When I was 43 years old, my mom told me, with a shaking voice and tears streaming down her face, that she was not the woman who gave birth to me. For three years she had resisted the pleas of my half-sister, who wanted me to know that our mutual birth mother had died of cancer. Finally running out of patience, she insisted that my mom tell me, or she was going to contact me and tell me herself.
I love my mom, and it broke my heart to see her so torn up, explaining the strange circumstances of my birth and adoption. But as the truth sank in, I was filled with a deep sense of relief, and even–dare I say it–joy.
The revelations of that morning started me on a journey to find out all I could about my birth family and my genetic inheritance. I spent hours staring at the album of family photos my half-sister sent me, looking for likenesses. After that hunger was sated, I searched the backgrounds in the pictures for clues to habits and personalities.
Genealogy, which I’d always dismissed as a game for insecure people who wanted an aristocratic pedigree, suddenly consumed, and continues to consume, much of my free time.
And I’ve taken all three of the major DNA tests on the market.
But here’s the rub: I don’t know why I feel these feelings, and why I do these things. Don’t I already know who I am? Am I not the same person I was before? Why does this information change my sense of myself? Should it? How does it change my already-complicated relationship with the family who raised me? Should it?
I write about ancestry, genetics, family, and identity. I talk to scientists about what we currently can and can’t know via our DNA. I ask psychologists about the impact of adoption, and the importance (or not) of biological family groups. I follow the growing field of behavioral neuroscience, that examines the intersection of mind and biology.
And most importantly, I make this research accessible to other people like me, people who are powerfully–and yet still mysteriously–driven to try to understand ourselves through our ancestral past.