Tell us little about yourself apart from your adoption journey and your podcast/genetic genealogy work?
I am a wife and mother of two. I’m currently on my fifth career. I made my living as an actress/singer for most of my life. That slowed down in my forties, so, needing a creative outlet, I went to beauty school and got a cosmetology license. I’d always been a genealogy hobbyist, but the advent of direct-to-consumer DNA testing changed my world and heralded a whole new skill set.
And the impossible question: Can you summarize your own adoption journey?
I always knew I was adopted and was always implicitly aware of the general mismatch between me and my adoptive family. To be clear, that doesn’t mean I didn’t love and appreciate them. It means I spent my life feeling like I was “other” than those around me, and it was emphasized by the general consensus that I should try harder to blend in and not be my own person. I found my biological mother in my early twenties and it was quite uneventful and stress free. My parents were supportive of this effort and even reached out to my biological mother in solidarity.
Years later, after having my own children, I realized I needed to complete my search and began an arduous and often shocking journey into identifying my paternal family. It became an obsession. As has always been my way, if those around me told me that something was impossible, I leaned in to prove otherwise. Being hyper-vigilant is a common thread among adoptees and it has pretty much dominated my motivations in life. (For the full story, please listen to the first 20 or so episodes of my podcast “CutOff Genes.” Caveat: Genetic genealogy is relatively new and always evolving, and the testing sites update their platforms regularly. That said, some of the earlier episodes may contain content that’s no longer relevant.)
Can you describe your services as a genetic genealogist?
I work mostly with adoptees, donor-conceived individuals, and NPEs (not parent expected). They must take a DNA test first, and I usually insist on Ancestry.com because of the size of its database and the superior tree building and research capabilities. When I identify who they are looking for, I will usually ask them to write a letter to said family member that I then send. I almost always ask the client to write a letter briefly summarizing their life and their reason for reaching out.
Because of my personal experience I feel that I add an extra level of insight and understanding for all parties involved in the adoption constellation.
How did your own experience influence your desire to help people find their families?
My experience taught me that the treatment of adoptees is (mostly) cruel, archaic, and exclusive. It's hard to fathom that in this day and age most adoptees are denied access to their Original Birth Certificate. My desire is to help as many people as I can and fight for equality for all humans.
When you became interested, how did you go about training yourself to be able to use DNA to find families?
I learned in the trenches, if you will. In my own case, circumstances arose that established that the only way I was going to find my own truth was through DNA. There were so many resources online, as well as search angels willing to help and talk me through it. By the time I had my answer, I had a solid foundation in the technique. From there I spent a couple of years as a search angel, volunteering my time to find answers for other adoptees. Interestingly, my first few cases were for distant DNA cousins to me. In every case, I was able to solve the mystery, sometimes confirming how they are connected to me. About three years ago, I reached out to a Private Investigator who specializes in finding birth family. He’d used DNA, but not to the full extent and with the capabilities I have. He brought me on and I was soon able to prove that genetic genealogy was vital to the success of a search company. I solved more than 150 cases for that company as well as more than 100 independently in the years since starting this work.
To what extent, if any, do you advise or counsel clients or potential clients about the process, perhaps to manage expectations or prepare them for any emotional repercussions?
This is so important to me. As I said before, I think my insight is what sets me apart from a lot of other searchers. My experience has taught me to reserve judgment for biological families who have a tendency toward rejection. It’s important to remember that trauma was involved for the parent in addition to the trauma that’s inherent in being an adoptee. Much of the time, biological mothers experienced something that they thought must be unique to them. I often counsel by recommending reading material (such as The Girls Who Went Away) to begin the healing and help them understand that there is a way through the shame that was instilled in them so many years ago.
I also counsel my clients to expect the worst but hope for the best. Every case is its own entity. Often, time is needed for individuals to process this revelation—weeks, months, or years. It’s not for me to force reunion or “out” anyone. At the same time, I believe that the other children of biological parents (if adults) are not off limits as a last resort. They deserve to know that they have unknown family as well.
What are some of the most common issues clients voice and how do you help them?
I often hear “I just want them to love me.” That’s not a healthy attitude, though understandable. It’s important to realize that it’s out of the ordinary for a stranger to love another stranger simply because there’s a genetic connection. Love is certainly something that can develop, but should never be expected. Clients need to establish exactly what their expectations are and keep them low. Anything beyond that is a bonus. For me, the most important thing is for everyone to know their origins and gain knowledge of why they exist.
Do you advise them about how to make contact? What strategies do you recommend?
When I worked for the PI he believed that no client should ever reach out personally- so I would often have to "cold call" biological parents. The first time I was hung up on by a biological mother, I really took it personally and it took the wind out of my sails. I realized that sometimes you only get one chance to reach out, and if it doesn’t go well the door may be closed for good. I recommend snail mail (especially when reaching out to older biological family). As I said before, I ask clients to write a heartfelt letter introducing themselves, providing some info about their lives and what their goals are in this endeavor. It’s important that they express that they are no threat to any family and are willing to allow the contact to call the shots. Including a photo is often a good idea as it puts a face to this human that you are related to. I usually write a cover letter introducing myself and giving a brief explanation of how I arrived at my conclusion. I always offer to elaborate by phone if further explanation is required.
Under what circumstances do you act as an intermediary?
