Book Review: ‘The Stranger in My Genes’ is a DNA discovery for CNBC anchor

StrangerInMyGenesA DNA test to satisfy a cousin’s curiosity about their shared family history forced journalist Bill Griffeth to figure out who he really was.

For many family historians, a DNA test is an enticing means to further their research, spanning generations and tracing genetic fingerprints that ancestors have left in their makeup across the continents.

For Griffeth, a CNBC anchor, it prompted a hunt for his real father across the United States. “The Stranger in My Genes” is Griffeth’s journey of self-discovery.

Griffeth grew up with the affection of his parents and much older siblings, his mother’s late-life son. Until 2012, he had no idea how much of an “oops baby” he really was.

The lines with his cousin should have intersected. Instead, they revealed that Bill had a different father than the man he had known and loved.

Fortunately for Griffeth, his nonagenarian mother was yet living and lucid. She didn’t want to discuss this secret, but reluctantly, she shared how Bill was the surprise outcome of a tryst that heretofore she had kept from everyone — in some ways, even from herself.

“Did Dad know?” he asked her.

“No,” she said. “And I really didn’t know myself until just now.”

At times reeling even as he stayed cool for viewers of “Closing Bell,” Griffeth grapples to fill in the empty spaces. Who was his biological father? Along the way, he takes readers on a figurative and literal journey through the family history he once thought was all there was to him, of New Englanders and Nebraskans.

Over the course of hundreds of years, it is likely that at some point along the way, the paper trail and the gene trail diverge for many of us. When the ancestor is far removed, genetic genealogy can reveal where on the globe our lines lead but not as much to whom. Fortunately for Griffeth, it was not too late to uncover origins papered over by the legal documentation of his life.

Just who was this man who sired Griffeth? Griffeth conceals the late man’s name with a pseudonym as he puts his reporter skills to work in investigating his life story.

For those enticed by genealogy and genetics, “The Stranger in My Genes,” published in 2016 by the New England Historical Society, is a swift read about the shake-up over Griffeth’s make-up.


Book Review: ‘I Shall Be Near To You’ brings Civil War history of female soldiering close

"I Shall Be Near To You," released in January 2014, is a fictionalized account of a female soldier based on hundreds of documented cases from the Civil War.

“I Shall Be Near To You,” released in January 2014, is a fictionalized account of a female soldier based on hundreds of documented cases from the Civil War.

Before “GI Jane,” before women fought bureaucracy and cultural norms to gain access to combat jobs in the United States Armed Forces, Rosetta Wakefield put on men’s clothes and marched to war.

Author Erin Lindsay McCabe turned to the more than 250 documented cases of cross-dressing women who fought alongside men during the Civil War for inspiration for “I Shall Be Near To You,” released in January 2014. Rosetta Wakefield was a real person, and around her McCabe clothed a Union soldier who bent gender roles in the pursuit of marital happiness. Wakefield decided that her place was at her husband’s side, even on the field of battle.

McCabe’s prose is a delight for someone who never found much excitement in accounts of troop movements and battle losses. The novel brings the Civil War to life in the earnest and honest voice of Rosetta, who takes the name Private Ross Stone. The troops march endlessly and eat salt pork, bathe seldom and play poker often. The novel follows our soldier from rural New York to the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day in American military history.

On the eve of battle, soldiers sit in the firelight, stitching their names into the lining of their jackets and writing letters home that they hope their comrades will never have to mail.

This account is a fast read rich in detail, especially a treat for family historians whose ancestors fought on either, or both, sides of the War Between the States.

Family heirlooms: Repair them or keep them as they are?

This silver cameo ring came from my maternal grandfather's family.

This silver cameo ring came from my maternal grandfather’s family.

Sometimes a family story can have a ring to it. Sometimes, a family heirloom is a ring.

My mother wore a silver cameo on her right ring finger all the days of my childhood. Not one for ornamentation, my mother’s fidelity to this piece of jewelry stood out. Who was the pale ivory figure against the brownish background in the ring’s signet? Before my mother, who wore it?

Her father, Raymond Ned Fink, kept a container of family treasures, and as a teen, my mother was allowed to choose the ring from it. It came to him through his mother’s side of the family, peopled by his own mother, Mary Leona Parker, and grandmother, May Viola (Putman) Parker. Who previously had worn the ring is not clear. My mother wore it always, and the meaning for her came from her father’s love and trust that she could have the heirloom.

Half a lifetime later, my mother took off the ring. Tiny hairline cracks had formed in the band. She worried that to continue to wear it would damage it.

