I am an only child, adopted as a newborn, as I discovered while a young teen in upstate New York. My parents explained the whole thing to me, and from that point on, it was merely one part of who I am. I’ve honestly always been OK with it… incurious and amazingly accepting. Mom was my Mom, Dad was my Dad and everything was fine. I lived a happy small-town childhood with loving, hard-working parents, listening to radio stations all over the globe, reading everything in sight and soaking up information without really trying. It never ever crossed my mind to track down my birth parents.
Inevitably, middle age snuck up, and doctors earnestly asked questions about my family medical history of “X” diseases. What did my parents die of? Of course, I knew that answer, but also knew the information was just irrelevant. So, is there any good way for me to find out whether my cholesterol is crucial or my osteoarthritis ominous?
I tried the easiest and most direct route available, seemingly simple because my Mom had actually given me the copy of their legal adoption agreement, complete with official stamped gold seal. It even stated my original given birth name, William John Zagrobelna. I contacted the Monroe County Surrogate Court in Rochester, providing a copy of that filing as well as death certificates for both of my adoptive parents, and asked for them to unseal the case after 68 years to allow me to research my birth family’s medical history. It seemed like a no-brainer at the time. But I hadn’t reckoned with the NY State Adoption laws, the most stringent in the entire nation. They were designed to absolutely shield the birth parents forever, except in dire cases, and it was left to the courts to decide what is dire and what is frivolous.
In short, the court would not even consider the case unless I had a life-or-death need, and they required a legal statement from a doctor which supported my claim. Oh… and the doctor must be licensed to practice in the State of New York… not wholly impractical… unless you live 5000 miles away. Anyway, I was pretty sure I didn’t have a rare cancer needing a marrow donor match, or anything equally fatal, so I started two more processes. First, the Court let me know that the NY State Health Department. has a free Adoption Registry, which can assist with providing non-identifying information about the birth parents. There are no guarantees they can even find your case, so when I sent them my notarized form and identification, it was like throwing a message in a bottle into the vast ocean.
Currently, both the Assembly and the Senate of the State of New York have bills under debate this 2019 session to address this situation. Assembly Bill A5494 , with 92 co-sponsors, is advancing through committees, headed for a vote this session as well as matching Senate Bill S3419.
Next, I did what millions of people worldwide are doing these days… I took a private DNA sequencing test through one of the many companies making that process into a very big business. At the time, the only company who was actually testing for medical conditions, 23 and Me, was on a mandated hiatus imposed by the FDA, who considered it practicing medicine without a license. So instead of paying them $200, I found that for half of that amount I could get an autosomal DNA test from Ancestry.com, who came to the business equipped with genealogical resources gathered from many generations of acquisition by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and thousands of church-member users and tree information existing from a decade online. Honestly, that fortuitous choice of companies made all the difference between failure… and my eventual success. Let’s just say that it was the depth of their resources, plus many hundreds of hours of my obsessive work that eventually solved the puzzle.
All suspense aside, I can tell you now that I found out that both of my birth parents were deceased, but I have 11 half-siblings from the lifetime marriages they each had with another spouse, after they gave me away and split up at the outbreak of the Korean War. I have 6 sisters and 3 brothers on my mother’s side, as well as 2 sisters on my father’s side. We had a wonderful reunion in upstate New York in July 2018, and I was thrilled that they were the kind of folks who I would have randomly chosen as my friends out in the world, even if we hadn’t eventually been thrown together in a big, cosmic surprise.
I learned the hard way how obsessive I can be about solving mysteries when the interactive CD-ROM graphic adventure/puzzle/game called Myst ensnared me back in 1994. I worked for a software company which produced “immersive experiences” using the new capacity of optical CD-ROM drives in personal computers. Manufacturers like HP and Compaq would bundle a few different programs to demonstrate the cool capabilities of this new medium, and frankly, some of the games were very addictive. Time and time again I found myself staying up until 3 am looking for that “one more clue” that would unlock whatever obscure discovery existed in whatever that mysterious location was. Whether exploring a haunted house or fantasy world, many of us first experienced the time-sucking existence of being stuck behind a computer keyboard for hours on end, losing sleep and losing our real lives to the siren song of computer games.
