Shaking the Family Tree
New ways to research your roots
If you think tracing your family tree is a sedate hobby involving trips to town halls and churches to dig up dusty, old records, guess again.
With DNA testing, digitized records and social media, the ability to investigate all the branches of your family tree has exploded.
And the change has been greatest for the people with the least amount of information, even no information at all, about their biological families, such as adoptees and “foundlings,” people who were abandoned as infants. Most such people are able to find their biological parents within a year of taking a DNA test, says CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist (a genealogist who analyzes DNA results) who consults for the PBS television show Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Joe Cook, a 52-year-old Houston aerospace engineer, always knew he was adopted, and when he finished college, his parents told him the rest of the story. His biological mother had left him, age 1, and his brother, 3, with a babysitter and disappeared, leaving a note behind asking that the boys be put into foster care. A police investigation at the time didn’t locate her. And neither did years of searching by Joe in the days before DNA testing.
Last Christmas, Joe bought himself a genealogical DNA test. By May, after matching information with his paper trail, contacting people who popped up as second cousins through his DNA results and working with a “search angel,” a genealogist who works for free with people searching for their families, Joe tracked down his birth mother.
Frank Billingsley, weatherman for Houston’s KPRC, recently wrote a book called Swabbed & Found about his search for his biological parents. Billingsley, 57, who was adopted, got his first DNA results back in February of 2014. By June, after also having done detective work with the aid of search angels, he was in contact with both of his birth parents.
What’s it like to be on the other end of that call? Elisabeth Morris, the 52-year-old executive director of the UOS Goldberg Montessori School, knows. She was out walking her dog last Valentine’s Day when she got a message through Facebook. A man typed, “I don’t know how to start this message but I think I am your half-brother.” Elisabeth called him back immediately. Her half-brother, and that is who he turned out to be, “was unbelievably kind to message [my brother and me] and not our dad,” Elisabeth points out. “My dad’s 80, and my new brother couldn’t know, psychologically, physically, how he was.”
Elisabeth knew, though. “I called my dad and said I wanted to talk about my brother. I have a brother; my dad thought I meant him. I said, ‘No, there’s a new one.’”
Elisabeth’s father, to the family’s surprise, had taken a DNA test. He’d always been interested in family history, Elisabeth explains, though she wonders whether he knew, even subconsciously, that he might have a child out there and made his DNA available in case that child, now an adult, ever looked for him.
Elisabeth’s half-brother, who lives in North Virginia, had bought DNA tests for his whole family for Christmas. However, his results, to his surprise, showed that he didn’t match his family members the way he should.
It turned out that his mother and Elisabeth’s father had had a relationship, which resulted in a pregnancy, when they were young. The pregnant young woman went back to an old boyfriend, married him quickly and never told anyone her child’s true parentage. This is known, in genealogical speak, as a “nonpaternal event” or NPE, and happens, according to Family Tree DNA, 1-3 percent of the time.
Family Tree DNA, the first company to offer genealogical DNA tests, was founded by Bennett Greenspan, a Bellaire resident, in 1999. The other best-known DNA-testing companies are Ancestry, 23andMe and MyHeritage.
Getting your DNA tested is simple. You order a kit. Basic ones, which include the ability to find family members, cost $70-100. When it arrives by mail, you either spit into a vial (Ancestry, 23andMe) or scrape the inside of your cheek (Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage) and mail it back. In 6-8 weeks, the company emails you a link to your DNA analysis.
These companies offer two types of information: estimates of your ethnicities and the matches they have found between your DNA and other people in their databases. (As a separate product, 23andMe also offers tests that show whether you have a genetic propensity for certain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.) The ethnicity information, showing that you are 25 percent Scottish, for example, is close but not precise. Also, countries’ borders don’t match up perfectly with DNA, of course, not to mention that through history, borders change and populations move. That’s why genetic testing has shown that 0.5 percent of the world’s population is related to Genghis Khan, though most of these people are not Mongolian.
Since 2010, the companies have also been able to match your autosomal DNA against those of other test-takers. (Autosomal DNA are the other 22 pairs of chromosomes, other than the X and Y sex chromosomes.) Currently, in total, close to 10 million people have taken these tests, according to Moore. The information can be complex to understand. For instance, if someone shares 25 percent of your DNA, they could be a grandparent, or they could be a half-sibling. This is when searchers turn to the “paper trail,” such as obituaries that can be unearthed with Google searches and in archives such as FamilySearch, the largest collection of genealogical and historical records in the world, much of it online, maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research, here in Houston.
“You look for where the timing is right and they’re both in the same location at the same time,” says Cook. Billingsley was stumped for a while until he figured out that, in his family tree, brothers from one family married sisters from another, which made their children’s DNA look more like that of siblings than first cousins.
And that’s where “search angels” can save the day. “Search angels” are professional or amateur genealogists, people who have often traced their own family trees, who volunteer to help searchers. One of Billingsley’s was a distant relative he connected with because they matched. Others can be found in Facebook groups, such as “DNA Detectives” and “Foundling Finders,” that provide communities for searchers to ask questions and share information. “DNA Detectives” currently has almost 70,000 members.
Mary Ann Smith, a professor and associate dean for student affairs at The University of Texas School of Public Health, didn’t use DNA testing to track down her bio-parents but she did have a search angel. Smith was raised by her dad, who had served in the military in Japan, and her mom, who was Japanese, in Del Rio, Texas. She knew she was adopted, however, from another American dad/Japanese mom couple. All she had were their names.
She asked a question on an Internet forum about how to start searching for her biological mother in Japan. A stranger, from Japan, wrote that maybe he could help. She didn’t think he could but eventually gave him her biological mother’s name. He soon replied with contact information, including that Smith’s biological mother owned a coffee shop. When Smith went to Japan to meet her bio-mother, a happy trip, she tried to meet the man who had helped her. “I never could get him to, though,” she says.
What’s it like to make the call to long-lost family members? “It takes nerves of steel,” says Cook, who had to write dozens of letters and make dozens of phone calls to track down his biological mother’s identity – and then had to call her.
“Adoptees could be walking into a bed of roses or a chainsaw” when they make that call, says Bennett Greenspan of Family Tree DNA. Marci Purcell, president of Support Texas Adoptee Rights and an adoptee who contacted her own biological mother, says research has shown that most birth parents who put children up for adoption say they would like to be found by their adult children. No matter what the reaction was, though, “I’ve never met anyone who’s searched and found their families who regretted it,” she says.
Joe Cook says of his biological mother, “Well, let’s just say closure occurred.” She, still consumed by guilt and shame, can’t allow herself to have a relationship with him; however, her husband and Cook’s half-brother were happy to meet him. Despite her reaction, Cook says, once he found her, “Where I kind of felt rejected all my life, all that feeling went away.”
Billingsley’s biological mother at first reacted with denial and anger. Now, however, he has a relationship with her and his biological father and has even put them on the phone together. “They talked for an hour,” Billingsley says.
Smith maintains contact with her birth mother, who still doesn’t tell her friends in Japan that she had a child with an American out of wedlock and gave her away. Smith’s biological father passed away before she could meet him, but she has met his large family, most of whom live in South Boston, and often goes to football games with one of her half-brothers, who is also a professor and lives in Arkansas.
And when Morris came back to work after that Valentine’s Day weekend, when she got the call from her half-sibling, colleagues asked her what she got for Valentine’s Day. “I told them,” she says with a laugh, “a new brother!”
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