Tracking Your Past

Doris Green

More than 40 of the 300-plus breakout sessions at February’s RootsTech conference dealt with DNA testing. Sponsored by Family Search International, the four-day online event highlighted how testing can confirm heritage, overcome brick walls and locate lost cousins, siblings and misidentified parents. DNA testing has become a well-developed tool in the professional genealogist’s investigative arsenal.

Thirty-five million consumer DNA test kits have been sold, according to a Consumer Reports survey conducted in October 2020. About one-fifth of Americans have taken such a test (as opposed to a test ordered through a medical provider). 

Not all were thrilled with the results. Nine percent of respondents who took a DNA test stated their results contained “unsettling information, such as news that someone thought to be a biological relative — like a father — isn’t genetically related,” according to the March CR Consumer Reports magazine. 

While such unexpected revelations can be shocking, they are not the only potential drawbacks to DNA testing, according to CR. Accurately pinning down ancestry, especially for more distant relatives, can be challenging and inaccuracies confusing. Still, as more and more people get tested, pinpointing connections gets easier.

The most concerning problems relate to health and legal issues. Theoretically your test from 23andMe, for example, could be used to inform insurance companies, mortgage issuers or employers of family predispositions to specific diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. And, increasingly, law enforcement agencies have solved cold cases by accessing public DNA reports of a suspect’s relatives.

Such concerns have not slowed interest in consumer DNA tests, though they have built awareness of the need for caution. The desire to know one’s roots, however complex they may be, drives test-takers forward. If test results reveal surprises, the surprises become part of the seeker’s identity and story. Maybe they learn of their own — or their parents’ or grandparents’ — adoptions. Maybe they discover new siblings or cousins and identify with a larger family. Or perhaps test results reawaken lost memories. 

Whether the surprise causes family tensions or brings people together, it signals an end to secrets. While a genetic surprise may at first be unsettling, it may also lead to new stories: If my DNA differs from my siblings, maybe I’m not Irish after all. What is my ethnic and cultural background? Knowing who your people are and how you fit in this world can boost the searcher’s confidence and provide a stronger narrative in an ever more transparent world.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Cave, Mines, and Tunnels.” Also available: “Minnesota Underground: A Guide to Caves & Karst, Mines & Tunnels” co-authored with Greg Brick. Contact http://henschelhausbooks.com, Amazon or your bookstore.