I had to just quit cold turkey 25 years ago. I have completely stayed away from games on computers and phones because I know how good I was at playing them and how incredibly addictive they could be for me. But I never saw Ancestry coming. In many ways, it was kind of like Organic Chemistry laboratory class, when the professor would give you a vial of clear liquid and you had to figure out exactly what chemicals were in it. I discovered that I was really good at solving that kind of problem. My brain is just hard wired to see patterns and make connections. Nowadays, that clear vial holds saliva, which we send to another kind of lab for processing. But the results they return to you are just a series of facts. They do not actually provide specific answers, just generate more questions… pieces of a puzzle for you to solve.
Right up front, everyone has to understand that DNA tests are not magic wands that specifically pin down your exact ethnic heritage. The human genome has been studied in such detail that tests can detect the exact order of proteins in strands of our DNA, and scientists have created a starting reference point based on actual human remains from tens of thousands of years ago. The term for those groupings of identical protein ordering is “Haplogroups.” Starting back at that “Reference Human,” scientists have tracked small mutations in certain sequences. Each is like a fork in the road for splitting one haplogroup off from another and starting a new branch in the DNA tree. There are now enough primary samples from enough specific locations of the world that it is possible to create a basic human origins tree map, to which your DNA is compared. At this point, it is the data which derives from you and every single human who has ever had a DNA test done which is now allowing the testing companies to keep refining their data. They have now found enough samples from enough people who still live in the same general areas which their ancestors settled during comparatively recent history to make specific judgments about “where your ancestors are from.”
The part of human history with which genetic science has the most trouble is… conquest. People who know with absolute certainly that their ancestors are from England are probably the most upset about the lack of specificity in their DNA tests. England has been occupied by so many tribes from somewhere else during their entire history, that there might by DNA tracing back to any number of tribes from the European Continent like the Celts, the Angles, the Saxons, the Normans, the Goths, the Franks… and don’t forget the Vikings! Even the Irish are easier local groups for whom to specify ancestral locations. The only ethnicity in the world that has a 100% guaranteed accuracy is Finnish. 23 and Me has a fascinating white paper that covers all of this:
Ancestry Composition: A Novel, Efficient Pipeline for Ancestry Deconvolution
Crowd-sourcing is the key to everything you are being told about your ancestry. Ethnicity is always going to tolerate room for error… but fortunately… also room for refinement. However, the part of your identity which is much more accurate to trace is your family tree. Just like with the DNA regions, the more people who contribute family data, the more accurate the information will be which is shared with everybody. This is where you have a better chance of specifically finding out who you are, in terms of your ancestors, in just the last few centuries. Yes, it is an interesting, but ultimately useless, curiosity offered by some DNA companies to learn what percentage of Neanderthal you are. In my opinion, knowing your actual family members is much more exciting.
Family tree data is only as good as the records which have been kept historically, and to which you can get access. If you come from a family with English heritage, you will have the best chance of finding family data because the British culture kept meticulous records of everything. Because of their class system, your identity was defined by where you lived and who your ancestors were. There are detailed records from towns, courts, churches, military and scholarly histories. It helps that everything was written in English, with only a tiny bit of Latin thrown in some legal records. Family traditions often meant that a Holy Bible or some document would be handed down with family records inscribed. In the United States, the Colonies were the beneficiaries of this tradition of precise documentation. Once we had the first National Census in 1790, it has provided more and more accessible documentation of who, where and when.
This is a long way of saying that when you get your DNA test results back, please remember it is all malleable conclusions, which are based upon a series of A-B comparisons. You are being presented with a series of matches to other people out in the big world, and the only guarantee upon which you can rely is that certain parts of your DNA match certain parts of theirs. The greater the quantity and quality of those matched sequences, the more closely you are probably related. In other words, these are educated guesses and it is still up to you to prove them right. The good news is that DNA doesn’t lie; if it says you are related, then you are related. The bad news is that you, personally, are still much like that message in the bottle floating in a vast ocean.