How genetic testing marks the end of family secrets.
By Libby Copeland
From The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are, Abrams Press
Rosario Castronovo grew up without much in the way of cultural identity, but he clung to his mother’s story that she had Sicilian heritage. At 21, when he decided to legally change his name to distance himself from a father he describes as abusive, he chose Italian first and last names in a nod to his mother’s culture. He’d heard “Castronovo” meant “new castle,” and that’s what he believed he was building—a new life, a new identity. Nobody in his family stopped him, though he’d later learn that many of them knew this was a fable.
Come to think of it, a lot of the decisions Rosario made as a younger man were nods to a heritage he’d later learn he could not claim. He joined the Catholic church as an adult and was baptized. He studied and began singing opera. He proposed to his Italian American girlfriend after flying her to Italy for the millennium. He was “trying to define who I was.” Many of us have family stories, memories, holidays, habits, and language to assist in the constructions of our ethnic identities. Rosario filled in the blank parts with what he thought it meant to be Italian. He was “searching,” he’d say later. “What was going to make me me?”
It was when he was about to be married, in the early 2000s, that he decided to find out more about the background of his mother, an orphan raised in foster care. Rosario wanted children, and he imagined that one day they’d ask where they came from, just as he’d asked his own parents. He wanted to be able to give them an answer.
In the town hall in the small town in Vermont where his mother had grown up, Rosario found not one but three birth certificates for her, and they were rife with redactions. Strange. One listed the race of his mother’s father as “negro.” Rosario was mystified. Perhaps his grandfather had been a dark-skinned Sicilian mistaken for a black man. But more likely, he thought, putting the information together with old census reports that sometimes named his mom’s paternal side as black and sometimes as white, the birth certificate was right, and there were important, fundamental facts he did not know about himself and his mother. He did not go to his mother yet because he wanted more evidence before he rocked her world. Maybe she doesn’t know, he thought.
Over the next few years, Rosario used genealogy resources to research his mom’s side, but there were details he could not fill in from the paper trail alone. So, like tens of millions of Americans by now, he embarked on home genetic testing. He would eventually learn that he is about 18 percent sub-Saharan African, as well as smaller amounts Native American and Asian, all through his mother’s side. His elderly mother was uneasy when he went to her with the results of a DNA test he’d persuaded her to take.
“I said, ‘Did you know?’ and she said, ‘Yes,’ ” Rosario says. Rosario’s mother said, “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to go through what I went through.” She told him about her difficult life in foster homes, about her foster father directing a racial slur at her and her little brother, about her brother being sent away to a boys’ home because, she understood, “he had darker skin.”
And Rosario began to learn about the history his mother had wanted to protect him from. He researched the small town in Vermont his mom came from, traced how the slate quarries and mills attracted black Americans, traced how the black families in the town peaked toward the turn of the 20th century and then began to disappear. He learned of the death of his 30-year-old great-uncle in what a 1930 newspaper article called a “fire of mysterious origin,” when many black families had left the town, and wondered about the circumstances of that fire.
And eventually he came to understand some of the context for why his mother had lived out her childhood as an orphan, even as her parents were both living nearby. He learned that his grandmother was white and married to someone else when she had two children with Rosario’s black grandfather. Looking in archives, he discovered his grandparents had both been sentenced for adultery in the 1940s, though only his grandfather served time, going in when the two children they’d had together were small. Rosario did historical research and wondered if his grandfather’s race and his relationship with a white woman were the real reasons he wound up in jail. Part of the judge’s ruling in Rosario’s grandmother’s case was that she no longer “make her residence” with his grandfather. She eventually divorced her white husband and married someone else, and Rosario’s mother had only the haziest memories of seeing her biological parents as a young child. It was as if her family had never existed.
