It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree
(Simon and Schuster, 2017)
A.J. Jacobs is an author known for conducting social experiments—on himself. For his new book, It’s All Relative, Jacobs put his own DNA under the microscope. Four years ago, he received a mysterious email from a man claiming to be his eighth cousin. His interest piqued, Jacobs was led down a rabbit hole of research in ancestry, genetics, and folklore. He signed up for genealogy-tracking websites, took DNA tests, interviewed subjects from geneticists to past-presidents, and even hosted a Global Family Reunion for four thousand of his cousins. Through relatable and humorous stories, Jacobs outlines an impressive amount of research and soul-searching on the topic of family. The results of his quest were often fascinating, sometimes odd, and always entertaining. Jacobs recently visited my writing class in Greenwich Village, where I had the opportunity to ask him about It’s All Relative.
Meg Kissel (Rail): First of all, how is your book tour going? What have been the most unusual or unexpected responses you’ve had to It’s All Relative?
A.J. Jacobs: Everyone I meet says, “Hey, cuz,” which I can’t complain about. I asked for it.
Rail: You have a history of putting yourself through self-imposed regimens and experiments for your work: you tried to be the healthiest person alive in Drop Dead Healthy, the most knowledgeable person for The Know-It All, and the most moral for The Year of Living Biblically. What drives you to do this, and how do the outcomes differ from your expectation?
Jacobs: I find it helpful to push ideas as far as they can go—past the breaking point. When I start a project, I know I won’t spend the rest of my life, say, following every rule in the Bible. But if I can try all the rules out, I can see which ones improve my life and which ones are just plain absurd.
Rail: You postulate that the concept of family is, actually, arbitrary—when you consider that a familial line can be drawn to almost any other individual in the world. I wonder if you would also say this applies to one’s identity. You’ve previously written about being a Jewish New Yorker, Father and Writer embarking on projects of radical self-improvement—I’m curious how your sense of self changed during your research process for It’s All Relative?
Jacobs: The project definitely broadened my sense of identity and made me less obsessed with labels. The most important identity to me is that I’m human. Actually, I take that back. The most important identity for me is that I’m a sentient being. And I’m not just talking humans, but all animals. If I’ve had a couple of drinks, I’ll throw in conscious aliens and compassionate robots and all those other weird potential life forms. So that’s my tribe. That’s what I’d like to fill out on the Census: sentient being. And Mets fan, of course.
Rail: You mentioned the irony in planning a reunion for your global family and how it actually took your time away from your nuclear family. In what ways did your research make you feel both closer to and more distant from your wife and three sons?
Jacobs: It’s true. I was so busy with my 17th cousins, I often ended up neglecting my wife and kids. So that wasn’t good. One saving grace: my wife and kids were highly involved in planning and creating the big event. My sons came up with games for the kids in attendance, and my wife created a scavenger hunt. So in that sense, it brought us closer.
Rail: What do you hope your sons took away from it all?
Jacobs: I hope they see that life is full of failures as well as successes. I love to tell them about all our family failures—like my great, great grandfather who ran for office on the Bull Moose ticket and got maybe 2 percent of the vote. But at least he tried. So they should try, too.
Rail: Your chapter “Should Family be Abolished?” is a fascinating discussion on the us vs. them mentality that is inherent in the role of the family. Yet, on the flip side, you link the idea of abolishing family altogether to dystopian novels like The Giver. Your argument is that family should not be used to plant the seed of tribalism in society, but rather to instill the idea of empathy on a local scale to then reflect it towards the greater world community. Would you argue that, instead of family itself being abolished, it’s rather the narrow definitions of family that we should reject?
Jacobs: Yes, I like the idea of broadening the definition of family. The writer Armistead Maupin makes the distinction between ‘biological family’ and ‘logical family.’ Your logical famiiy could be any group you feel really close to: co-workers, college friends, people who are fighting for a cause with you. Family shouldn’t just be restricted to DNA.
Rail: You hypothesized about all humanity’s common eight-thousandth great-grand parents, y-Adam and m-Eve, and imagine them traveling through time and discussing, with sorrow, the rampant war and tribalism that divides their billions of offspring today. The book is coming out at a particularly tribalistic moment in our country’s history, and yet I’d say your book is not overtly political due to its central humanist message. Was this a decision you made purposefully, or is it simply derived from the content itself?
Jacobs: I’ve always been concerned about tribalism. But now it’s just terrifying: this us vs. them mindset, this obsession with in-group versus out-group. I wish I could say I was smart enough to have predicted the Trump Era. But like most everyone, I was caught by surprise. I don’t think the Global Family will end all wars and racism and have us holding hands and singing like the Coca Cola ad. But it’s important to remember that we share 99.9 percent of our DNA, and we need to focus on our commonalities, not our differences.
Rail: In the example of your third-great uncle, Solomon, whose only indelible archived mark on the world is his newspaper-published review of a hemorrhoid cream, you raise the open question of whether or not it is ethical to unearth our ancestor’s stories without their consent. Obviously, you chose to share that story: how did you come to that decision?
Jacobs: Ah, yes. Poor Uncle Sol. I’m sorry! I do feel guilty for highlighting his hemorrhoids. But here’s my rationalization: We all need to acknowledge both the struggles and the victories in our families’ past. That’s what makes us stronger and more resilient. So Uncle Sol is an inspiration.
Rail: As a historian myself, I’m always grappling with the fact that archived material is often shoddy, inconsistent or even preserved for questionable reasons. How did your research make you think about your own legacy, and the possible role of archive in defining it?
Jacobs: I’m actually not that concerned about my legacy. When I’m dead, I’m dead. It’s why I tell my kids, no need to buy me an expensive coffin or headstone. They can do what they want. Put me in a garbage bag or some Tupperware containers. Doesn’t matter to me!
Rail: I was particularly interested in “The Kevin Bacon Delusion” chapter of your book, in which you question the idea of genealogical research itself as inherently paradoxical—in that its results are at once narcissistic and humbling, and a tool for both exclusivity as well as broad inclusion. Could you expand on these ideas further? Do you see genealogy as a tool for social good, or one that is ultimately harmful in the hands of certain ideological groups?
Jacobs: Like any technology, genealogy can be used for either good or ill. In the past, it’s been used to justify eugenics and aristocracies. But now I’m hoping it’ll do the opposite, and democratize us. It can show that we all share an ancestry, and we all have both great and terrible ancestors.
Rail: Your previous book The Year of Living Biblically is being turned into a CBS sitcom By the Book. How does it feel to pass along an autobiographical story for someone else to tell? How will the sitcom differ from your experience?
Jacobs: As you say, I sold the rights, but I’m not involved at all in the scripts. I got to visit the set a couple of times. In the first episode, the character based on me stones an adulterer with a pebble. I got to keep the pebble in question as a souvenir, so that was nice. The show definitely diverges from my life. In real life, my dad is a brilliant and respectable lawyer. In the show, he’s a philandering, drunken meat salesman. So it’s not a documentary.
Rail: Have you started self-imposing new constraints for your next work? Anything you can share that you’re thinking about or working on?
Jacobs: I’m working on a new book where I take one of my greatest pleasures—my morning cup of coffee—and try to thank every single person involved in making it: the guy in Colombia who grew the beans, the logo designer, the truck driver, the guy who made the meth that kept the truck driver awake (okay, not that last one). But that’s the idea: extreme gratitude.