On the surface, my family appeared to have a genetically uncomplicated story—we believed that we were of Italian and Irish descent. Our relationships with each other, of course, were more complex. My family is small and disconnected: My parents are divorced, my mother had no siblings, her parents died when I was young, and most of my father’s people are widely dispersed, and don’t speak to each other much. Having spent my teen years in foster care, I often felt alone and without anchor—to my family, to my culture, and to a sense of self.
I envied friends whose holidays were filled with cousins and aunts and grandparents, making old recipes handed down from generations past. As I got older, and as more people passed away and visits became rarer, I found that I wanted more and more to unravel the facts behind my own family story. Everyone wants to feel a sense of home, don’t they?
At the outset, I believed that all four of my grandparents had emigrated to the U.S. Although we thought that my mother’s side was mostly Irish, we had a few questions, like the origin of her maiden name, which is very rare (and also… not Irish), and was possibly changed once we came over to America. We didn’t have any records of how these grandparents emigrated, and as I looked into it, I realized that they were actually pretty mysterious to us, these people we had come from. Where had they grown up? And why did they come here? Why hadn’t anyone passed their stories down to my mother? All I have of them are some old, grainy photos.
My father’s family had clearer stories: They came from the Italian mainland and islands, and as they emigrated in the 1920s, they tried to assimilate and shed their cultural identity in many ways, although they continued to deeply embrace Roman Catholicism. But that was all I really knew.
And so I began solving the mystery by tracking my heritage through ancestry records and DNA tests. I took three separate tests and ran my raw DNA data—which comes with any DNA test—through the GEDMatch ethnicity calculators, then averaged out the results for each. Each testing service has their own sample pools against which they test an individual’s DNA, so there were minor differences in the results, but for the most part, my results were very cohesive.
Unlike one writer—whose test confirmed exactly who she thought she was—my results actually, truly surprised me in ways that I am happy to embrace. After taking these tests, I’m able to confirm that I am roughly equal parts Mediterranean (only 20% of that being Italian!), Northwestern European, Iberian, Middle Eastern, West Asian—with a bit of Balkan and Ashkenazi Jewish mixed in.
I met my second cousin for the first time, who sent me pictures and stories of my great-grandparents.
Another point of interest, which I discovered through the 23andMe Chromosome Painting feature, is that my ancestors were very recently from their locations—the feature can estimate how many generations ago ancestors from certain locations came into your genetic picture.
So how does this whole genetic testing thing work? You buy a test, spit in a tube, and send your results off to be analyzed. The whole thing takes about a month. I’m sure the process of what they do back at the lab is pretty complicated because science, but according to AncestryDNA, their test works something like this:
“We measure and analyze a person’s entire genome…. Then we compare your DNA to… DNA samples from people around the world, to identify overlap. As our database of DNA samples continues to grow, you could receive updates with new information.”
Of course, no DNA test is 100 percent accurate—especially with regards to micro-populations, migration, and the fact that countries, are, in effect, just constructs. It’s also important to note that most genetic research—especially where health is concerned—has been focused on Europe, which leaves a lot out of the picture.
Bearing in mind that representative samples can be skewed by migration and tons of other variables (including a lack of representative pool samples for some regions), DNA testing can usually get you close enough to a generalized view of who you are. Some tests may be able to tell you which regions you’re from, while others can narrow it down by country.
All this new information has been a tremendous help as I attempt to trace my family’s paper trail; knowing what to look for has made narrowing down the search much easier. I started searching for my great-grandparents in countries that I would never have thought they’d come from, and was able to find them—as it turns out, they were from the Balkans.
I’ve also found countless cousins and distant family members in the DNA database who were able to close gaps in my heritage search. I met my second cousin for the first time, who sent me pictures and stories of my great-grandparents—as well as more surnames to search. I discovered that my other family members were creative, like me: We could boast plenty of painters and musicians. And now I have a whole new network of people I’d otherwise never have met.
But this new information also sparked unanswerable questions. In an effort to assimilate to American culture, did my family erase their roots—and all the food, song, politics, stories, and religions that defined their culture? And did my mother’s family—who came to the United States—actually have Jewish roots? Their arrival would have synced with a time when many Eastern European Jews fled Poland and Russia during the pogroms of the 1880s. Is that why some of the stories had remained a mystery?
In addition to genealogical information—and the resulting questions—DNA testing can also be used to understand your health risks and help you see if you’re a carrier for certain conditions. Knowing that you carry a gene can help you plan for your future. It was so interesting to see that my genes revealed the exact autoimmune disorder I suffer from.
For some, genetic testing may reconcile a sense of self lost to transatlantic slavery, clear up false family narratives, or literally reveal migration patterns. For me, DNA testing has helped me fill in the lines. With so much missing and so much forgotten in my own family story, I’ve loved being able to embrace my newly discovered roots and explain certain aspects of myself, and I am grateful to truly know and tell the story of my life.
Lisa Marie Basile is the founding editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine and moderator of its digital community. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Bustle, Bust, Hello Giggles, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, and The Huffington Post, among other sites. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.