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By Sean Pendergast
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Villarreal had some uncomfortable moments after revealing his distant Jewish ancestry on his Web site. "I get a lot of hate mail from people all the time," he says. "I never realized there was so much hatred of Jews -- I mean I got some pretty bad e-mails. So bad that I have to take 'em off my Web site and block the senders. Stuff like, 'If I had Jewish blood running in my veins, I wouldn't admit it to anybody,' stuff like that. Some of it comes from people who I know are Hispanic and who also know about the history of the Sephardic Jews and stuff like that."
Thankfully, now, most often the worst outcomes of this technology reveal nothing more serious than illicit dalliances. Greenspan doesn't want his company to be viewed as a mere paternity-testing concern, but sometimes it does turn up genetic bombshells. Supposedly, about one in 20 children is in the dark about the identity of his biological father. "I've heard numbers bandied around between 5 and 10" percent, Greenspan says. "I don't know if we have that kind of numbers, but anytime I do a project that involves around 20 people, we do find an oops."
Also surprising is the zeal with which some people go about collecting DNA. At the first ever FTDNA conference, at a Houston hotel, a grandmotherly woman from Dallas grabbed this reporter by the arm and shared with him her dilemma: A relative was semiconscious and in an oxygen tent. How would she go about harvesting his genes?
"I certainly wouldn't feel guilty about that," says Greenspan. "I don't think many of our folks do. I think a lot of them would feel bad that the person is in such bad shape, that they may be breathing their last breath when they are giving a DNA sample, but really it's a living legacy."
Greenspan says they have accepted samples from the recently deceased, and even newly embalmed cadavers, but they will not accept materials from people who have been dead for more than a few days. People have sent him old hair and toothbrushes, and one poster on FTDNA's message board wanted to exhume an ancestor who had died in 1945. Greenspan says they have a policy against that sort of thing, and even if they didn't, the Y-DNA, which decays exponentially faster than mitochondrial DNA, from stuff like that is generally unusable.
In other words, they'll take it from the cradle to the grave, but no further.
Local musician and attorney Graham Guest has spent the first 30 years of his life on a quest for his identity. Guest was adopted privately in 1967 -- he has never known a thing about his biological parents. Ever since, he's wondered -- not just about who they were and who he was when he was born, but about life in general. In college, he earned a master's degree in philosophy -- the ultimate "Who am I?" course of study -- and today thinks of returning to get his Ph.D. And then there's the whole duality of the lawyer-rocker life he has lived the past ten or so years: analyzing and writing fine print by day and leading his band, Moses Guest (which takes its name from an ancestor of his adoptive father), through the Southern rock/jamming boogie paces by night.
By 2002, on the occasion of the release of his self-published novel, Love Letters from Waterville, Guest had pretty much given up looking for his biological parents. He had tried for a while, when he first got the Internet, but then his life got in the way. And there was some part of him that wanted to be found rather than be the one doing the finding: "You have to be looked for, too It's a pretty big sense of rejection to fish and get nothing," he said then. "It's like, 'Why'd you even bother having me in the first place?' I wish somehow I could have been born a little bit later so I could have more access, but as it is I've got my projects, I've got a great wife, and my adoptive parents are good folks, so I'm not freaking out too bad. It's just hard not knowing the faces and getting that genetic, biological bond. At least to know something, but to have it be a complete abyss is pretty difficult."
Greenspan was skeptical that his firm could solve Guest's puzzle. He said that a lot of adopted children try to find relatives with his company, but that Guest's quest would be just a shot in the dark. Nevertheless, Guest took several of the company's tests -- he started with the 12-marker Y-chromosome test and then took the far more detailed 37-marker test and also the mitochondrial DNA test.
Jackpot. He found his biological father, his birth surname and some of his ethnic origins. Immediately after finding out the location of his dad, he registered with TxCARE, a group that uses its Web site (www.txcare.org) to reunite parents and their long-lost children. "I just went on there and put in my info," he says. "Thirty minutes later, I had three e-mails from these ladies called Search Angels, who I guess are just good-hearted ladies out there searching, and they've got access to some shit and I'm not sure that it's all legal. 'Cause they came piling back with all kinds of stuff, like my birth certificate number, which kind of freaked me out."