In my genes: Adventures in DNA testing

What genetic secrets hide beneath a "white bread" appearance?

Published July 23, 2016 11:30PM (EDT)

Crime labs are being set back by Jeff Session's order to shut down The National Commission on Forensic Science  (<a href=''>takahashi_kei</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
Crime labs are being set back by Jeff Session's order to shut down The National Commission on Forensic Science (takahashi_kei via iStock)

When I lived in New York City in the early 1980’s, in Brooklyn — long before it became hipster central and preening ground, back when no one would even visit you there, even if you threw a party — I would take a long subway journey once a week, on the E and the F trains, from Park Slope to Kew Gardens, Queens, where I visited a therapist to discuss myself, my life and how I might get it pointed in a different and happier direction. On one such afternoon, I was reading "Lolita" on the F train, which elicited a friendly comment from a young woman nearby; a conversation ensued, and by the time she got out, somewhere in Manhattan, I had entered her phone number into the back flap of my book with a golf pencil, lending to the rest of my afternoon a certain frisson of excitement and possibility. I did not confess my mini triumph to my therapist, Rene, as she was rather old fashioned and direct, and most likely would have asked me, in her gruff, smoky voice, something like, “Are you going to have sex with her?”, which would have forced me into some sort of fumbling answer ending with, “Probably not. But at least I might see her again.”

Which I did. From my loveless hovel in Brooklyn Heights — a single room rented from a recent divorcée and her depressed, all-dressed-in-black daughter — I called the number, we talked and she invited me over for tea in another, not so far other, part of Brooklyn. Perhaps I walked. It took several rings of the bell to get buzzed in, and when I went up, she appeared sleepy, as if she had been woken from a nap. The apartment, like many in New York, was pleasantly overheated. She was a Latina, of Cuban descent, I learned, had lovely, caramel-colored skin, much in evidence below her faded blue gym shorts, with that old-fashioned white piping around the edges. She served tea, and we sat at the kitchen table and talked, but she still seemed sleepy, vaguely disinterested and perhaps surprised that I had actually shown up. In the course of our chat she mentioned a sometimes-boyfriend, and casually mentioned that he sometimes carried a gun. I looked uneasily toward the door, of which there was only one. He had a temper, she told me. Why was she telling me this? The conversation eventually turned to me, and at some point she observed, also casually, that I was really “White bread.”         

“Really?” I asked. “What do you mean?” She didn’t feel explanation was necessary, simply repeated the phrase, the subtext of which, I inferred, was that I out of the running for romance. I stayed a while longer, but could not get the thought of her sometimes-boyfriend out of my head and, coupled with my new title. I finished my tea, thanked her, and suggested we could meet at my place, next time. I imagine I called her once or twice after that, but, ah well — so much for subway romance.

Of course, genealogically speaking, she was right: my middle name, Hoyer, from my paternal grandmother, is said to be German; my surname, an evolution from “Op Den Dycke,” the name of the Dutch men and women who had arrived from Holland in the 1600’s, where they were said to have lived "Up on the Dike," settled in Long Island, what is now Coney Island, and over the next three hundred years worked their way steadily west, at a snail’s pace, settling in Western New Jersey; by the 19th century that region, Princeton and Pennington, was rife with Updikes, and my grandfather, my father’s father, was born in Trenton, on the 53th day of the 20th century: 2/22/00. I have it on good report that there is an Updike Road in, or near, Pennington.

My mother’s maiden name is also Pennington, her mother’s was Daniels, and before them there were Greenes in Rhode Island, and Entwistles, and a French branch, somewhere — all Northern European types. One of my mother’s grandfathers was an Indiana Quaker farmer, and his son, my mother’s father, was a Unitarian minister in churches in Braintree, and Cambridge, Mass., and Chicago. Her mother’s father was a captain in a Coast Guard, on the cutter called The Badger, and before him was a tribe of New Englander merchants and farmers stretching back a couple centuries. The first Greene had emigrated from England to Warwick, Rhode Island, in the mid 1600’s. My mother had shown me a genealogical chart of “Greene’s descent” that showed we "descended" from the royalty of France, and even a Russian named “Rorick the Great.” But that was nearly one thousand years ago, before the first Greene made it to America in the 1600’s.

Genealogy — thanks in part to genetic testing of companies like, National Geographic and the PBS series "Finding Your Roots" — has become quite popular recently. For a fairly modest cost they will study your saliva, compare it to thousands of other samples, uncover your genotype and tell you where you are really from. The host of "Finding Your Roots," Professor Henry Louis Gates, made the news, recently, when it was revealed that Gates had acquiesced with Ben Affleck’s request to exclude from the program the discovery that Affleck had a slave owning ancestor: odd that Affleck, a lefty from Cambridge (as am I) would want to hide this inconvenient truth, and that Gates, academic showman and great revealer of inglorious American past, would agree to exclude it. (Of course, the essential premise of the show is "genealogy of the stars," so it is quite natural that Gates would like to stay on Affleck’s good side.)   

