SwapCuz - A Story of Recreational DNA Testing
July 28, 2017 10:41 AM   Subscribe

A fascinating story of one family's adventures in genealogy and what they found. I've always been both drawn to and wary of exploring some of my ancestry; especially after being contacted by a researcher who linked me to a well known historical event. It's amazing to consider what we think we know about ourselves and what makes up our identies.
posted by brookeb (28 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
If not for the switch, Jim would have been raised in an intact home. He almost certainly would have completed high school and might have done something with his gift for mathematics. Instead, he served in the Army and later as a California prison guard — spending his career in institutions like the one that defined his childhood. He made a decent life for himself, but his kids still grieve for the losses of that little boy. “In the orphanage, my father got an orange for Christmas,” Plebuch says.

I hope more people realise that life/luck is so fickle. Any one of us can find ourselves in hardscrabble situations. We need strong safety nets, and more compassion for people. What we deem as people's just desserts due to selfish choices may be because they had to choose between a very narrow set of difficult choices, none of them optimal.

I've mourned the loss of certain things (belongings, relationships, identity/culture) due to choices I made, but I also tell myself, "No one will fault you for trying to survive. You did what you had to at that time."
posted by cynical pinnacle at 11:07 AM on July 28, 2017 [18 favorites]

I'm glad they quoted Atwood in there, she nailed it.
posted by k5.user at 11:20 AM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

The story mentions that a family member designed and launched an app for doing DNA test tracking, DNA Match. Here are some links to the app and various associated pages and sites.

App page
Official site
Facebook page

The story also mentions "at least 21 kits" purchased over time, with the earliest kits likely bought before the $99 price point was established and certainly some representing more-advanced kits than those easily obtainable from the market-leaders 23andMe and Ancestry. Quite an investment and effort.

The story also does a good job of noting the various reactions that people have to taking these tests and understanding unexpected results.

One thing the story does not mention, possibly because it was written as Ancestry was changing this policy earlier this year, is that Ancestry no longer permits 3rd-party administration of DNA results. That is, a researcher or researching family such as the family in the article can no longer send a kit to a prospective relative and then have the kit tied directly to the sponsoring researcher's account, a step many researchers prefer due to the propensity of people facing unexpected results to delete their tests and accounts. A tested person must now test via their own account and then grant various levels of access to others.

It's a privacy-policy based step that seems to me to have been unavoidable. After all, what do we own if not our own genetic materials and resultant data?

The new policy will inevitably keep some people from learning the truth about their genetic identity.

In my Facebook feed, people sharing this story have two reactions. Some express interest and excitement about the possibilities that the story raises. Others share it with a finger-shaking warning about the inherent dangers of DNA testing.
posted by mwhybark at 11:46 AM on July 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Wow, this story is really something and, not to minimize the anguish these people felt, highlights how slippery and flimsy the idea of ethnicity is.

DNA testing really is fraught. A friend's mother discovered that her father wasn't her father (also turned out to be Jewish, oddly); a friend of my in-laws found a daughter he didn't know he had (and her children), and it's, as suggested in the article, causing some measure of friction in the family.

I've had mine sequenced, as well, and it's mostly taught me that Puerto Ricans are a ridiculously fecund people -- there are, right now, twelve people closer to me (in some cases much closer) than a known second cousin on my European side.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:54 AM on July 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

I thought long and hard before signing up for one of these sites. It's a heavy thing, knowing that your general existence might irreversibly shake up someone else's life. But in the end, I figured that the truth can come out in all sorts of unpredictable ways, and this way at least provided some control over how the facts were disclosed and what we did with them. I'm currently at four new half-siblings and counting.
posted by haruspicina at 11:57 AM on July 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

I want to do a DNA test if only to liven up my ancestry. I did some records-based geneological research a few months back. I knew my dad's side was all north German and Danish, but nobody had really done the research on my mom's side. They all have dark hair and tan easier, so there were a lot of theories. Her family favored the quintessential white-person "I've got a Native American ancestor" belief. Well, turns out that save for one English ancestor, everyone else was German too, just from the south. Immigration patterns and place of settlement were totally different than on Dad's, but I was even able to trace some branches back to the 1400s and it's Germans all the way down. BORING.

I mean, with all that Germany up in there you'd think at least the heritage and language would've been passed down somehow, but nope. I guess this explains why everyone in Turkey thought I was German until I opened my mouth and all the American vowel sounds came out.
posted by schroedinger at 12:14 PM on July 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think the dangers of DNA testing though are rooted in how seriously you tie genetics to your definition of family (well, like, outside revelations of affairs and whatnot).

