Alice Collins Plebuch, or Grandma Nerd, as her grandkids call her, is good at solving puzzles. She was among the first wave of computer programmers—when that term meant punching information on cards to be fed into mainframes. She has an analytical mind and is at ease with technology. Years ago, she began digging into her father’s history, hoping to find more about the man who’d grown up in an Irish-Catholic orphanage in New York. So once the paper trail hit a dead end, she turned to an at-home DNA test.
It was 2012, and Ancestry had just released a beta version of its first spit kit. Back then, the results just gave users rough estimates about their ethnicity. And when Collins Plebuch’s results came back in the mail, at first she didn’t believe them. Instead of the 100 percent British Isles heritage she expected—Irish on her father’s side; Irish, English, and Scottish on her mother’s—that turned out to be only 48 percent of her genetic makeup. The rest was a mix of what the company called “European Jewish,” “Persian/Turkish/Caucasus,” “Eastern European,” and “other.”
Over the next few years, those results would lead Collins Plebuch to disinter a long-buried family mystery: the real reason why her father didn’t look like the rest of his family, and why Collins Plebuch didn’t look like the kids in the Irish Catholic families she grew up with. The discovery led her to more relatives and yet more spit kits. Her search to understand where her father really came from would extend across years and continents. Ultimately, this great adventure would lead to surprises both happy and sad, and forever redefine her notion of family.
In 2017, journalist Libby Copeland wrote about Collins Plebuch in a feature for The Washington Post. Overnight, emails began to flood Copeland’s inbox, hundreds of them, from people who wanted to tell her about how DNA testing had affected their own lives in profound ways. She received letters from adoptees who’d gone searching for their biological families, and from sperm donors who hadn’t—but who got found anyway. Some people discovered they’d been conceived through rape or incest. Others had gone looking for their family history but had only turned up more questions.
That’s when she started to wonder if maybe the rise of databases connecting millions of people through their shared DNA was bigger than the story of one family. Maybe, she realized, America was in the midst of a vast social experiment that nobody knew they had signed up for.
It is into this world of “seekers,” spit kits, and retooled family trees that Copeland plunges in her new book, The Lost Family, which publishes today. Copeland takes readers inside America’s first DNA testing lab dedicated to genealogy, to Salt Lake City’s Family History Library—the largest genealogical research facility in the world—and into the living rooms of dozens of people whose lives have been turned upside down due to the results of a recreational DNA test. It is at once a hard look at the forces behind a historical mass reckoning that is happening all across America, and an intimate portrait of the people living it.
Copeland sat for an interview about how the simple spit kit has sent the past irrevocably careening into the present. It’s been condensed and edited here for clarity.
WIRED: First of all, this book was such a treat to read! Alice Collins Plebuch’s dogged pursuit of her family mystery has so many unexpected twists. But her search also personifies this much broader phenomenon brought on by DNA testing. In the book you describe it as a sort of forced reconciliation with the past. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Libby Copeland: There are a few ways of looking at it. Right now, we’re living in a culture of transparency and authenticity. But 60 years ago, if you were conceived by a sperm donor, it was likely kept a secret because that was the culture at the time. If you find out the truth through DNA testing, you’re really colliding with a different culture, a different way of thinking about how much children should know about their own genetic identity. Which often forces people to go back and rethink their childhood.
But another way of thinking about it is how DNA testing forces questions on people they didn’t even know they were asking. They thought they were going to find out how Irish they were. Or, you know, whether one grandparent really was Italian or not. But in a not insignificant minority of cases, people find out something much more profound and immediate. And once you know, you can’t take it back.
Do you think these companies that offer DNA testing offer adequate warnings to people about these kinds of “DNA surprises”?
I think they could be much more prominent, for sure. But what I also found was that, even when people are warned about the statistical likelihood they’ll find out something unexpected, they often don’t think it will happen to them. Increasingly though, I think the whole question is actually becoming moot. More than 30 million people have tested; it’s probably more like 40 million. With these kinds of numbers, people are going to be drawn in, whether or not you choose to test. So you may find surprises you’ll have to reconcile with that come to you not in the form of your own DNA test results, but through a cousin or a sibling—or even a relative you didn’t know you had.
Your reporting on this really shows how a relatively small group of people can make decisions that change the course of history, not just for their families, but for everyone. Do you get the sense that these seekers feel the weight of that responsibility?
Yes, I think some of them do. But what’s complicated about this is people are really on their own to figure all this stuff out. They’re essentially having to act as their own bioethicists because there’s so little formal support. There aren’t any official guidelines about how, or if you even should, contact relatives that turn up through DNA testing. Grassroots, online communities exist where people can share wisdom. But culturally, we’re all just in this together making it up as we go.
Do you see that changing anytime soon?
It’s hard to see how you make rules around this stuff or what exactly they would look like. It would be nice to at least have some best practices for people to lean on. But what I think we really need much more of is research on DNA testing as a sociological phenomenon.
How common is it for people to get a significant, unexpected DNA surprise? What does it look like? How does it play out? We need more data. And I think it will come. I really think that in a few decades people will be studying this moment in sociology classes at universities, because this is the moment when everything changed. It’s at this moment that technology flipped the script for how we talk about how families are made.
Prior to reporting and writing this book, you had done DNA testing with your family. Did your feelings about that decision change at all after spending so much time deep in this world?
Yes, 100 percent. I really got into genealogy and it opened up this amazing window into my past. My family was able to make a trip to Sweden to meet with one of my dad’s second cousins. The notion that you could have access to this person who is the shared connection between my dad and an ancestor who came over to America from Sweden in the late 1800s—that immediacy just blew my mind.
On my mother’s side, I found a cousin. Her family is descended from Ashkenazi Jews. Her grandfather emigrated from Eastern Europe and never spoke about the old country or who he’d left behind. And it turns out, he left behind relatives and it turns out they stayed, basically in what is now modern-day Ukraine. They survived pogroms there. They survived World War II. They survived the Soviet Union. We were able to talk to one of these cousins on the phone. And it was such a profound gift.
So I think I wound up with an appreciation for people’s desires to know their identities, but also an acknowledgment of the complications DNA testing can surface. It’s just an incredibly powerful technology, a fascinating and wonderful and disruptive technology that, for better or for worse, is changing all of us.
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