This is a fun, interesting book by Alex Wagner, a spectacular journalist and television personality. She explores her roots — father from Iowa and lineage from Europe, while her mother came over from Burma — and draws both specific and general conclusions from her journeys. She is a great writer and excellent storyteller, and it was nice hearing her voice as the audiobook reader as well.
Ms. Wagner begins by talking about her upbringing in the suburbs of Washington DC, a single child of liberals in the 1970s. She grew up with a vague understanding of her Burmese culture, and little of her European ancestry. She envisioned herself as a product for the future, a mix of cultures, and there I think she was exactly right. After college, and after a few years in professional media (CBS television, Atlantic writer and podcaster), she got curious about where her bloodlines actually come from. So, she ventured out to Burma, to try and find herself — along with her mother’s birth certificate, supposedly written on a large leaf. She finds that records in Burma have been significantly curtailed by the ruling Junta, who essentially took over rule 50 years ago (around the time her family fled to the US) and purged most records. She discovered a few of the locations of family lore, however the country had changed so much that she didn’t connect with it very much. She does a nice job describing how the country used to be much more prosperous, during independent rein and even when dealing with the British, but that these days Burma is most known for ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
Upon returning stateside, she ventured over to northeast Iowa to examine her father’s family tree. There she researched the history of the land that had been ‘given’ to her family, where she discovered it had been land taken from Native Americans (like most all American soil) only a handful of years earlier. Her family lived an upright Christian lifestyle in Iowa, rarely recalling any minorities facing struggles, and believing the environment to be good. She was brutally honest about the likely experiences of those minorities, and tried to understand where even those minority folks came from. Her family traced their lineage to Luxembourg, which also prompted a research trip there, and she ultimately discovered that her forefather had likely been a dealer during the Franco-Prussian war, and finding himself in a tight spot towards the war’s end, decided to skip town and start over in America. Her living family recounted some stories of family lore, and she did her best to track them down — including trying to determine if she was partially Jewish — but found scant evidence of that or many of the other more outlandish possible claims.
Her final section was about using science to determine her family’s origins. She signed up for three different genetic testing services, and had her parents submit saliva samples as well. She received the results, which showed Mongolian ancestry on her mother’s side and Scandinavian ancestry on her father’s side. Some of the results varied significantly, and in some categories she had a larger percentage of a category than either parent did, which is logically impossible. So, as an investigative reporter, she contacted the companies to understand the science behind it. Which got very interesting, in my view. The promises in the advertisements are quite specific; the science behind it, on the other hand, is rather sketchy. For example, companies start with “pure blood” from specific regions of the world, and base modern analysis on that. Because China does not allow genetic material to be exported, most companies have Mongolian data — which then leads to east Asians to be labeled as Mongolian, due to availability bias. She speaks with one professor who compares this genetic research to looking into a crystal ball, and while I don’t think that is fully accurate, I think it does speak to the less-than-perfect nature of this analysis. My own brother-in-law had a family revelation through a genetic test, revealing that he has a brother; it was a great joy and continues to be, to reconnect with an older brother he never knew he had, and so these services can offer something very positive. At the same time, the promise of identifying exactly where a family comes from is distorted by many biases throughout the process, from initial genetic collection through basic shortcomings of genetics themselves.
Overall, Ms. Wagner was brutally honest with her family, and tears down the romantic past her parents have told her about, leaving her with an understanding that her family may have been less that perfectly upright, and that any tracing of history relies on geopolitical structures that evolved over time. She expands this understanding to tell the story of humanity, of how we all have common ancestors, and how 99% of our genetic material is exactly the same (that which dictates two arms, upright posture, specific nodes in the brain, etc). She notes that race and origin are societal constructs, often imbued with Us vs. Them mentalities, and tries to conclude with the idea that we are all one people. I appreciate that attitude and want to accept it, though in today’s America, that seems more difficult to accept than it has been in my lifetime.
My big takeaway is that everybody’s family history is likely a combination of truth and lore, and that this is okay. We are who we tell ourselves that we are, and if we believe we are descended from kings or Presidents, that will shape how we act. It would be far better to have everyone tell themselves that they descend from honorable, ethical, loving people, than to face the truth that just a couple generations ago, people were fighting and scraping by, and likely engaged in unethical and offensive behaviors. And that while these genetic tests claim to prove we are members of specific groups, we are much more accurately all part of a single family.