Why My DNA Surprise Rocked My Identity
Somehow you ended up taking an over-the-counter DNA test. Perhaps the commercial of lederhosen versus a kilt sucked you in. Or maybe you received the test as a gift for your birthday, Mother’s Day, or Christmas. Whatever brought you to the moment where you found yourself spitting into a little tube isn’t important. The only thing that matters is your little vial turned out to be Pandora’s box. And now that it’s open, you can’t go back.
When I took my DNA test I expected to find where in Africa my father’s ancestors hailed from. I was ready to visit Africa wearing a colorful Dashiki, I just needed to know which countries to visit. Being descended from slaves means my ancestry is lost to decades of oppression and rape. I wanted to know my exact heritage for myself and my three sons. I wanted to show my pride in my African heritage.
The moment my DNA results arrived, I knew there was a problem. My pie chart showed I was indeed 50% something, but it was an African ethnicity. I was 50% Ashkenazi Jew with zero African DNA — yes, 0% (even my European husband has a tiny bit of African DNA). My foundation was rocked. First, because the ethnicity I was raised to believe was me was a lie and second because this meant the man on my birth certificate with not my father. I am an NPE, “Not Parent Expected.”
After I pulled myself from the abyss of my NPE discovery and could share my new reality with people, “I am not half black — I am Jewish and the man on my birth certificate is wrong,” a common response sent me running back towards the blackness. “It changes nothing, you are the same you.” They’re right it changes nothing and yet it changes EVERYTHING.
I’ve spent the past year and a half thinking about identity. Why did my DNA results make me not want to look in the mirror for weeks? Why did my reflection become that of a stranger? Why was I experiencing an identity crisis? Apart from my name, which by the way isn’t what it should’ve been too, what makes me — me? Or you — you?
The man who coined the phrase identity crisis was Erik Erikson who interestingly suffered from his own crisis not too dissimilar to my own in a twisted way. He was raised Jewish but looked Scandinavian and didn’t know his biological father. As an adult, he changed his name and held himself out to be Scandinavian burying his Jewish past. Even though he coined the phrase and spent years studying the issue, I don’t think he ever really resolved his identity crisis.
According to Merriam-Webster, an identity crisis is “a personal psychosocial conflict especially in adolescence that involves confusion about one’s social role and often a sense of loss of continuity to one’s personality.” It’s the last part of the definition that resonates with me. Why did my DNA results and NPE status lead me to lose my stability in knowing who I was?
I brainstormed what I believe shapes our identity into three categories: Genetics, Culture, and Environment. Each categories has major contributing factors.
In looking at this list, the Genetics category really only had one thing that actually changed, my race. My talents didn’t change nor did my gender or physical attributes. But I think there’s something more going on than just an actual change. While there was only one literal change, the lens in which I viewed myself is now different. My perception is just as important as any actual changes.
Before when I looked in the mirror, I knew who I was looking at. I was the daughter of Kenneth Vassar and Joey Michaels. When half of that equation was removed, I didn’t know who I was seeing. I no longer could make the comparisons we’ve all made growing up. You know, when you look in the mirror to see if you’ve inherited your nose from dad or your eyes from your grandma.
I remember looking at pictures of Kenny and my mom and thinking, well maybe it’s possible if I really use my imagination. Now that I knew it wasn’t, I wanted to know who I looked like. I was desperate to know. I hated looking in the mirror and not knowing who I was looking at. So while my physical attributes hadn’t changed, the comparisons I’d been making my entire life were no longer valid. When considering perception, I can say my physical attributes and race are different than I thought they were. This means half of my Genetic category changed. I think if this was the only change I experencied, I could handle it without mentioning the word “crisis”.
