Here’s a thought-provoking story from the front page of the NYT. As is often the case it is worth reading because I’m sure different things will strike different people. I’m just going to touch on a couple of things that strike me.
Khrys Vaughn learned she was adopted when she was 42. She decided to search for her origins by using a company that provides DNA testing and then matches you up with people you’re related to. Through this process she located a third-cousin, Jennifer Grigsby. (Grigsby had her DNA tested because she was interested in tracing her genetic lineage.)
This month, [Vaughn] drove 208 miles from her hometown here to Evansville, Ind., to meet her third cousin, the first relative to respond to her e-mails. Mrs. Vaughan is black and her cousin is white, and they have yet to find their common ancestor. But Mrs. Vaughan says that does not matter.
“Somebody is related to me in this world,” she said. “Somebody out there has my blood. I can look at her and say, ‘This is my family.’ ”
A few things from this story strike me initially. First, and without any attention to the details, there’s an industry developing around the whole DNA testing/tracing thing. It is, like the ART industry, it is largely a for-profit industry. I’m not sure how important that is, really, but it’s true for both of them so it’s worth observing, I think.
It’s also an expanding industry and the more people who decide to DNA testing, the more matches will show up, the more stories like this one will show up and, I suspect, the more people will do DNA testing. So I think it fair to say we’re looking at the early stages of a fast-growing phenomenon. Realistically we should expect that more and more people will have access to this sort of information over the coming years.
Moving more to the details of the individual story, Vaughn is one of those people who was deceived about her origins. In their defense, her parents initially made that choice in the 1970s, when things might have looked different to them. But I don’t think it’s the best option and it is increasingly an untenable option. If DNA testing continues to proliferate, the idea that your child will never know becomes fanciful, and if they’re going to know, I think it’s pretty clear your better off telling them yourself. (That said, this story does not dwell on any trauma to Ms. Vaughn that resulted from the concealment and revelation.)
Beyond that, I find the sense of connection between Vaughn and Grigsby really striking. For a time last year (or maybe the year before) I earnestly worked away at my own geneaology. I turned up second and third cousins in a variety of places. But I have to say that in the end, I realized I wasn’t all that interested in the project, largely because I didn’t feel terribly much connection with the distant relatives.
I don’t mean to suggest that my experience is the norm–I have no idea, really. But it does seem to me that experiences here must vary and there is absolutely no chance that the NYT will run a front page story that says “Shapiro found her third cousins but didn’t really care about that.” You wouldn’t even see a story that said “Vaughn found her third-cousins but didn’t find it very important.” What I mean to suggest is that the impression created by media is necessarily skewed. Inevitably the only stories that get media coverage will be those that match with one set of experiences.
Finally (for the moment, because I don’t want to go too long here) I find it really interesting that the genetic connection trumps race, which is often experienced as a fundamental difference in our society. Vaughn is Black and Grigsby is White, but this matters less to the women than the fact of the genetic connection. (The connection must be the result of some common forebear several generations back and as yet unidentified.) There’s something really interesting (and perhaps hopeful) here. I think we often think of race as something that is both fixed and genetically defined. The truth is much more complicated. Like so many other things race is at least in part socially constructed, such that a single ancestor can have descendants who are identify as different races. Maybe a better understanding of our common heritages will help us get beyond some of the unproductive manifestations of race in the United States today.