Genes That Never Fade

Why are we so mesmerized by digging up ancient family history?

In Falen Johnson’s recent play Salt Baby, the central character is a young Métis woman tormented by her pale complexion, which leads people to mistake her for a non-Native. “I been told I look white my entire life,” she laments. She considers DNA testing as a way to prove her Tuscarora/Mohawk ancestry, although she anguishes about the possibility of unexpected results. Would it be so bad if you found out you are only one-quarter Native? asks her white boyfriend. “I wouldn’t be me. I would feel like I had been living a lie, like my entire existence was bullshit,” she answers. Still she pursues the DNA idea, attempting to recruit her father so she will have a Y chromosome to work with. Dad is deeply unenthusiastic. “I don’t want to be anything different than what I’ve been my whole life,” he tells her, echoing her own sentiments. “This land, this place, these people, this is me. A pie chart or a graph can say what it wants about me, but I know who I am.”

And there you have it: the paradox of race and identity. And who can say how genes and lived experience play in our psyches? In The Juggler’s Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us, Carolyn Abraham’s chronicle of a seven-year search for two elusive great–grandfathers, we get a rare glimpse of that dance: it is an artfully choreographed pas de deux between DNA testing and family identity. The narrative follows Abraham as she trails her ancestors, a journey both surprising and exasperating. On her father’s side is the juggler of the title who came to Tamil Nadu in the late 19th century, married a local girl and lived in the Nilgiri Hills until his past caught up with him. He vanished leaving three children. (Well, six, actually, as Abraham discovers, three having inexplicably disappeared from family view.) Little is known about John Abraham, but it was said he was Chinese and had fled accusations of murder by becoming a juggler and leaving China with a circus. On her mother’s side was a seafaring man from Jamaica, Captain Frederick Crooks, who also turned up in South India and married a local woman. He died after four years of marriage, leaving two small children. Almost nothing was known about his family either. He apparently retained no connection with his kin; all that remained were hints of some distinction and perhaps money. “Where the juggler’s legacy was shrouded in secrecy, the Captain’s was clouded by wild speculation,” writes Abraham.

What may have started as an attempt to verify legend quickly became an exercise in fleshing it out, for in this story, family memory proved more reliable than the DNA testing. Abraham, who is a science writer and frequent Globe and Mail commentator on gene research, knew what she was getting into; she has interviewed the players and understands the science. So she is the ideal guide to the brave and crowded new world of internet genealogy. Plotting the family tree used to be an idiosyncratic and solitary pastime, like stamp collecting; but that changed when it met up with the web and then DNA testing in the late 1990s and turned into a mass hobby. Today it ranks second to pornography in popularity on the net, and rivals gaming. Along with thousands of sites dedicated to individual family names and their myriad branches, and hundreds more offering help researching family history, there are a host of private websites providing direct-to-consumer DNA testing. “Dozens of companies sprang up to cash in, making qualified promises to predict disease risk, design diet and fitness plans to suit your genome, or even find you the perfect date—a molecular love match,” writes Abraham. You can imagine the scepticism this aroused among experts who describe the phenomenon as “recreational genomics.” They worry about the likelihood of people being misled.

Abraham used Texas-based FamilyTreeDNA, but did not stop researching the old-fashioned way, looking for documentation online, in archives and attics and talking to people. This is the great value of The Juggler’s Children. It is an insider’s view of genealogical research by someone doing it, an account that includes stories of what can go wrong and how you get blindsided. In the go-wrong department were the astonishing percentages of Native American genes reported in the family’s early analyses. (Twenty-five percent in her father’s case.) Eventually, Abraham discovered that DNAPrint Genomics had identified these markers as Native American (apparently to appeal to the American market), but they are in fact the genes of ancient Central Asians who migrated east and south, and are thus common to people in regions ranging from the Americas to Asia and the South Pacific. At another point on the journey, Y chromosome DNA tests come back indicating that one of her uncles had no Crooks matches but matched with her great-grandmother’s family. Abraham spends weeks wondering what Nana Gladys had been up to. But with a more sophisticated test, Nana was off the hook and the author had another link to Jamaica. This detour, however, leads Abraham to note that 10 percent of the time when both parents are tested—for example, if they have a sick child—false paternities are discovered, known as “pedigree errors.” People go looking for a needle in a haystack, and find the family skeleton.

Originally The Juggler’s Children was subtitled “A Family History Gene by Gene,” which is an apt description of the plodding nature of DNA research. One DNA test always needs another. Its main contribution to Abraham’s project was providing confirmation of what was already known, and pointers for further research. Science can give you ideas, but not the story line. In this the internet, that great connector of dots, has been instrumental. FamilyTree has forums; Ancestry.ca (which is part of a chain of websites operating globally) operates as a social networking site like Facebook, but charges a membership fee.

There are two issues I wish Abraham had tackled. The first concerns the implications of commercializing genetic testing, starting with the matter of who owns the resulting pool of DNA. The status of the information on family history sites is equally perplexing. As is the concept of private, for-profit access to public documents. What kind of money disappears down this rabbit hole?1 I once dropped €30 to learn where my great-grandfather was not born, and was totally taken aback by the impulse to try again. This is the other great question—the phenomenon itself. What motivates people to research their family? What of the “genealogy junkies” who never stop? I presume most start with natural curiosity, as Abraham does, but even she gets caught up in the chase and at one point seriously contemplates grave digging. The BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are is a clue that many people are on a treasure hunt for connection to royalty or greatness of some sort. Others come to it feeling “relative deprived,” and still others (whose families assimilated beyond recognition into the mainstream) come looking for ethnic identity. It makes me wonder about the connection to the current fascination with memoir and life writing, which cuts across the genres as well as media.

The Juggler’s Children is a perfect match of memoir and journalism. The personal story happens to be the very subject of the investigation, and the memoir benefits from a larger context. Abraham writes with ease and humour, undaunted by complexity, and the narrative unfolds like a detective story. There are wonderful cathartic moments, such as when her father stumbles on a marriage register recording the day when the juggler surrendered the name Chu and became John Abraham. And when Y chromosomeDNA tests confirm his Chinese ancestry he is chuffed. Here was proof his grandfather was not a figment of family legend. It verified something he already knew, yet somehow it mattered. Salt Baby would understand.

 

Note

1 Costs posted on FamilyTreeDNA.com range from $169 for a Y chromosome test with 37 markers to $837 for a comprehensive genome analysis. Ancestry.ca charges a minimum fee of $10 per month for access to public documents such as census and vital statistics.