Sunday Salon: Who Do You Think You Are?

When the topic of ancestry arises, I usually joke that I’m a “real American,” meaning my gene pool reflects a melting pot of Middle Eastern and Western European ingredients, with a splash of Jewish and a pinch of Native American thrown in for added variety. I took a DNA test a few years ago, not because I was terribly curious, but mostly because I wanted to have a written copy of my own personal DNA recipe.

I expected a pretty clear 50/50 split between Armenian (my dad was second generation American, born of two native Armenian parents) and a predominant mixture of Scotch-Irish from my mother’s side.

Some of my ancestors: My paternal grandfather (standing); my parents; my aunts and uncles

Some of my ancestors: My paternal grandfather (standing); my parents; my aunts and uncles

The results weren’t exactly like that, though, and I was puzzled. The majority of my DNA (39%) was identified as Greek-Italian, another 29% as coming from the Caucasus region (which includes Armenia) and the remaining was divided between Great Britain, Germany, and Eastern Europe.

I felt a little strange about that. First because I expected it to be more evenly divided at least between the Eastern European and Western European halves of me. My parents were so clearly one and the other, shouldn’t it be a more of 50/50 proposition? Instead, I was almost 70% one and 30% the other.

And then there was the question of being Greek-Italian. Notwithstanding the fact the Italian food is my absolute favorite, there has never been even the slightest hint that any ancestor on any side was one bit Italian - or Greek.

My family and I laughed about it. Even with this slightly odd result, I was certain of who I was. The physical resemblance to both my parents is clear, and common family personality traits from both sides equally apparent. Still, there remained a niggling uncertainty deep inside me. Maybe I really wasn’t who I thought I was after all.

I’ve been reminded of all this because of a book I’m reading (of course, you say - it always comes back to a book with Becca. Well, yes, it does.)

This book, Inheritance, A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro, starts with a simple DNA test like the one I took. And yet the results of this test prove very quickly and very conclusively that Shapiro’s beloved father was not her biological parent, a truth that was hidden from her throughout her entire 54 years of life. In fact, Shapiro was conceived via artificial insemination from a sperm donor, a medical student, who had no idea of her existence. However, within a matter of a few days, using Facebook and Google, Shapiro and her husband were able to discover the identity and whereabouts of her biological father, a medical ethicist in his late 70’s. Watching video of him on You Tube, Shapiro was stunned by the shared physical resemblance and the similarities in speech patterns and gestures.

Because Dani Shapiro is one of my favorite authors - one I consider a “teacher” of sorts for my own writing - I was familiar with her life story from reading and studying her four previous memoirs. I knew the love and admiration she held for her dad, the man who raised her, and also of the unsettled relationship she had with her mother. I was familiar with the way her Jewish heritage and history informed her spiritual and historical sense of being. As I read Inheritance, by heart broke for her as she unraveled the truth of her genetic heritage and with it the untruths of her entire life. Her willingness to share this journey, and the deftness with which she conveys the emotions involved with it, makes this book her most compelling yet.

It also poses an important question in this day and age of complex medical advances as well as the availability to discover all the scientific details of our lives. It is more difficult - if not impossible - to keep secrets like the secret Shapiro’s parents kept from her.

“What do we inherit, and how, and why?” she writes. “The relatively new field of epigenetic studies the impact of environment and experience on genes themselves. How much of the gene pool of (my biological father) formed me? I did not come from the line of small, wiry, dark-eyed people of the shtetl, the men swaying over crumbling tombstones, prayer books in their hands. The imprint of pogroms, of the difficulties and sorrows of immigrant life was not mine - at least not in the physical sense. But I had carried these things a long way in my heart. I was of that dusty and doomed Polish village - and I was not. What had I inherited psychologically? What was in my blood? I was made of three people. Disparate worlds had been floating and colliding within me all my life.”

I didn’t spend much time on my page after the initial test results came in. I knew who I was, and despite the slightly off-seeming results, I knew with certainty where I came from. After reading Inheritance, I logged into my page and saw a message waiting for me. After studying a broader sampling, Ancestry was notifying me of a change in my DNA results. With some trepidation, Shapiro’s shocking discovery fresh in my mind, I opened the new results.

49% Caucasus, 42% Great Britain, a smattering of German and Eastern European. These were the results I originally expected, and results that certainly ratified my own beliefs about myself. It seems I knew who I was after all.

Obviously, Shapiro’s DNA results will not change, no matter how much broader a sampling Ancestry surveys. She is learning, at age 54, about parts of herself she never knew existed. She is reimagining her heritage, her history, even her health, as she learns more about the other half of her gene pool. In the beginning, there was trauma associated with this. By the end of her book - after meeting her biological father, his wife, and her half-sister, after beginning to feel as sense of belonging she never quite felt with her parents, she is coming to accept the fact that there is beauty associated with it as well. Early on in her journey to process this information, she consults a rabbi who tells her, “You can say this is terrible, awful. Or you can say it’s beautiful, wonderful.”

None of us are able to choose who we are genetically, but each of us can choose how we respond to our biology and how we fulfill the destiny it gives us. That’s the true mark of who we really are in this world.