I didn’t know my grandparents. Now Taylor Swift is my cousin.
I grew up not knowing any of my grandparents. My dad was adopted in a closed adoption through the Catholic church in Spokane, Washington. My mom was raised by my great grandparents in Prosser after her mom took her own life in the mid-60’s. My great grandparents didn’t have much education and even fewer financial resources. My mother, though, was gifted. She graduated a year early as the class valedictorian and won a John Philip Sousa award for playing the clarinet exceptionally well.
My mom grew up dirt poor. Some of the flooring in my great-grandparents’ tiny home was the lack of floor — straight to the dirt. I grew up knowing I was German, but that’s about it.
I hated doing school projects that involved a family tree or questions about your ancestry or ethnicity.
When I learned about Nazi Germany I was horrified (thankfully, no relation so far). I’d just tell my teachers I didn’t know know my family history and ask to do something else.
When I had my daughter in 2007, I became obsessed with genealogy. I traced her father’s ancestry back to 11th century Wales. That was an entire millennium further back than I could trace the part of my own family I knew about at the time. I ended up spending an obscene amount of time researching my father’s adopted family after I ran out of recorded history for my daughter’s paternal lineage. I did all the side quests and my family tree on Ancestry quickly escalated to containing more than 2,000 people. Out of 2,000 or so people I was only related to a handful of them. I realized it was a waste of time, so I shut down my account and moved on with my life.
In high school, I was a part of an award-winning biotechnology program. I learned how to extract, isolate, and sequence DNA. I spliced genetic material from one species into another. I traced mitochondrial DNA across coyote populations in the Seattle area. As part of the curriculum, I got to participate in sequencing the Human Genome Project. We got job shadowing assignments, and I got to do mine at Zymogenetics and the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research center. When I lived in Austin, Texas, I enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and obtained a job at Rules-Based Medicine, a research laboratory, as a research associate developing and testing biomarker immunoassays. I dreamt someday that technology would advance to the point where I could sequence my own DNA and learn everything I didn’t know about myself.
When consumer DNA ancestry tracing hit the market, I waited. Testing my DNA meant also testing my adopted father’s DNA. He had always told me if I was going to try to find his birth parents, I’d need to wait till he was gone. Then one day I got a call from my mother. My father had lung cancer. Faced with his mortality, he wanted to connect with something. What if he had siblings? He gave me the green light. (He’s now in remission.)
The shine of the new information wore off quickly. I reached out to my new relatives and most of them were confused and upset. In my mind, I’d imagined I’d be finding dozens of willing ancestors excited to find out about my brother and my sister and I. I could not have been more wrong. A lot of them blocked me without responding. Others were confused and thought there must be some mistake. I hadn’t just uncovered relatives. I’d dug up dozens of buried family scandals. Secret adoptions and extra-marital affairs — and my father’s biological mother had a dozen children with nearly as many men. She had cleaned her life up in her late 20’s and settled down and had a family. She never told them about her previous life and now it was too late to confront her and get an explanation and closure.
All these lives had been ruined so I could find out the exciting news that I was, in fact, white? That didn’t sit right.
(I will admit I was pretty excited to learn I was Sardinian, Swiss, and Dutch, though.)
While I didn’t grow up with any of my biological grandparents and my mom wasn’t raised by him, I thought I knew who my maternal grandfather was. None of his relatives showed up in my genetic matches. DNA testing had uncovered a secret my grandmother took her grave in 1966. She’d had a long-term affair with a man nearly 30 years older than her — and no children with her husband. Another unknown wound torn open… this time for my own mother.
None of the people involved in learning about these long-past discretions were involved in the decision to learn about them. It made me consider how we are all connected and certain biometric identifiers are intertwined with those of others. None of my relatives consented to being enrolled in a biometric identification service, and yet, because of me, they all are.
It wasn’t long before we learned that law enforcement was using our DNA to identify potential criminal matches to our relatives… and charging and convicting them of crimes. This is a legal search because of the commercial use and consent of the person who enrolled themselves in the service. HIPAA only applies to your medical providers. I don’t have an issue with catching violent criminals. (It’s pretty terrible when victims of sexual assault don’t get justice after they report it.) However, this is right up there with pre-crime when it comes to privacy and consent. How can consent work?
