A curious lack of Collins family resemblance always bugged Alice Collins Plebuch.
“The only picture we have of my father is him sitting on his Irish father’s knee, and they don’t look anything like each other,” she said.
Collins family culture was built around proud Irishness, Plebuch said, and nobody gave much thought to family characteristics that looked less stereotypically Irish than eastern European: curly hair, big bones and relatively short stature.
Plebuch, who lives in Felida, started looking into family backstories. She really wasn’t all that curious at first, she said, but when the unlikely results of her own DNA test dropped her jaw, she persuaded other family members to take tests. What started out as a lark became a massive detective project that took her to libraries, archives and across eastern Europe.
In the end, the secrets and surprises unearthed by Plebuch earned her the starring role in “The Lost Family,” a new book that explores how the brave new world of DNA testing is delivering both joyful discoveries and unintended consequences to curious Americans.
“People start looking into their genealogy assuming they’re going to learn more about the story they already know,” the book’s author, Libby Copeland, told The Columbian. “But the implications can be really profound, and some lives can get turned upside-down. People don’t know what they’re getting into.”
There’s no longer any turning back now, said Copeland — a former Washington Post reporter — nor even abstaining from other people’s genetic quests, because the whole practice has become so popular.
“The choice to test or not test is rapidly becoming moot,” she said. “We’ve reached a tipping point. If there’s a genetic secret in your family it will come out whether or not you test, because your aunt or sister or cousin or sibling will test. Secrets from the past will come out.”
It was easy for Plebuch to document her immigrant mother’s roots in Ireland and England using plain old paper documents, she said. But there was virtually no paper trail for her father, Jim Collins. Plebuch only knew that his family deposited him in a Catholic orphanage outside of New York City when he was a toddler, and he emerged as a teen. He died in 1999.
Collins always maintained that he was a “thoroughbred Irishman” who cooked corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day and insisted that his children be raised Catholic, Copeland writes.
“Irishness is what permeated our lives when we were growing up,” Plebuch said. “We were an Army family and we moved around a lot, so family was the thing and the family was Irish. We were Irish Army brats.”
So what was Plebuch to make of her own DNA test, which pointed not to Ireland but to the Ashkenazi Jews of central and eastern Europe? She’d never even heard the word Ashkenazi before, Copeland writes in the book. At first Plebuch figured the testing agency must have made a big mistake.
“I got these results back and they were just wrong,” she said. “But I had a queasy feeling they were not wrong.”
Then more family tests started returning the same result.
“From my own perspective, it explained a lot of stuff that wasn’t explainable before,” Plebuch said. “I could never articulate it, but I always knew something was slightly ajar.”
The modern American ethnic melting pot is hungry for color and flavor, Copeland said.
“A lot of white Americans think of their whiteness as boring,” she said. “They’re curious and hungry to find authenticity, to find their own stories. Many Americans know they came from elsewhere, and they have a deep curiosity to learn about that.”
It’s never been easier to indulge that curiosity through the growing field of DNA testing and its ever-deepening databases of results — along with archives of historical documents now moving online so they can be accessed by anyone, anywhere.
“All this information is completely at your fingertips now,” Copeland said. “If you can find your great-grandparents yourself, without writing to the county clerk or driving to the county courthouse in some other state, that’s going to encourage a lot of people to pursue this hobby.”
Most people don’t expect hobbies to yield life-changing results, she added, but that’s what is happening to startling numbers of genealogy hobbyists. The sheer volume of people whose genetic IDs are available for cross-checking and connection means that unexpected light is shining on lots of old mysteries.
Not everybody is happy about that. Some parents never want to be found by the children they gave away for adoption.
“One man sent his daughter a cease-and-desist letter after she found him and kept trying to connect,” Copeland said. “You may have a vested interest in finding your genetic father, but he may have a vested interest in not meeting you.”
The long-standing legal term “NPE” is finding widespread new use thanks to DNA testing, Copeland said. NPE stands for non-paternity event, that is, the discovery that a child’s presumed father was not really the child’s father.
“A conservative estimate is that 1 million people have discovered NPEs” through DNA testing, she said.
While most DNA-analysis companies routinely warn of possible surprises ahead, that still doesn’t prevent people from being shocked at what they never expected to discover, Copeland said. Bennett Greenspan, the founder of a company called FamilyTreeDNA, told Copeland: “If you really don’t want to know the answer to the question, don’t ask the question.”
“Discovering the truth of who you really are can be profoundly powerful,” Copeland said.
Choose your identity
Because millions of people are asking questions about their roots, it may be time for people with family secrets to think about revealing them before science does it first.
“People who are in possession of genetic secrets are starting to have those conversations,” Copeland said. “It’s better to find something out from someone you love than by spitting into a vial.”
The vast majority of people who spit into a vial and send it off for DNA analysis are perfectly happy with results that confirm and flesh out details of what they already knew, Copeland said.
“Our own understanding of our family has been incredibly enriched,” she said. “We found second cousins in Sweden. Without DNA we could not have known that branch of family even existed.”
“It’s like coming home. There’s comfort there,” said Plebuch, whose search for her father’s truth brought many new warm, welcoming relatives into her life.
But Plebuch’s complicated quest underlines the possibility of surprises in everyone’s background. Her father, Jim Collins, turned out to be the victim of classic confusion in the maternity ward: He got sent home with the wrong family and never knew the truth about his Jewish heritage. The pride he and his descendants took in their Irishness proves that identity comes just as much from cultural connection and lived experience as from the genes we happen to inherit.
“This era is teaching us more fully how both your genes and your learned culture make up your identity,” Copeland said. “It’s not either-or. We get to choose.”