Book Review: “The Foundling” by Paul Joseph Fronczak

“The Foundling: the True Story of a Kidnapping, a Family Secret and My Search for the Real Me” by Paul Joseph Fronczak and his writer, Alex Tresniowski, is a recounting of Paul’s determination to find his biological parents. Paul recounts his journey with an emotional intensity giving readers incredibly deep insight into the emotional side of his journey.

Paul discovers from snooping through his parent’s storage, that he is what’s called a foundling or a child that is found without any indication of its parents. With no documentation in the form of a birth certificate or adoption papers, Paul could be anyone from anywhere. He has very few clues to his identity. Wisely, he turns genetic genealogy testing. What searchees and seasoned genetic genealogists both know is that this process isn’t easy. And I’m just not referring to the science and the DNA-match grunt work. In fact, searching is an emotional gut-job at times. And, success doesn’t necessarily equate with a happy ending.

Fronczak’s book is worth a read. Not only for the story itself. The twists and turns are numerous, and the world into which he enters during his search is frightening. However, I’m not a literary critic. I’m a genealogist. And while I read it as a fan of biography, I also read it as a professional. Here are some thoughts.

  1. DNA testing is legit. Many lay people question its validity. But, a foundling found his biological family. It’s the ultimate test, and DNA rocked it.
  2. Every family has some secrets. DNA testing may uncover some of them. You can’t avoid the big reveal by not testing. It only takes a cousin, and the testing databases are growing exponentially.
  3. DNA testing has limits. It can’t provide you with a story. Only people can. Interpersonal skills are a key part of the job description.
  4. The emotional turmoil that a DNA test can unleash cannot be underestimated. As searchers we aren’t professional psychologists and counselors. But, we must educate ourselves on when clients (or friends) may need some emotional support beyond what we can give. We must realize quickly, when I situation is over our head. Maybe, we need a list of counselors on hand for referrals. Why? People don’t give their child up for adoption (or any other scenario when I parent(s) is unknown) when all of the parties involved are financially, physically, emotionally and relationally healthy. There is always something broken in the dynamic. Pretending like all searches will end in happy and fulfilling family reunions is naive and dangerous.
  5. Searchers must be careful to establish boundaries with friends and clients. People that searchers come across in the process will say that they don’t want to help an adoptee (Ex. By providing valuable family information or by taking a DNA test to narrow down parent/child candidates). Professionals must respect an individual’s decision to not assist regardless of the reason. Even if that person is the target parent or child.

Adulting is hard, so be nice. Have the hard conversations, but also do the work to protect your relationships with your dearest ones.


Disclaimer: I didn’t get the book for free. Nobody asked me to review. I didn’t get anything in return for reviewing.

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Researchers’ Helpful Hints at the Library of Virginia

A very unofficial guide to researching your family history at the LVA. I’ve tried to include items that you may not find on the LVA website.