Last month, I discovered that PimEyes had started crawling Ancestry’s website for photos to enroll as biometric privacy identificaters for open and public searches. This was alarming given that my original critique of facial recognition technology was about my being misidentified in a photo from 1899 that turned out to be my great-great-great grandmother, Maria Schäffer, who was an ethnic minority in the USSR — a Volga German — and the potential for facial recognition services to be used to carry out genocide.
Growing up poor with only farm laborers with weird religious beliefs and little education made my sense of exclusion stronger. I wrote and sang music. I was the apple of my drama teachers’ eyes and was an actress in Saint Louis’ film festival community. I was one of the brightest kids in school growing up — I boycotted homework after I’d completed all of the 5th and 6th grade math assignments and got sent to the principal’s office. I still set the curve on every test. I could draw and paint. I was a dancer. I played basketball and volleyball. I was on my school’s gymnastics team. At times, it felt like there wasn’t anything I couldn’t understand or do well. My mom and brother were extremely talented, too. My brother is a math professor currently getting his PhD. What made us so special? I convinced myself it was some kind of epigenetic defiance of circumstance. The generational poverty crew sticking it to some proverbial man-god.
When we found out about Grandpa Coe, my mom connected with her new siblings. One of them is a painter. More artists. Another an award-winning jazz musician. Writers. Scientists. A slew of other engineers. I felt… normal?
When I was going through my new-found family’s ancestry, I discovered a family name that kept popping up. Horton. Sure enough, it’s that Horton. I was delighted to learn I was Canadian and a descendent of Barnabas Horton, the baker. When I lived in Saint Louis, we got a prized U.S. location just over the river.
As more possible relatives to notable people popped up through my new-found Coe relatives, I furiously verified my relation. We weren’t special at all. We’d won the damn genetic lottery!
Markie Post, the actress, George W. Bush, the US President, and aviation pioneer Douglas McCurdy were the tip of the iceberg. Dozens of inventors, like Alexander Graham Bell, artists, actors, like Johnny Depp, athletes, and academics graced my ancestry. King Charles III?! Only by way of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s house of Bowes-Lyon, M’Lord. By this point, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to find one of my favorite authors of fiction, Miss Margaret Atwood. What an exciting day to learn I was Canadian.
How on earth did I go from the most exciting discovery in my ancestry being that I’m related by marriage to a friend and former coworker and minority German-Russians (not Nazis!) to a cache of notable greats and celebrities? What was so special about this family? It hit me. My other relatives came from abroad long after colonizing had peaked in the US. Their fates were far less malleable than those of the original English settlers of the colonies. And… there were a lot fewer people to end up with. It’s not that surprising at all to be related to American and Canadian famous people if your ancestors were the among the first North American colonizers. Nepotism is part favoritism, sure, but it’s also circumstantial.
I wanted to make sure I wasn’t biologically related to Steve Jobs (I’m related to his adopted parents through a marriage) or Elon Musk (I’m also related to him through a marriage). I was using publicly available information about notable people, deceased people, and countless of DNA-by-relation biometric identifiers to figure out who I was related to and who I wasn’t. ‘Oh no,’ I thought. This is re-identification.
The mystique wore off as I realized the potential misuse of Ancestry for re-identification spreads beyond an individual. The information is only interesting to me because I have some desperate need to feel connected, but it’s available for anyone to do just what I’m doing… but for other reasons. Decision-making reasons. Risk-assessing reasons. To predict who we might be as people. To know who we are as people.
Is this the beginning of the dystopian nightmare the film Gattaca warned us about? In HBO’s series Westworld, a giant computer brain decides if you will be a criminal or a productive member of society. What would it decide for me? My maternal grandfather was schizophrenic, my paternal grandmother a prostitute, my maternal great grandparents were poor farmers from an ethnic minority, but I had dozens of notable relatives. Would my pre-determined future be of artistry or labor?
I wanted to know who I am, biologically, instead, I ripped the band-aids off of a dozen family secrets, realized re-identification is a lot easier and scarier with biometric data, and reconsidered my understanding of nepotism and genetic implications. I’m glad I found out I’m Canadian, too, but realistically… I’m still just an American of European ancestry. This is all pretty meaningless. My fate is certainly wrapped up in my genetics and environment, but I am certainly not a genetic nepo-baby. I made my own fate.
But, hey, at least as a consolation prize I might score tickets to the next show performed by my 11th cousin 2x removed, Taylor Swift.