I believe Culture has a strong influence on who we are. Our identity is developed by the stories and family traditions we’re immersed in growing up. Many of the stories I’d heard growing up didn’t apply to me due to my fair appearance, but I embraced them as mine because it was my family’s lore and traditions. Now the only connection I had to this part of me is my past; hearing the stories of people. I wonder if this is what it’s like for the kid who spent all of his childhood at his friend’s house? Do the traditions of a family a latchkey child spends his time with become his? I think the answer is “partially.” The Culture can be yours, but because you know your Genetics isn’t part of those traditions, you feel a little like they’re borrowed. You learn from the stories, but they are not yours.
My nationality is the same, I‘m still an American, but my ethnicity has changed. I’m no longer half black but Jewish. While I’ve come to understand what being Jewish means is complicated, I do know my desire to learn about my heritage is just as strong as it was before my DNA results. Heck, it’s that desire that brought me into this mess. And one can’t help but think about Israel if one is Jewish. Not that I’m thinking about changing my nationality, but I do believe a trip to Israel is now very high on my bucket list.
Many of you know religion is a tricky thing for me if you’ve been following my blog. I was not raised in a religious environment. I believe organized religion has done more harm than good in this world. So, the fact that Reform Judaism resonates with me is as shocking to me as my DNA results. When I’m in Temple and here the rabbi signing, it sends shivers through my soul. I am trying to explore the warmth and sense of community Judaism brings me. This is a big change for me.
I do not believe family is solely those you are genetically related to, but there is something about that blood connection that means something. You know, the deadbeat relative you give a second chance to you wouldn’t give to a random guy on the street or perhaps not even to a friend. Growing up it was just mom and me and thankfully our relationship is as strong as it was before my DNA results. The connection with my husband and children hasn’t changed and I am grateful for that. In college, I dated a man whose mother couldn’t accept me because I was half black (she wanted her son to marry someone Jewish — hahaha). What if my husband was anti-Semitic and couldn’t deal with me discovering I am now half Jewish? My relationship with Kenny is complicated; it was complicated before my NPE. But he encouraged me to seek the truth about my heritage and family before anyone else did. Upon reflection, I am thankful my immediate family ties are the same.
While my inner family ties haven’t changed, half of my extended family is different. It is heart-breaking most of my biological paternal family has passed and no one living is willing to share my family lore or traditions with me. After the death of Kenny’s mom, his side of the family decided they no longer wanted to see me. Much of the cultural influence affecting my identity is in flux — no wonder the category of Culture feels like it’s spinning in shaky territory.
At first glance, my Environment appears to be the most stable for my identity. I’ve made plenty of new friends along this journey, but I’ve kept all of my old friends too. But this news has caused my interests to change. I now have many Jewish cookbooks and my family is trying foods like Kugel and Shakshuka. We are questioning whether or not to practice Christmas how we used to. And, I have the shocking event of the results of my DNA test, which certainly altered the trajectory of my life. I imagine the reverberations of this news are still yet to be experienced. Perhaps my Environment is more fluid than I thought.
After looking at these elements of identity: Genetics, Culture, and Environment, I can see why I’m having an identity crisis. By learning about my new family, exploring my Jewish roots, embracing Reform Judaism, maybe evening visiting Israel instead of Africa as I’d planned I can rebuild my identity — it will just take time; lots of time. I doubt I will resolve my identity crisis any time soon, but perhaps someday I can be comfortable in my new skin. Hopefully, Erik Erikson eventually felt the identity he created fit him well too.
If you meet a fellow NPE, be kind to them, there’s a lot going on. Please don’t tell them it doesn’t change anything because it does. Tell them you love them no matter what and you’ll be there to hold their hand when they need. Their NPE news changed their life path forever and they’ll need a shoulder to lean on.
If you discover you have a new relative in your family, I hope you take a moment to at least answer their questions about medical and family history. I know their news is shocking and likely causing you to see your family in a new light. You too need time to reevaluate things. Please remember, your new relative is dealing with Pandora’s box and trying to find a way to rebuild their identity. All they want to know is who they are. You would want nothing less if you walked in their shoes.