Skip to content

The Double Helix

January 29, 2013

 A young man at last summer’s Renaissance Festival talked me into taking off my shoe after asking me to sit with him on a fragrant bed of pine needles near the Shakespeare stage. He gazed deeply into my eyes and said he wanted to read my sole. I heard “soul” and off came the shoe.

 I’ve been seeking a solid sense of who I am since I was first confronted with an abrupt and life- altering change in my identity at the age of ten. Mine is not an unusual story, although it was at the time.  When Mrs. Tydings asked for any student with divorced parents to raise a hand, I was singled out as first among my fifth grade peers to have loved and lost–an equation most of us will eventually have to reconcile.  Maybe that’s why we’re drawn to those who claim insider knowledge about who we are, especially when those insights suggest a worth we might question.  I’ve consulted astrologers, tarot card readers and fortune tellers and their assessments were entertaining even as I longed for them to be true. (You are exceptionally gifted! The light above your head is very bright!)

So it was no surprise that I would be fascinated by my mother’s day gift this year– a DNA  test kit which promised a journey of self-discovery that would reveal the hidden connections I have with populations from around the world.  Another piece of evidence in my personal quest for  identity and in our universal curiosity about our forebears. You may think you know where you come from, but do you really? I’ve been told that my ancestors are Scottish, English and Dutch but memories are faulty and a bit of mythology may be woven into most family histories.  I recently heard my 91-year- old mother explain to an aide at her assisted living facility that my father won WW II when he invaded the Pacific. My sister raised her eyebrows at me and mouthed, “Who knew?”

The DNA kit came with two sterile swabs and mailing instructions for sending the sample into the lab.  Wait a week and I could log onto the internet using a private barcode number to see the results of this cutting- edge science. At last I was going to identify my people, discover who I am from the inside out. I expected to have my heritage confirmed and hoped for a surprise or two—something a little exotic in the mix—someone throughout the last thousand years, for instance, who couldn’t have had my grandmother’s blue-green eyes, or perhaps someone exceptionally tall. Good at map reading!  But when the moment of truth came it felt like online dating. Yikes. Send photos first! Let’s vet that bio! 

 I logged on and read that the results of my DNA sample had been depicted graphically as a target overlaying the ten countries whose populations most closely match my genetic makeup. We hit the link and my husband and I stared expectantly at northern Europe but there was nothing there. 

“So,” Clay said, as we scrutinized the screen.  “Your primary country of origin is… Tanzania?” He pushed back from the computer to assess me quizzically then turned back to the screen. “And you’re also from Mozambique. And Qatar! Angola…  Well, well, well. You’re just full of surprises.” 

Not a drop of Scottish, English or Dutch blood. “That can’t be me!” I said, indignant and inexplicably offended. Because I had assumed the accuracy of the results and they didn’t jibe with what I knew, I was caught in a space-time anomaly in which I had no identity at all.

In reading the fine print I realized the company was correct when they claimed their analysis was as personal as a fingerprint because it was also just as worthless in decoding ancestry. What they were analyzing was “junk” DNA for which we’ve yet to discover a purpose.

Beneath my results, the company slogan read: “Gene Target Sequencing: it compares us, connects us and defines us.” 

Compares us? That’s a stretch. Connects us? Not so much.  Defines us?

I’m still curious about my genetic heritage but suspect the only self with substance is the one defined by the fruits of this lifetime alone.

I hear my children’s voices on the phone. I contemplate the immensity of a star-studded sky.  I imagine not being here one day and the unfathomable beauty of the world I will leave behind. Suddenly all that matters is this: What have I learned? What have I given? How well have I loved?

Write about someone whose sense of identity is unexpectedly shattered. It could be the results of a DNA test, discovery of a birth certificate, or something more subtle. What if my protagonist, who has always been a stand-up guy, finds a compelling reason to lie? what happens? Can he live with the new reality of who he is? What if the mother in your story, devoted, compassionate, discovers she could place her own desires above the well being of her children? Who is she now? Let someone discover they are either more than they thought they were or less–let the realization dawn slowly, or let it be clear in one single dramatic act of courage or cowardice, selfishness or self awareness. Go.
For a copy of The Story Within, New Insights and Inspiration for Writers (Penguin Books, 2011) go to

(A version of this blog appeared in Annapolis Lifestyle magazine.) 






  1. lucewriter permalink

    Very funny and thoughtprovoking! I am considering a DNA test and now I’m worried!

  2. thestorywithin permalink

    Just don’t get the econo-version DNA test! Mine was a Groupon deal and was $39.99. Remember I said it was a ‘gift’ ? ha. I still think it’s fascinating and as soon as i can spend several hundred on one, I’d like to do it right. Good luck. I hope you get some kind of charming surprise. Then you can blog about it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: