Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

The Reality of Home DNA Tests

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

The Reality of Home DNA Tests

Article excerpt

The Reality of Home DNA Tests ARE WE PREPARED TO DEAL WITH THE FALLOUT? The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are BY LIBBY COPELAND Abrams Press. 294 pages. 978-1419743009

Spit at your own risk. Sending in a saliva sample to consumer genetic-testing companies such as 23andMe or AncestryDNA can seem like an innocuous lark-until the results arrive, all too often revealing family secrets and setting off unexpected psychic aftershocks that can ripple throughout entire clans.

Yes, we've all seen the lighthearted television ad in which a man jovially shrugs off his discovery that the German ethnic identity he'd grown up with was genetically incorrect. Learning that his ancestors were instead Scots-Irish, he accommodates his new identity without missing a beat, simply trading in his lederhosen for a kilt.

But would he still be dancing a jig if the results had exposed a different paternity from the man he called Dad? How easily would he come to grips with the idea of being the product instead of his mother's infidelity? Or what if his DNA didn't match either parent, revealing the longheld secret that he'd been adopted? Would he ever be able to regain his balance if the results pointed to the dark and unsavory secret of incest?

More scenarios made possible by DNA home-testing kit results: What if he were approached by a stranger who'd also had her DNA tested, and now, based on their genetic similarity, claims to be a halfsibling he never knew existed? Or what if there were many half-siblings, all fathered, just like him, by a sperm donor his parents had never told him about? Or turn the tables: What if he himself had been the sperm donor, making some extra bucks just like his fellow medical students back in the day-and has no desire to upset his current nuclear family with the addition of offspring who are strangers, no matter their shared genetics?

Those are only a few of the real-life genetic "reveals" that journalist Libby Copeland recounts in The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are, an absorbing, in-depth exploration of the wide-ranging impact of the consumer genetic-testing industry. Using a broad swath of information gathered from testers and testees, she demonstrates that mail-in samples marketed as easy routes to finding family roots are uprooting long-held certainties about personal identity and familial connection. And with the testing business sprouting faster than any family tree-between 2017 and 2019, the number of people taking in-home DNA tests grew from 8 million to about 30 million- who knows how many still-buried surprises await discovery?

To be sure, initial shellshocks can change into newfound connections. Copeland chronicles moving tales about the development of new sibling relationships, the resolution of long-held family-tree mysteries, and the unexpected solace of finding new connections in newly found genetic family members. The point, though, remains the same: you can't predict what you might find. Regardless of what the happy-go-lucky ads seem to promise, you might end up with a result quite different from the one you bargained for. Copeland wryly notes, "boring results can be a blessing."

Indeed, statistics suggest we might be more interesting than we thought. Testing companies label surprise discoveries with benign euphemisms like "unexpected relationships" and "NPE," for "nonpaternal event" ("not parent expected" is the more expansive decoding of the acronym). The estimates of unusual, unanticipated findings range from the low singledigits to as high as 15 percent. Copeland, doing the math for us, writes, "If you assume just three percent of consumers, which is a conservative estimate, spread across 30 million testers in databases, you're talking close to a million people- and more every day."

Therein lies the dilemma. …

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