I’m not adopted and I’m not an adoptive parent. But although the details of what I have witnessed of my loved one’s experience is private, I have seen this play out in real life. There are two adopted members of my family who have found or been found by their parent / child through the internet – producing some answers, some joy, some sadness and some unanswerable questions.

And it is this experience is just one of the reasons why the idea of a closed adoption, and a termination of all direct contact seems increasingly naive to me – a fingers in ears approach to the reality of our profound need to know about ourselves that never goes away and our ability to reconnect through our genetic heritage even where legal ties have been irrevocably severed.



Feature pic of DNA located via Helen Carmody on flickr but marked public domain.

2 thoughts on “Finding our families

  1. Didn’t a serial killer in the states get caught because a cousin of his had uploaded their details to ancestry?

    • Yes, and I linked to that in the post. Golden Gate killer I think. Can’t immediately remember if it was his DNA or a close relative’s DNA – but the point is it was the key.

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