Jen Gilman Porat | Longreads | December 2018 | 14 minutes (3,447 words)
A couple of years ago, I purchased a pair of 23andMe kits for myself and my husband, Tomer. I intended to scientifically prove that Tomer’s most irritating behaviors were genetic destiny and therefore unchangeable. I’d grown tired of nagging him — oftentimes, I’d hear my own voice rattling inside my brain in the same way a popular song might get stuck in my head. I needed an out, something to push me toward unconditional acceptance of my husband. My constant complaining yielded zero behavior modification from on his part; on the other hand, it was changing me into a nasty micromanager. I briefly considered marital therapy, but that’s an expensive undertaking, costing much more than the $398.00 one-time fee for both DNA kits. Plus, couples’ therapy could take a long time, requiring detours through our shared history. In much appealing contrast, 23andMe, promised to launch us straight back to our prehistoric roots, to an earlier point in causality, one that might provide Tomer with something akin to a formal pardon note, thereby permitting me to stop fighting against him, once and for all. I imagined we could help others by way of example too, for what long-married woman has not suffered her husband’s most banal tendencies — the socks and underwear on the floor, the snoring? Not me, actually, because my husband puts his used clothes in the hamper, and I’m the snorer. Really, I’m probably blessed as far as masculine disgustingness goes. But my husband is flawed in one repulsive way: his barbaric table manners.
I have no doubt this is a genetic situation, for even back when we were first dating, I’d shuddered upon seeing my father-in-law poke through the serving bowls of a family-style meal with his bare hairy hands. My husband’s father has also been caught eating ice cream directly from the carton (the thought of which I now appreciate for its built-in binge deterrent). Moreover, my father-in-law eats like a caveman-conqueror, reaching across dinner plates to pluck a taste of this or that from his mortified tablemates. A family dinner looks like a scene straight out of Game of Thrones, minus any crowns. And so, when my husband first began to exhibit similar behaviors, I had to wonder: Had I suffered some rare form of blindness previously? Did some barrier of unconscious denial gently shield my eyes each day, year after year, but only at mealtimes? It was as if a blindfold suddenly fell from my face, or as if Tomer had finally removed a mask from his own. My gentleman turned into a beast, seemingly overnight.
I watched with horror, one Sunday evening, as my husband served himself a plate of meat and vegetables with his hands. His fingers ripped skirt steak in lieu of cutting it with a knife. He abandoned his fork altogether, and I lost my appetite.
Had Tomer suffered some obscure symptom of the mid-life crisis? Or was this a regressed state? During a phone conversation with a close friend, I described my father-in-law’s vile eating manners and wondered if his pre-existing condition had grown contagious. She suggested Tomer’s change of behavior might indicate an epigenetic effect; she’d read somewhere that some aspects of our genetic code lie in wait and get activated along the way. Apparently, some inherited traits remained invisible for years, hiding patiently in our cells until: Surprise! Just when you hit middle age and are totally comfortable in your own skin (despite the new fine lines around your eyes and those brown circles that are hopefully age spots and not melanoma), some new biological fact of your genetic code makes itself manifest, waking you up from your mid-age slumber.
Another interesting detail I could not ignore: Around the same time Tomer stopped liking forks, he’d adopted the Paleo diet, (versions of which are known as the caveman diet). He’d cut all processed foods from his intake, eating nothing but meat, nuts, vegetables, and fruit. Prior to going Paleo, he’d suffered from a severe case of irritable bowel syndrome and relied on bread products, thinking that challah and croissants were the softer, gentler foods. I suspected a gluten allergy and told him to lay off all the Pepperidge Farm cookies. I probably even told him to “eat like a caveman,” but I only meant for him to eat a more natural and gluten-free diet, in order to heal him, which in fact, it did.
“My stomach is no longer a quivering idiot,” Tomer said, and he said it more than once, to countless friends and family members, until he’d worked up a complete narrative on how he’d triumphed over his very own stomach. And each time he told this story, he lifted his shirt, pounding his fists upon his midsection. His proud smile began to appear, well, wild and hungry, as if he’d tamed his digestive system but in doing so, had activated a primitive gene and sacrificed his own civility.
Shortly thereafter, I came across an article pertaining to Neanderthal DNA. According to modern science, the Neanderthals and our prehistoric ancestors mated, leaving many of us with a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA. I did more Googling and learned that 23andMe can tell you how much Neanderthal DNA you carry. Although they do mean different things, in my mind’s eye, the words “Neanderthal” and “Caveman” summoned identical images: that of savage meat-eating maniacs ripping raw meat from bone with fat fingers and jagged teeth.
And this was it — the thing that sold me on 23andMe: the chance to determine one’s degree of Neanderthal-ness. Without any consideration of all the possible consequences of submitting one’s DNA to a global database, I ordered two kits, grinning and convinced that my husband’s result would show a statistically significant and above average number of Neanderthal variants in his genome. Since Father’s Day was only a month away, I decided I’d giftwrap the kits upon arrival too. I’d kill two birds with one stone.
When I hit the Confirm Order button on 23andMe’s site, the possibility of any additional genetic discoveries beyond Tomer’s Neanderthal-ness didn’t even occur to me. My brain was seated at the kitchen table, staring at an unused fork, thinking only of how hairy my husband was and that my father-in-law had recently grown even hairier in his senior years — small gray bushes now sprung from his ears and nostrils. I counted hairs. I equated higher hair counts with higher degrees of Neanderthal-ness. And worse, I worried my husband was destined to suffer future hearing loss, just as his father does, and I wondered if these auditory challenges could be blamed on something neurological or on those furry, sound-absorbing, hair-stuffed ears.
I’m probably blessed as far as masculine disgustingness goes. But my husband is flawed in one repulsive way: his barbaric table manners.
I waited patiently and quietly for the kits to arrive, but my curiosity about everything related to genetics expanded in the meantime. I wanted so much to share my excitement with Tomer; admittedly, I also walked around filled with a kind of juvenile yet sadistic glee, and whenever Tomer licked his fingers or spoke with his mouth full of steak, I thought to myself What a Neanderthal!
One afternoon, while we chatted over my coffee and Tomer’s tea, I almost spoiled the whole surprise. I just couldn’t stop myself. “Did you know,” I said to my husband as I leaned across the table in order to get a closer look at his reaction, “that many of us are part Neanderthal?”
Tomer shook his head. “I thought the Neanderthals died off back in the Ice Age or something.”
“I know, right? Isn’t that what they taught us in school?”
“That’s what I remember.”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a shocking discovery. A much bigger deal than when they decided Pluto isn’t a planet anymore.”
Tomer shrugged and sipped his tea, as if he were of British descent and not a Neanderthal at all. Doubt started to seep in, but I kept talking anyway.
“According to the article I read, our prehistoric human ancestors had sex with the Neanderthals. There was likely rape involved. ”
Tomer shrugged. “Who can know? Why does it matter?”
“It matters,” I said. “Because it means we are all descendants of trauma. Did you know that trauma gets stored in your genes and passed down to future generations? It’s crazy. Even descendants of the Irish Potato Famine show epigenetic changes in their genome,” I explained, citing some article I’d recently read with interest.
Tomer sipped his tea again. “But how does knowing this change anything?”
“Well, I don’t know. Maybe knowledge itself can impact our genetic code,” I offered.
Tomer looked disinterested. He was already checking his iPhone.
I picked up my iPhone too and ended up lost in the online maze that is Google, reading a bunch of random articles about Neanderthal DNA. Eventually, I happened upon the story of an outlier: writer and onetime-Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows discovered he carried significantly more Neanderthal variants in his DNA than the average person. Scientists were sending him emails. I felt immediate empathy for the guy — I mean, what must that be like? To know you’re more Neanderthal than almost everyone else? I did not, however, worry at all about the psychological impact on Tomer himself, should he discover some record-breaking degree of Neanderthal-ness in his genome. He seemed unfazed by the very same things that left me awestruck. Our interests diverged when it came to science: he’s far more fascinated by feats of human engineering, like driverless cars, than by the great mysteries of human existence.
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The 23andMe kits arrived on what would have been an unmemorable day, except that I developed a devastating toothache before noon. The pain radiated from a decayed wisdom tooth. I made an appointment with an oral surgeon for the following morning and downed some Tylenol with Codeine in the meantime. My husband’s younger sister, Natalie, phoned me and wished me good luck — I wasn’t sure if she meant about surviving the pain until the dental procedure or if she meant good luck regarding the procedure itself. And then, she took inventory of my wisdom teeth.
“How many do you have?” she asked.
“Two left out of the original four. I’ve already had two extracted.”