It really struck me that she was worried her cousin wouldn't want to be her cousin any more because they weren't related by blood. Finding out you don't share chromosomes with someone doesn't wipe away the years of love, memories, and experiences together. If you really cut a tie with someone because you find out you're not genetically related to them, well, how much could you have cared about them in the first place?
posted by schroedinger at 12:20 PM on July 28, 2017 [14 favorites]

I haven't had mine done, mostly because a) I'm pretty sure I know what I'll find (Hungarian and Eastern European Jews all the way down) and b) I have a bit of the fear in me of someone using the test results unethically. That said, I really do want to do it to see what I'm made of.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:30 PM on July 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh snap! The wife (Esther Abolafia) of the man raised Jewish has the very specific/unusual last name of my husband's recent ancestors. But the story mentions Ashkenazi a ton -- but that's a very Sephardic surname. Hm... I'll have to reread more closely.

My husband's grandfather was also born and raised in the Bronx with an Abolafia mother. Again, hmmm.

Wouldn't that be something if his family is actually related to THIS family!
posted by functionequalsform at 1:16 PM on July 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Damn. It's such a common childhood fantasy, for kids to imagine they were swapped at birth from some family that has more of what the kid wants - wealth, stability, status, or just love. And it was actually true for poor Jim Collins. It doesn't sound like he'd have traded himself for anything when he was grown, but I wonder if he ever leaned against an orphanage fence and told himself about his real family.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:16 PM on July 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've got one of these stories! We've got a family legend about a Native American ancestor named Gilly. We even have a tintype of her somewhere, though I've never seen it. She's described as having long black hair and high cheekbones and darker skin than her husband, also in the picture. Me, my father, and my grandmother all took 23andMe tests. Well, it turns out that we have no Native American DNA, but we do have a tiny bit (<1%) of...drumroll, please...Sub-Saharan African DNA! Grandma refuses to acknowledge it, though.
posted by domo at 1:32 PM on July 28, 2017 [15 favorites]

I found my biological family as a result of DNA testing, and learned an awful lot about the story of how I came to be, which has meant a lot to me. I also like my biological family an awful lot, and it turned out the circumstances of my adoption were quotidian rather than horrible (young mother unprepared to raise a child), which is always a fear.

But I was lucky. I used to teach a class about the subject that came with a bunch of warnings, and the biggest one is that there are an awful lot of skeletons in family closets that this sort of test can unearth. And even in my own case, my mother has found herself quite upset, because her process for addressing the fact that she adopted me involved a little bit of denial, and this has pulled that out from under her.
posted by maxsparber at 1:34 PM on July 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I had something like this happen. I had someone contact me through 23andMe who was clearly my second cousin on my father's side. She was looking for her own father, having only a date, place, and brief description for her conception. As it happened, due to my own genealogy work I knew that there was only one likely candidate. I agonized a bit -- I didn't really want to get into the middle of it, but I also felt strongly that that the potential father in question should at least be offered the opportunity to find out. And I couldn't really give the seeker in question the relative's phone number and run away, which was tempting. Serious invasion of privacy.

So I got to have the world's most awkward text conversation with a cousin I hadn't seen since I was a little kid. They said it wasn't them, I communicated said information to the person from 23andMe. True or not? Don't know. The location, physical description and age only matched one person, but it's also possible my granduncle had an illegitimate kid in the same town. Who knows? It just wasn't my place to pry.
posted by tavella at 2:09 PM on July 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I got my Ancestry DNA results last week. Turns out I'm boring.
posted by Brodiggitty at 2:30 PM on July 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm probably boring too. Only child of an only child, and my grandfather and father both strongly resemble me at similar ages. But my ancestry also dissolves shortly past one set of great-grandparents into an abyss of lost family Bibles and burned courthouses. Williams is a common enough English name that my ancestors could have come over with the earliest colonists, but perhaps as indentured servants who absconded into the then-uncharted inland forests. And I suspect there may be a few percent of that "Indian" but really sub-Saharan African contribution too, simply because it's the South and all. Seriously tempted to order a kit.
posted by Bringer Tom at 4:41 PM on July 28, 2017

My personal DNA test on a popular DNA testing service didn't turn up anything particularly interesting about myself. However, it did turn up my older half brother who my mother gave up for adoption before conceiving me.
posted by runcibleshaw at 5:02 PM on July 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is an interesting article, but the wording in it is driving me batty. (And how could WaPo not include the shocking 1912 photo mentioned, showing "at least a dozen newborns piled on a cart like so many cabbages" at one Manhattan hospital?!) A woman searching for her "real" relatives is devastated upon learning her favorite cousin "wasn’t actually her cousin" and feared rejection. At one point a group cruise trip is undertaken, and it's not awkward in the slightest: "...no strangeness among strangers, as if blood recognized blood."