I got to know Rosario while reporting on the home DNA testing industry, the one that runs ads promising to identify relatives or to tell you how Irish, Italian, or Korean you are. When the industry first emerged 20 years ago with the founding of a company called FamilyTreeDNA, genetic testing was cruder, and only the most dedicated and science-minded family historians saw the appeal of mail-in spit kits. But over time, the technology has become much more sophisticated. Companies like 23andMe, Ancestry, and MyHeritage have entered the space, and the industry has become increasingly good at identifying relatives and returning ethnicity estimates. Spit kits have become so popular, and prices so low, that they are billed as entertainment and given as gifts over the holidays. But sometimes, the outcome of so-called “recreational” genetic testing can be far more profound than consumers expect. Well over 30 million people have tested their DNA to better understand their ancestries and family networks, and of those, a significant minority—well over a million—have discovered something big and surprising in those results. For my new book The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are, I’ve spent years interviewing consumers about how this technology is reshaping our understanding of identity, and about what happens when secrets from the past collide with the present. For better or worse—and that determination varies from person to person—DNA testing marks the end of family secrets.
Most often, the genetic revelations that consumers uncover fall into one of two scenarios: Either the consumer learns he isn’t genetically related to his own father, or he learns of a sibling he didn’t previously know about. But there are other kinds of surprises, including the discovery of hidden ancestry that may hint at painful historical truths, including forced conversion and racial passing. In my reporting, I encountered a number of testers of significant African American ancestry who did not know of this heritage till they tested. Growing up, they were told they were Italian, perhaps, or Native American. In the face of these findings, they have had to interview family members, research census records, interrogate their own memories, and come up with their own definitions of ethnic identity, informed by what they were told as children—as well as what they were pointedly never told. Is your culture your lived experience, or is it the story of ancestors you never knew? What if your forebears’ decision to hide their own experiences was a matter of survival? Might it be your duty to reclaim those now? This category of revelations from genetic testing can force a reckoning with history, with the things your ancestors did in order to be able to pass on their genes to you.
Rosario has had years to research and process the news that genetic genealogy brought him, yet to this day he’s seeking a deeper understanding of who he is and what this means. Over the years, he’s consulted spiritual mediums and woken in the night believing he’d heard his grandfather’s voice. One of the last times I talked to him, he was planning to change his name again, this time to Jerome Lafayette Naramore, to honor the ancestral discoveries he’d made through genetic genealogy. “Some people say what’s in a name?” says Rosario, a restaurant server and union officer who lives in Manhattan. “I think everything is in a name.”
Rosario struggles with how to think about himself and how to present himself to the world. “It’s kind of weird for a guy who presents as white to say, ‘I’m black,’” Rosario told me. “I’m still getting used to it.” Could he even claim blackness, he wondered, without that lived experience and without any of the implications of what it means to be perceived as a black man in contemporary America? “I’ll never know what it’s like to be pulled over by a police officer and fear for my life,” he said. “Can I call myself black and never have to experience it? It almost seems unfair, or like I’m pandering.” Yet his mother’s elderly cousin, who is more fair-skinned than he—and, according to her DNA results, has less African ancestry than his mother—is quite clear in her identity as a black woman. “It’s a social construct,” Rosario told me. “I raised myself as an Italian man, I immersed myself in Italian culture. What do I do now?”
We were talking on Independence Day, and Rosario told me the more history he learned about his black family, about the lives of black people in Vermont and in the rest of America, the more he wondered what he should be celebrating on this day, and if he should be celebrating at all. “I have learned more about African American history in this country, and the more granular you get, the more bitter you become,” he said. “I never got to know my people.”
And yet genetic genealogy had also given him an opportunity to know about what had been hidden, to wrestle with his mother’s pain, with his grandparents’ sacrifices, and with the wrongs done to his family. DNA testing had given back to him and to his mother a little of what was stolen by the past.
Rosario’s mother has Alzheimer’s now, but there are moments of lucidity. One day, Rosario took her to a quiet spot in a church not far from her assisted living home, and handed her a framed copy of the only photograph he had of her father: the man’s mugshot, from when he had served time for the crime of adultery with a white woman—for the crime, really, of creating Rosario’s mother. The old woman sat in a pew and stared at the image. She wiped her eyes and held the photograph to her chest and kissed it. She couldn’t get over how handsome her father was.
“This is so wonderful,” she said. “I could just sit here and cry.”
Rosario sat down in the pew and told his mother they could do that together.
Libby Copeland C’98 is the author of The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are. Adapted excerpt from the new book The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are (Abrams Press) by Libby Copeland © 2020 Libby Copeland.