  1. Parking- there’s an underground parking garage beneath LVA. It’s free when you get your parking stub validated at the front desk. The library fronts West Broad Street, occupies the entire block between 8th and 9th streets and backs up directly to Marshall St. Depending on what part of town you’re entering the city from, you may use either one way streets – 8th or 9th streets. 8th Street moves South. If you’re using 8th, cross Marshall St in the left-hand lane. The parking deck will be immediately on the left after Marshall. But, 9th Street moves North. Travelling north on 9th Street, cross Broad Street in the left lane. Right before Marshall St, the entrance to the lot in on the left. There is one clearly marked elevator that will take you to the main entrance hallway.
  2. Sustenance. Research areas on the 2nd floor do not allow food or drink. There is a small cafe with sandwiches, salads, soups, drinks, coffee, etc, on the first floor. Expect to pay $8 or so for a panini with a side and a soda. There is a sub shop a half block East on Broad St. And several other restaurants within a few block’s walk. Here’s the kicker, none of these places are open on Saturdays. Only M-F for downtown work lunches. I would suggest bring a bag lunch on Saturday especially if weather is inclement.
  3. Technology. Flash drives – don’t leave home without them (they also sell them at the circulation desk!). Not only will you need them for microfilm readers, but the book scanner uses them as well. On a side note, get your file naming conventions in order. There’s nothing like opening a file at home that’s titled 4521853.pdf, and trying to remember what county, book #, page # the deed came from for part 3 of the GPS. Rename the file immediately after saving it. All scanned items are saved in .pdf form. There are power strips for laptops and chargers at most work stations, so bring your cords.
  4. Get a library card at the circulation desk. The 2nd floor manuscript room requires it to access anything. You’ll need a driver’s license.
  5. The LVA website is invaluable in order to prepare before your visit. Search their catalog and their chancery records. Become familiar with what’s available in your county/area/time of interest before you visit. It’s easy to waste time at LVA or get sidetracked by all that’s available. Staying focused on your task is essential to time management.
  6. The Genealogy and Local History Section is a first stop. Arranged by State of Virginia, County, City and former state areas (like West Virginia), a searcher does himself a favor by checking these sections first. Abstracts, especially, are invaluable search aides to peruse before heading to the microfilm readers for copies of the originals. There are also county histories, and back issues of genealogical journals and much more that can assist in your search.
  7. Microfilm readers. Unless you’re an expert, get the staff to give you a quick reader tutorial. These folks are unfailing patient and very helpful with the less tech-minded among us. Even if you are techy, like me, they can teach you something.
  8. Manuscript Room: working with original documents has it’s own guidelines. Most important are the use of only loose leaf paper and pencil. Photographs and scans are only used after given special permission. There are lockers available to keep personal belonging secure, but you may not even be allowed to keep your purse nearby depending on what you’re requesting.
  9. Ask for help. I’ve never been disappointed when I ask. Staff is always helpful and knowledgeable. Many can help interpret old cursive handwriting or translate colonial legalese. LVA staff is top notch.
  10. Familiarize yourself with the National Genealogical Society’s “Guidelines for Using Record’s Repositories and Libraries.”

The Library of Virginia is a jewel and researching their always pays dividends.


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Book Review: “The Stranger in My Genes” by Bill Griffeth

It’s a regular source of conversation among genetic genealogy testers: NPEs or Non-Paternal Events. Somehow, someway, a parent on paper is NOT the parent via DNA. ISOGG (International Society of Genetic Genealogists) defines an NPE as: “An event which has caused a break in the link between the surname and the Y-chromosome resulting in a son using a different surname from that of his biological father (eg, illegitmacy, adoption, maternal infidelity).”

Bill Griffeth, a financial news reporter and long-time genealogy hobbyist, took a y-DNA test at a family member’s prompting. He discovered that his father wasn’t his biologically. He recalls his experience in his book, “The Stranger in My Genes: A Memoir.”

Have you ever had a moment in your life, when you thought to yourself, “Things will never be the same again?” For me, I can name two. When my father died and 9/11. When dad died, I remember leaving the hospital and on the drive home I crossed a bridge over the interstate that runs through my city. I vividly remember seeing all of the cars and wondering out loud, “Why are all of these people out, don’t they know that dad just died?” My personal universe was fundamentally different. Then there was 9/11. By the time the plane crashed in the Pennsylvania field, I knew. And over the next few days as the whole of the U. S. stopped working and moving, it was obvious. Life was going to be different. Fundamentally.

For Bill Griffeth, a favor for his cousin, taking a DNA test, fundamentally shifted his identity. His book is an account of the emotional rollercoaster that is an NPE discovery. It is not a textbook on genetic genealogy testing. It’s a recounting of his own journey.

Here’s what I loved about it:

-Bill is a genealogist himself. He mixes his own DNA story with family stories of how traditional paper genealogy research uncovers family secrets as well. Bottomline, DNA testing is not unique in it’s ability to cover what people have tried to hide. Bill makes it clear that his experience is only unique to him.

-His story is paced. The DNA results are the tip of the iceberg in uncovering the story. It’s the beginning and the journey is long, sometimes dark and at times, frightening. Answers never come all at once. This isn’t bad. The slow burn allows a searcher to reconcile themselves to each new bit of information a little at a time. Surely, it would be overwhelming to know everything all a once. And while a searcher is rightly impatient for answers, Bill’s living-in-the-moment style is a valuable model.