And so on and so forth. It's 2017 fer cryin' out loud, the terms genetic and biological should have been used throughout the entire piece.
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:37 PM on July 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

My DNA test was boringly predictable as well. Plenty of German, as I expected, since a set of great-grandparents on each side were fresh off the boat. And some British Isles, which I also expected. I had hoped to find evidence of the Native American ancestry on my mother's side, but it's pretty diluted at this point, and while many of my relatives on that side look the part, my DNA apparently comes from the lily-white UK side of the family (most of my German ancestors are dark as well.) The only surprising results (Pakistani? really?) were miniscule and marked "low confidence" so I'm not too excited about those.

Here is a video explanation of why you don't always see the ancestry you expect in your DNA results.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:18 PM on July 28, 2017

Hmm! One of my maternal aunts did a test with mostly European results and a 3% Indian result. We've always had a number of people with dark coloring in our family, so I suggested it was a Romany ancestor. Probably it's a trace outlier, nothing at all, and I shouldn't have even guessed out loud; it's the kind of thing that gets a family legend started.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:30 PM on July 28, 2017

I want to know how much Neanderthal DNA I have got... do the standard tests offer that option?

My gut tells me that I am a strong outlier, 5% — GHOSTS REPRESENT!
posted by Meatbomb at 10:28 PM on July 28, 2017

23andme used to give a Neanderthal percentage -- I was about 4 percent. Now they just tell you if you have more or less Neanderthal DNA than the average, which is probably better science but less fun.
posted by maxsparber at 10:50 PM on July 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

In the middle of my mother dying my sister and I were contacted out of the blue by a woman claiming to be our older half-sister. Between 23 and me and ancestry.com's DNA testing, she had tracked down family up to first cousin.

Mom said she thought the baby went to a closed adoption, but the baby had been abandoned in a car in a doctor's parking lot. She'd been searching for mom for over a decade.

In the same week I lost my mom, I gained an older sister, brother-in-law, nieces, and grand nephews.

So you never know what surprises lurk in these DNA searches.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 7:23 AM on July 29, 2017 [7 favorites]

My genetic results are boring as well, but as an American with significant family roots in the South, that's only going to hold true as long as the demographic for 23andMe is primarily rich white people spitting in tubes for fun. I've yet to see a mainstream press article discuss the real family surprises that "boring" white people like me will run into as testing becomes more common in the U.S., which is when we all get to face indisputable evidence that our ancestors were slave-raping monsters.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:03 AM on July 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

The one part of the Jerry Springer shitshow's DNA testing I always enjoyed was when southern people were mortified to learn they had black ancestors (virtually always) and despite the insistent but nonspecific claim of their older relatives had no Native American ancestors (almost literally never true).
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:58 AM on July 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

My sister's story: Hidden in Plain Sight
posted by mikelieman at 8:07 AM on July 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

Mike, thanks for sharing that. It strikes me as sad for your sibling - although, goodness, it's a positive outcome.
posted by mwhybark at 5:11 PM on August 4, 2017

Just seen this linked on Ravelry genealogy forum and came here to see if it had been posted. People on the forum also linked blog posts by Alice Plebuch and Jess Benson:

Switched at Birth: Unraveling a Century-Old Mystery with DNA

And Who Would’ve Thought…It Figures
posted by paduasoy at 12:05 PM on August 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

My other DNA story is that as well as my expected nearly entirely northern european background, there was a little bit of sub-Saharan DNA and a little bit of Native American DNA. The African DNA was not surprising -- I already knew that some of my ancestors were raping assholes from wills and birth records. But it was so diffuse and from both sides I couldn't pinpoint anything about it. But the NA DNA came in the form of two non-recombining stretches, so they are inherited whole or not at all and are very easy to pick out. I matched up with seven people (that aren't my father) on one or both of the pieces. Of that, four of us can trace our descent from one son of my 6xgreat grandparents and two from the other.

What makes that *really* fun is that my 6Xggrandfather married a woman named Hagar Stoval. And you will find a number of screeds on the internet from descendents of her supposed father's later wife about how she can't possibly be his daughter, he just gave her and her sons several hundred acres of land because he was a friendly neighbor. Their reasoning being that she would have been born during a time when he was an indentured servant and thus not supposed to marry (because that has always stopped young men from having sex!) and also that Hagar was not used as an English woman's name at the time.

And yes, these both seem to be true. But what is also true is that Hagar is the name of a dark-skinned slave in the bible, and the period of his indentureship was a period when many Virginia Indians were held in slavery or indentured bondage. So the odds seem extremely good that Hagar was his daughter with a fellow indentured servant who was Native American. It was kind of cool to be able to pick out so much about where the genes came from.
posted by tavella at 8:18 AM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

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