The Stages of Genetic Genealogy Addiction

By Evan-Amos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Evan-Amos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

One of the people I’ve met through genetic genealogy, Eric, sent me an e-mail recently that he composed in a cab in Moscow headed to the airport. Yes, that’s right…in a cab. Ironically, the e-mail was titled “The Nine Stages of Genetic Genealogy Addiction,” which I’ve expanded to 10.

I’m sharing this with you, slightly edited, with Eric’s permission (thanks Eric). I hope you enjoy this as much as I did. It’s good to be able to laugh at yourself and indeed, it is a very slippery slope!

And it all started so innocently…

1)   A friend suggests you drop $100 (now $200) on 23andMe to “do your DNA” and see whether you have “asparagus pee.” Why not? Will make for interesting family reunion and cocktail party conversation, plus, you can find out if you’re going to go bald too. You order the kit and east some asparagus, as a test. You check in the mirror to see if you hair is still as thick as it used to be. All looks well except OMG – there’s a hair on my shirt…and another one…

2)   After discovering that you do have asparagus pee and might go bald, you shrug and curiously click on the 23andMe’s admixture button. You get beyond the surprise of “I’m 50% Scandinavian—really?” and wonder what the list of “DNA relatives” means. You click. Three hours later, you remember that you created a family tree in high school back in the ‘80s, dig it out, put it on MyHeritage. Now you’re wondering who all these “smart matches” are. Yesterday, you had never heard of a smart match or DNA Relatives.

3)   Having discovered Ancestry’s little green leaves, you shell out for a subscription and find yourself able to use its databases to extend your tree twice as far (even while learning that the accuracy of the data in others’ online trees should be taken with at least a pound, if not a kilogram, of salt). You order a DNA test from Ancestry to see if you need to order a kilt or leiderhosen. You will later discover that most of that extended tree is wrong, and have to saw off branches, but by then, it’s too late… you’re hooked.

4) You realize that from a genetic genealogical point of view, a parent’s DNA is twice as valuable as your own, so you get each of your oldest ancestors (grands, their siblings) to send in a DNA kit … to all three personal genomics services companies – 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and Ancestry. Your family begins to doubt your sanity, but you don’t care as long as they agree to test.

5)   You discover both GedMatch and DNAGedcom and learn how to use the chromosome browsers built into 23andMe, GedMatch and FTDNA. You download your matches and begin recording your (elder generation’s) shared DNA and “DNA cousins” in an excel spreadsheet.

6)   The elementary chromosome mapping you learn from Roberta Estes’ and Jim Bartlett’s blogs teaches you that creating triangulated groups is a game of numbers, and you build “invitation templates” to reach out to everyone who shares at least 15 cM, then 10 cM, then 7cM with “your” DNA which of course includes all of your family members who have tested. This is first 100 people, then 1,000, then 10,000 folks. At first you’re quite unhappy that so many people don’t answer, but eventually you realize this has become an addiction and most people just aren’t into it as much as you are—and that’s okay; there’s enough data to work with, and if everyone answered, you’d actually be snowed under. Still, in spite of that, you ponder strategies to encourage more people to reply.

7)    You realize that even though you’re thrifty, there are ways to invest a little to make the process easier, so you start paying to get all your elders’ first cousins, and then second cousins tested so you can triangulate matches to them.

8)   The combination of lots of DNA, lots of family tree information, and lots of triangulation, gives you the confidence to “solve” first one “DNA cousin” (build a paper-trail relationship to someone you “met” via DNA testing), then a second, then a tenth. With each success, the next one gets easier with triangulation! This is starting to be a lot of fun. You now build trees for your matches to see if you can find a common ancestor. They think you’re wonderful! You feel guilty because you know you’re really not doing it for them.

9)   You learn a whole new language the includes words like pileup, haplogroup, triangulation, IBC. IBD, SNP and STR. You realize that your life will never be the same again. Your family no longer just doubts your sanity. You tell them there are no recovery programs and you don’t want one.

10) You are in a cab going to the airport half way around the world and you are not only thinking about genetic genealogy and wondering when your next set of DNA results for a fourth cousin once removed will be available, but you’re writing about the 9, ummm, make that 10, Stages of Genetic Genealogy addiction.

41 thoughts on “The Stages of Genetic Genealogy Addiction

  1. 11. You feel compelled to post the 10 steps to your DNA blog.

    12. Unlike other 12 step programs, there is absolutely no desire to eliminate this addiction!

  2. So funny Roberta, I agree and can relate to every phase. However I am not going to buy anything else. I just have “dead people” and no live bodies to connect with. Yes my family thinks I have totally lost it.

  3. This list now begs for “The 10 stages of Genealogical Burnout” and therapeutic modalities to combat it.

  4. My favorite sentence in this: “Your family begins to doubt your sanity, but you don’t care as long as they agree to test.”

  5. Often when I wake in the middle of the night, genealogy is rolling in my head. Seldom leaves me. It has become the most rewarding experience with its many levels and learning, never to be finished, but continuously added, researched and tweaked, but all too often frustrating.

    I love my ancestors!
    I am, who they were.

    • I once began a blog post entitled, “Is there such a thing as a genealogy therapist.” I decided it wouldn’t be useful to contemplate since I have no desire to recover from genealogy and genetic genealogy mental illness.

  6. Every symptom fits exactly. No wonder my family thinks I’m crazy. The only time I consider giving up my addiction is when I realize that most of my newly discovered cousins have views that are completely opposed to mine. It’s clear that there are no base-pairs for religious and political views.

