Note: Portions of this essay were adapted from Libby Copeland’s book “The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are,” which will be released in paperback in June.
When I met Jason, he was in his late 40s and living in the Midwest. If it were up to him, his full name would be printed here; he is done with secrets. But this is his mother’s story, too, and Jason wants to respect her privacy.
Growing up, Jason was raised mostly by his grandparents, with his mom and a stepfather in and out of his life. His mom wouldn’t talk about who his biological father was — not when she came to his high school graduation, nor when he was getting married. He was too young to understand, she’d say, or now wasn’t a good time.
Jason was in his 30s, a father with two young kids, when he decided to ask again.
A relative had recently died, and it occurred to him his mother might pass away without ever revealing the mystery of his paternity. In the pre-genomic age, he was at the mercy of what she and any other secret-keepers were willing to tell him. So, he wrote his mom a letter and put some teeth to his request: He told her that if he did not hear back, he’d start asking around; he’d heard some cousins might know some things.
His mother wrote back with a name but little else. “Here is what you wanted, sorry it took so long,” she wrote. “I would just as soon leave as is.”
But Jason could not leave as is. He wanted to know his father.
News outlets try to one-up each other in quantifying the hugeness of Ancestry’s database of genetic data.
It’s “the world’s largest collection of human spittle,” a news organization observed back when the company had a mere 9 million people in its database. Now some 19 million people have taken an AncestryDNA test — more than half of the 37 million spit-kits sold by the five major DNA testing companies put together.
The pace of the company’s growth is fairly astonishing: It debuted its autosomal DNA test in 2012, several years after 23andMe. Yet it long ago outpaced 23andMe in tests sold, and this last summer, the private equity giant Blackstone announced plans to acquire a majority stake in Ancestry in a deal worth a hefty $4.7 billion. Twenty years after the emergence of DNA testing for genealogical purposes, we have become a nation of seekers — people who spit and scour their results for meaning, trying to understand ourselves better by knowing who we came from. Ancestry, with its compelling ads promising to “unlock your past,” is leading the way. More than a suite of services or products, however, in an age of estrangement Ancestry seems to be selling us a hope that we can fill our collective yearning to find our way home.
Meanwhile, Ancestry’s growing size and mission can’t help but draw scrutiny, especially as it pivots toward offering genetic testing for disease risks, eyeing a lucrative, long-term plan for what it calls “personalized, preventive health.” A few months before I visited the company’s headquarters in Lehi, Utah, during the summer of 2018, the McClatchy newspaper chain ran a multipart series on AncestryDNA. One article was headlined “Ancestry wants your spit, your DNA and your trust. Should you give them all three?” The company’s entire operation — the DNA testing, the family trees, the incredible treasure trove of genealogical records — is built upon reams and reams of intimate data — information that tells the stories of people’s ancestral backgrounds and genetic traits, not to mention the sacrifices, triumphs and scandals of their ancestors.
There’s a tension inherent in being such a big company managing the genetic information of millions of people. There is a tension between the truth that we are all from the same human family, 99.5% genetically identical to one another, and the idea that our differences can be parsed into pie charts. There’s a tension between my right to spit into a vial and have its contents analyzed by a private company and the right of my brother or aunt or first cousin not to have their DNA information known. And, as I’ve seen in interviews and correspondence with hundreds of consumers over the last three years, there’s a tension, too, between the idea that we can send in our saliva to find connection with family even as the results that come back can cause serious family turmoil.
To understand these tensions, it helps to trace the family tree of how we got here. Ancestry, as we know it today, began with two companies coming together.
“The company’s entire operation — the DNA testing, the family trees, the incredible treasure trove of genealogical records — is built upon reams and reams of intimate data.”
