In 2016 I purchased an Ancestry DNA test. It sat on my counter for a week before I spit into the tube and mailed it out — sending my genetic material off into the universe, hoping to find some information about myself and where I came from.
The idea was terrifying in more ways than one: what would I find? Because of my mother’s history with men, I’d long suspected the reason we lived in poverty was because my father was a criminal. Was I potentially exposing my children to danger? There were also concerns regarding my privacy. DNA can be used to determine an individual’s medical problems, or connect someone with a cold case crime — was my private information going to be used to deny medical care in the future? Would I be the means by which a distant relative was discovered to be a bad guy (one outcome I would appreciate)?
I was 41, and my mother had died four years previous, taking my father’s name to the grave. My birth certificate had yielded no results, and interviews with family came up empty as well. The only information I had to connect me to half of my own DNA was that my father was a blonde artist named “Bob.” In our current technology rich age, this lack of information was almost a violation.
Who was I?
We tell ourselves ethnicity and culture are important, but not really vital to understanding who we are as people. I don’t believe this. I knew my mother’s people were humble — my maternal grandmother Swedish and grandfather part of the Osage Nation. Using free ancestry I couldn’t go more than a few generations back on either, but what I did find was crushing poverty. My maternal grandfather’s family was a bit more high-class. His mother was college educated, however, she suffered from serious mental illness and my grandfather and his siblings each had difficulties with maintaining deep connections with anyone in their lives. Physical and psychological abuse, infidelity, and incest in the form of child sexual assault were the result of years of abuse visited on them. The bleakness of both branches was tempered by qualities some would find exemplary – for those of us who were fortunate enough to escape the negative aspects of our genetics, a fierce loyalty was developed as well as a high tolerance for accepting those outside of our intimate circle as family. When you’ve been in a position where letting go of your biology is a necessity to survival, you learn to cobble together a new family. We also have an inherited aptitude for the arts: I have cousins who’ve played at the Grand Ole Opry, aunts who wrote whole catalogues of music, and I have better than average drawing and writing skills.
My mother could master any musical instrument she touched within a week, and by the time she died she could play guitar better than any professional performer I’ve ever seen. She had a special aptitude for Flamenco style music. I remember sitting at her feet as a little girl, marveling at how fluid her hands were as they moved on the strings. My mother also suffered from untreated mental illness. We lived with my grandparents for most of my life, because she couldn’t live independently. During the years we did live away from them, our house was filthy. Maggots crawling out of the drain of our kitchen sink, laundry piled up, unwashed for weeks. I once went to school with lice so profuse they were visible on my clothing. I was diagnosed with scabies more than once- a human form of mange. I smelled because of her heavy smoking. I was neglected — how could she take care of me if she couldn’t take care of herself? She would get lost in a book and sit the whole day in her room with the door closed while I watched TV. If the electricity was on we often had to run extension cords to the neighbors house because we were shut off. That cord had to service the fridge. If TV wasn’t an option, I wandered our neighborhood unsupervised. Our home was broken into multiple times, and the neighbors next door would send me to run for “reds” from another neighbor up the street in exchange for Now & Laters until my mom found out and made me stop. It was not a safe neighborhood. My vulnerability was even more exposed in our home when she’d decided to allow her boyfriend “R,” an occasional car detailer/drug addict/drug seller, and his young son “S,” to come live with us (a decision which would cause her to lose the section 8 she’d waited five years for). A parade of his friends and family came in and out in terms of crashing on the couch for a few weeks or visiting just to purchase drugs from him. I experienced my mother evolve from neglectful to outright abusive, going on screaming tirades when we used too much milk in our cereal or took a shower instead of a bath. She told me she was forced to use profanity when disciplining us, because S didn’t understand how to behave when people spoke nicely to him.
He was six.
In addition to the verbal abuse and neglect, sexual abuse became part of the equation. The revolving door of strangers included some individuals who had previous convictions for child abuse. There was a time period S and I were traded for drugs while my mom was at work. I’m reasonably sure there are home movies, filmed on reels, of S and I performing sexual acts with one another. R was adept at manipulation through fear: he once told me he’d killed a man and dumped his body in the desert. At such a young age it never occurred to me that he was most likely lying. Even during times he wasn’t in our home his shadow hung over everything. He was in and out of jail at the time, but she was still loyal. One time she found a brick of white powder in the back of a closet in a duffel bag. She made me watch her as she flushed the entire thing down the toilet, explaining to me that it was drugs that R liked a lot, and it was worth a ton of money. She wanted me to be a witness to what she was doing because she was afraid of him killing her when he was released from jail and she wanted me to be able to furnish a motive for her murder.
I was eight.
It wasn’t until my mom was in the hospital giving birth to my younger sister, his daughter, that they separated. He took everything of value she owned and moved in with a woman who owned her own home. We ended up going back to my grandparents house. Our belongings were so infested with cockroaches we couldn’t bring them into the house, so the small bit of good I’d retained from the years of living away ended up being packed in garbage bags outside, eventually succumbing to the elements. School awards, beloved stuffed animals, Christmas gifts and clothes, all gone. My mom remained mostly celibate for the rest of her life. We found out after she died, in an accident caused by alcoholism, that she’d maintained contact with him for the rest of her life.
The result of this stew of genetics was half of what created me.
But what was the other half?
