Libby Copeland October 7 Program on DNA Testing Kicks Off BPL Family History Month

What: Author Libby Copeland Presents Home DNA Testing is Redefining Family History
When: Wednesday, October 7, 10:00-11:00 a.m.
Where: Birmingham Public Library Facebook page- 
About the book The Lost Family: Home DNA Testing is Redefining Family History – The book explores the rapidly evolving phenomenon of home DNA testing, its implications for how we think about family and ourselves, and its ramifications for American culture broadly. 

Birmingham, Ala.- Over the past seven years, the number of people across the globe who have researched their family history through home DNA testing has soared from 1 million in 2013 to 35 million, according to an author who is kicking off the Birmingham Public Library’s Family History Month celebration. 

That was one of the revelations from journalist/author Libby Copeland, who will present a program called Home DNA Testing is Redefining Family History,” on Wednesday, October 7, 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. on the BPL Facebook page,

Copeland’s virtual presentation will draw on three years of research in which she interviewed or corresponded with over 400 people for her new book The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are, released in March 2020 by Abrams Press.

In The Lost Family, Copeland explores the rapidly evolving phenomenon of home DNA testing, its implications for how we think about family and ourselves, and its ramifications for American culture broadly. Woven throughout the book is the story of one woman, her unusual DNA test results, and how it launched her on a relentless, methodical drive for answers that takes readers along on a modern-day genetic detective story as she explores her family roots. 

The Wall Street Journal says it’s “a fascinating account of lives dramatically affected by genetic sleuthing.” The New York Times writes, “Before You Spit in That Vial, Read This Book.” The Washington Post says The Lost Family “reads like an Agatha Christie mystery” and “wrestles with some of the biggest questions in life: Who are we? What is family? Are we defined by nature, nurture or both?” 

In a Q & A interview with BPL, Copeland talked about what led her to write the book, why genetic research has become so popular, and shared how African Americans can tackle the complex challenge of discovering their ancestral roots from Africa to enslavement in the United States. A freelancer now, Copeland has been a journalist for over two decades, including 11 years at the Washington Post from 1998 to 2009. 

BPL: Tell me about your book The Lost Family. 
Copeland: The book is a look at technology’s unintended consequences. Specifically it is a look at how the technology of home DNA testing which has become a really big business over the last few years and how it is really transforming our culture one family at time. What home testing can do is give people access to a past in a really immediate fashion. 

Sometimes the truth about one’s genetic origins can alter long-held narratives. For instance, a lot of people are finding out from their DNA testing that they are not genetically related to the man they thought was their father. That can cause turmoil in families and send people on a journey to find out who their real father is.

BPL: What led you to write this book?
 Copeland: I have been a reporter for 22 years, including 11 years at the Washington Post. What interested me as a science and culture reporter is this idea that a revelation about your family or yourself can change how you see yourself. It alters the rest of your story. It is difficult to tell your own story if you do not know your beginning. 

I wrote an article in Washington Post in July 2017 telling the story of the unexpected DNA results of a woman named Alice. It took her years of research and detective work to trace her genetic history.

The reaction of people who called me after reading the article led me idea to believe this is not a one-time phenomenon, and I decided to write a book. The central narrative is Alice's story, as I was able to tell her story more fully- expanding her narrative and going back in time to the beginnings of her genetic mystery. I researched back 100 years, and traveled to Washington State to interview her and understand her amazing analytical brain. I wove many other people’s stories into the book, talking to them again and again over the course of months and years to see how their stories played out and changed.

BPL: Genetic research and genealogy books are really popular now. How does your book “The Lost Family” differ from others? 
Copeland: This book is not so much a how-to or a book on best practices for methods of research.  The Lost Family is centered on human stories. It looks also at ethics of genetic genealogy, how we look at ethnicity, and the psychology of individual people who are impacted. There are lots of psychological reactions when a person through DNA research finds out their parents are not who they thought they were. I wanted to follow these stories and tell the 360-degree account of how these revelations affect a family.  

BPL: Do you also explore the complex challenge African-Americans face trying to trace their family history back to slavery and beyond to say Africa? 
Copeland: There are two chapters in the book in which I talk about how home DNA testing is a great gift to African-Americans, though the industry’s implications for this community are also e complicated, and I explore that too. For black genealogists, testing can provide an end-run around the lack of records. If you research family before 1870, you hit a brick wall trying to trace enslaved persons. Pre 1870, any enslaved person was simply a tick mark – they were not named. 

In my book, I feature an African American named TL Dixon who is well known for genealogy. He has a popular blog. He found that, by combining his historical research with his ethnicity pie chart and connecting with a modern day cousin living in Africa, he could trace one branch to Fulani family in Africa. I talk about his journey and others, as well as questions raised by DNA testing around race and ethnicity, in chapters called "27 Percent Asia Central" and "What to Claim." 

BPL: What can folks who tune in to your program on BPL Facebook page October 7 expect? 
Copeland: I plan to tell interesting stories of people impacted by this. I hope to educate people on how home DNA testing works and help them on their journey. What we typically do is leave 15 minutes at the end of the program for audience questions. 

BPL: What are some of the latest developments in the world of DNA testing?
Copeland: In last few years, DNA gathered for the purpose of genealogy has been used to solve cold case crimes. That has transformed law enforcement and provoked privacy questions. 

There has been incredible growth – in 2013, there were 1 million people across databases. Now there are 35 million and most of the people in the database are Americans. Due to the saturation of people in databases, even if you haven’t tested, some of your close genetic relatives have, and that means if there’s a genetic secret in your family, it’s not a matter of if but when it will emerge. You may find you have a first cousin you never knew existed, who was put up for adoption. You may discover you were donor-conceived and nobody told you. 

We have to start talking about these experiences, normalizing them, validating them, understanding them. And we have to start reckoning with the past.

BPL: Why are we seeing the surge in tracing family roots? 
Copeland: Because there are so many more genealogy materials available online – in many cases, free ones like You also have sites like My Heritage and that also offer genealogical subscriptions. Plus genealogy testing is so easy and cheap now. And there are many Americans who for a variety of reasons don’t know their families’ past. We’re in a moment of self-discovery via better understanding of the past. 

BPL: What advice do you offer for someone new to researching their family tree? 
Copeland: Home DNA testing is a back door into a genealogical hobby for people who might not normally be interested. It is so easy to get into nowadays. I suggest those wanting to get started reach out to genealogy groups. There are plenty on Facebook and elsewhere. You can join them and learn more about how to begin your search.