John Sittner founded a genealogical publishing company called Ancestry in Utah in 1983; it produced genealogical reference books, as well as the Ancestry newsletter, which later became a magazine. Meanwhile, in 1990, two entrepreneurs from Utah named Paul B. Allen and Daniel Taggart founded a company called Infobases to sell religious and educational texts, first on floppy disks and then on CD-ROM. In 1995, Allen and Taggart moved into genealogy, licensing some of Sittner’s reference books and packaging them with family tree software and other resources into something called the LDS Family History Suite (LDS stands for Latter-day Saint, as in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. More on that later).
The company made a million dollars in less than half a year.
Allen told me that this was a breakthrough moment for him: To be sure, Latter-day Saints were more interested in genealogy than the average American, but still, they made up just a tiny fraction of the U.S. population. What was the potential for the genealogy market if he could broaden his audience? Realizing they needed a genealogically oriented brand, Allen and Taggart started buying into Sittner’s company, eventually coming to own it outright.
They launched Ancestry.com in 1996, offering genealogy hobbyists free access to the Social Security death index for their research needs. Allen started surveying online visitors to the site, asking them questions about what they’d spent on various genealogical endeavors over the course of a year. How much on reference books, family tree software, genealogical magazines, travel? What about on postage and photocopies? When he crunched the numbers, he realized his average visitor was spending more than $500 a year on this hobby. “This is a multibillion-dollar industry and nobody’s noticed it yet,” Allen realized. “Why don’t we digitize everything they’re spending money on and make it possible to do it all through one subscription?”
And so they did.
Jason told himself he was acting out of a desire to know about his dad’s medical history. But there was more to it. What he wanted, he knows now, was something deeper. He felt a hole inside himself.
“Like a yearning,” he says.
He wrote a letter to the guy named in his mother’s letter, who lived a few hours away, and the man responded. They forged an arm’s-length father-son relationship.
The man told him he’d dated Jason’s mother in college and he knew she’d gotten pregnant, but she’d told him the baby wasn’t his. The man was kind and polite, but he did not welcome Jason into his life, nor tell his adult children that Jason existed. Instead, once or twice a year, they went golfing together.
Once or twice a year for over a decade.
Trying to fit this stranger into the role of genetic father, Jason looked for likenesses. He seized on the fact that they were both the same height, both even-tempered and reserved. But the man did not offer Jason the sense of warmth or belonging that he was longing for, and Jason could not help but feel a mixture of gratitude and loss.
Ancestry’s headquarters can’t be missed. When I visited it in 2018, the huge, gleaming, modern structure of two connecting buildings had only recently been completed at a cost of $35 million. It housed about half of the company’s 1,600 employees. The lobby windows looked out on two majestic mountain ranges. It had been difficult to get permission to tour. Access to the building was tightly controlled, and visitors had to sign confidentiality agreements just to get past the lobby. To a visitor, Ancestry can seem almost omnipresent in the area. In addition to the headquarters, its customer service operation was 20 minutes away in Orem, while its team of professional genealogists, available for hire, were located 40 minutes away in Salt Lake City.
Once I was inside, I was met by Jennifer Utley, the company’s director of research and its longest tenured employee, who had been at Ancestry for over 20 years. When she started, the company had just established an internet presence, and Utley’s work was editing genealogy reference books and Ancestry magazine. Now, clocks on omnipresent video screens throughout the headquarters showed the current time in the company’s many offices throughout the world, including in San Francisco, Dublin, Munich and Sydney.
About 80 paid interns were eating in the cafeteria, just off the lobby, getting ready to do “speed dating” with executives so they could learn what it was like to work there. Utley took me upstairs, showing off artwork with a genomic theme: hanging pendant lamps inspired by the double strands of the DNA helix, and a massive, colorful bar graph representing the 15 principal biogeographical ancestries of 84 human populations.
Utley introduced me to two members of the content acquisitions team, who told me they travel all over North America to work with archival facilities, mainly at the state level, digitizing and indexing old records. In exchange for this, the company is given permission to place the records on its website so that its millions of paying subscribers can access them.
