Libby Copeland, THE LOST FAMILY

Libby Copeland, THE LOST FAMILY

Zibby Owens: Libby Copeland is an award-winning journalist who writes about culture, science, and human behavior. Her book, The Lost Family, published in March, looks at the impact of home DNA testing on the American family. Although, I would say it’s more of a nail-biting mystery, amazing book. Anyway, a staff reporter and editor for The Washington Post for over a decade, she now writes from New York for publications including The Atlantic, Slate, New York Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times, The New Republic, Esquire, and many more. She currently lives in Westchester, New York, with her husband and two children.

Welcome, Libby. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Libby Copeland: Thank you. I’m so thrilled to be here. I appreciate it.

Zibby: This is our second take. At the beginning, we had a little chit-chat about Zibby and Libby, so I’ll spare redoing that. All to say, mine is a nickname and yours is not. It’s thrilling to be here with another -ibby. Anyway, can you please tell listeners what The Lost Family is about and what inspired you to write it?

Libby: I’ve been a feature writer for a long time. I’m particularly interested in culture and human behavior and the intersection with technology. How does technology push and pull us in certain directions? Why do we do the things we do? How do we define ourselves? Why do we define ourselves that way? I got interested in DNA testing a few years ago. A lot of people DNA test out of a sense that it’s going to deeper their understanding of their roots. Oftentimes, they’re thinking maybe many generations back. That’s the typical scenario, but there’s a significant minority of people who discover something more immediate and surprising, something that sort of upends their understandings of their own origins of how they came to be. Maybe one of their parents isn’t genetically related to them. Maybe they have a sibling they didn’t know about. Maybe they’re donor conceived. Maybe they’re adopted and they weren’t told if they’re from an older generation. These are all scenarios that have been happening for the last five to ten years in this space. I thought it was such a broad social phenomenon. I wanted to pull it together. I wanted to shape it around this really compelling genetic detective story of this one woman named Alice who had this astonishing discovery many years back, eight years ago, which is a very long time in the context of this technology, and methodically went through all the theories of what it could be. It wasn’t any of the expected explanations. Her story is really meant to be the thing that propels you through the book because it’s so compelling and she’s so intelligent and dogged in her research.

Zibby: It was. It was a page-turning thriller, almost. Every dead end she would get to, I’m like, no!

Libby: It’s kind of an extensional thriller. It’s not the whodunit. It’s not like, who killed who? It’s a true-to-life, nonfiction mystery of how she came to be. How did she get her family history so wrong? How was it that she thought that she was entirely or almost entirely Irish American and she finds she’s half Ashkenazi Jewish? How do you explain that? Then what do you make of it? What’s interesting is Alice’s family is, they’re seven Irish Catholic siblings, and they each make something different of it. You see through their different experiences and the different experiences of other people that I follow in the book, we’re very selective and thoughtful and intentional. We each take something different from this question, how much does genetics get to tell me about who I am?

Zibby: It’s true. All the clues that she would find, even when you were saying some things that are — you had some analogy like the gorilla walking across the basketball court. Did I just totally ruin that? It was some things that just hit her in the face that were so obvious, but she missed then, and then others that were so tiny and so hard, and the fate and the elements that had to align for her to figure out her story. Then you think about all the people who didn’t figure it out. So many more people didn’t have the answers and never will. What do we make of that? I don’t know. It’s all a little woo-woo.

Libby: The people who were born and lived and died and never knew that, for instance, maybe the man who raised them that they called dad wasn’t genetically related to them. There’s all these what-if questions that you hear people talking about in the book. What if they had known? Would they have been better off? Is it better that they didn’t know? The struggle with that is that everyone who’s telling you their story is telling you from the perspective of already knowing, already being invested in knowing the truth, not be able to un-know it, and so being, in most cases, very glad to know. At the same time, you have to wonder — for generations, people didn’t know. They didn’t have the capacity to know if, for instance, they had a half-sibling living fifty miles away and they would have wanted to connect with that person if only they’d known, or it might have totally upset their family dynamic. We don’t know.

Zibby: Now I feel like I have to go back into my 23andMe results and just check every single cousin. I know you talked about your results in the book too. At first, to be honest, I was like, she must be writing this because she had some huge surprise show up in your DNA. It turns out not too big a surprise. You’re one percent Korean or something that you didn’t expect.

Libby: It disappeared, the one percent Korean. I’m not Korean at all.

Zibby: It disappeared, okay. Scratch that. Forget it. Mine were completely predictable as well in a very, very boring way. But I keep thinking, almost hoping, maybe there’s some way there’ll be somebody else. Then people like Alice who have learned the whole science behind it, I don’t know, is better to know or not to know? What do you think? Do you want to know? Would you want to know?

Libby: It’s hard to say. One of the things that I found over and over again was that when somebody discovered something key about their genetic origins, they were glad to know even when the truth was very upsetting. For instance, I interviewed a woman who understood her origins to be the result of a rape. This was something she came to after doing the DNA testing, after unraveling the identify of her biological father, after talking to her mom about it. Her mom had gone through this profound trauma and was like, “Listen, here’s why I didn’t tell you. These were the circumstances.” Even for her, she was like, “I’m grateful to know the truth. This explains so much. I grew up in a house where there was a lot of trauma and abuse. There was a lot of not talking about things that were very important. This gives me context. This answers questions. I can go back and look to the age of zero, and I can reinterpret it. Now it makes sense.” I was struck by that. I heard that over and over again. I heard that from people who had a sense of agency in the process of looking. You’re autonomous. You spit into the vile. You make meaning. You decide the narrative. You decide the timeline. You decide if you’re going to contact your relatives. That’s a profound thing. Very interesting, the value that we place on the truth of knowing something key about ourselves.

Then there’s people on the other side of the story. Sometimes their narratives are being disrupted in a way that they’re not comfortable with. It might be the person who’s the secret keeper. I’ve been keeping a genetic secret. I don’t see it as a secret. It was a matter of self-protection. It was a very reasonable decision given the cultural stigmas at the time sixty years ago. We can’t judge the past by present standards. Perhaps you’re someone who it never was a secret to you. You knew about it, but you weren’t going to tell anyone. Now someone’s coming into your life and saying, “I want to talk about this.” Maybe you’re not ready to talk about it. You’re not ready for your family to know. Maybe you’re the child of that person. Now there’s this half-sibling coming into your life. Maybe this half-sibling was born before you. They’re saying something about something your mom or dad did that is very painful to accept. I tell the story in the book of a woman who — she’s a foundling, which wasn’t a term I knew before I started writing the book. You probably already knew the term. Certainly, you know it from reading the book. It’s somebody who is left and found as a baby. She was left on a pastor’s doorstep at four days old. She was conceived before the other children that her mom then went on to have.

When she connects with them and she says, “Hey, listen, I’m your biological half-sister. This is the story of how I came to be. I would love to have you in my life,” their response is, “Our mother wouldn’t do that.” Their mother is dead. It is incredibly difficult for them to reconcile this idea that their mother could do something that maybe causes them to think twice about her, about her character, about the difficult position that she was in. It’s one thing for the people on the one side. Then it’s the other thing for the people on the other side. There are situations where those things can be reconciled. Those are beautiful reunions. There are situations where, I may be really genetically closely related to you, but our interests are directly divergent at this precise moment when we could be getting to know each other and in a really intimate relationship, but we can’t be because my existence threatens your identity. Those are the really interesting and painful stories that I wanted to explore along with the gorgeous reunions and the stories of people expanding their families. It’s not all happy endings. It’s not all sad endings. It’s complicated. It’s very complicated.

Zibby: You even talked about how in some families the context of how one person had been looking for so long and she had time to process that, and then the person that she found had to deal with it right away with an influx of all that information. It’s a lot. It would be a lot to have that show up in an email.

Libby: Exactly. It’s interesting. When Alice tests, it’s 2012. The databases are really small, so it takes her two and a half years to unravel the truth. There’s a lot of twists and turns. If she tested now, it would be maybe a matter of a few days or weeks. You see the difference. People who tested back in the day, which maybe is only eight years ago but it’s a really long time in the context of this technology, those people had time to digest it and maybe in some cases do better than — nowadays, you test, and you might just look at your results and for the very first time you look at them you’re seeing a half-sibling or you’re seeing six half-siblings. Maybe you weren’t told you were donor conceived and they’re all showing up as half-siblings to you. That is really hard to process in a short amount of time.

Zibby: I saw in the back of your book you referenced Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance. Dani has been on this podcast. I’ve done events with her. I also inhaled that book, similar to your book in just the thrill-seeking of the discovery process when your whole identity is sort of shifting. Hers was an example of a modern-day experience. She figured the whole thing out really quickly. It was still interesting to read. It was fast from the time she got her results. Whereas Alice, as you said, is very slow. Maybe it does make it easier to process the longer it takes. Either way, when you find something out that’s a big piece of news like that or you find you have a child, all these weird things, it’s a whole new world.

Libby: I think the era of family secrets is basically over.

Zibby: I have a friend who had a baby with a donor. She’s like, “No, we’re not going to talk about that.” I’m like, “You know, your kids are going to figure it out.” She’s like, “We don’t even think of that person as a person.” I’m like, “Right, but that person actually is a person. He could be passing you on the street every day. Your kids are going to want to find that out.” It’s just so hard. You can convince yourself of so many things. Yet is the information really yours?