Natalie laughed. “Ha! That means I’m more evolved than you are.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I only had two wisdom teeth come in,” Natalie said. “The dentist told me it’s a sign of advanced evolutionary development.”
A flare of paranoia sparked in my mind. Was Natalie on to me? Did she know about the 23andMe test?
But there was no way Natalie could know of my secret mission to prove Tomer’s above-average degree of Neanderthal-ness, which would likely apply to Natalie as well, given that siblings share an estimated 50 percent of DNA.
The next day, my oral surgeon extracted my decayed tooth with little difficulty. One of his nurses handed me the post-operative instructions and I was almost out the door when the surgeon poked his head out through the receptionist’s sliding glass window.
“I know you already know this,” he said. “But no sipping through straws. You don’t want to get dry socket again.”
The last time, to which he referred, the time I developed a dry socket following a wisdom tooth extraction, resulted in perhaps the most miserable pain I’ve ever endured — I needed no reminders this time about the dangers of getting dry socket. Except for one:
“And no spitting,” the surgeon said.
“No sipping and no spitting. Both actions could dislodge the clot.”
This was a major disappointment as Father’s Day was in two days. I could still give Tomer the 23andMe kit, but the DNA collection, which required spitting into a small vial, would have to wait. There was no way I’d risk another dry socket.
On Father’s Day, Tomer unwrapped the kits with feigned enthusiasm, poor guy. I’m sure he would have preferred a drone or a new barbecue, but my selfish interests had interfered with those wishes. The kits ended up on the bottom shelf of a bedroom nightstand, collecting dust while I waited for my mouth to fully heal. Life went on and I forgot about the two boxes.
My obsession with genetics got usurped by my actual living gene pool — my relatives who supported Trump for President, including everybody from my mother to my paternal aunts. I spent my online time on Facebook, battling both cousins and cousins-in-law. I fought with my mother over the phone. I texted my brother political rants. Some Facebook algorithm must have registered the countless complaints I’d made to sympathetic friends — How am I related to these people? — because ads for 23andMe popped up in my newsfeed again, reminding me of the kits on my nightstand.
Tomer and I finally set out to collect our spit. We watched a YouTube video on the proper collection technique and I started to spit first and then one of our children screamed from the other room, something about spilled lemonade, pulling Tomer away from our mutual undertaking. By the time he returned to our bedroom, he’d “accidentally” eaten something and drank a glass of water — the directions specifically state not to do this.
“Forget it,” Tomer said. “I’m too tired. I’ll do mine tomorrow.”
I ended up packaging my DNA sample all by its lonely self for the outgoing mail.
Tomer’s kit went back on the nightstand where it sat for another six months, at least.
My results arrived rather quickly. An email from the company announced that my reports were available online for viewing. I cannot lie — it all felt a bit like Santa had arrived, like I was a child once again, stumbling, half-awake, into a living room overflowing with sparkling ribbon-wrapped gifts. As I logged onto the site, my excitement increased and I felt my heart race. You’d think I was about to discover my genetic propensity for magic or some supernatural power, preferably flying. I crept along the edge of some life-changing revelation, I could just feel it.
Who am I?
Now, I would know.
I calmed down rather quickly though. My ancestry, it turns out, was hardly surprising: mostly Italian and Polish framed by a mosaic of numerous other European countries. Exactly 1% of my DNA was attributed to Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, half a percent from each side, and I proudly posted this in a Facebook status update for my Jewish husband’s family members to see. I was a real member of the tribe, if only by a mere drop.
It was later that night, after celebrating my newfound Jewish-ness, that I remembered to look for Neanderthal DNA. I quickly found the link and clicked it with the casual ease of someone who does not think of herself as a Neanderthal at all. The reality seeped in like a slow poison, because when I first viewed my number of Neanderthal variants — 297 — I had no context for knowing what significance this number held, if any. It took a moment to locate that information and when I did, I discovered, to my horror, that 297 Neanderthal variants placed me in the 81st percentile of all 23andMe users. I’m well above average for Neanderthal-ness; only 19% of other 23andMe customers can claim worse.
I almost kept this unfortunate fact to myself, but in search of immediate consolation, I told Tomer.
“I have terrible news,” I said. “I’m highly Neanderthal. Which means you must be, like, ultimate-level Neanderthal.” Tomer, I imagined, would be in the 99% percentile for Neanderthal variants.
“Who cares? I love you just the way you are,” he said, referencing our wedding song with a wink.