Allen, who left the company in the early 2000s, told me that one way to think about the brilliance of Ancestry’s model is to frame its genealogical product as the opposite of breaking news. “The value of the records increases over time; they don’t decrease over time,” he said. “Every year that goes by, more people are entering middle age, where they start to be interested in genealogy, and then they have children and grandchildren.” This means the birth record of a single ancestor from 1850, for instance, “is of interest to more people every year just because of aging and population growth.”
Utley showed me a cubicle where several different versions of the company’s DNA kit were displayed, customized for the more than 30 countries in which they were being sold. DNA testing at Ancestry works hand in hand with the rest of its business. If you spit into a tube, you’ll get your ethnicity estimate and relative matches, but only with a subscription will you gain access to most of your matches’ public family trees, or to genealogical records that might help you figure out where your mysterious Italian heritage is coming from.
And what’s more, sales beget sales.
AncestryDNA becomes a more appealing place to test as its database of customers grows, because people are more likely to find close genetic relatives there. We walked over to the area housing Utley’s own unit, which was responsible for researching and publicizing the genealogical discoveries made possible by the company’s resources. It was Utley’s team that uncovered that Emma Watson, who played the witch Hermione in the “Harry Potter” films, was in real life distantly connected to a woman convicted of witchcraft in 1592, and that Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock Holmes on TV, was very-very-slightly related to the author of the “Holmes” series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. If you’re willing to extend the definition of “relative” far enough, the world of genealogy is full of kismet like this.
As we walked, Utley pointed out people who’d worked at the company for a decade or more. She told me she loved her work for the sense of mission it gave her. She said she felt like she was doing more than selling a mere product; she was changing people’s lives.
The idea of genealogy as a grander mission was a theme I heard a lot when I was in Utah, particularly when I drove to Salt Lake City, half an hour north of Ancestry’s headquarters, to examine one of the other major forces behind the rise of our national obsession with family history. I went where so many modern-day seekers go in their quest to make sense of the present by examining the past. I went to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library.
“The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our own dead,” Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said shortly before his own death in 1844. The charismatic prophet experienced his first religious vision at the age of 14 on his family’s farm in western New York and founded a faith that eventually immigrated to Utah.
Smith was aware that the young religion had a problem when it came to the souls of loved ones who’d died before it was established: How could these people (including Smith’s own deceased older brother) be saved if they’d never had the chance to accept Jesus Christ’s restored gospel? Smith had a vision in which the Lord told him that death was no barrier to salvation for the soul of a person who would have received it while alive.
After that, he preached the doctrine of vicarious baptism for the dead (being baptized in place of one’s ancestor.) In fact, church members came to believe that a series of practices were necessary for the fullness of salvation, and that it was a sacred duty to perform them on behalf of their ancestors.
By extension, then, genealogy became a kind of religious rite.
This helps explain the enormous resources The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has poured into the gathering and dissemination of old family records. In more recent decades, the personal computer and the internet, of course, made family history research easier and far more accessible to the average American, as well as an increasingly big business.
But FamilySearch is not a business. It’s the church’s massive nonprofit genealogical arm — free to everyone and dedicated to the idea that we’re all better off if we know our ancestors. Across the world, it maintains more than 5,000 family history centers, what journalist Christine Kenneally calls a “sacred municipal library system.”
In the Bible, there’s a line stating that before the “great and dreadful day of the Lord” God will turn “the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers,” lest the earth be smitten “with a curse.” In one of Joseph Smith’s early visions, he said an angel recited those lines, but instead of mentioning the curse, the messenger ended: “if it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted.”
Church members are not shy about citing this story, and its website FamilySearch.org aims to help you and me search more than 5 billion records to help turn our hearts. But there are some things you can find only in person at the church’s Family History Library, which is the biggest genealogical research facility in the world.
The place is astonishing. Inside, different floors house regions of the world. There are records from more than 120 countries, in more than 170 languages, including the largest collection of Chinese genealogies outside mainland China. There are hand-drawn pedigree charts from the Polynesian state of Tonga, and old and historical books with names like “Rural Cemeteries, New Canaan, Connecticut.”
