Get a DNA Test Before You Finish Your Memoir

In the process of writing your memoir, you’re probably researching a bit of your background. You may be checking your parents’ or grandparents’ birthplaces. Maybe you’re asking relatives to fill in a family tree so that you know exactly how you’re related to your cousins. This is what memoir authors have always done. Today you have another tool: the DNA test.

A memoir published earlier this year, Inheritance: A Memoir Of Genealogy, Paternity, And Love, addresses author Dani Shapiro’s discovery that the man who raised her was not her biological father. Shapiro traces her reaction from learning this information through fully processing it and then reflecting on it. She discovered this fact when she used one of the DNA testing companies such as the popular 123andMe or AncestryDNA. Shapiro wasn’t the product of an affair, so she didn’t have to deal with a parent’s infidelity or secret life. She’d known that her parents had sought help for infertility, and she’d been told that her mother had been artificially inseminated with her father’s sperm. It turns out that she came about through donor sperm; eventually Shapiro met her biological father. Her book explores the dynamics of parenthood and identity as she grappled with a fresh view of both.

So think about taking one of these tests. The company will give you the names of people who match you, and you may find out that you share DNA with someone you weren’t expecting to turn up as a relative. Perhaps you could contact the person and expand your knowledge of your biological family either just for your own background information or for inclusion in your story. Like Shapiro, you may decide that the new knowledge provides insight for you and has become an important enough piece of your identity to build the book around it—or maybe just a chapter. As commercials for these companies show, maybe you always thought your family hailed from one country and now you know that there’s a broader mix or you’re from a different part of the world altogether.

Also consider the health information available through these testing services. If you have a genetic condition you weren’t aware of, that could affect your outlook about the future or just become something you’ll want to share in your book. In all likelihood, the test will confirm what you already know, both about your health and your genealogy. But writing a memoir is a big project, and you might as well gather as much information as you can before you put your book out there as the truth about you.