29 August 2012

Review: Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA

I just finished reading Richard Hill's new book, Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA.1

Richard announced the book a few days ago on one of the DNA mailing lists I read. At first I could only find a link he provided to createspace.com, an Amazon company. My first search at Amazon didn't find the book. I didn't want to create another login for createspace.com so I hesitated to order the book. The next day I was able to order the book through my normal Amazon login. A few days later I received the book and I read it in one sitting. You always hear the exaggeration, "I couldn't put it down." I did put it down a couple of times to run down the hall for a break. Other than that, "I couldn't put it down."

I have not met Richard Hill, but I heard him speak at the 2011 Family Tree DNA Project Administrator's Conference. Richard's search for his biological parents was covered in stories in 2009 in The Grand Rapids (Michigan) News2 and The Wall Street Journal.3 At the DNA conference Richard told us his story. It is an interesting and compelling story. This new book incorporates details that occurred after the 2011 DNA conference. These new findings make the story even more compelling for everyone. Genealogists striving to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard4 will find some excellent examples in Richard's search process and in reviewing his analysis.

I don't want to spoil the ending. I'll just say Richard's story demonstrates:
  • why we need a research log to track our project;
  • the importance of a reasonably exhaustive search, why DNA is an integral part of a reasonably exhaustive search today, how persistence and serendipity can both be an important part of the search;
  • how to analyze and correlate information, assessing its quality as evidence, giving up assumptions and pre-conceived notions, finding the kernel of truth in a family story—and the lies and half-truths we all run into;
  • using evidence to resolve conflicts, propose logical reasons for the conflict, reveal facts indirectly, and point us to other research avenues;
  • and arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.
Richard's book may not fully meet the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) because it does not include the complete and accurate source citations genealogists expect in scholarly publications. There aren't any footnotes or endnotes for citations. We can't judge the quality of some of the sources or the full extent of the research as some common records aren't mentioned. We do see the importance of persistence in requesting the same record multiple times. We see the problems encountered when the records most likely to give an answer are closed or not available. We see creative thinking to get around these problems. We learn how to interpret several kinds of DNA reports. We see the use of multiple sources to prove facts.

But this isn't meant to be published in a scholarly journal. It's meant to be a readable story that inspires and guides adoptees and genealogists about how to use DNA for family history. There is information on his sources in the narrative. Most of the sources are those same ones genealogists use every day: family stories, the Social Security Death Index, newspapers, court records, city directories. The exclusion of source citations is a deficiency when measuring against the GPS. But this is Richard's search story, not a compiled family history or genealogical narrative where this would be a major flaw. And when a story includes living persons in a sensitive situation, we do have to be careful what is published.

The writing keeps you in the story. The characters, living and deceased, make you want to know them or know more about them. The personalities of the people in the story come through. Each chapter ends with a statement that draws you into the subject of the next chapter. It's a good read; most researchers will learn something; many will be inspired. I think that meets Richard's goals in writing the book.

Richard teaches about the sensitivity needed when working with adoptees:
Adoption is inherently a two-sided coin. On one side, there is gratitude that a nice family chose to raise you as their own. On the flip side, there's a sense of loss. Your birth parents had to give you up for this to happen. {p. 9}

I was beginning to see that there was a lot of curiosity about lost relatives from both sides of the adoption wall. {p. 81}

I knew that some birth parents did not appreciate being found by the children they had conceived. {p. 111}

This book is a perfect illustration of how genealogical conclusions must change as new evidence comes to light. In my opinion, it is also a perfect complement to a recent discussion on the Transitional Genealogists Forum mail list about using DNA as part of the Genealogical Proof Standard.
The so-called "Genealogical Proof Standard" promulgated in The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual is in fact described in that work as a credibility standard. Genealogical evidence that meets that standard—whether documentary or DNA—when properly explained, should be sufficient to convince most reasonable people that the conclusion drawn from it is in accord with reality. However, there will always be some who are still doubters, while only a portion of the evidence would be enough to convince others.
These days DNA evidence is among the types of evidence a knowledgeable researcher would seek, and so is within the scope of the reasonably exhaustive search, if suitable donors can be identified and consent to testing. If none can be found, the "reasonably exhaustive search" requirement has been satisfied, and the paper evidence can stand on its own, without the confirming support or conflicting evidence the DNA samples might provide.

