23and…Who?

This post is unusual in that I am describing (and speculatively analyzing) data I do not yet have, as well as all of the reasons I seek these data despite my reservations.

This year’s Amazon Prime Day began at 9 pm EST on July 10, 2017 and ran until 3 am EST, July 12, 2017. During those 30 hours, Amazon Prime members received sizable discounts on a wide range of products sold online.

One such product was the Health&Ancestry kit sold by 23andMe. According to Anne Wojcicki, CEO and Co-Founder of 23andME, the company was founded in 2006 for two reasons:

First, to empower you, the consumer, with more information about yourself. I want you to learn more about who you are, where you are from and what you can do to live a healthier life through the information you learn from your DNA.

Second, to accelerate genetic research on a wide range of health conditions from Parkinson’s disease to lupus to asthma. Our research team has made hundreds of discoveries by analyzing the genetic data from customers that have consented to participate in research. We hope you will consider joining us in this important research effort.[1]

My wife is an avid member of Amazon Prime, and she saw an opportunity to purchase two Health&Ancestry kits for the price of one.

So she did.

She bought one for her, and she bought one for me.

They were waiting for us when she, our daughters and I returned home from a four-night trip to the Philadelphia area.

23andMe

Oh boy.

**********

In a recent post, I presented my reasoning for making a career change at the age of 50. I announced my intention to write a book, and I proclaimed that I was a writer.

I am still working out the details of the book’s contents and the logistics of its production, but I will present a rough synopsis here.

I have often been asked the question, “Why do you love film noir so much?” It is a question for which I have had great difficulty formulating a cogent answer, though I make a rudimentary attempt here.

As currently conceived, my book will be an attempt to answer that question, both for interested readers and for myself, carefully tracing the events in my life leading to my current enthrallment and (increasing) expertise. I will examine, for example, the path I took from the Hardy Boys and old-time radio episodes through classic detective fiction (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, Rex Stout, inter alia) through the hard-boiled school of detective fiction (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald) through “noir” writers of crime fiction (most notably Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis). I will explore how I discovered and fell in love with the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films (as described here, here and here) and the Perry Mason television series, conditioning me to appreciate older black-and-white crime films, then was lucky enough for Yale to have six film societies when I was an undergraduate there. Finally, I will describe my experiences at the annual NOIR CITY film festivals in San Francisco, including discussion with fellow film noir devotees about why THEY love these films.

Interesting as I believe these stories to be, however, they only scratch the surface of my visceral connection to these films.

To get closer to the truth, I will also have to examine certain other, more personal, aspects of my life.

Because, as I recently e-mailed to a friend, “my very existence is a noir plot.”

**********

Just bear with me while I briefly discuss classic American film noir.

A common theme in film noir is the search for hidden or masked “identity.” Thus, Nina Foch’s titular character in My Name is Julia Ross (dir. Joseph H. Lewis, 1945) is held prisoner by a prominent family and falsely presented as the wife of the scion of the family (played with bland psychotic menace by George Macready). In a brilliant flashback sequence in Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947), Robert Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey (aka Jeff Markham) explains to his girlfriend (Virginia Huston) that he is not exactly who he has pretended to be. In The Stranger (Orson Welles, 1946), Welles plays a Nazi war criminal living under an assumed identity in a small college town in Connecticut.

The most basic examples of this theme are “amnesia” films, including Street of Chance (Jack Hively, 1942), Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945), Somewhere in the Night (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1946), High Wall (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947) and The Crooked Way (Robert Florey, 1949). In these films, the male leads are literally investigating themselves (following a literary tradition at least as old as Oedipus Rex), trying to determine their identities (or, in the case of Street of Chance, recovering a new identity brought on by a blow to the head that was then reversed by a second blow to the head two years later. Trust me, it works when you see the film or read the source novel, Woolrich’s The Black Curtain [1941]).

Other classic noir films, taking their cue from Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), revolve around an investigation into the life of someone who has just died under mysterious or unusual circumtances. The best example of this type of investigation is that conducted by Edmond O’Brien’s insurance agent into the life (and death) of “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster) in The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946). O’Brien would then famously investigate his own murder in D.O.A. (Rudolph Mate, 1950).

I digress this way because the more I think about the structure and content of the book I plan to write, the more parallels I uncover between these cinematic explorations and my own recently-accelerated search for my own “true identity.”

Let me explain.

To begin with (literally), I was adopted in utero[2].

I know very little about my genetic parents other than what I recall hearing from my legal mother and her older sister over the years (to my adopted parents’ eternal credit, they never made a secret of my adoption, and I thus never had cause to doubt their love and caring). While I rarely discussed learning more about my background with my legal mother, I always sensed that the subject made her uneasy. It was not that she thought that I would revert to my genetic family, were I able to do so. It was more…I don’t quite know…an unwillingness to “share” me, especially after having spent all those years raising me.