Nonetheless, after being on some sort of Public Television "time out," Gates was back on the air, this year, in his fine suits and shiny ties, with a whole new lineup of celebrities, most recently Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow. His guests often end the show in tears: “Sorry, sorry — I told myself I wouldn’t do this …” they say, daubing their eyes at some astonishing fact Gates has unearthed. “It’s okay, brother,” Gates comforts them; they shower him with gratitude, he nods in acceptance and promises to be back next week with a whole new episode and three new celebrities, whose secrets he shall reveal.

Having no claim to stardom, I don’t expect to be invited on soon, and so began to wonder about my own, Northern European roots and wondered if, indeed, that’s all there was. And as with most liberal types, I harbor a secret "wanna be" desire to be something more, or other, than I appear — a white, late-middle-aged male, putting me in the same phylum as Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell — not the sexiest demographic in the world.  From ninth grade biology, I vaguely remembered the difference between "genotype" — your genetic code and sequence — and your "phenotype," essentially, what you look like, and appear to be.

My grandmother had a branch of aunts and cousins with dark hair and eyes and olive colored skin, and she entertained the fanciful notion there was, in her family, some "Arab" blood. And after three hundred years on this continent it seems possible that there had been some "mixing," most likely of the non-consensual variety, with people of Native American or Asian or African descent. As the Updike Genealogy reports, while describing the migrations of one Johannes Opdycke in the late 1600’s from Long Island to New Jersey, “… their herds of stock in the rear doubtless driven by a negro slave or two, who formed part of the establishment of every prosperous planter in those days.” I read somewhere that 10 percent of white Americans have some percentage of ‘African’ blood, and so it seems plausible that I could be one of them. After all, I love hot climates, prefer African and Caribbean music to their Anglo counterparts and married a woman from Kenya. Perhaps it’s all there, in my genes!

And so when I saw on the computer that you could take the test, for only 99 dollars and a sample of saliva, and within weeks have breakdown of where my ancestors came from, I ordered it online, and within days it arrived. The kit is neat and tidy: a small, white little box, containing an even smaller box, which in turn contains a glass tube to spit into, an eight step diagram of how to get your spit in the vial, the vial on the box, which is then mailed off to somewhere in Utah. I followed the directions with great care and anticipation, drooled into the vial to the exact height indicated, sealed it, and mailed it off to the lab.   

Dutifully, they e-mailed me when the box had arrived, and then, a few weeks later, they e-mailed me again to say my DNA was under study, being compared to thousands and thousands of genetic markers, and it would only be a few more weeks! They invited me to get back on their website, so I could know exactly what they were up to, and I examined an enticing map of Europe with overlapping circles of ethnically certified DNA groups, stretching all the way from Eastern Europe into North Africa. Perhaps that “Arab” blood of my grandmother was actually the Moorish blood of that great empire that ruled, built, and educated, large swaths of Spain and Portugal and France for 500 years?

It was with no little excitement that I arrived home one day to find in my inbox the exciting news that my DNA results had arrived: I couldn’t wait, remembered my password for once, and followed the prompts to the results.

There it was, a simple map of Europe, a large circle surrounding Great Britain that included England and Scotland and Wales, excluded Ireland, then looped across the channel to claim Holland, the eastern edge of Germany, and north to Denmark, maybe a bit Sweden.

Below there were only two numbers, as stark as could be:

                                            99%: Great Britain; 1% Scandinavian.  

What?! I stared at the map and fiddled with the computer, looking for a more refined, or subtle, breakdown of my mysterious past, but there was none. That was it. Where were the French, the Russians, the tinge of "Arab blood"? What happened to Spain and the Moorish Empire, the tawny Kramer cousins from Pennsylvania, three hundred years of possible intermingling here in America?

Diversity? Well, now at least I know where I got my temper, my aversion to rowing, and hyper-competitiveness in the tennis court: 1% Viking. Ninety nine dollars: one dollar for every percent that I was “British”!  

I didn’t tell my wife for days, and kept my secret from my students, too. I thought fondly back to my original genetic analyst back in Brooklyn, my lovely, long-limbed hostess with her sleepy demeanor and old-school gym shorts: over a cup of tepid tea, she had taken the full measure of my phenotype — freckles, thrift store clothes, self-cut hair, a general aura of waspy befuddlement — and for only the price of a New York City Subway token, delivered her verdict: “White Bread.”  

By David Updike

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