I understand DNA evidence to be one more part of the mix, to be considered along with everything else on the basis of its relative credibility compared to the other items of evidence. Y-DNA and mtDNA matches can provide supporting, but not conclusive, evidence of relationships, but mismatches can upset them conclusively.

And don't forget the cautionary note that needs to accompany the GPS:

Conclusions that meet the GPS are always subject to reconsideration when new evidence is discovered.

The GPS doesn't provide finality, even though that's what many are looking for.5
The genealogical paper trail and the DNA evidence must be used in conjunction: we analyze and correlate all of the information we gather. Richard illustrates that well.

I have to admit that, as a Texan, I was surprised when Richard described how he had been warned "not to mistake Dale's strong Texas accent for a lack of intelligence" {p. 183} and by the fact that not everyone in the U.S. knows about the domino game called 42 {p. 202}. But then I don't know anything about euchre, apparently big in Michigan. And I worked very hard to soften my Texas drawl when I started teaching international and national students. My Texas accent was hard on the New Yorkers and Scotsmen, and vice versa. We tend to forget that, even with the homogenous landscape we live in today, with a McDonald's and a Walgreen's on every corner, there are still a lot of regional differences. I embrace those differences even when they do surprise me. Those differences keep life interesting.

Disclaimer: Richard Hill and I are "friends" on social media sites, but not personal friends. I link to publications on his website http://www.dna-testing-adviser.com/ where he publishes information useful to genealogists and adoptees using DNA for family history research. He is the author of the free e-book Guide to DNA Testing: How to Identify Ancestors and Confirm Relationships through DNA Testing; A Plain-English Overview for Genealogists, Adoptees and Everyone Else.

I did not receive a free copy of Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA; I paid full retail for it. Money well spent. I recommend you do the same.

Added after initial post: I forgot to state above that Richard's process also clearly demonstrates something I state in all my presentations: the DNA test results indicate statistically how likely something is to be true. But random events don't always perfectly match statistical probabilities. The actual relationships must be determined using the DNA data and the documentary evidence. But you should be able to correlate the evidence to explain why a situation outside the probabilities is likely to be true.

1. Richard Hill, Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA (n.p.: self-published, 2012); available on Amazon.com. An e-Book version should be available soon.
2. Pat Shellenberger, "Rockford man uses DNA testing, Internet searches to find his birth father," 21 June 2009, the Grand Rapids (Michigan) News (http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2009/06/rockford_man_uses_dna_testing.html : accessed 29 August 2012).
3. Gautam Naik, "Family Secrets: An Adopted Man's 26-Year Quest for His Father," 2 May 2009, The Wall Street Journal ( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124121920060978695.html : accessed 29 August 2012).
4. Christine Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case, 3d ed. (San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2009).
5. Donn Devine, "DNA - proof or just indication?," slightly modified version of a TGF mail list message, 18 August 2012, (http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/TRANSITIONAL-GENEALOGISTS-FORUM/2012-08/1345179394 and http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/TRANSITIONAL-GENEALOGISTS-FORUM/2012-08/1345276256 : 28 August 2012 modification and permission to use to Debbie Parker Wayne along with the cautionary note).

To cite this blog post:
Debbie Parker Wayne, "Review: Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA," Deb's Delvings Blog, posted 29 August 2012 (http://debsdelvings.blogspot.com/ : accessed [date]).

© 2012, Debbie Parker Wayne, CG, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. Great review, you should do one on this book in one of the journals.