Then came the day she gave it to me. This ring connects me to a woman farther up the tree, without whom perhaps I wouldn’t be here today.

Do I repair the ring? Do I ask a jeweler to undertake the task of making it strong and durable again? Or do I keep it safe, the cracks a testament to the hardworking women — my mother the most recent — who wore it? I’m undecided. It’s a precious gift even to have it.

10 ways genealogists are journalists

Girls coming through the alley. The smallest girl has been selling newspapers for two years. March 1909, Hartford, Conn. (Courtesy |  Library of Congress; Lewis Wickes Hines)

Girls coming through the alley. The smallest girl has been selling newspapers for two years. March 1909, Hartford, Conn. (Courtesy | Library of Congress; Lewis Wickes Hines)

If you’re a genealogist, you’re a journalist.

The same can’t be said in reverse, for most, though it can for me. I was drawn to journalism because I love history and I love language. In reporting, the two become one. Meantime, nothing makes history come alive like understanding your place in it. It’s the privilege of the genealogist to make connections that situate her genes in their place in time.

Journalist by day, genealogist by night. In my years of reporting on the personal and the public, I’ve seen more than a little overlap. Here are 10 examples.

  1. Sources can lie. It happens in reporting. Sometimes you know it and can’t prove it. Other times, you don’t even realize until later. That public servant who has no intention of seeking higher office? Her recent fundraising activity says otherwise. It happens in genealogy, too. That ancestor who spelled his name Emil? He went by Amiel in his early years. Changing the spelling of a name and fudging the year of birth are the white lies of family history. The date on the social security registry doesn’t match the date in the family Bible. And nearly everyone has heard the one about the American Indian ancestor, or the link to royalty, or how an ancestor almost boarded the Titanic. In genealogy as in journalism, trust but verify.
  2. Sometimes you start out thinking you’re reporting one story, and you find a much better one. Oftentimes, in fact. I was a cub reporter working on a story about several generations of a family who attended the same GED program. In the course of the interview, I was shocked at the realization that this family had been victim of a brutal robbery and beating, ending in the death of the family’s grandfather and a new normal for the surviving grandmother. It was a widely reported story, but the different last names meant I hadn’t made the connection. There they were, four generations living together, and the story that I came to report was such a sliver of the larger reality they faced, how they came together under duress and hung together in the aftermath, finding hope for the future in the great-granddaughter they were raising together. In reporting, as in researching your personal history, you have to be open to redirection. What you find could be far richer than that which you were seeking.
  3. Facts in a notebook are dead. You could keep reporting without end, but then, when would you write? There comes a time when any aspiring family history writer needs to stop researching and start writing. Prose on the page won’t happen until you start your story.
  4. Your earliest stories weren’t that good. Neither was your research. The lede was trite. The story was formulaic. Even the grammar wasn’t top-notch. And the first branches you filled in on the tree? With time and experience, you look back and realize you didn’t do as thorough a job as you intended. You’ve recorded the year of great-grandma’s marriage, and you haven’t the foggiest notion how you came to know it. There’s always room to amend and improve your work.
  5. Grammar matters. All it takes is a misplaced comma, a solecism (the correct “for all intents and purposes” becomes “for all intensive purposes”) for your reader to lose faith. If you can’t get the little stuff right, how can the reader trust you with the big stuff? Choose a style and stand by it. Don’t toggle. Just because you’re doing this for fun doesn’t mean you can dispense with what your English teacher taught you. A well constructed sentence, in newspaper or in family history, is a gift to yourself and your reader.
  6. You know just enough to get yourself into trouble. We’ve all heard the one about what happens when you ASSUME. In journalism, after you’ve blithely typed some detail about tax policy, electoral politics, road funding or what-have-you, without a source to verify it, your editor, your reader or your sources are happy to tell you how far from fact your little bit of knowledge has led you astray. This happens in family history, too. You think you know your grandmother’s maiden name. After you expend your energy barking up the wrong tree when it comes to her father’s surname, you are surprised to find her marriage to your grandfather was actually her second.
  7. You have to leave the office. You can Google all day, but the best stories happen when you venture out. Get out of your house. Go to your local Church of Latter-day Saints Family History Center and look at that census microfilm for yourself. Check out the local history room at your library. Take a detour on your next road trip to visit the cemetery your great-grandparents are buried in. Spend some time with a relative, really listening, and ask that person to show you the things that they consider important to the family story. Names and dates are the bones of a family history. You need to venture out to flesh them out. The joy is in the journey.
  8. Deviate from the plan. If you write out all your questions before the interview and stick to the script, you’ll squander serendipity. You’ll gloss over the interesting tidbit. You’ll write a story that fits the formula you started out imagining, and a much better tale will have slipped away. Don’t focus so narrowly on proving one thing that you miss the clues to another answer.
  9. Sometimes you’re a social darling. Other times, a social pariah. You’ll find this at any party: Someone thinks journalists are fascinating, and your madcap tales from the trenches bring guffaws and drink refills. Or there’s a lover of family history who wants to hear all about how you are a Catholic who can’t join the Huguenot Society even though your ancestors helped to found New Amsterdam because of a bit of persecution retribution. But more people think you, the journalist, are secretly quoting them. “Am I on the record?” And they imagine that one time that one guy was rude to them means you, by the transitive property of professions, are a jerk, too. Or your host politely nods when you launch into a family history anecdote while secretly dying inside. Again with this dead people business? Please, stop. In genealogy, as in journalism, know thy audience.
  10. This is a calling. Not everyone wants to delve the depths of their family history (and their spouse’s, their friends’, really anyone’s history mystery will do.) And not everyone thrills at asking questions of strangers, observing the world on the drive to work, spotting untold stories everywhere, finding satisfaction in pulling facts into form and making meaning out of memories. Genealogists and journalists don’t pursue their crafts for the big payday. Ask any 3 a.m. U.S. Census-combing family historian if genealogy is a calling. You’ll get a resounding yes. If you do this, you do it for the love.

