With recent advances in genetics, science has hinted that DNA might be able to answer questions about human identity and origins that have previously been restricted to the realms of history and philosophy. Armed with ever-improving DNA-mapping technologies and databases, a host of companies and research institutions are catering to a growing body of amateur genealogists, offering to shed light on their ethnicity and geographical provenance or to reconnect them with distant relatives.
In The Juggler’s Children, science writer Carolyn Abraham follows her own family’s genetic lineage down the proverbial rabbit hole. Although one of her contentions is that genetic testing can show the complexity of almost anyone’s genetic background, Abraham’s family – with its multiracial, multicultural, and cosmopolitan ancestry and roots in numerous continents – seems predestined for this project. Before the author even begins her search, family stories already hint at the presence of sea captains, itinerant jugglers, and doomed love.
The book tells the story of an almost decade-long journey through a maze of chromosomes, long-distance correspondences, research trips to India and Jamaica, false leads, and serendipitous discoveries. It is, by turns, a detective story, a primer on the science of the human genome, and a revealing family portrait. Abraham’s willingness to transparently document the entire process, with all its failures and red herrings, makes for a visceral, almost voyeuristic read. This is especially true in those instances when her search indicates that her ancestors may have included an escaped murderer and a philandering slave owner.
These developments reveal some of the ethical and existential quandaries of genealogical mapping. Abraham rightly wavers about whether or not to share incriminating or disappointing histories with her family, and grapples with the question of whether cultural and familial bonds outweigh genetic evidence. This highly personal story not only entertains and informs, it forces us to ask ourselves some very basic and universal questions about the nature of identity.