The circumstances of my adoption are telling in this regard as well. My legal mother had married my legal father in January 1960. After one miscarriage, my legal mother gave birth to my legal sister in March 1962. It was an extremely difficult labor (18 hours), and my legal sister suffered profound brain damage in the process. She was later diagnosed with severe mental retardation, intermittent explosive disorder and autism spectrum disorder, among other serious ailments. Today, 55 years later, I am her legal guardian, as she remains institutionalized in Philadelphia.

Following this exceedingly difficult birth, my legal mother suffered a second miscarriage before contracting uterine cancer, ultimately resulting in a hysterectomy.

As a father of two strong and healthy daughters, I cannot even begin to understand the guilt and anguish my legal mother must have felt in those years (perhaps resulting in the anxiety I sensed in her at the prospect of “losing” her “healthy” child). Well, a little bit I can, in that my wife and I suffered the gut-punch of a partial molar pregnancy before the successful conception and birth (though not without its own perils) of our oldest daughter.

The result, however, was the courageous decision by my legal mother and father to adopt (unseen) the baby of a young unwed mother in the fall of 1966. This, of course, was less than seven years before the Supreme Court declared state laws outlawing abortion unconstitutional in Roe v. Wade.

For the record, despite the circumstances of my conception, I remain staunchly pro-choice. My genetic mother must have gone through a variety of emotional tortures upon learning of her unwanted pregnancy, and I cannot now begrudge her the right to control her own body, in collaboration with her physician, conscience and other persons in whom she confided. If I had never existed as a result of her decision to abort (legally or otherwise), so be it.

At any rate, those were the circumstances of my adoption. The circumstances of my conception (other than the necessary physical act), however, are more shrouded in mystery.

As I understand it, my genetic mother was an unwed 18-year-old woman, of Scotch-Irish ancestry (which fits neatly with her likely having been born and raised in Philadelphia). Somehow, she became intimately involved with a 28-year-old married man (with three children already) of Colombian heritage who taught at the college level somewhere in Philadelphia. And one of them had a Native American grandparent…or was it a great-grandparent? Finally, it was the savvier (and even more beautiful, by all accounts) older sister—my genetic maternal aunt—who arranged the adoption.

Could this have been an illicit teacher-student liaison? Perhaps. I have always been struck by the fact that the winter holidays take place nine months prior to my late-September birthday (the 30th, to be precise). Am I the result of a campus holiday party drinking (or worse—this was the mid-1960s, after all) bout carried to a particular woozy conclusion?

To top it off, I have this idea that I was once told that all of the records of my adoption were lost when the agency that arranged my adoption was destroyed in a fire.

What I lack, though, is tangible proof of ANY of this. Despite my mother’s tale of going to the library to look up Colombian features (and having to wrap her white Jewish mid-1960s suburban mind around the possibility that I might be black), she may very well have turned a Columbia University professor into a Colombian[3].

So when I write that “my very existence is a noir plot,” I mean exactly that: to the best of my knowledge (albeit with a bit of creative embellishment), I was the unexpected result of the seduction of an unmarried younger woman by an older married professional man, possibly through excessive consumption of alcohol or other illicit drugs.

Or maybe she seduced him, who knows?

Whether my genetic father was ever even aware of what he had wrought, I do not know. My gut instinct is that he did not…meaning that there may well be a 78-year-old retired professor somewhere in the world who has no clue that he has had a son for the last 50 years. Throw in the plucky older sister (I see Susan Hayward in the role) and the convenient fire eliminating all traces of the transaction, and you have the makings of a fine noir plot.

**********

While my legal mother lived, I thought very little about pursuing the matter further.

If I am completely honest with myself, it was not just my mother’s uneasiness which held me back. The paucity of verifiable details relating to my genesis meant that I could effectively create any story I wanted regarding my background.

In short, I could construct any “true identity” I choose.

Luckily for me, this was almost exclusively idle speculation. I loved and cherished my legal parents, accepted my legal sister with the open curiosity of a child, and, for the most part, had a happy childhood. I simply never felt the need to seek out a different, “better” family.

Still, after my legal mother died in March 2004 (my legal father having died 22 years earlier), the idea of tracking down the true circumstances of my conception slowly began to take hold in my mind.

One afternoon, in the short span of weeks between learning that she was pregnant and the subsequent discovery (at the 12-week ultrasound) that the fetus was dead, the woman who would soon become my wife had the following insight.

This child, when it was born, would be the first “blood relative” I would ever know[4].

That completely floored me.

I had always been able to look with a detached objectivity at the hereditary heart disease that claimed too many of the male members of my legal father’s family (including my legal father, at 46, and his father, who died 12 years before I was born), because, well, I had not inherited this condition.

And I managed to live for 40-plus years with a blithe ignorance of the genetic time bombs possibly ticking inside of me.