Psychologically I had a vested interest in being as removed as I possibly could be from the events I experienced. But there were also very real differences between me and my mother’s side of the family. I do not look like anyone in my family. I am a head taller than the men I’m descended from. I have too small eyes and a larger than average nose. I prefer formal dressing for holidays and I admit to an unusual religious sensibility. I can be judgmental, and I’m quick to let people know when I believe they’re wrong about things. Were these traits just quirks of my environment or inherited?
Searching for my own identity was a journey I started as soon as I gained independence. With the advent of social media, I tried the “anonymous searching for parent” post. Unbeknownst to me, all of the information on my poster was incorrect. I would not know until after the ancestry test that my mother had lied about my bio father’s name on my birth certificate.
The ancestry test and it’s promise held the only possibility for answers to all of the questions I had.
Was I seeing his face when I looked in the mirror? Ancestry would find my patrilineal line, which may result in photographs of distant ancestors.
Were personality quirks from his side of the family? Maybe the test would actually connect us and I would finally know why I was the way I was.
I did not open the email the day the test came back. I knew that once I did, the unanswered questions would be at an end. I’d spent my entire life with this giant unknown and I didn’t know if I was ready to come face to face with who these people were. Once I opened it my imagined inheritance would end.
When I was a little girl, I believed my dad was anyone from Prince Charles to the man I was passing on the street. I had a strong affection for Eastern European cultures, and as I grew I became convinced I came from that background.
When I finally did open the test it was shocking. The data has changed over time, and the most recent numbers say I’m mostly French and German – the Irish and English I’d believed were the majority of my ethnic heritage were only a small part of who I was. I am 100% European, which is still strange to someone whose great-grandfather was a member of a Native American tribe (I’ve never claimed any advantages from that connection, to be clear, but it always gave me a sense of belonging to this space and time. Previous to my test I was evidence of how civilizations can collide and survive. That’s no longer the case).
It was also shocking because I was instantaneously connected with an unfamiliar cousin who’d been invested enough to do a short family tree and add her photo to her profile. I was able to find her within five minutes on Facebook. Within 24 hours I’d found an extended family, and one aunt in particular who was my twin. In attempting to reach out to them, they at first believed it was a scam. It took a few days to be connected with my biological father.
He wasn’t prince Charles, and the reality was that we lived in the same county and haunted the same spaces for years. The chance that our paths didn’t cross at some point was low. I had multiple friends who were friends of his.
As we tenderly tiptoed around getting to know each other, I couldn’t help but note the social status of my paternal family.
My father and his siblings were privately educated. My cousin’s Facebook posts were full of happy childhood memories, big family weddings, and Sunday ladies brunches. They’re all college educated.
This isn’t to say their family didn’t also have its ups and downs, but they had a different dynamic and were able to weather storms in a more productive way. One photo I saw struck me in particular, an older photo of my dad on a sailboat, smiling. It would have been taken during the time I was suffering such abuse in the home I shared with my mom and R.
The decision to cut my patrilineal family out of my life had a very real impact on my childhood, beyond simply just not knowing what my ancestry was. When I spoke to one of my paternal aunts about my childhood, she quietly said, “my father would have never allowed that to happen.” My ability to access protection was taken away from me the day my mom wrote a false name on my birth certificate. The potential for a better education, traditions of female empowerment within the context of a traditional nuclear family, as well as the expectations of excellence I could have been exposed to were lost to me…and according to today’s society, I’m expected to celebrate my single mom and trust that her foibles were just a product of an unforgiving world. I’m supposed to be okay with the theft of decades of intergenerational learning. Because to claim I needed a father in my home would somehow be seen as some sort of commentary on the power of women within a patriarchal system.
My biological father did end up being someone who struggled with addiction in his lifetime. One thing he didn’t struggle with was being a supportive and present father to the child he had with his wife of many years. I have two brothers. One born to him as a teen, before I was born, who died of SIDS when he was only a few months old, and one half a year older than my eldest child. He loves them both fiercely despite his own personal issues, and I have no reason to think I would have been any less loved.
I needed a father, as do most other girls growing up in single parent homes. I ended up being the statistic: high school drop-out, teenage runaway, homeless youth, a victim of sexual abuse by a step-parent, and pregnant at 17. When we view women in films about single parents, even in the most dire storytelling everything usually ends up okay for the children involved. Children are resilient, and when your story is being written for a commercial audience it pays to tie up loose ends. But films aren’t real life. They are meant to be consumed by a customer who doesn’t want to pay to be reminded of how sad the real stories of “illegitimate” children are. They don’t need to be reminded that most of us live lives of generational poverty and ignorance.
My life decisions have been defined by the lives of everyone before me — I intentionally make different choices than I think my own mother would have made, sometimes even when I believe I may be making a mistake, because my goal isn’t to live life but to break cycles. My father and I have a tepid relationship. I am Facebook friends with a few other family members. My brother and I started out strong, texting every night, but that fizzled out and we are strangers now.
Ultimately the ancestry test gave me the answers I wanted in terms of health (cancer is a possibility for my future), and ethnicity, but it can’t fix the bond that’s been broken. Regardless of my mother’s preferences, my rights were violated the second she wrote in a false name on my birth certificate — a legal document which belonged to me. Children aren’t property. They aren’t ours to do what we please with. I will never recover what’s been lost, and neither will the millions of American children who suffer under the delusion that we only need a mom to make everything alright.