I went online to read more about Neanderthal traits. Surprisingly, my idea of a super hairy Neanderthal was all wrong. One of my Neanderthal variants, for instance, is associated with having a decreased amount of body hair on one’s back. This was my consolation prize: a lower annual expense for body waxing.
‘Did you know,’ I said to my husband as I leaned across the table in order to get a closer look at his reaction, ‘that many of us are part Neanderthal?’
Finally, and almost a full year after Father’s Day, Tomer collected his spit because he couldn’t take my nagging anymore. By the time his results came in, the passage of time had rendered me numb to my own degree of Neanderthal-ness, though I still looked forward to welcoming Tomer into the club. My enthusiasm for the whole DNA experience had mostly evaporated — perhaps the reality of viewing my own genome had extinguished all my prior anticipation, like the child who accidentally spies mom and dad stuffing the Christmas stockings. Tomer himself showed zero interest in his results.
“I don’t care. You can log into it. Let me know what you find out,” he told me.
I clicked onto his reports with the disappointment one feels after reading a lengthy novel that never delivers its climactic moment. I saw that Tomer is 82% Ashkenazi Jewish — no surprise there — and likely yawned. Then I clicked the link for Tomer’s Neanderthal information and, in an unforeseen plot twist, to my great shock, learned that Tomer carries LESS Neanderthal DNA than 88% of all other users on the site. I quickly checked my own account — perhaps I’d previously misread my report. But no — on my personal list of DNA relatives on the site, I’m in first place for Neanderthal-ness. Next to my name and #1 rank, 23andMe features an illustration too: a blue cartoon-like image of a caveman’s profile alongside what appears to be a prehistoric tool of some kind, maybe a spear.
For Father’s Day this year, I purchased Tomer a drone through Amazon. He practically tore open the box, then called his brother and father who immediately drove over to help him assemble his new toy. I watched as he fit pieces together without aid of the instruction manual, a task my own brain could never manage. I blame my DNA for my lack of technical expertise — it once took me a full day to assemble a small wooden shelf. My mother, on the other hand, is quite good at this sort of thing. I don’t need to wait for 23andMe to locate my inferior gene for mechanical engineering or to tell me it’s from the paternal side of the family. I’ve long blamed my father — he couldn’t even change a light bulb. My husband, in contrast, put together a drone and flew it over our backyard, proving he is more than a meat-loving caveman, at least up until the moment the damn drone fell from the sky and refused to recharge itself, though we plugged it in numerous times.
“How much did you pay for this?” my husband asked.
“About $200,” I said.
He sighed. “I love this gift. It’s really the best thing you could’ve thought to get me,” Tomer said, kissing the top of my head. “But a decent drone, even a good beginner’s drone, costs at least a thousand bucks.”
I offered to return it and purchase him a better one.
“We’ll definitely return it,” Tomer said, “But I’ll wait for science to advance and lower the cost.”
It was another Father’s Day gift fail; still, I marveled that for around the same price as a crappy drone, I had uploaded human DNA to a database that in turn, sent me ancestral and medical reports.
Later that afternoon, Tomer’s extended family assembled in our kitchen for dinner. I prepared a salad while Tomer grilled rib eyes and sausages. The drone was a bust, but we still had to eat. Our kids and nephews grew irritable with hunger.
My husband plopped a few steaks upon our kitchen island and I watched him tear meat from bone, then dangle it over his upturned face, catching blood-tinged drops with his tongue before dropping it all into his mouth in one giant catch. He was still chewing when he said, “At the end of the day, nothing’s better than a great piece of steak.”
My father-in-law and brother-in-law hustled over toward the kitchen island, grabbing a slab of meat and some sausage for themselves too.
My other sister-in-law, Joanne, who’s married to my husband’s brother looked at me and sighed. “We’re married to cavemen,” she said, rolling her eyes. “My mom warned me but I didn’t listen.”
Usually, I’d enjoy adding a snarky remark or two, but with unprecedented restraint, I kept my mouth shut and resisted any linguistic impulsivity. I don’t know if my prehistoric ancestors were linguistic or impulsive or neither or both, but self-control, Neanderthal or not, felt like a new achievement. And, it was Father’s Day after all. I let my husband enjoy his caveman meal in peace.
* * *
Jen Gilman Porat previously worked as a clinical social worker, providing psychotherapy and counseling to adolescents and adults. She resides in Florida with her husband, their two children, and one fluffy dog.
Editor: Sari Botton