Prior to COVID-19, seekers would line up outside before the Family History Library opens at 8 a.m. They had dolly carts and heavy bags filled with family photographs and document files. Paul Nauta, the library’s PR director, calls these the homesteaders, for the way they set up camp at particular computers and squat all day. They may be hobbyists or pros; they may travel as groups of genealogical societies, the better to swap stories and resources. Like modern pilgrims, they may come from far away — Canada, France, England, New Zealand, all over the United States — and park at the library for a full week. Sometimes, people planning to do just a little research stay far longer than they meant to, as if they fall into some kind of wormhole that alters time.
This place can do that to you.
It’s no coincidence that the church’s Family History wing and Ancestry are located in the same state. Even though the organizations have different motives — one pursues profits, whereas the other sees its work as a godly endeavor — they often team up, though they have no official financial relationship. Nauta described this as a necessity to collect and catalog the countless bits of information we human beings are forever churning out about ourselves — an effort without end. “Even collectively, we can’t do it all,” he said.
This revolution of information about the dead is breathtaking and makes you think about all the ways we’re giving up our privacy not only in this life but in the hereafter. Nauta told me he was bullish on the amount of information we citizens of the internet share online — he figured it would make the lives of future genealogists so much easier. “Can you imagine having just a week’s worth of Pinterest posts from your grandma?” he asked. I shuddered inwardly, thinking of all the things I’d posted on social media over the years.
But the concept of privacy has radically changed for all of us, even over the last decade, from what we share online to how faithfully our movements and shopping habits are tracked by corporations, to, yes, the very secrets of the genetic material curled into chromosomes in the center of our cells.
Why should the privacy of the dead be any different?
“This revolution of information about the dead is breathtaking and makes you think about all the ways we’re giving up our privacy not only in this life but in the hereafter.”
Members of the church I spoke with at the library had a profound sense of connectedness to the past. The 19th-century notion of knowing one’s ancestors as a moral endeavor was alive in them. But that yearning isn’t unique to Latter-day Saints, especially these days, when technology has made the lives of our forebears so much more accessible. Nauta observed that DNA testing has lowered the age of people interested in family research and has brought in new seekers through a different door — people who tested first and then became interested in genealogy.
That was the case for me. I’d tested at 23andMe in 2017, after my dad gave me a kit for the holidays, as so many Americans do these days. The test made the past — previously a kind of black box to me — seem closer and more relevant than it ever had before. In short order, my family was connecting to relatives we’d never known existed, relatives who, in a few cases, held the keys to better understanding some of my forebears three and four generations back. We wound up taking a trip to Sweden to meet some of my newly discovered relatives, see the place where my dad’s grandmother had grown up, and understand the poverty and familial instability that no doubt contributed to her decision to emigrate to America at the age of 16. This decision led, of course, to the existence of all of us.
This context for her life and mine was like a gift.
Jason’s questions about the past were far more pressing than the casual curiosity that prompted me to take a DNA test. His understanding of his father’s identity was deeply meaningful to his own. He told me later that his tepid relationship rooted in an occasional golf outing was what eventually drove him to do a DNA test, in hopes that scientific proof would actually help improve his relationship with his dad. He wanted to be claimed by this man; he wanted to stop feeling like a secret.
So, at the urging of a genealogist friend, Jason bought an AncestryDNA test.
That’s how Jason discovered he had the wrong guy all along.
His purported father wasn’t in the database, but that didn’t matter. Jason’s genealogist friend came over and, looking at Jason’s list of genetic relatives, swiftly traced Jason into a totally different family, as the likely son of one of three brothers. In my reporting, I encountered a number of stories like Jason’s, stories in which mothers would not or could not talk to their children about how they’d come into the world.
Perhaps they did not know who the father was — and how could they tell their children that?
Perhaps the circumstances surrounding the conception had been traumatic, had involved coercion or violence. The questions brought back shame or anger or an experience too private to share. They brought back a world in which a pregnant teenager was whispered about and shunned.