-He’s thoughtful about how his discovery effects others. A discovery like Bill’s effects his entire family, family friends and unknown numbers of people that he’s never encountered. His mother, his siblings, extended family, his own children, family friends, and co-workers. And that’s just his family. There’s a biological father, who has parents, siblings, children, friends, and co-workers. He is not living this experience in a vacuum, but in a context of relationships, some of which are very complex. Some require a sensitivity that demands caution and forethought.

-Bill never appears to be “entitled” to his story. Many in the NPE search community communicate their deep, compelling desire to know their birth story as a fundamental right. I confess that I bristle at this. There are always others to consider – their experiences and their feelings. There are right ways and wrong ways to go about finding a birth story. Barreling over people like a Mack truck isn’t it. A searcher may finding themselves having alienated all family including the one they’re trying to discover. Bill appears to be hesitant to discuss his discovery with his mother and I’m sure that would frustrate many other readers. For me, I admired his respect for her and his sensitivity to just how hard the situation must be for her. He’s carrying a big stick of a secret, yet he walks softly.

-Bill avoids the temptation to sensationalize his story to up the drama-quotient. It’s a quiet story.

Overall a great read for those working with DNA testing. Lay people may not find the story compelling and exciting enough.

NOTE: I have not received any payment in any form for my review. I purchased the book from with my own cash!

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Top 5 Ways to Recognize an NGS Conferencee #NGS2017GEN

I love people, dead or alive. People watching is even more fun. So, here are my observations on the recent NGS Conference in Raleigh. The top 5 ways to recognizing someone who attended:

  1. One shoulder is higher than the other. We walk a little lopsided, not because we’re injured or frail. It’s the books. One of a kinds or limited printings that aren’t digitized online. We love them and buy a lot of them. They’re heavy. Hence the lopsided.
  2. We’re a strange mix of history nuts and tech nerds. Give us a one-of-a-kind, handwritten in cursive, 100 year old document and we’re in heaven. For weeks, we’ll be in heaven. We also love new technologies and will pay any Hadoop programmer a $1M for quick DNA match scraping tool that auto-connects cousin matches with tree similarities. Can I get an “Amen?”
  3. We are forward-thinking. We love history, but we know better than most the mistakes of the past. We love historical research, but we don’t want to live there.
  4. We have heroes. I personally would love a t-shirt with Judy G. Russell’s face on it. Maybe an Andy Warhol-inspired head shot of her. I’d wear it to the library. I’d wear it to bed. I’d wear it to church.
  5. You can trust us. Promise. But… we love a good secret. Dog with a bone. Bloodhound on the scent. CNN on a Trump scandal. We’re better keeping the secrets and discovering them.

How do you recognize a genealogist?


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NGS Conference – Day 3-4 #NGS2017GEN

I had a plan. In the middle of it, I changed it. Friday morning I decided that my brain was in danger of exploding, so I headed to a fun lecture to just relax and enjoy. And my head exploded anyway.

I had planned to hit up the well-known speakers and thought-generators. I did and they were great as expected. Let me tell you about the unexpected.

Lisa Louise Cooke, of Genealogy Gems, spoke about using a mash up of Google Earth Pro and genealogist’s favorite map collector, Dave Rumsey. Can I tell you how much I appreciate a woman who knows her tech? It was might have been the only lecture that I gave an all 5-star review. (I don’t hand them out often not because speakers aren’t doing a great job, but because all 5 stars aren’t helpful.) I also loved that whomever was running her powerpoint for her, was step by step alongside her fluidly thru the session. Great job being so well-rehearsed and prepped – much appreciated! This was the only session when I immediately went online afterward. Get the audio on this one. Or subscribe to her site and track down the tutorial. It was jaw-dropping.

My favorite track for the conference: African American.

