Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 04: Twisted Ladders

Staircases have been a recurring image in this research. A staircase at my great grandmothers is one of my earliest memories and this features significantly in one performance text. At Heron Corn Mill, I played with the idea of noise made with the metal staircase, rather than the human voice. The photograph that Andy Brown created for The Image Speaks shows me descending a staircase in the university, my face masked by that of my great-aunt Connie. The staircase can be the site of the grand, verbose entrance or the swift, whispered exit.

I experimented with a step ladder, which is much easier to transport than a staircase and much more flexible for performance. I made it into a barrier defending the family historian from snobbish critique, I climbed it to recover lost memories and hid underneath it to discover forgotten histories. The climbing of the staircase and the stepladders provided easy shorthand for notions of descent and ancestral lines.

And of course there is the DNA connection. The double helix structure of DNA is a twisted ladder with steps made of base pairs of chemicals.

In some senses DNA is what family history is all about. When we trace our family lines, we are we are tracing the descent of genes. When I share that picture of my great-aunt and people comment how much alike we are – they are seeing the sharing of a genetic heritage.

In recent years DNA testing has become more significant tool in the genealogist’s kitbag. It has become increasingly affordable and, as more people take DNA tests, the databases grow, meaning what the DNA test reveals becomes more informative. Yet, DNA offers a very narrow definition of the family. Step parents and partners with whom we do not share DNA may be significant in our family histories.

The testing of DNA can be controversial. This week as I have been playing the game it is an issue that has arisen repeatedly and so far no one who has played the game has taken a DNA test.

Some of the issues that have been discussed are concerns about data sharing. To be useful in tracing family histories, DNA needs to be shared and there have been cases where DNA results have been used for purposes other than those originally intended. For example, in the US, police have accessed these growing databases to identify suspects. DNA results have been known to reveal family secrets and whilst this may be exciting, it may be distressing. Consider those anonymous sperm donors, whose identity is now revealed.

DNA tests can disappoint those seeking to look backwards. They will reveal more about living cousins than historic lines, as our ancestors weren’t much in the business of getting their DNA tested. Although, this can still prove helpful, as people can seek out their common ancestor and so break down brick walls.

In addition, DNA test results may vary depending which company is used. Each company that offers these tests has their own database from which the genealogical test result is generated. The breadth of material available to those analysing the sample may affect the outcome.

When adapting the game of Snakes and Ladders to explore genealogical stories, DNA presents a useful image. Those twisted ladders may throw up stories that we don’t expect, they may give others more access to our personal data than we wish, but they may also provide the links we need to continue our stories.

DNA is not neutral. The science has implications that need to be considered. When we play Lines And Ladders we discuss the importance of being informed.

The name Lines And Ladders is a reference to genealogical lines and the twisted ladder of the DNA strand. In this game both the snakes and the ladders are replaced by the double helix; this knowledge may change the direction of your quest and not always in the way that you expect.

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