Irish Genealogy: Nature v Nurture

An annual viewing of “The Wicker Man”: Who knew that was genetic?

For a long time, all I knew of my biological parents is that they had blue eyes, were college graduates, and one was Irish while one was English. As I have mentioned, I was raised by a Jewish couple. I think there is a lot I get from my adoptive parents, one of whom is a retired scientist and one of whom is a pharmacist. My father collects art, and I grew up surrounded by great examples of contemporary fine art. My mother has a great love for classical music, independent films, and theater, and I share that. I share their regard for science. My parents are mainstream liberal Jews, which is rooted in a call for social justice, and I share that. They also gave me one of the tweest childhoods imaginable, including art lessons at a museum, summers in New York, and a year spent in the English countryside. A lot of who I am now is informed by this.

But there are a lot of ways I am not like them. My interest in the arts has always been as a maker as well as consumer, and while my parents may have dabbled in the arts (both are rather skilled photographers, but never pursued it professionally), I have dedicated much of my adult life to working as a writer, playwright, and songwriter. I have a great taste for the fantastical, never shared by the rest of my family, and when I was younger this extended to a fascination for the occult. My parents were, at best, bemused by all this, and did not share it.

A few years ago, I request the non-identifying information about my biological parents from the adoption agency that handled my case. Before they mail you the information, a case worker calls and walks you through it. She told me that I was, in fact, of English and Irish extraction. She then told me that my biological mother had studied journalism and theater, and that my biological father wrote about fine arts and was an illustrator. “What do you think about this?” she asked.

“I am a playwright and an arts critic,” I answered. I was genuinely stupefied to hear this, and so didn’t know what else to say. I still don’t.

I found out who my biological mother was a few months ago, and my stupefaction has been magnified. She wrote about Irish myth and legend, and, in fact, I had owned one of her books at one time. She had been a journalist, possibly for one or more of the publications I worked for years later. She had even written an entire book about wine, while I spent years of my life writing about cocktails. She wrote poetry, and I write poetry; moreover, her collections tended to be grouped into themes, with the entire collection contributing to one larger story, and this is how I write too.

There were other coincidences, many of them. Indeed, just this past week I watched the 1973 film “The Wicker Man,” which I have long been obsessed with and watch once per year. Today I found an old newsletter written by my biological mother where she wrote that she likewise watches the film annually. To the best of my knowledge, nobody in my adoptive family has even seen “The Wicker Man,” much less made a tradition of it. How could that be genetic?

This is a question that pops up a lot. When I first got in contact with my biological cousins, they discovered that my go-to drink is the Manhattan, and were thrilled to tell me that this was my biological grandfather’s favorite cocktail, and is, in fact, the favored cocktail of much of the family. How could the Manhattan be genetic? I have a biological aunt who performs with a saucily named Irish singing group; I used to have a Celtic punk band called the Peter O’Tooles. How could risque-double-entendre-Irish-band-names be genetic? I have another biological aunt whose degree is in religion and is a journalist. My original degree, pursued for many years (and later abandoned in favor of a degree in theater) was religious studies, and I have been a professional journalist for almost two decades. How could this be genetic?

Ultimately, I expect much of it isn’t. Some of it is just coincidence. The Manhattan is a classic cocktail, and so it isn’t so very outre that many people like it. “Wicker Man” is one of the great cult films of the 70s, and, because of its roots in Celtic paganism, is especially appealing to Irish-Americans. So it may seem extraordinary and unlikely that this is something I share with my biological mother, but, unless it seems extraordinary and unlikely, it’s not really a coincidence, is it?

I am sure that much of what is at work here is my own mind searching for patterns, which is what our minds do best. I can’t help but notice the places where our lives overlap and find them meaningful, while unconsciously disregarding where our lives do not overlap, which they do in significant ways. My biological mother had four husbands in her life. I have never married. She was an academic, while I am still a language requirement away from my undergraduate degree, which I simply never get around to completing. She had a love for great, wild, outdoor spaces; I am a city boy. And most obviously and significantly, I have never had a child that I gave up for adoption, although, who knows, maybe this is where we are similar. I have never wanted a child. She may not have either.

But I don’t think these coincidences are unmeaningful. I think that meaning is created, not inherent. In our lives, we pour through all sorts of facts, and make a million decisions about which facts we find valueless and which important. We interpret facts, and group facts together into categories, and construct our understanding of the world out of them.

And there may be something unique about the way adopted children do this, but I don’t think it is that unique. For any of us who do genealogy, we end up with a list of strangers who we share DNA with. The further we move away from our nuclear family, the less we know, and when we get a few generations back, we often just have a name on a document, or a photograph, or a family story.

As we build our family trees, we fill in the details. And the more details we find, the more these strangers seem like family, through exactly the process I just described in discussing my experiences as an adoptive child. Maybe we discover they owned a bookstore, and now we know they were like us, because we like books. Or maybe they moved from place to place all the time, and how like us that is, because we also have wanderlust.

And so it goes. When we build a family tree, we don’t simply create a document of the movement of DNA, but also construct a collection of meaningful coincidences that turn strangers into family. Maybe there is no strand of genetic material that makes me more likely to enjoy a Manhattan, but, by God, if that’s the family drink, it’s the family drink, and the fact that I drink it too demonstrates that I am family in a way chromosomes never will. And discovering that my biological mother watched “The Wicker Man” every year doesn’t feel like a coincidence, or, if it is a coincidence, it feels like a useful one.

Because it means that when I do it, I am not some lone cultist obsessed with an obscure 70s horror film. No, it means I am my biological mother’s son.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.