For my own research, Tim Pinnick‘s session on “Reconstruction 101 for African Americans” gave great resources for my great, grandfather, James Morrissey, a Radical Republican representative to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868, but also gave a detailed history of the Reconstruction Era. Andre Kearns also did a great job recounting how he’s combined DNA and paper research to trace his family’s history in remarkable ways. Both of these sessions were also recorded.

I had hoped to make some new connections with other genealogists.  But, I’ve made some new friends in addition. The conference exceeds expectations!


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NGS Conference, Day 2, #NGS2017GEN

I attended some great sessions today. There’s a lot to process and a lot that I could say. I have my own filter for this information though. The session content filters through my own experiences and intellect and personality and passions. So, let me tell you what I heard today and how I’m processing it. There’s a thought thread here, I promise.

One speaker commented on her mother, who’s an adoptee. How, although raised in a loving adoptive family, she never could complete her medical history forms. How her mother was adamant about medical check ups and mammograms. How finding out her maternal haplogroup gave a sense of identity for the first time. Her mother had no biological past before DNA testing helped her uncover it.

Another speaker was an expert on a particular set of records that were created immediately after the U.S. Civil War in the South. She challenged the audience to begin thinking of the word, “slave,” as plural. Not “slaves,” as plural. Because even without the “S” at the end, the word still implies a large group of people.

The BCG Luncheon speaker was a homerun for me, though. The speaker, an African-American, dared to whisper that genealogy can be an agent of social change. She gave examples of how our African-American community, historically, as been left out of our narratives. Her example of a state’s World War I memorial that only recently added it’s African-American soldiers was most stunning.

I sat by a librarian from Virginia Beach at the luncheon. She expressed frustration that she couldn’t find a newspaper article about a family member’s death. In the early 1900s he was murdered in his home in Richmond. She’s looked online and at the Library of Virginia, but couldn’t find any notice of it. My new friend is African American, you see. Richmond newspapers during that time frame, probably wouldn’t have reported his murder because he was black.

Ultimately the speaker called the genealogical community to include African-Americans in their research case studies and in their lectures. Don’t simply note that the your ancestor’s owned slaves. Record those enslaved ancestor’s names, ages, locations, bills of sale, or other transfers of ownership. Uncover their identities and experiences in order to bring those stories into the light.

What must it be like to not have a story?

What must it be like to have your story ignored?

As a native and lifelong resident of Richmond, Virginia, these ideas are powerful in the light of my hometown’s history. They light a fire in my own heart. Because genealogy (either paper or DNA) is a force to uncover what has been hidden. Because we cannot change in ourselves that which we don’t acknowledge.

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NGS Conference – Day 1 #NGS2017GEN

Today was the start of the National Genealogical’s Society’s Annual Conference.

Good news or bad news first?

They are tricky things, conferences. So many moving parts! Not everything can be absolutely perfect. Such was the opening session. Technical difficulties, poor transitions from one speaker to the next, speakers who shouldn’t be speakers…  Sorry NGS, but it was a dud. Even the main speakers message (a worthy one!) was overshadowed by a video with sound problems. The video’s production was painfully amateurish. But, maybe my expectations were too high?

The in-house conference center food vendors closed up shop shortly after lunch. For those of us who need an afternoon caffeine hit, it was deadly. There were at least a half dozen others longingly looking for coffee for the few minutes I stood at the counter.

On the other hand. Volunteers are friendly and helpful.

The conference app is awesome, though I’ve had trouble uploading to multiple devices. I caulk that up to user error.

The conference location choice has been tricky, as it appears that there haven’t been enough hotels close to the conference center. Veteran attendees tell me that the hotels near the conference center sold out in minutes. My hotel is … maybe I’ll leave that review for TripAdvisor.

The exhibit hall was busy and crowded. A good thing! And attendees were polite and courteous. Genealogists are some of the nicest people that I know! So navigating the masses was about as easy as possible. Conference goal #2 failed before lunch. I’m not sad.

Speakers. Genealogy giants speak at this conference. I saw two of them today, and they delivered. Start to finish, they were top notch. Content, slides, delivery, humor, engagement: out of park! I did attend 3 sessions though. Great content and slides for the third, but the speaker’s dynamic, while professional and polished, was not approachable. I have a great deal of notes, and plan acting on the new ideas I’ve learned from all three speakers when I get back home.

