Updated: May 28, 2022
Secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.
— James Joyce, Ulysses
Sarah Jessica Parker’s 10th-great-grandmother was condemned as a witch at the Salem Witch Trials in the 17th century. Susan Sarandon’s grandmother was a bigamist. Twice over.
Issa Rae’s fifth-great-grandfather was a white slave owner killed in the Haitian Revolution. A subsequent ancestor was a Black slaveowner in the U.S. who eventually freed both his wife and his daughter.
Michael Strahan is a descendant of Charlemagne. Courtney Cox’s 18th-great-grandfather was the nobleman who was holding English King Edward II captive at a castle when Edward died in 1327, likely a victim of murder most foul. Through her paternal grandmother, an Italian princess who married into the Spanish royal family, Brooke Shields is related to pretty much every living European royal.
I learned all this and other juicy celebrity gossip by watching the PBS DNA reality show Finding Your Roots, in which Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates presents famous people — mostly American actors and TV personalities — with “books of life” meticulously put together by genealogy experts armed with DNA tests and hefty research budgets.
The personable Gates asks all guests, no matter the family secrets revealed, how the discoveries make them feel. That always seems flat and uninspired to me, considering the sensational revelations the researchers routinely turn up. For example, that some of their ancestors: a) owned slaves (Ben Affleck, Ted Danson, Ken Burns, Glenn Close, John Waters, etc. etc.); b) were slaves who themselves descended from oppressive, probable rapist white slave owners (pretty much any Black person with North American or Caribbean roots dating to the 19th century or before); c) were pals with Benjamin Franklin (Tina Fey); d) had syphilis, a morphine addiction and three husbands (Ginnifer Goodwin), and so on and so forth.
Still, it’s the answers to this pedestrian query that lend the show the emotional body blows it rarely fails to deliver.
It was impossible not to tear up while watching Mandy Patinkin break down upon learning, contrary to what he had always been told, that he had close relatives among the thousands of Jews rounded up by the Nazis in northeastern Poland to be murdered in the Treblinka gas chambers in 1942:
“Oh, my God! You know, I went there and I would say to people: ‘I don’t think … any of my relatives died in the Holocaust.’ I was never given this information. This is … I don’t have words.”
It was a joy to exult with Strahan, an African American almost as renowned for the signature gap between his two front teeth as for his superstar NFL and media status, after he quickly took to Twitter upon learning of his descent from “Father of Europe” Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor:
I wonder if Great Grandpa x 39 aka King Charlemagne had a gap too! Wow maybe the gap is a sign of royalty, how about that to all the haters!
The Tweet was accompanied by joint images, which I’ve appended to this piece, of Charlemagne and Strahan decked out in robes and crowns. Hashtag KingStrahan. Hashtag RoyaltyGap.
It was harder, but not impossible, to feel some sympathy toward both Affleck and Gates during the 2015 dustup that occurred when the historian bowed to pressure from the actor to delete details of a slave-owning past from the Affleck family tree. Both men wound up apologizing and the show was temporarily suspended after WikiLeaks released leaked Sony emails documenting the affair.
“I felt embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth,” Affleck later explained on Facebook. “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves.”
It was equally cringeworthy to watch Rae process the news about the death of her fifth-great-grandfather — “massacred by the Negroes,” according to an account written by another white relative early in the 19th century— in the Haitian Revolution.
“I would never have thought I’d be celebrating the death of an ancestor or of someone related to me,” Rae said incredulously, suppressing laughter.
“History is more complicated than the simple narrative we get in school,” Gates observed.
“It sure is,” Rae replied. “This is phenomenal.”
The thing about family histories is that they are no more likely to be phenomenally surprising for famous people than they are for you or me. Most of us have very little idea, beyond a few generalities, of what our great-grandparents’ lives were like, let alone those of the 300 generations that would take us back 6,000 years to the dawn of civilization (on the assumption that a typical generation is 20 years).
Unknown pasts and identity crises have been part of the human experience since experience began to be human.
Raised as her son by Pharaoh’s daughter after she rescued him as an infant from bulrushes on the banks of the Nile, Moses — whether or not the myth is true — went on to become an important prophet in all the Abrahamic religions.
Did Moses yearn to know more about his biological parents, Jochebed and Amram? Presumably, elder brother Aaron and sister Miriam, who grew up among their Hebrew kinsmen in the eastern border-land of Egypt, would have been able to regale the revered prophet with some of what he missed while being raised as a member of the Egyptian royal family.
Many important figures in Hinduism — Sita, Karna, Kunti, Satyavati, Shakuntala, off the top of my topi — were adopted. If they were around today and provided saliva samples for DNA tests, would there be salacious new footnotes for The Ramayana?
Adoption/mysterious origin stories have always caused people to go ape, especially when crossing species boundaries. Think Rome co-founders Romulus and Remus, suckled by a she-wolf and raised by a shepherd. Think Mowgli, a Man-Cub raised by a pack of wolves in the jungles of India. Think Tarzan, an orphaned British viscount brought up in the wilds of Africa by, well, you know.
