I think many of us might be able to name in our extended families some people whom we might call ‘wayward relations’ but this vaguely derogatory term (in English anyway) has been used by German anthropologist Maren Klotz specifically to refer to “genetic relatives, often officially unintended, who do not correspond to established kinship roles.” In other words people connected genetically via gamete donation.
Maren’s paper, ‘Wayward Relations: Novel searches of the Donor-Conceived for Genetic Kinship is worth reading, partly because anthropology looks at donor conception through a slightly different lens to other academic disciplines and partly because her focus is on how older donor conceived people are using sites like 23andme and Family Tree DNA to make genetic links. This is a very modern way of diverting what were intended largely as ‘hobby genealogy’ sites that have ended up contributing to the subversion of the intentions of large parts of the fertility industry. As Klotz says, the use of this technology could be seen as part of a larger pattern of geneticisation of relationships, but she identifies it more as a highly contemporary way of asserting agency in a world characterised by tensions over knowledge acquisition. It “challenges the gatekeeper status of clinicians and regulators over genetic knowledge, official regimes of anonymous gamete donation and – in a wider sense -privacy.”
Klotz’s ‘fieldwork’ (this is what anthropologists do) contacts were mostly adults conceived through donated sperm who had found out about their conception only in their late twenties, accidentally or in situations of family conflict or even losses of family members. As she acknowledges, such conflictive revelations seem quite typical of families-by-donation over thirty years ago before less secretive donation practices became supported by interest groups and regulation in Euro-America. In many cases donor conceived people felt betrayed by their parents and this led to estrangement, but not inevitably. For some, day to day relationships were able to continue as normal whilst also acknowledging the shock and disruption that the new knowledge had caused. For others, particularly where there was a family history of divorce and difficult relationships, people expressed the desire that new ‘wayward relationships’ would prove to be more durable, whilst at the same time acknowledging that these were unlikely to come about simply because of a genetic match. There would have to be an investment of time and emotional energy as well.
Searching for pieces of genetic kinship knowledge and connecting with other people undertaking the same task, was described as comforting and reassuring, although it was acknowledged that making actual genetic contacts was sometimes disappointing. Several of the connections made by Klotz’s participants had turned into what she calls ‘latent’ relationships with on and off contact.
Although lack of personal medical history was often stated in a first interview as being very painful and one of the main reasons for searching, Klotz found that at subsequent interviews, medical questions were rarely raised. Participants were more interested in talking about the outrage of being denied information, the betrayal of their parents and the possibility of discovering enriching relationships. The search itself seemed to take on a life of it’s own, bringing comfort in being able to re-assert a sense of agency in the face of withholding clinics and institutions and a strong sense of purpose in the face of being denied information about something that remains central in Euro-American culture – biological relatedness and parentage. Klotz notes the “joy and sense of empowerment” her informants found when they were able to “divert authoritative regimes of ‘kinship knowledge management’ through private genetic testing, through legal action ,through internet based detective work or through networking with other concerned individuals world wide.”
In an age where demands for transparency, access to knowledge and it’s management clamour for space, those in the virtually unique position of being denied information about their genetic heritage by convention, law or regulation, are asserting their agency by doing everything they can to subvert authority. Klotz sees this seeking for ‘wayward relations’ not as wanting to displace social means of relating but as complementary to it, although she acknowledges that in a wider sense, “wayward relations appear to be a reaction to late-modern experiences of fragmentation and individualisation, as some researchers suspect of ancestry research in general.” This is very much in keeping with the thinking of Australian philosopher Rhys Price-Robertson quoted by me in November last year https://oliviasview.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/genes-identity-and-meaning-in-donor-conception/
It seems that the search itself, the information gained (if any) and the contacts made with others engaged in the same task might, for some people, be enough in themselves. That although they have the means to make connections, they may choose not to do so. They have asserted their agency and challenged authority and that is enough for them. Having the resources and means of the internet at their disposal means that taking up the search again in the future, should they choose to do so, would be possible. And that must be the point in the end mustn’t it. If they choose to do so. If something has been held a secret for so long and then information relating to that secret is found to be locked away or already destroyed, then that information, in and of itself, becomes something you feel you must have. It has a lure that easily available information completely lacks. Which leads me to wonder how differently, or not, the new generation of donor conceived people are likely to view their ‘wayward relations’. If parents have been open from the beginning and donors are identifiable from when the young person turns 18, will this group of DC adults feel the same need as their earlier counterparts to scour the internet and send saliva swabs to 23andme? I don’t know, but look forward to next few years with great interest.
Maren Klotz (2016) Wayward Relations: Novel Searches of the Donor-Conceived for Genetic Kinship, Medical Anthropology, 35:1, 45-57, DOI: 10.1080/01459740.2015.1012615 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01459740.2015.1012615