Trauma of Discovery – DNA Surprises. The Redefinition of the Narrative Arc of Self

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.


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 HourglassStill WritingDevotion, 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.