Professor Julia Creet on the Business of Genetic Genealogy and Ancestral Identification

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

On February 5th, 2015, Prof. Julia Creet (York University, Canada) gave a public talk entitled “Recovering Lost Family: Genetic Genealogy and Ancestral Identification” in downtown Toronto. Creet gave the lecture in the context of a public speakers series organized by yours truly on behalf of the Memory(Loss) ResearchGroup from the Centre for Memory and Testimony Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Prof. Creet opened her talk with an acute and illuminating observation: that genealogy is driven by a sense of loss.

From then on, the talk was focused on a pointed yet justified criticism of the ways in which the industry exploits this sense of loss to draw individuals into the enterprise of searching for their metaphorical roots of the metaphorical tree that constitutes what they conceive to be very true and real personal histories.

"Traces of who I thought I am". Photo by Liza Futerman, 2018
Genealogy or the lack of it is a peculiar form of memory loss, for it claims to forget what has not yet been remembered.

So, how does the industry play on the notion of loss, you ask? Easy!

We are constantly told that we don’t know who we are and where we come from –   our identity is shrouded in haze and therefore we can’t situate ourselves and establish meaningful relationships with our surroundings. Is it actually the case? It might as well be if those who we consider to be authority figures such as psychologists, new age practitioners, and even physicians keep telling us that it is.

Where are you from? Where are your parents from? And your grandparents?

As an international student in Toronto whose accent is evidently not Canadian I constantly encounter these questions. However, in the age of globalization, particularly in immigrant countries such as Canada and in a multi-cultural city such as Toronto, it is rare to meet people who are from ‘here’ and whose parents and grandparents are from ‘here.’ The term ‘here’ is a loaded one, much like the innocent question that unsuspectingly implores: “where are you from?” (For further reading on the subject of place, identity and language you might want to check out my short memoir "Of Parsnips and Mother Tongues" - See the publication section)

The ‘here’ of Toronto and the ‘from here’ that we oftentimes use so freely are impregnated with the urban context of a city that celebrates multiculturalism. The ‘here’ of Toronto is coated with Canadian histories and policies of immigration, and also with indigenous realities and lives that constitute the Canadian context, such that place and time related words in Toronto can never go by without that extra layer of meaning.

For Creet, such ‘small – talk’ questions that many of us are asked on a daily basis, are loaded with historical baggage.

For me personally, as someone who was born to Jewish parents in the former Soviet Union and who immigrated to Israel at the age of 5 after the fall of the iron curtain, I haven’t yet been able to devise a cookie-cutter response that could be applied to all occasions. Such that when I’m asked where I’m from, the best answer that comes into mind is: “I’m bi-placial, bi-lingual, bi-cultural” - let the askers wonder...

Creet insightfully observes that these inquiries that request one to consider her or his genealogy become more loaded once these are asked in a scientific context.

Any family history of mental diseases? Heart condition? Cancer? What is your blood type?

These (and many others) are familiar questions that we are asked upon our first visit to the doctor’s office, be it a regular check-up or a more goal-oriented visit, such as the decision to have kids.

It’s always about your family history.The assumption is that you can answer these questions without giving too much thought to them, but what happens when you’re unaware of your family history? This is where you’re expected to feel lost and to embark on a journey of self discovery, or more precisely, a journey of discovering who were your predecessors. The assumption is, that once you know the answer to this ‘simple’question, you’ll feel complete, rooted.

More often than not, we are told that lacking a sense of genealogical belonging leads to the collapse of individual identity, whereas knowing who we are and where we come from grants us freedom. As such, we carry with us an archive of loss that we complete by means of family stories and DNA tests.

But, what happens when the DNA tests contradict the stories that we’ve been told?

In this context, Creet plays a few clips from her (then) not yet released feature-length documentary, “Need to Know: Ancestry and the Business of Family” that deals with the industry behind the innate need to know one’s past. The clips that we saw exposed how individuals were required to rethink their family histories due to a simple DNA test that puts into question their personal and communal identities.The talk was followed by a thought provoking Q&A session where we’ve discussed the origins of genealogy and the discipline’s rise as a response to multiculturalism. Creet’s documentary is currently going through a review process at the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival.

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