Libby: Right. That’s a profound question. Do the kids they’re donor conceived?

Zibby: They must. Yes, they have to.

Libby: This question of what is our obligation to talk about and to admit to is a really interesting one. You see this a lot in the arena of donor-conceived individuals who are like, I was not party to any agreements made about anonymity of my donor or the notion that I should be severed from the person who donated half of my genetic material. You all made that agreement before I was around. Now you want me to be bound by it. It’s complicated. On the one hand, donor sperm has made possible many families that would not have been possible otherwise. That’s a really amazing thing. It’s a really wonderful thing. At the same time, donor anonymity is moot because of DNA testing. It literally doesn’t exist anymore. A lot of people feel strongly that they want to know their genetic origins. That matters too. It’s not the whole picture. It’s not like suddenly you’re no longer in love with and in a wonderful place with your family that raised you. People still have this desire to know the rest of the story. I think of it as you’re writing your own life narrative. If you don’t know the beginning, how do you tell the rest? You see there is this nascent movement to talk about genetic identity and genetic origins. There’s an organization that started up. It’s becoming kind of a movement. I think it’s DNA testing that’s basically started it. Before, the technology to create people in this way was there, but the technology to allow those people when they grew up to understand themselves was never there. Now it is.

Zibby: It’s crazy. Tell me a little more about you. How did you become a feature writer to begin with? I know you’ve written for every publication under the sun at this point. How did you get that training? How do you develop all that and get to this point?

Libby: I started as an intern at The Washington Post after college. I was writing for their daily feature section which is called Style. Style is not about fashion. Sometimes people who don’t read The Post think that. It’s really a daily feature section. We cover everything, politics, art, celebrities, interesting subcultures in Washington. I got to write all those kinds of stories. Then I left The Post after about ten years, eleven years. I was an editor there before I left. I started freelancing because I wanted to start a family back in New York, which is where I’m from. I just got more and more interested in science writing and this idea that we can better understand ourselves through science. That’s how I landed in writing about DNA testing. It was after many stints writing about sports. I went to the Winter Olympics in Italy in 2006. I covered the Michael Jackson molestation trial in California, all these various experiences that led me to really wanting to write about people’s intimate lives. That’s where I’ve gone over time, is away from famous people and towards ordinary people with extraordinary stories.

Zibby: I thought it was so interesting before how you said you’re so drawn to understanding human behavior and even consumer behavior, really, as an offshoot. I find that totally fascinating also. I remember in college being like, I’m really interested in understanding consumer behavior. What should I do? What’s the next thing?

Libby: I always wanted to be one of those people who sat there and listened to a focus group and wrote things down and asked them questions. I always wanted to do that. I once did a two or three-part series just on jeans and why people buy the jeans that they buy and why certain brands take off and are considered luxurious and others aren’t. I totally get that.

Zibby: I interned one summer at an ad agency in the brand planning group. That’s what we did. I did. I watched all those focus groups and took notes. I wasn’t in the room, but I could watch the videos or whatever and come up with reports. I’m like, so interesting. Pepperidge Farm cookies. Who knew? Fisher-Price toys.

Libby: All these brands are controlling us without us even knowing it.

Zibby: Exactly. I just think there’s something when you’re used to being more of an observer in a way. I feel like you are too. You notice everything. You notice all the ins and outs. That’s why you can delve so deep.

Libby: I feel like my favorite thing to do is just, when I find someone that interests me, they have a really interesting story, travel to them and sit with them for days, eat with them and talk to them and watch them while they’re working. That kind of fly-on-the-wall stuff, I love that stuff. I just think people are so interesting, and the choices that they make and the different ways that they can be. To circle back to some of the people, I actually first wrote the story of Alice for The Washington Post. It was shorter. It was a newspaper story. It was 2017. Literally, the way that the book came to be was the email that I got in response. There were over four hundred in the first few weeks. They were like, “Let me tell you about my DNA surprise. Let me tell you how DNA changed my life. Let me tell you this story, oh, my gosh.” Getting on the phone and talking to people and hearing how they processed and responded to it — and they’re very different. Some people are responding with this openness. Some people are very closed down. Some people are incredibly anxious, understandably. There’s this sense when your identity is threatened, you feel completely displaced. You don’t even know, does anything make sense? You don’t know where you’re standing on this earth. To me, having all those conversations was such an enormous privilege. It was as I was talking to those people and hearing all the different ways it can play out that I thought, this is more than one woman’s story or a hundred people’s story. This is a cultural phenomenon. This deserves to be a book.

Zibby: It was a really great book.

Libby: Thank you.

