February 2-4, 2024
Many, curious about their ancestry, turn to 23 and Me searching for answers to the complicated question, “Who am I?” Yet, what happens when a mere globule of saliva, the extraction of DNA strands from cells, brings into question a person’s basic identity? How do we, as therapists and writers, begin to consider the psychological meaning and impact of finding out that a mother or father is not one’s biological parent? How do we absorb the shock that there is another parent somewhere out in the world? And the surprising discovery of half-siblings, sometimes numbering in the tens, even hundreds.
Science has outpaced our psychological understanding and appreciation for the impact of this surprising, often fracturing, information. Families, turned upside down, at long hidden secrets revealed.
We construct our identity out of biological givens: who we look like, where we get certain traits from—the shape of our face, our eye color, even the way one of our eyebrows might rise up when we are curious. We think of these features of the self as objective facts, all creating a picture of who we are over time. Yet our identity also encompasses subjective experiences not found in our genes, such as the memories we hold, our relationships, and values that create a narrative of who we consistently are over time. Learning that the parent we thought was our biological parent is not, is more than the trauma of discovery, a grief at what has been lost, but brings with it a much more complicated meaning of identity and the question —Who am I?
This weekend we will explore what happens when the narrative of one’s life, our subjective reality is altered, even shattered? How do we revise our narrative of who we are, in the face of new evidence, information we had considered an objective fact? How do we maintain a connection to our old self, allowing for the inclusion of this new information?
Coordinator: Kerry Malawista, Ph.D.
LIBBY COPELAND is an award-winning journalist and author who writes about culture and science for outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlantic. Her book The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are was praised by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and was named to The Guardian’s list of The Best Books of 2020. The Washington Post said it “reads like an Agatha Christie mystery” and “wrestles with some of the biggest questions in life: Who are we? What is family? Are we defined by nature, nurture or both?” Copeland’s immersive reporting and intimate writing explore the forces that shape our identities.
JULIE ELION is the clinical director of the Center for Athletic Performance and Enhancement and has an MA in counseling. Through her psychotherapy practice she has helped athletes and CEOs achieve their dreams. Julie focuses on identifying beliefs that block our optimal performance which has helped her gain recognition in multiple articles in the New York Times, Golf Digest, and other periodicals as “that lady who helped me to win.” In the fall of 2019 Julie Elion discovered through genetic testing who her biological father was–a psychiatrist–leading her into a complicated world of genetic testing, insemination, and anonymous sperm donations. Through this journey she has discovered 68 siblings, 40 of which she has met and keeps in moderately close touch with, sharing many physical and psychological traits.
JAYNE RIEW is a writer and artist based in NYC. In the Scientific American blog “Beautiful Minds,” Scott Barry Kaufman calls her “a psychological artist who explores the unseen.” Her 2019 portrait essay “Twisting Ladders” explores how 17 people confronted the upheaval in their sense of identity after DNA testing revealed an unknown child or parent. Jayne’s work has been commended by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof as “counterintuitive and creative” and praised by Federalist editor-in-chief Mollie Hemingway as “listening journalism.” Whether ghostwriting memoirs or reading Chekhov for Librivox, at the heart of all Jayne’s pursuits is a fascination with portraiture—a close reading of ourselves and the conditions that affect that understanding.
DANI SHAPIRO is the author of the instant New York Times best selling memoir, Inheritance, which was published in January 2019 by Knopf. Her other books include the memoirs Hourglass, Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her latest novel, Signal Fires, will be published in the fall of 2022 by Knopf. Along with teaching writing workshops around the world, Dani has taught at Columbia and New York University, and is the cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. In February of 2019, Dani launched an original podcast, Family Secrets, in collaboration with iHeartMedia. An iTunes Top 10 podcast, the series features stories from guests who—like Dani— have uncovered life-altering and long-hidden secrets from their families’ past. She lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.