Unraveling My DNA

Unraveling My DNA

I’ve always loved DNA. In my college genetics lab, when taste test strips confirmed I lacked the genetic ability to taste certain compounds, I felt mystified AND justified in my extreme dislike of sauerkraut. Decades ago, I recognized DNA’s microcosmic/macrocosmic reflection in archetypal systems (such as tarot cards), and secretly fell in love with subconscious forms of intelligence that run through our human lineage. My love and fascination for DNA is so renown, one Christmas my husband gave me a beautiful glass sculpture of the graceful molecule, causing many wary glances and side comments about “DNA in a box” among my (then new) in-laws.

There is beauty in that double-helix spiral that chokes me up every time.

So of course I got my DNA tested by 23andme. Their process warns: be sure about what you’re doing; you won’t be able to unknow what you know. Discovering a cancer-gene or a genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s could be a game-changer. Being firm in my understanding of genes determining only 20% of our health, that we turn them on or off with lifestyle choices, I proceeded. If my family has skeletons in the closet, bring ‘em on.

What I did not consider were other ways the results would permanently change my understanding of me.

The first thing that hit me was, I have the coffee gene. Who knew there is a coffee gene? While initially funny, it became eery when I realized that my love of coffee all my life was not really a choice. And all the people I’ve encountered who don’t drink coffee—who I thought must be crazy—also did not really make a choice.

That I have blond hair, light eyes, no freckles was not too freaky, since I can look in the mirror and see that. But now a chain of blond, light, fair people started to form in my mind. Who were they and what were their stories?

My facial skin is prone to looking 5 – 10 years younger than I am. Huh. I had sort of taken credit for something that was coded into my very being, along with a sprinter’s musculature, being good at math, and no unibrow.

How much of me was predetermined?

And what about the traits I can’t see? Science is now examining the epigenetic transfer of trauma from one generation to the next, as seen in native Americans, descendants of holocaust survivors, and children of 911 survivors (Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms (nih.gov).

This matters because, although I am 98% European decent, I discovered I have a trace of Ashkenazi Jew. Since the Jewish people traditionally protect their heritage by not inter-marrying, finding it in my bloodline whispers of secrecy and oppression and diaspora. While searching online for what it means to have a trace amount of Jewish blood—it is uncommon—I was surprised to find that people who are discovering this in their bloodlines also already had an affinity for Jewish traditions and history. OMG. I felt spied upon. My whole bookshelf dedicated to Jewish history, mysticism and Kabballah…even my reading habits were not a random choice?

And, although I appear as white as white can be, it turns out I have a trace of sub-saharan west African. A memory sprung to mind of an ancestor my dad told me about, an 18th century ship’s captain, who sailed from Ireland, to north Africa, to America. I’ve always been suspicious of him, although my father assured me he only shipped potatoes. He was not a slave trader. Maybe he wasn’t. But maybe it was more than just empathy that made me sob openly before carefully-drawn cargo plans depicting humans beings stacked LIKE SACKS OF POTATOES at the slave ship memorial at Jamestown. The general shame I have always felt for this white, southern, American atrocity suddenly became my personal shame.

We are composed of long lines of stories, put together in a secret code we are only beginning to unravel. Each of us is formed by infinite forces shaping our bodies, beliefs, choices and actions in ways we know and ways we don’t and never will. We are intellectually unknowable. We are so much more than we think ourselves to be. The opportunity for self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-love unfolds eternally…like a double helix spiral.


Whole-being well-being expert, Liz Garrett, supports leaders in deepening embodied self-awareness so they can change their lives, their relationships, their work and, ultimately, the world.

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