There is a “pig pickin'” scheduled tonight that I won’t be attending. See my goals for the conference from my previous post. I’m quietly hanging out in my room with my sore feet up, and a glass of wine getting warm as I type. That’s my signal to end for now. Warm wine = bad.

Looking forward to tomorrow. Particularly the lunch session by LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson titled, “Condemnation of Memory: Recalling that African American Genealogy is American Genealogy.”


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I’m a Newbie: NGS Conference, May 9-13, 2017 #NGS2017GEN

I’m attending my first conference by the National Genealogical Society and I’m pretty excited. Follow along as I give my first impressions of the conference experience, and as I reflect on seminars I’ve attended. I have a few goals:

  1. I will improve my professional skills. Some of the giants in genealogy will be there. I intend to listen early and often. I will attend the BCG Certification Seminar.
  2. I will set a spending budget and stick to it. I won’t blow my budget on the first day in exhibit hall.
  3. I will focus other time on African-American and Virginia-focused lectures.
  4. I will meet some new friends and network with other Richmond area genealogists.
  5. The conference is non-stop for 4-5 days with over 2,000 attendess. I will take breaks to find a quiet place.
  6. I will exercise and make healthy eating choices.

The car’s gotten a tune up. A playlist is forming. Phone and tablet chargers are ready. Comfy shoes are packed. The schedule is uploaded. I’m ready.


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Virginia Genealogical Society – Spring Conference, 22 April 2014

I was a first-time attendee this past Saturday at the Virginia Genealogical Society’s Spring Conference. So, I thought I’d record a few thoughts.

First, a caveat. The conference took place in the greater Richmond area. I’m a local, so there are parts of the conference that I did not attend. For example, VGS set up a research time at the Library of Virginia with a archivist on Friday afternoon. I’m a frequent visitor to the Library, so I didn’t participate.

VGS did a great job. They were organized and all directions were clear. Volunteers were well-trained and helpful. The venue was praised by several of those at my table.

Saturday was dedicated to 4 sessions with Shannon Combs Bennett who spoke on “DNA and Social Media Search Strategies.” They sessions were “Genetic Genealogy for the Beginner,” “Creating a Research Plan for DNA Testing,” “Organize Your DNA Data,” and “Crowdsourcing Your Genealogy to Break Down Brick Walls.” Shannon is a scientist and genealogist, so her command of the DNA material was obvious. She is a well-rehearsed and well-edited speaker with a winsome and approachable style that creates a wonderfully easy and engaged audience. What a great choice to lead this conference!

It was difficult to measure the attendee experience with genetic genealogy. Most had already tested. Many administered more that one test. Questions from the audience ranged from the basic to the highly complex.

If I had a criticism, it would be very minor. Shannon is a scientist. My experience is that most experts have trouble drilling complex ideas down to easily understandable concepts for the layman. This is always a challenge for science and math-types because there is a line where simplicity overcomes accuracy. Scientists are trained to be bulls-eye accurate. Shannon was able to, in most cases, and especially during Q&A to overcome the expert-layman barrier.

Any historian-type (genealogists included) walking in cold would have to be prepared to activate the dusty parts of their brain, that haven’t been accessed since high school biology class. A great place to start are the short video series on the University of Utah‘s site on “Introduction to Molecular Biology.”

After the lunch break, VGS honored Peter Broadbent. A former director of the the National Genealogical Society, former Presidents of VGS, and Genealogical Research Institute of Virginia. This was absolutely deserved. His tireless, effective and widespread work on behalf of the genealogical community in Virginia is laudable. While his accomplishments are many, the most recent was a successful Virginia state budget lobbying campaign for the restoration of funds on behalf of the Library of Virginia.

Finally, these events are always great for meeting new folks, learning with them and from them, hearing their stories, encouraging their work, and enjoying your common passion together. My new friends are a highlight.

Join VGS. Visit their webpage. Fall Conference brochure.

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