Connecting With The Past

Alice Toler is an accomplished artist and writer, but she calls herself a nerd of sorts.
Really more than that — for most of her life Alice has felt disconnected from others, more like “an alien.”

“My mind doesn’t seem to work like other people’s,” Alice said. “Throughout my life I felt a little bit like I’d been beamed down from some other place. I later learned that a lot of adoptees feel like that — disconnected from others in some way.”

Alice at 7 with a photo of her biological dad at the same age.

Alice at 7 with a photo of her biological dad at the same age.

That feeling changed a bit recently when she met her birth mother for the first time with the help of 23andMe and a lot of detective work of her own.

So perhaps it was appropriate that Alice met her mother for the first time in the otherworldly landscape of the Black Rock desert in Nevada. For a week each year, this wasteland hosts an “ephemeral city” of tens of thousands of unconventional thinkers at the annual Burning Man festival, where West-coast tech gurus and professional engineers meet hippies and alien abductees to create some of the most ambitious interactive art on the planet. Though off-season and empty of revelers during their day spent there, the open desert provided a fittingly uncanny backdrop for the first intense exchange of information between a woman and her child, separated at birth.

“The experience was surreal,” Alice said. “She was so happy to meet me, and she has a friendly dorkiness to her that suddenly opened a window of understanding onto my own dorky personality. We are nerds together!”

The story of how Alice found her mother is long and complicated, involving decades of on-again and off-again searching. But her big break came after finding a distant cousin through 23andMe.

Although she was adopted by a British couple in the Bahamas, she turns out to have genetic family roots in New Mexico and also discovered she has Native American ancestry. Finding her birth mother and then her birth father, and learning about her ancestry, grounded her in a way she never thought possible.

“I went from having no information at all, to finding out that I have extensive recorded family lines on my mother’s side—in fact, my grandmother’s family is recorded all the way back to the Spanish conquistadors,” Alice said.

And her life is richer, she said.

“Most people only have two parents and two ancestral lines,” she said. “I have four parents, more cousins (both adoptive and genetic) than I can count, ancestral lines documented back hundreds of years, AND the challenge of a new mystery to solve. I am truly lucky.”


  • Christine

    I took a DNA test with 23andme earlier this year to help create my family tree. My family is not very close, but I have always had my mom, dad and sister close by, and I knew we had lots of family back in New York where I was born. I was just curious to see where my mom’s relatives came from and where my dad’s relatives came from. My mom I knew was Italian and my dad Irish. When I got the results from 23andme. I had an immediate 2nd Cousin match. The name was not familiar to me and she had a small tree going back about 2 generations. I remember telling me mom about the names on the tree and we thought that maybe it was dad’s family as there were rumors that his family changed their last names from something not as IRISH sounding. I really did not give it any thought, but I did email the person to ask more questions. A couple of days after discussing this close match with my mom, she confessed that she had an affair while married to my dad and that I was the product of that affair.

    It turns out that my match on 23andme was a grandchild of the great grandfather we share, a man with 11 sons and 1 daughter, needless to say there are many descendants of that man and I am one of many. My mother worked with my bio-dad, and they stayed in touch as I grew up, but they never told me.

    I had no reason to suspect that I was NOT the daughter of my mom’s husband. I just always figured I looked like mom and my sister looked like dad. It was a shock. I did not think I would find out that I was a non-parental event, I just thought I would find more family members scattered around the world.

    Anyway, since May, I have met my biological father. I was his last child, and I have an older brother. He admitted that he has not been the best father or husband, but I don’t care. He seems like a nice man and I cannot judge him or make excuses for him. I have not said anything to my father that I have always had as a father. He might know, or not, but he has never treated me poorly or differently. He kept photos of me that my mom sent him over the years. It was amazing that he kept them 45 years later.

    Life is an adventure. I wish I lived closer to my biological dad so that I can spend more time with him. Unfortunately, I live in California and he is in Vermont. I am planning on taking my kids up there for the holidays to meet their grandfather.

    In the meantime, he has helped me with my genealogy and my tree on Ancestry has grown to 1500 and goes back to the 1500′s, when I just started out with just 2 grandma’s and 2 grandpa’s known.

    • ScottH

      Christine, What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing.

  • Chuck

    I suspect that numerous “non-parental” events will come to light over the course of the 23andme projects and as to whether they are wonderful could depend on one’s perspective. However, it’s all part of the human experience and truly fascinating.

  • Venita K. Ellington

    All my life I have wondered about my Native American heritage. I was told that I have direct linear descent from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on both my mother’s and father’s side of my family. I have seen several census reports which seem to verify that some of my direct ancestors were born on or near the Qualla Boundary (reservation) and had the names i had always been told. I would like to see whether any indication of this shows up on my DNA report.

  • Kirt Germond

    It is nice to find out your ancestry, but don’t get to carried away with it. A person only incarnates into a genetic stream for a single life that will help him work out his soul’s karma and express his soul’s grace. Seek the bigger picture as a soul on an infinite journey of learning and creation.

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