Friday, January 18, 2013

Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in my DNA By Richard Hill (a book review and interview)

by Lynn Grubb

I first heard of Richard Hill when I stumbled upon him being interviewed by Donna Montalbano on her adoption-related radio program. listen here  As I listened to Richard speak, I became more and more fascinated with his adoption search journey and his groundbreaking use of DNA to find his family.

I read the book over the Christmas holiday and could not put it down. It reads like a mystery novel; however, knowing it is true makes it so much more fascinating. The first sentence of the book speaks a truth most adoptees know all too well:
"All families have secrets, some bigger than others . . . .”

Richard’s story begins in the state of Michigan when one day he was getting ready to leave for college, the adoption bomb was dropped into his life. Looking forward to his future, Richard didn’t spend much time examining the fallout. In time, though, Richard softens to the idea of finding answers as to why he was adopted, with a little push from some females in his life. Later, his adoptive father provides a few pieces to the mystery and urges him to find his family.

The bulk of his search takes place before the internet and all its valuable resources. I was just amazed at Richard’s ability to piece his story together from basically nothing but rumors. Interviewing family members of the deceased and even requesting their DNA was extremely brave of Richard but it paid off for him. 

At the close of his journey, Richard states:
“The experts talk about nature versus nurture, both are critically important in determining who we are. The inherent truth for adoptees, however, is that these two factors come from four different people. And many of us will never know peace, until we know all the pieces.”

Simply put, I loved this book. I felt myself identifying with Richard at every turn of his journey, as my own conception is as much of a mystery to me as Richard’s was to him. What sets Richard apart from most, is his ability to take action even in the face of common practical adoptee barriers: secrets that have died with deceased family members, fear, stories and mythologies, sealed records, and lack of time outside of family and career. It's no wonder that many could not muster the strength to accomplish what Richard was able to.

Richard does a wonderful job of describing the process of DNA in laymen’s terms. After reading this book, I feel more comfortable sending my DNA for analysis and some hope in finding answers one day. You can order a copy of Richard's book and get specific advice regarding DNA testing here.


Richard, thank you for being willing to help our readers understand DNA better in their own searches. I see that you have dedicated your entire website, DNA Testing Advisor, to this very thing.

I noticed that you were meticulous in taking notes during every interview and documenting every scrap of information you found. What other techniques did you use when beginning your search that tipped the odds in your favor?


I did many things: asking family and friends what they knew, requesting non-identifying information, finding adoption search groups and attending their meetings. And, yes, taking meticulous notes and saving every document, photo, or scrap of paper related to my search. You never know what might become critical in a later stage.


I have to applaud you for thinking of ordering your birth mother’s social security information to figure out where she was working at the time of your conception. What other documents would you suggest searchers attempt to get?


Ask for your birth certificate and don’t mention adoption. See what you get. If you later get a clue as to a possible surname, request your information again using that surname. It worked for me. In my case there was a divorce, so I requested the divorce proceedings.


Can you give us a brief overview of each type of DNA test (i.e. Family Finder, Relative Finder, etc) and which one, in your opinion, will give searching adoptees the best results?


A male adoptee should definitely order a Y-DNA test from Family Tree DNA. Order at least 37 markers, 67 if you can afford it. This will uncover men who share a common male ancestor with you in their paternal line. Currently, an adopted man has about a 40% chance of uncovering his biological father’s surname from taking this test.

There is a mitochondrial DNA test (mtDNA) that follows the female line. But any matches are likely to reflect a common ancestor from hundreds or thousands of years ago and the surname typically changes every generation. I am personally unaware of any adoptees getting useful clues from mtDNA testing. Save your money.

The big action today for all adoptees is on the SNP-based autosomal tests that each check over 700,000 locations. Men and women can take these tests and find biological cousins from any branch of their family trees. Unless you get lucky and match a close ancestor (it has happened), you will probably be working at the level of 3rd cousin and beyond. There’s a lot of work involved in determining common ancestors and tracing branches forward in time to find someone living in the time and place of your birth. But there’s a Yahoo Group called Adoption DNA that can answer questions and explain the methods. A lot of reunions have occurred from this process.

If you are serious and have the funds, I recommend taking all three of these tests: Family Finder from Family Tree DNA, 23andMe (Relative Finder), and AncestryDNA from Most people you will match only use one of them, so there is not a lot of overlap. Fishing in two or three ponds at once can increase your chances of getting that close, breakthrough match with the knowledge to help you uncover the truth about your origins.

All three tests include an ethnic ancestry report that may provide clues. Most people consider the AncestryDNA report to be kind of flaky at this point, but the other two can be taken seriously. 23andMe will also tell you what genetic health traits you inherited, which can be incredibly useful for adoptees even without the genealogical comparisons.

If you find a suspected close ancestor, e.g. a parent, aunt, sibling, or even a first cousin these three SNP-based autosomal tests will also serve as highly accurate relationship tests. Beware of tests marketed as “sibling” or “kinship” tests. Those use outdated STR-based autosomal technology that can only calculate the probability of a relationship. They are often inconclusive and sometimes wrong.

I know that males can trace their paternal lines using the Y chromosone which transfers from father to son, but it is also possible for females to trace their paternal line using DNA testing?


Not directly, since females lack the Y chromosome that passes down the paternal line. Females should focus on the SNP-based autosomal tests noted above.


Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers about your journey?


If you do find living relatives, proceed cautiously. Consider using an experienced search angel to make the first contact. You don’t know if your birth parents have shared your existence with spouses and children. Be discrete and patient if they need time to absorb the news of your contact. Don’t push for them to get DNA tests until you have established a warm, trusting relationship and it’s clear that you don’t have any threatening intentions.


Thank you for your time and your wonderful book, Richard.