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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