Zibby: It really was. I know I said it before, but just so page-turning. I feel like I’m so desperate these days for something to take my mind off the real world. This was perfect because it totally kept my attention. That’s always what I’m looking for. Are you working on anything new now?

Libby: I’m working on trying to figure out what to do with my kids all day.

Zibby: Let me know what you come up with on that front.

Libby: I’m editing a magazine story that I wrote in January before all this happened. I am thinking about next steps in terms of maybe another book, but I haven’t gotten far enough that I have anything to report.

Zibby: That’s okay. Having gone through this process, do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Libby: That’s a really good question. I would say on a practical level, I really liked Scrivener, which is a software that you write in. It’s so much better for writing a book than Word. On a slightly less practical and existential level, I really like outlines. Outline is a bit of an existential thing because it’s really a roadmap for where you’re going to go. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s actually an incredibly important thing in terms of understanding the scope of what your reporting and your writing’s going to be and the bigger message and the thematics. Then the last thing I’d say is that I think writing a book is a leap of faith. I think it’s unlike anything else. I’ve been running for a while. I wound up training for a half-marathon. It was like training for a marathon and then an ultra-marathon and then maybe more. It just kept going. It never ended. It was years of this hunkering down, not seeing my family and working weekends and all this stuff. Yet in exchange for that devotion and investment, you get something that’s unlike anything you can achieve by just writing an essay or a reported magazine piece or anything like that. I’m talking about it from the perspective of being a reporter and writing nonfiction. You go deeper. You achieve more. You know more. It’s transformative. I loved it. I loved the process of writing a book. I just thought it was amazing.

Zibby: Wait, tell me what you got back. You said it’s bigger than anything else. Give me an example. Tell me what you felt. How great was it?

Libby: I spent most of my career doing things that were more bite-sized. I might spend a couple of days on a story or a few weeks or sometimes a few months, even. Even those pieces that I wrote that were more immersive — I reported a story on a school shooting. I spent months writing it. I went to this town a few times. I spent a lot of time with the people. Even that, now looking back I see, oh, I was barely scratching the surface. When you spend that much time with a topic, you get to know it in a different way. I really liked getting up each morning and knowing what I was doing and feeling like I was invested in a project that was so much bigger than me. I like that sense of direction. I like the idea that you could take a single topic and you could look at it from all these different perspectives. DNA testing, you have the science of it. You have the business. You have the effect on interpersonal and intimate relationships. You also have the philosophy of it. You have the questions of, how much are we tending towards a kind of genetic essentialism? How much do we have to be careful about that? You have all sorts of questions about, how do we understand biological difference? You have the bioethical angle. You take a single topic, and you can turn it. As you turn it, you see more and more angles that you can consider. It’s as if the more you know, the bigger it gets. The bigger the project gets. Just being so involved in something so big and something so meaningful, essential questions about what makes us who we are — we think about these as human beings, these questions. Who I am? I found that to be immersive and absorbing and just a wonderful process.

Zibby: Was there anything in the payoff of actually having it out in the world and reader response?

Libby: Oh, yes. I get emails all the time from people, LinkedIn and through my website and through Facebook. They’re like, “Thank you for writing this book. I need to tell you what happened to me,” and sometimes, “What should I do?” I say, “Thank you for sharing. Here’s what other people have told me. I’m not an expert, so I’m not going to give you advice, but here’s what other people tell me who’ve been through your similar situation.” They’re often right at the beginning, so they’re emotionally in a really difficult spot. They’re often in a really difficult spot because they’ve just tested. They have multiple siblings through the same donor father. Then suddenly, they’ve uncovered their donor father’s identity. Now they’re trying to figure out, how do I approach this person? It’s this weird thing. No one’s figured out the right infrastructure to support people. There’s no mental health infrastructure. There’s no official guidance. How do you write a letter to your genetic father? Can somebody please write a book about that? You could literally write an entire book just about that. That’s my next book.

Zibby: There you go. You got your next project.

Libby: There’s Facebook groups. There’s support groups. There’s starting to be psychologists. There’s a wonderful genetic counselor who offers advice. There’s blogs. But there’s not a lot in the way of formal organizations, although they’re starting to exist, who are formal guidance. You just see everyone’s their own bioethicist trying to navigate this new territory on their own with advice from other people. It’s a tricky place to be.

Zibby: Very true. At least we have people like you diving deep into it and helping the rest of us understand it, which is great. Thank you, Libby. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for entertaining me so much with your book and making me think about all the big questions in life. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Libby: Thank you so much for having me. It’s just been such a treat to talk to you and such great questions, such thoughtful feel questions. Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks. Hopefully, we’ll meet in real life one of these days. Good luck entertaining your kids.

Libby: All right. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care. Bye.

Libby: Buh-bye.

Libby Copeland, THE LOST FAMILY