How to label a large group shot: Emil DeRose and Julia Lezer’s 1919 wedding


Wedding at Sacred Heart Church, South Bend, St. Joseph County, Indiana. As identified by the bride and groom’s daughter, Carolyn Louise (DeRose Fredericks Niblick) Hess, they are, back row, 1: unknown; 2: William Lezer, brother of the bride; 3: Mrs. Csardi, an immigrant friend; 4-9: unknown; 10: Emery Lizer, Alex Lezer’s brother and the bride’s uncle; next row, 11: unknown child; 12: groom’s stepfather; 13: groom’s mother; 14: groom, Emil Julius DeRose; 15: bride, Julia Ethel Lezer; 16: mother of the bride, Caroline Gymoti Lezer; 17: father of the bride, Alex Lezer; 18: 10-year younger sister of the bride, Theresa Lezer; 19: unknown, not of the Lezer family; 20: brother of the bride, Michael Lezer

Perhaps you have one, a family photo featuring so many faces you can hardly differentiate them. Carefully tracing a silhouette outline of the people in the photograph and numbering them can provide an easy thumbnail sketch for labeling who is who.

To complete the effect on the portrait above, I covered the photo with an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of white copy paper, though tracing paper would be even easier. Taking care not to press hard, I sketched a rough outline of the heads and shoulders of the photograph subjects and numbered them. I scanned the sketch and used Fotor Photo Collage, a free online resource, to manipulate it. The site makes it easy to stitch the original photo and the silhouette together and save it as a new file. From there, the captioning is a cinch!

There are so many unanswered questions in this wedding portrait of Emil Julius DeRose and Julia Caroline Lezer, and I’m not talking just about the “who is this guy?” kind.

It was taken for their wedding on June 25, 1919. They married at Sacred Heart Church, South Bend, St. Joseph Co., Indiana. Their marriage license lists the alternate spelling Emiel DeRoose for Emil, as well as identifying Julia as a seamstress.

Two families, including the Hungarian Lezers, became one, but only for a short time. Emil and Julia divorced after the birth of their only daughter, Carolyn. The divorce was in 1923. The reasons are not entirely clear, though there are rumors of infidelity and a maid. On my to-do list is to obtain the divorce record from St. Joseph County to see what the historic record can tell us.  The Centers for Disease Control has a handy site that shows how to obtain vital records by state, so I know I need to go straight to the county for that information.

After the divorce, Carolyn had limited contact with her birth father, explaining the gaps in our knowledge about who stood in their wedding. We don’t know Emil’s parents names, yet, but I am on the trail! Carolyn did recall that Emil’s stepfather was present at the wedding, and she filled in all the labels she could. I plan to revisit the lovely St. Joseph County Library, where an online South Bend Tribute obituary index shows me exactly where on microfilm to find his obituary. I hope that will shed some light on his parents’ names. U.S. Census records are an obvious next step, as well.

The Lezers were a family of Hungarian immigrants. I find it interesting that Carolyn labeled Mrs. Csardi (she explained it sounds like Shard-ee) in the photo as their “immigrant friend.” I plan to look at U.S. Census records to see if that last name appears in their neighborhood.

The danger in these blog posts is that I may never post them, because I keep thinking up ways to further my research!