My dad died of cancer when I was 11 years old. I remember the moment he told me he was going to die. His skin cancer had spread. He was bald after courses of chemotherapy, and thinner than I’d ever seen him. Despite his frail appearance, my young mind struggled to understand.
“You won’t be here?” I asked.
“I want to be,” he answered, “but I won’t.”
My heart goes out to my father when I think of how that conversation must have felt for him, especially now that I have my own kids. Like many who have lost a parent while they were young, I worry about the same thing happening to me. I have my father’s hooded eyelids, quick temper, and love of good jokes. I have the same flecked complexion. What else had he, and I, passed along?
The question came to a head a few years ago, when I bought a DNA test. I was working on a novel about Neanderthals, and the recent mapping of the Neanderthal genome had revealed that many people of European or Asian descent have between 1-4% Neanderthal DNA. I wanted to know my percentage. Having grown up thinking of Neanderthals as hairy, grunting, knuckle-draggers, scientists were now saying that they were much more like us than previously thought. Would my writing change if I knew Neanderthals were part of me? The knowledge might help me find the confidence required to write about people who lived so long ago.
My son, then nine years old, watched as I did the test. He was fascinated, rather than grossed out, as I spit into a plastic vial. He wanted to know: If I were part Neanderthal, did that mean he was too?
After I got the email with my results—I am 2.5% Neanderthal—I gave a high-pitched yowl and thumped my chest as I told my son the good news. But there was other information in the results that I didn’t tell him. My personalized webpage included a long list of inherited conditions and genetic risk factors. Some were self-evident, such as the fact that I was prone to drinking more coffee than most. Others gave me pause. Did I want to click the link that would tell me if I had a variant for Alzheimer’s? I would already know if Parkinson’s ran in the family, wouldn’t I? I wasn’t sure if I wanted to live with this kind of knowledge. I needed time to think it through.
And then, as though sensing my hesitation, my son asked, “Can I take a DNA test?” It was a question I wasn’t prepared to answer.
Alongside the development of readily available DNA tests, the idea of genetic inheritance is changing rapidly. In school, I learned that genetics were about the traits my parents passed on to me. And when we have kids, we tend to think they are simply products of us. But scientific advances are painting an increasingly complex picture. As Andrew Solomon writes in his book Far From the Tree, our children carry “throwback genes and recessive traits.” Your kids are likely to have traits from people you have never met: a gene that was switched on your husband’s long-lost great-uncle might could make an appearance in your child. Our environment can also affect how genes express themselves. And recent research on Holocaust survivors and their descendants suggests it’s possible (though not at all certain) that trauma can be passed on in our genes.
The idea of inheritance also reaches far beyond our biology. We pass on property, debts, obligations, and desires. And we also learn behaviors from our families. When our parents are quick to anger, or prone to fear, we internalize these tendencies and model them in our own behavior.
For the most part, I see the trauma of my past as a positive force. From an early age, I understood that life was short. I tend to take action, rather than spend years wondering if I should. But I also worry. I often find lumps or new spots on my skin. Though it’s good to pay attention to your health, I recognize that my worry is slightly beyond what is helpful. And after I had kids, my anxiety became more pronounced. What if I couldn’t be there for them, even if I wanted to be?
Sometimes, when my son and I are playing together, I want to drop the Legos, put my arms around him, and not let go—as if I might be able to fend off all the bad things that could happen to me, or to him. But it’s likely that those bad things are already inside us. With that knowledge comes the risk of worrying too much. I have genes and experiences that he does not. While I can’t alter my biology, I have some influence over how I express my feelings. I don’t want my anxiety to become his inheritance.
I said no to the DNA test for him—but I did click through to see the rest of my results. They didn’t show any variants lurking, but I was glad I took the time to think it through first. I hope to pass that power on to my son. He can decide whether to take one when he is old enough to weigh the pros and cons of the test on his own terms.
In the meantime, I told him that we could assume he’d inherited some of my Neanderthal DNA. He liked that idea and immediately went digging in his room for a sheepskin to wear as a cloak. I built a shelter out of blankets and pillows. We sat in the cave and talked strategy for the upcoming woolly mammoth hunt. He worried that it might be dangerous. I agreed there was a risk, but we were responsible for feeding our people. Thoughts of death shouldn’t get in the way of living.