It can be morbidly exhilarating (yes, that’s a thing since the emergence of reality TV) to see other people’s hidden family secrets exposed. Think talk show host Maury Povich’s use of aha DNA tests to expose deadbeat dads in the 1990s. That’s entertain-ishment.
Now, there’s no doubt that solace and deep satisfaction can be derived from basic discoveries about one’s roots. In both the U.S. and Canada, DNA testing has proved particularly popular among Black people whose family histories were wiped out by the slave trade. Finding out what part of Africa your people were stolen from is at least something.
As Roots: The Saga of an American Family author Alex Haley once put it, many people have “a hunger, bone-marrow deep, to know our heritage … a hollow yearning … a vacuum and emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.”
But if you haven’t already done so, there’s a darker, riskier side worth pondering before ponying up a $130 or so and spitting into a tube for one of those companies — such as Ancestry.ca or 23andMe — that offer mail-order genealogical DNA tests.
In her essay “Anxious for a Mayflower” in the May 12 edition of The New York Review of Books, author Caroline Fraser concludes:
If anything, genealogy thwarts our emotional needs, revealing only fragments of a story. The data are, almost inevitably, scant and narratively disappointing. There are revelations to be had, but barring letters or diaries to flesh out the tale, seekers are often left holding a skein of tantalizing connective tissue, nothing like a complete corpus.
That has certainly been the experience of my wife and me as clients of Ancestry.ca. Other than eventually confirming the DNA results we expected (after months of tinkering around the margins with updates based on ever-improving data) and providing links to a collection of distant cousins we have no interest in contacting and who have no apparent interest in contacting us, our quest to find our way back to the Garden has been pretty ho-hum.
If it floats your mitochondria, you can hire an expert via these companies to help you build your family tree, trace military records or find out precisely when your family emigrated from the Old Country. That costs extra. We’re not buying because we figure we know most of this stuff anyway. But then, we’re the lucky ones.
In the last six months, two of my friends — let’s call them Phil and Alison — have had their lives and those of their families turned upside down by discoveries for which they couldn’t possibly have prepared. Phil found out he has a daughter and three grandchildren. Alison learned that her beloved father wasn’t her biological dad.
Phil’s story goes back to when he was single and a medical student in the late 1970s. Always ready to lend a hand to a worthy cause, he became a sperm donor when the call went out from fertility clinic colleagues. He made the scene with a magazine during a busy shift as an intern. Was promised absolute anonymity, but no one back then could have foreseen the rise of genetic genealogy websites.
Thinks he was paid a small gratuity. Not sure whether he got to keep the well-thumbed mag. Promises he washed his hands.
Phil married, had a beautiful family and a successful practice at a walk-in clinic, and has now semi-retired. He hadn’t given his seminal contribution to humanity a second thought for decades — until his youngest daughter discovered, via a direct-to-consumer DNA kit from Ancestry.ca, that she has a half-sister twice her age.
The half-sister — a nurse, mother of three and Ancestry.ca customer living half a continent away — had never been told about her origins. The sudden siblings connected, exchanged information … and Phil had some ’splaining to do.
He recently met his surprise daughter for the first time (or not) — let’s call her Stacy — when she flew out to the city where Phil lives. It’s where Stacy grew up. Her parents still reside in a house a few blocks from where Phil’s now-deceased parents were living when Stacy was small.
They might have crossed paths countless times. Stacy remembers being treated at the walk-in clinic for a minor ailment and thinks it was Phil who saw her.
She has his mother’s smile. His mother’s laugh. Is lively and gregarious, just like the grandmother she never knew.
Stacy did her nursing training at the same far-away university that Phil once attended. No one else in the family in which she grew up has any background or interest in medicine. Phil’s dad was a doctor, his sister also a nurse.
Stacy’s parents haven’t a clue that she has found out how she came to be. She doesn’t want to confront or upset them, so she met Phil in secret and plans to do so again this summer on another visit home.
She has a sister with an extremely rare disease shared by a former med school classmate of Phil’s who was also a sperm donor. The sister doesn’t want to know anything about it and is angry that any of this has come to light. Who could blame her?
Stacy is afraid her boys will spill the beans if she tells them about her paternal — their maternal — origins. Phil’s wife jokingly calls him Grandpa. Their now-grown children don’t have any kids and are leaning toward never having any.
It’s messy as hell, but from where Phil sits, at least, sort of a toss-up — you’ll pardon the expression — as to whether the whole experience has been positive or negative. (Not sure, by the way, whether intern Phil was sitting when he answered the bell. He might have been lying down. You want that level of detail, check reruns of The Jerry Springer Show.)
No such ambiguity in Alison’s case.
Finding out that her biological dad was a man with whom her very married mother once worked, rather than the loving father who raised her, has obliterated her sense of a coherent identity.
