As a child, gazing at the stars and thumbing through National Geographic always provided a necessary
escape from an unwavering sensation of being trapped. Trapped by less-than-favorable circumstances in my family, trapped by being constantly teased at school, trapped by my own small yet rapidly obsessive and chattering mind. After the magazine's stories of far-away people and habitats and scientific space material had been devoured, I'd sprawl across a sleeping bag in the dry summer lawn of my rural childhood home, staring up at the vast sky with its pinpricks of stars, streaming satellites and meteors streaking through the atmosphere. Attempting to comprehend just how far away, and just how old, the stars were unraveled everything inside of me in the best of ways.
I can state with the utmost conviction that I am not the only human in the history of the world to gaze at the stars. Nor am I alone in my struggle to find my place, to understand and embrace my own personal identity. I don't believe that I was alone in my fantasies about being adopted and hoping that a “better” family was waiting out there for me. I'd often imagine that I came to them through a series of cosmic mistakes. The universe adhered me with the wrong shipping label, delivered me to the wrong address, put me into the hands of the wrong people.
But alas, my family of origin is indeed linked to me through genetics and shared experiences. All of us look way too much alike with our signature Burlison Family guffaws and cackles of laughter to be anything but biological family. I was born into them for some reason beyond my comprehension and looking back, I am thankful for this cosmic delivery to where, when and how I landed on earth.
But it can be difficult, this whole coming to terms with family complexities. Especially when we grow up and start our own families and our children begin asking questions about our experiences and we don't necessarily have the best Little House on the Prairie or Family Ties fairy tales to share with them. I grapple with this often and recently asked writer Nick Flynn for advice on the subject. Nick, who chronicles a similar family history of substance abuse, mental illness and suicide in many of his award-winning books often shares that there are no simple answers.
“Its in her, too,” he says to me of his five-year-old daughter, when I ask when and how he'll share his experiences with her. What he means, I think, is that part of us carries pieces of our families' experiences, and those experiences inform how we relate to the world. They are embedded in our genetics and our consciousness, whether we want to acknowledge their presence or not.
And though I, too, have inherited my family's history—both the good and the dreadful—I want to dig deeper, to find something bigger than the things that can't be undone. I started to believe that if I could look beyond the family I know and somehow dig back through space and time to when my family took on other forms, the fine-focused lens I see myself would blur and lift and reveal to me something I had yet to discover about my place in the world. And with that, I dreamed I'd find some space to breathe. This time, I turn to National Geographic not to escape but instead, to find this breathing place.
The National Geographic real-time scientific genealogy project can't exactly remedy any of my I-don't-fit-in symptoms, but what it can do, I hope, is to expand my world view again, like those stars did in my childhood, by tracing my lineage back beyond the family tree thrown together from gritty library and bible records by the self-proclaimed genealogists in the family. Though not as enlightening and all-encompassing as obtaining access to the Akashic Record and its files of human consciousness, the Geno 2.0 test kit takes saliva samples and runs a series of tests to trace nearly150,000 genetic markers in each individual participant's mitochondrial DNA. The scientists use this information to determine ancestral migration paths from thousands of years ago, indicating, also, if each participant has any Neanderthal or Denisovan ancestry. These brainy scientists compare the DNA from populations around the planet who have been relatively stable—genetically and geographically—for hundreds of thousands of years.
It is so fantastically mind-blowing and so far beyond the realm of what we've come to understand of human history that I can barely grasp the essence of what it means.
The Genographic project explains it like this: Through the eons of time, the full story remains clearly written in our genes. When DNA is passed from one generation to the next, most of it is recombined by the processes that give each of us our individuality. But some parts of the DNA chain remain largely intact through the generations, altered only occasionally by mutations, which become “genetic markers.” These markers allow geneticists to trace our common evolutionary time line back many generations.
The testing process goes through four stages:
- After taking saliva samples by swabbing the insides of your cheeks, the kit is sent to Houston, Texas, where Family Tree DNA, the Genographic Project’s testing partner and a leading genetic genealogy company, begins the testing process.
- Next begins crazy part of the process, called DNA isolation. In DNA isolation, cells from your samples are opened up through overnight incubation with a protein-cutting enzyme. The samples and chemicals are then placed on an “extraction robot.” This device uses specially coated beads that, in the presence of the appropriate chemicals, bind to the DNA. Then, using magnetic probes, it collects the beads (and DNA) and transfers them through several chemical washes and finally into a storage buffer, which allows the beads to release the DNA. The DNA samples are then transferred to a large freezer that records the exact position of DNA in each storage plate and can provide any combination of samples when needed.
- Samples are analyzed using a custom GenoChip, which contains thousands of microscopic DNA probes attached to a solid surface. Each of these probes represents one position where there is the possibility of a difference in DNA sequence between individuals (known as a single nucleotide polymorphism or SNP). This fully automated process uses a robotic liquid-handling system for efficient, error-free analysis.
- Every question you've ever had about the history of mankind and your personal family tree will be answered, or at least a clearer picture of what and why and who you are and which part of the globe your ancestors called home will be revealed and everything will be OK. Or at least I hope.
When my fantasies of ancestors singing and trudging along the dusty Silk Road completely overwhelmed me, I decided, at her request, to buy my daughter the kit for her seventeenth birthday. For female participants, the process traces what they call “deep maternal ancestry”; her slobber is virtually the same as mine. This means that all of the women on my mother's side will learn from what my daughter's DNA reveals. I swabbed the insides of her cheeks and sent little vials of her teenage saliva off into the world. In the meantime, I scoured the information on the Geno website. I was reminded that there were about half a dozen ancient migratory paths between Africa and different parts of Asia and that not all of Native American ancestors followed the same route to “Turtle Island” via Central Asia nor did my European ancestors simply walk on up to Scandinavia and Germany. And not everyone left their African homelands at the same time—the migrations occurred over the course of tens of thousands of years.
The last and final stage of my DNA testing is underway. Soon, I will have maps and charts and graphs revealing to me all of the mysteries of my past, like which migratory route my ancestors took out of Africa's arid terrain, where their feet met the earth, what bodies of water they drank from, where they foraged or hunted for meals, where they raised their families and buried their dead.
And aside from the details about geographic and genetic history that I'll be offered when the results are shared with me, I'll be provided with a vague but meaningful understanding of something larger than my personal and somewhat skewed every day experiences. I'll be given something to look back through time with, something that helps to transcend the magnified details of the sometimes painful—though relatively small—incidents that shape us into who we are. My daughters and I will have this, a wide-lens look at our ancient past and ultimately, I can only hope, a sense of real belonging.
And if the answers I am hoping for aren't revealed here, if I am left with nothing but more longing and a deeper desire to find something more, I always—until the end of my time—have the stars.
is a displaced social worker, mother, world traveler and activist turned writer and wannabe Anthropologist. Burlison is a staff writer at The Pacific Sun in Marin County, CA, a columnist for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and a book reviewer for the The Los Angeles Review. She also leads writing workshops and co-edits a zine at Petals and Bones, and is currently working on her first book.