Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

DNA interesting, but family is what really counts

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"IDENTITY" is a complex word. For some, it may represent marital status or sexual preference. For others, it symbolizes generations of cultural tradition. And for others who were adopted, or live in a family that has kept secrets, identity may be a complete mystery.

But no matter what "identity" means to you, this exploration of genetic destiny by Toronto journalist Carolyn Abraham will make you wonder about the secrets hidden in your DNA.

Abraham is no stranger to scientific writing. She is the author of Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein's Brain, a finalist for the 2001 Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction, and a medical-science writer for the Globe and Mail.

In The Juggler's Children, Abraham turns her reporting eye inward, exploring her family's multiracial history. She is quick to school the uninitiated about DNA.

"[It's] like the chief executive officer, coiled up in its cellular head office, dictating operations in every division of you -- the texture of your ear wax, how your heart beats and your brain is wired."

Abraham begins her research by obtaining family DNA samples and sending the swabs to a DNA research firm. At the same time, she learns from her parents that the deepest family mysteries involve her great-grandfathers.

Her maternal great-grandfather was rumoured to be Jamaican and her paternal one was rumoured to be Chinese. But the initial DNA results did not indicate this heritage. Abraham was stumped -- and more intrigued than ever to continue her journey.

She and her family begin their physical search for ancestry answers on her father's side. They start in India's Nilgiri Hills, a remote area where the book's namesake, the juggler, had once lived. Abraham pores over church records of births, deaths, marriages and christenings. The answers she finds only cause more questions to surface.

Next, she researches her mother's side: the sea captain and his rumoured Jamaican roots. Through all the research -- from DNA swabs, to online genealogy chat rooms, to interviews with scientists -- Abraham does a good job of balancing the science in a compartmentalized way, weaving in her own feelings about the questions that arise about her family's story.

"DNA was significant, but was useless for suggesting a when or a how," she explains.

And just when some research apparently hits a dead end, a funny thing happens. She recalls: "I sat at the kitchen table, trying to process the scale of the coincidence -- that this honey-voiced old man from Jamaica, the adopted son of the captain's sister, lived just up the highway. I didn't need DNA to tell me how interconnected humans can be."

Her story of personal connection -- the stories, the letters and the memories -- end up being more compelling than the scientific revelations. At one point, Abraham confesses, "After confirmation of our Chinese great-grandfather, after a chromosome had led me to the Crookses of Lancashire, after connecting with distant genetic cousins, the science felt suddenly... underwhelming."

The book is peppered with intriguing facts about how pervasive DNA research has become -- from a 15-year-old American boy who tracked down his sperm-donor father with nothing more than a swab and the Internet to the research on Thomas Jefferson's family DNA, proving a link to a slave mistress.

Indeed, DNA can provide a window into where you might come from, but it takes a lot more than genetics to define who you are. The Juggler's Children is a fascinating tale of truth, lies, perception and, ultimately, family.

Deborah Bowers is a Winnipeg marketing and communications director who has taken the plunge into finding her roots.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 J9

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