Marriage at the age of 40 and co-parenting young children over the next 10 years changed that. Not only was I now taking improved care of my own health (to be around as long as possible for my new family), but it was suddenly imperative to learn, if possible, what hereditary characteristics, good and bad, I had passed on to my daughters.

Some months before my 50th birthday I finally made the decision to collect whatever information was available on my genetic family.

I will skip the details of the process (though I may revisit them in a later post). Suffice it to say that if I want to learn specific details about my genetic family, I will have to petition the Orphan’s Court of Delaware County.

Pfui.

**********

And that was how matters stood when we arrived home this past Monday night to find the 23andMe Health&Ancestry kits waiting for us.

My wife, who was not adopted, and who thus has a far more complete understanding of her genetic inheritance (the good, the bad and the meh) was incredibly eager to spit into her tube, seal and shake it (so the special fluid can mix with the hard-won saliva), carefully enclose the tube in the protective plastic bag and specially-designed white cardboard box, and mail the results back to the lab in North Carolina. This involved a very cheerful conversation with our favorite mailman who (I paraphrase) exclaimed that “yeah, people love these things!”

I, on the other hand, found myself avoiding the kit for a day or two. When I finally unsealed the kit two nights ago, I moved through the process with the speed of molasses in winter, questioning my desire to continue at every stage.

My hesitation was only heightened by reading the online registration materials and (voluntary) research consent forms.

Any excitement I might have felt at learning which of the 31 populations my DNA reflect, and to which haplogroups I belong, was dampened at the thought of all the negative things I could learn about myself. Seriously, I thought, there are special reports for Hereditary Thrombophilia, Late-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease?!?

The latter two, of course, have no cure.

It is no wonder kit users are advised to seek genetic counseling before submitting their saliva sample for testing.

Oops.

Upon further reflection, I realized that my hesitation was not really rooted in discovering any genetic pitfalls of which I was previously (and blissfully) unaware. As I reminded myself when completing the voluntary research questionnaire, I take good care of my health, and I am in solid shape for a 50-year-old man. Whatever health downturns are coming my way, I will at least be able to approach them from a position of strength.

No, my hesitation stemmed from the fact that, once I have these results, I will irrevocably lose a great deal of flexibility in constructing my identity. Many more details will have been added to my sketch, particularly if there is a high-percentage match to an actual genetic relative among the 2 million or so persons registered with 23andMe.

Ultimately, all of the registration requirements were completed and sufficient saliva appeared in my tube. The tube was sealed and found its way into its protective plastic bag and specially-designed white cardboard box. That box then found its way into the hands of our favorite mailman. I was not there when this happened, so there was no cheerful conversation.

I used the passive voice deliberately in that last paragraph because I kind of slept-walked through the entire process.

A process which is now complete, which is how I came to receive a cheery welcome e-mail today from the CEO and Co-Founder of 23andMe.

In all of the amnesia film noirs I listed earlier, the protagonist seeking his true identity feels both exhilaration and trepidation at what he will learn about himself.

Even as I enthusiastically embark on a literary search for my noir-based “true identity,” I share the nervous anxiety of these noir protagonists at what will be learned in the process.

Until next time…

[1] From an e-mail sent to me, signed by Ms. Wojcicki, on July 21, 2017 (3:32 pm EST).

[2] A sentence I usually end with one of my favorite self-penned one-liners: “…making it very hard for me to sign all the paperwork.” Ba-dum-bum.

[3] Examination of my facial features does lend credence to the notion that I am of partial Colombian descent. My decades-long affinity for single-malt Scotch whiskey (less so Irish whiskey, which has played me false a number of times) is an entirely different matter.

[4] Not counting the two or so days I spent in Philadelphia Hospital with my genetic mother before I was…taken away. Clearly, I have no memory of these days.

13 thoughts on “23and…Who?

  1. refused to talk about. That’s 1/4 of my ancestry that’s a blank. I was able to identify him through a name, hints, and census records. I have yet to find or communicate with relatives but have some direction.
    The odd thing is working through Ancestry and finding people with a genetic match but no identifiable common relatives. I’m sure there’s a story there somewhere.
    I hope you post about what you discover. Again, good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a complex issue and I can only imagine how much so when there’s a mystery involved. The whole do-it-yourself DNA testing thing can be funny though. My husband and I had a friend breathlessly telling us: “I found out that I am mostly Eastern European and Western European.” We’re like, “yeah, ok, and you paid somebody to tell you that?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The thing is, given my in utero adoption, even THAT information would be extraordinarily useful for comparison to the ancestry story I have always believed (half Scotch-Irish, half Colombian, smattering Native American). I have been having a fascinating e-mail exchange with my (legal) maternal aunt about the circumstances of my adoption, which I may share in a future post…or save for the book I am writing. 🙂 But yeah, what most unnerves me is discovering genetic ticking timebombs (if any) of which I am now unaware. Do I REALLY want to learn about something that may ultimately not be an issue?

      Like

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