Half of her ethnic background is different from what she had always believed. She has half-siblings and a whole extended family she has never heard of … except for a boy at school with whom she never exchanged two words when they were growing up. Turns out he’s her half-brother. Turns out he and his siblings grew up in the house next to that of her best childhood friend.
How do you approach a group of strangers with an information bombshell like that? Should you? What to do if they approach you?
Alison’s mother, father and biological dad are all dead, as is the mother of her half-siblings, so there might be no one around who could tell her what the key players in that generation knew or suspected. If anything.
Are there inherited health conditions she should know about? Is she now, genetically, just a half-sibling to her own bestie sister? A half-aunt to her nephews? What is her relationship to the cousins and the surviving uncle and aunt on her father’s side? Do her paternal grandparents somehow cease to be her grandparents? Are their stories no longer hers?
If love and lived experience are what counts, and I’d say they are, then nothing has really changed. Disquieting DNA results don’t change how people feel about you or how you feel about them. Family is family, even when you put on a brand new pair of genes.
But that’s easy to say when you haven’t had the full “je est un autre” experience, first expressed in a very different context by Monsieur Rimbaud. How can you love yourself if you don’t know who you are?
Not many people bother to read privacy statements, but the Ancestry.ca site does include this caveat:
You may discover unexpected facts about yourself or your family when using our services. Once discoveries are made, we can’t undo them.
A 23andMe spokesperson told CTVNews.ca in an emailed statement last week that it has measures in place to help prepare users for unexpected disclosures:
Firstly, we prepare customers with all of the information they need upfront and inform them that taking the test can result in unexpected, and sometimes life-changing, results. We specifically state that you may discover things like “your father is not genetically your father.”
In an article posted on the CTV News website, writer Brooklyn Neustaeter quotes Robert Whitley, an associate psychiatry prof at McGill University who is studying the matter, as saying “not parent expected” discoveries via DNA tests are more common than you might think:
The estimates of misattributed paternity … is about two per cent in the population, so that's affecting one in 50 people maybe who might possibly get this very shocking news. It's not an insignificant number if you think that millions of people are taking these tests. … This can completely affect your self-image, it can affect the harmony of your family relations, it can lead to huge existential questions and doubts about who you are and where you've been in life and where you’re going in life.
One element that isn’t a crapshoot, given the near-universal desire to better understand where we came from, is the immense profitability of DNA analysis. Ancestry.ca parent Ancestry.com, spawned by a couple of bright Brigham Young University grads who began by selling Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publications on floppy disks from the backseat of their car, now has a customer base of more than three million subscribers in 30 countries.
According to Fraser, Ancestry.com — snapped up by a private equity firm in August 2020 for a cool $4.7 billion US — takes in annual revenues of more than $1 billion. Bloomberg Law has reported that its DNA network comprises about 18 million people.
Millions more have availed themselves of other tests, such as those sold by 23andMe, and the data collected on multiple sites have corrected the record on historical figures, identified long-sought criminals and human remains, and startled any number of customers who have learned hitherto unimagined facts about their families.
In the 2021 book A Nation of Descendants: Politics and the Practice of Genealogy in US History, Northeastern Illinois University history prof Francesa Morgan makes the case that while helping some recover their history, genealogical research also has been distorted into odious rationales for eugenic policies, miscegenation laws and white supremacy.
In Canada, leading medical professionals and even politicians/social reformers as progressive as Tommy Douglas and Nellie McClung subscribed to the pseudoscience of eugenics in the first half of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Alberta and B.C. repealed Sexual Sterilization Acts designed to prevent the procreation of people considered to have undesirable characteristics (mostly, surprise surprise, Indigenous women and those deemed mentally disabled or mentally ill).
The “great replacement theory” promulgated by Team Trump, Fox News rabble rouser Tucker Carlson, and the pathetic, psychopathic fascists who have committed mass murders in places like Buffalo, Christchurch and El Paso, is a direct descendant of fears expressed by Teddy Roosevelt and other white nationalists more than a century ago that Anglo-Saxons would be committing “race suicide” by not doing all they could to stop perceived enemies (i.e., brown people and Jews) from taking over the country.
In A Nation of Descendants, Morgan quotes one “despairing professional” in the field as suggesting that “P.T. Barnum missed his calling when he neglected to become a genealogist.”
Which puts me in mind, so as not to end on too much of a downer, of Barnum’s famous dictum that “every crowd has a silver lining.”
For anyone who, like Alison, suddenly finds herself unmoored and cast overboard into a sea of faces of unfamiliar kin, a silver lining could emerge from the research being conducted by Whitley and his colleagues at McGill.
Whitley is looking to interview about 50 people by the end of this year, and then in 2023, use the findings to help create targeted therapies and resources. Those who have received surprising news about their parentage from a genealogical DNA test and want to be a part of the study can email Whitley directly at email@example.com.
What was it that largely (and deservedly) forgotten Victorian writer Dinah Craik had warned in her largely (and deservedly) forgotten poem Magnus and Morna?
Oh yeah. I remember now.
A secret at home is like rocks under tide.