DNA testing brings old taboos to the fore, secrets that are like the proverbial snowball rolling down the hill, getting bigger and heavier with each passing day. They often pit an adult child’s desires to know the truth about his or her genetic origins against the privacy interests of parents, prompting fraught conversations and, sometimes, rifts within families. These are either the costs of undoing a secret or they are the costs of the secret itself. DNA testing is the messenger about truths long obscured.
Only later did Jason look back and see how, in his long relationship with the man who was not his father, he’d been forcing the facts to fit a narrative. He had searched for resemblances between them. It was a testament, he realized later, to how badly he wanted this kinship.
“You’re going to find commonalities with anybody,” he says. In one sense, then, Jason’s account is a rebuttal to those who believe that DNA testing emphasizes genetic ties over other family bonds. After all, Jason found value in what he thought was a biological bond long before he could prove it with a test. Consumer genomics simply told him he was wrong.
“DNA testing brings old taboos to the fore, secrets that are like the proverbial snowball rolling down the hill, getting bigger and heavier with each passing day.”
When Jason handed the man a letter at their next golfing session, 12 years into the relationship, he watched his would-be father’s face move through shock and confusion. The man looked up. He told Jason that he was relieved. For 12 years he’d carried the guilt of believing he’d unknowingly abandoned a child. Now he knew he had not. And he said he was sad — “Anyone would be proud to have you as a kid,” he told Jason, who cried when he repeated these words to me.
The man’s words were balm to the sense of shame Jason had felt since he was a child. Jason went home and once again wrote a letter, with three copies for three brothers, informing them that one of them was his father. The letter had ripple effects — one brother said his wife had learned about it, and it was causing problems in his marriage — but it turned out to be a different brother who claimed Jason.
When, at last, Jason met this man at a restaurant, he did not need to search for resemblances.
The man’s eyes were “like looking into a mirror.” The man was warm, gregarious, funny. They sat and talked for hours. The man had asked Jason for an old photo of his mom, and he recalled knowing her briefly. He told Jason he already knew they were father and son, though he agreed to do the paternity test Jason picked up at Walgreens. They sat in an SUV outside a post office and swabbed their cheeks together, then sent it off.
Within a week, the test confirmed their relationship. Suddenly, Jason had a whole brood of brothers and sisters, several of whom lived nearby, and they all got in touch to tell him how happy they were to meet him.
That first Christmas, Jason’s new family insisted he and his wife and kids join them, and it was the beginning of holidays together, and summer weekends, and talking on the phone, and visits to see one another’s kids in their plays and recitals.
Jason’s wife told me Jason had changed in the years since finding his father. He had become a more confident person. The hole was filled.
Jason’s story isn’t necessarily typical — revelations about old family secrets can just as often lead to family fissures, rejections and fraught relationships. One man I know of deleted his genetic information from a database rather than acknowledge his relationship to a biological daughter; another involved his attorney in telling his adult child to cease contacting him. But Jason’s experience is a hopeful example of what can happen when things go right, and it is what seekers looking for their genetic kin dream of. It is the dream of being accepted, of belonging, of being able to incorporate into one’s life both kinds of family — the relatives a person was raised with and the relatives a person discovers well into adulthood because of a DNA test.
In the hundreds of interviews and conversations I’ve had with people who discovered something unexpected about themselves through a test, the overwhelming majority were grateful for that truth, even when the circumstances were painful, simply because they had the truth at last. And this search for self through better understanding of the past, of one’s genetic inheritance and one’s living kin, is a large part of what powers the industry of recreational genomics, not to mention the seekers who line up early outside the Family History Library, or subscribe to Ancestry’s vast stores of genealogical archives. Privacy concerns can seem far off and abstract compared to the immediate reward that knowledge about one’s biological origins can give.
“My wife said it was a dream come true, and it was — being welcomed,” Jason told me, thinking back to that first Christmas and starting to cry again. “And nobody was ashamed, and everybody was happy, and it was a great thing.”
Libby Copeland was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post for 11 years and has written for The New York Times, the Atlantic and Smithsonian magazine.