If that is what the client requires, I will do so. Sometimes people (on both sides) are not comfortable with a stranger being involved. I always present arguments for both sides and let the client determine what is best. Sometimes I learn facts about the biological family that inform me as to what may be the best way to proceed. Incidentally, that earlier case where the mother hung up on me was salvaged. I called her back immediately and left a voice mail telling her that her daughter had just wanted to thank her. She called back the next day and apologized. I acted as an intermediary for several months in that case. That particular mother was terrified of the rest of her family finding out, and her husband did not want their adult kids to know. Yes, I feel that that is an outrageous expectation for any man to put on his wife, but I digress. Anyway, a few months later, the mother was still sending messages through me and I had to tell her that I simply couldn’t work for them for the rest of my life. I explained to her that her behavior was probably making her daughter experience a second rejection, and the daughter was well aware of how to contact her directly if she so desired. She understood and they began talking directly.
In cases in which you’re not able to locate birthparent, are there similar challenges that block success? Are there issues other than a lack of close matches?
Yes! The biggest challenge—and the most difficult to explain to clients when I’m at a roadblock—is that if there is pedigree collapse, endogamy, or simply an NPE within a family, my job becomes exponentially more difficult. I take cases based upon the level of the matches, but it’s not uncommon to find out that those higher matches are also adopted or have a misattributed parentage event in their family that they themselves were not aware of. I can usually build a tree based on a match tree with just a couple of names in it, but if I build a substantial tree by using traditional genealogy methods and I am unable to connect that tree to any of the other matches, that match is no longer helpful.
Are most clients for whom you’ve found family ultimately glad they searched or are there some who have regrets?
As far as I know, no one has had regrets. I think this has to do with managing your expectations. Most people realize that just knowing the facts makes it worthwhile. I know, for me, I feel more connected to the earth as a result of knowing.
Do clients follow up with you—that is, do they tell you about their reunions?
Yes! Some of them have been interviewed on my podcast.
What advice do you have for people who are unable to avail themselves of professional services? What tools or resources might they find most helpful?
There are several Facebook groups (DNA Detectives, Search Squad) that have members who are search angels. That’s where I learned everything I know now. Blaine Bettinger has some great books and, of course, my podcast is a great, if I do say so myself, especially for newbies.
What mistakes, if any, do people often make when searching for family on their own?
In my opinion, the biggest mistake (and I made it myself) is to lead with the fact that you are adopted, NPE, or donor conceived. This often sends up red flags for people who don’t want to throw a relative under the bus, even if they have no idea how they are related to you. Also, asking matches if they know someone who gave up a baby is rarely effective. These are usually deep secrets within families, and anyone beyond a parent or sibling would likely not be privy to such information. I think the best approach is to mention that you’re trying to understand your DNA and build your family tree. Asking them to share the names of all four of their grandparents and their birth dates and locations is the most effective way to build a tree for them.
When and why did you decide to start the “Cutoff Genes” podcast?
Oh boy. Here we go. Five years ago there was an event within my adoptive family that was traumatic and resulted in even more trauma for me and my immediate family. This event brought to the forefront the narrative of “the ungrateful adoptee” and how that lie can be used to manipulate a situation to benefit those who use it against an adoptee. For legal reasons I can’t really go into any more detail. Suffice it to say that I was traumatized to a level that some days I didn’t think I would be able to go on. I knew I had to do something to take me out of my thoughts and provide a service for others like me. A podcast was the most obvious choice for me. I had wanted to do it for a while, but the thought of taking on something so time consuming was overwhelming, and I have terrible attention deficit disorder. Anyway, when all of this was eating at my life, I realized that I had nothing to lose by putting something out there, at the same time using my background as a performer to satiate my creativity and feel like something positive could come from the trauma. I connected with my old friend Richard Castle and, originally, my friend Renee Colvert, who has her own successful podcast (“Can I Pet Your Dog?”). The result was this thing that people come for the info, but stay for the relationships and rapport.
What do you love most about doing the podcast?
I love having a gab fest with Richard (my producer and co-host). Rich is a musician and songwriter, so he gets to be the voice of the listener. He asks me questions that probably a lot of the listeners are thinking as well. Also, I adore our listeners! We have a Facebook group that’s very active and lots of friendships have formed there. We very much have a conversation with our listeners, and they often provide content and insight for the show.
What’s surprised you as you’ve done these shows?
Rich and I tend to go off on tangents. Sometimes it’s a classic television or musical theater riff—we met doing a production of “My Fair Lady” almost 35 years ago—and other times we get into a “pun-fest.” We crack ourselves up and, what was surprising to us both, was that our listeners seem to love that part of the show as well. This is somewhat serious subject matter, and we often talk about unimaginable pain. We do our best to balance the mood. I’m very much a fan of alternative comedy and I wanted to model the feel of “CutOff Genes” on of some of my favorite comedy podcasts. I always say “I’ll have to laugh or I’ll cry.”
What kind of feedback do you get?
All kinds! When I first started the podcast, I was clear that I am not a scientist and it’s entirely possible that I may misspeak. I sometimes cringe when people describe me as an expert, because there are people within the science community and the science behind DNA that probably take exception to that. The fact is, I am not a scientist, but I’m proud to say I am very good at what I do. I always encourage listeners to reach out with corrections or clarifications, and they do not disappoint!
We acknowledge and respect the trauma experienced by adoptees, NPEs, Donor Conceived people and First Mothers.