  7. This is great. I haven’t gotten into genetic genealogy – yet. (Necessary funds are required.) However this certainly does relate to genealogy addiction in general. Yes, my family think I’m quite nuts, so far none of them will agree to testing. I’m saving up and working on them. I agree, i don’t want my genealogy addiction cured, what the blazes would I do with myself without it? Thanks for this post. Truth and laughter.

  8. Genealogy Addiction !!!!! I still have an active case and will be 94 in a few days. I am working feverishly and find myself hoping God will extend my days to add “some more.” Even without DNA knowledge, the addiction is beyond belief. But what pleasure it has added to my life since 1982.

    Loved the article !!!!

  9. Precisely describes me, too! BTW, Roberta, it appears that FTDNA Family Finder’s format on the Matches page has changed dramatically. Profoundly hope you will write a blog that helps us navigate it. For some reason my In Common With function will not work — or more likely I am missing something. If it is intended to be “intuitive,” I am not meshing with the designer’s intuitive type. Maybe intuitive types are similar to personality types, and there are many flavors : )

    • A.G. — another reader and FTDNA user here — I’m struggling with the new interface myself, but did just figure out something. If you click on the check mark to the left of your match’s name, the grayed-out “Chromosome Browser” button the “In Common With ” button and the “Not in Common With” button will light up (text will be blue), and then you can access the appropriate function.

      I , too, would love to hear from Roberta (or anyone else!) with tips on how to navigate this new and unexpected interface. I DO like the maternal/paternal split tabs, being blessed enough to have both my mom and my dad’s DNA on FTDNA.

      • You first have to mark the person and then push this in common with.
        Then the list comes.

  10. I think I am about to go crazy… I had paid to transfer my mother’s Ancestry file to FTDNA, and everything was perfect for months until one day when FTDNA somehow lost my mother’s info/matches. I have been trying to get them to resolve it for over a month and no progress seems to be made. I am being told that at some point they will “remove the data from the kit” and they will let me know when I can re-upload the raw data. Add to that the disappointment of learning that my grandmother’s Ancestry sample was processed after they switched over to their new test (with fewer markers), which is no longer compatible to transfer to FTDNA.

  11. This is the truest and funniest article I’ve seen on your blog! I think I’m going to forward it to all my cousins so they will at least have a very small idea of what I’m suffering from! They are all very good to “accomodate” my crazy talk (as they call it!) and save old letters, pictures, etc for me. Most have finally relented to testing at my request. Luckily, my mom (who was also interested in genealogy) tested for me and enjoyed hearing of all my new matches, etc. before she passed away. She also wrote many stories for me relating to her childhood growing up in the Appalachians in a very rural ares of SW VA and how they grew most of their own food and were avid recyclers before recycling became popular. Unfortunately, I only have two first cousins from my father’s side still living, but they both have tested and luckily, since our fathers were identical twins, we all much of the same DNA. This has been very helpful in figuring out at least which side of my family my matches are coming from. So, don’t stop bugging your family to test! Some will even pay for it!

  12. 8a) (More common in endogamous people, i.e. Puerto Rico) You find a new DNA cousin and discover you dated them – or married them! Then you backtrack and make sure all your documentation is correct… and it is.

  13. Robert here’s one for you:
    One of my cousins met a girl in beautiful girl while he was in college and finally worked up the nerve to ask her out. He wanted to impress her so went out of his way to make sure all the details would be perfect. He went to her home to pick her up for their date and all progressed well as he escorted her out to the car. He noticed that She hesitated for a second before getting into the vehicle. All of a sudden he felt like he was at the North Pole in December instead of Los Angeles in summer. The big chill continued most of the evening until he finally asked the reason for the why the not- so- subtle hostility. Her answer : “I used to think you were a very nice guy. Now I just want to know why you’ve stolen my Uncle’s Car?” Instant Shock resonated through his body. “Your Uncle’s Car? This is MY Uncle’s Car!”
    Cue in the theme song… It’s a small world after all, it ‘s a small world after all…

  14. I think I’m living the addiction, certainly the first nine I’m positive . So I must hurry now and read one of the several genealogy books I just received. Ensuring I’ll find and apply just the correct formula to bursting my latest brick wall. Who even knew I was so easily and pleasantly addicted!

  15. Absolutely love it, and I fall into every step. But, I’m loving it. My family asks, what are you doing, working on your ancestry. I say, Yep!”

  16. This is the funniest, and most accurate thing I have read in a long time. I laughed out loud! I was bitten by the genealogy bug at about 10 years old and pestered a great uncle with as many questions as I could think of about our shared family roots. He was in his 80’s at the time but sat on the porch swing with me and chuckled under his breath and answered all of my questions. Now many people run when they see me coming because they know they cannot avoid the inevitable questions they are going to get about who is kin to whom and how they might be kin to me even though they probably are not. Sometimes their eyes roll back in their heads. I love finding new connections and have now got many family branches mapped out back to early colonial Virginia and a couple back to England before that. I am getting ready to buy my first DNA test as a result of the latest sale. I am sure it will not tell me a whole lot but I’m taking the plunge. Thanks to all who have contributed to this string of responses. So good to find people who REALLY share my interests!

  17. I thought I commented on this before but can’t find a previous comment from me. This is so funny (and true) that I laughed out loud! Amateur genealogists obviously need support groups. Most in my known family run the other way when I try to tell our story to them. I’m getting ready to do my first, minimal DNA test–if it’s still on sale! 🙂

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