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A Genealogist In The Archives: Book Review "The Stranger in My Genes: A Memoir"

Friday, September 18, 2020

Book Review "The Stranger in My Genes: A Memoir"

Imagine finding out you are not who you thought you were. Being a genealogist or “the unofficial historian for the family” as Griffith calls himself, only to find that you are researching the wrong family.

The Stranger in My Genes is a memoir of Bill Griffith who had been conducting his genealogy research since 2003. Urged by his cousin, Griffith took a DNA test that would change everything. The story Griffith tells that leads up to that fateful moment when he is presented with the shock of a lifetime is one that most of us would have a hard time relating to.  Searching for genealogical documents, traveling to sites where his ancestors lived their lives are some of the normal things any genealogist does to know more about their family history. Griffith conducted these same type research trips only to find that it was the wrong family tree.

Griffith states and believes “Genealogy is the pursuit of truth and if you choose to begin researching your family’s history, you had better be prepared to accept whatever truth you uncover”. In this memoir, Griffith faces his own truth that very few have had to face.

This book is an extension of Griffith’s journaling that he did at the time he received the results of his DNA test and started on a very unusual journey. The chapters and entries are for the most part chronological with the exception of some entries where Griffith remembers his genealogical trips to ancestral home places and cemeteries.

Griffith explains in detail the journey he took to verify the DNA results and the steps he took to accept the truth that he learned. Griffith gives detailed information about DNA and how it works in such a clear and concise way that someone who has never encountered genealogy DNA could understand it and follow the scientific meanings.

This memoir reminds us of the fact that most genealogists have family secrets contained within the family tree. These family secrets should be documented and recorded by the genealogist with care and with living family member’s feelings in mind. Griffith’s conscience effort to respect the feelings of his Mother during his journey is very touching.

The agony Griffith went through waiting on the DNA results to arrive will resonate with many who have experienced the same waiting period. The results themselves are something that anyone would have trouble grappling with once they arrived. To find that your Father was not your Father after so many years of researching that side of your family is something Griffith had to come to grips with and it was not easy. The way in which Griffith writes about his agony, disbelief and how he finally was able to cope with the results is something he did so eloquently in this memoir.

The journey Griffith takes in his memoir is truly his own and one that made me truly sympathize with him as I read his story. The ups and downs with regards to the relationship with his Mother is difficult to read when the reader thinks about their own parents and how this news would affect their relationship.

Many genealogists struggle with the hidden truths they dig up while doing their genealogy research. Most are not as earth shattering as Griffith’s but none the less something we have to deal with in our own way. Griffith’s memoir shows us the grace and sensitivity that should be used when dealing with our own family secrets.

(This review original published in the Federation of Genealogists Magazine FORUM)


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The Stranger in My Genes: A Memoir by Bill Griffith

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