Masha Gessen's new book is part memoir and part medical investigative thriller -- by chronicling her own story, Gessen lets us imagine what information obtained from a genetic screen can do to us psychologically, emotionally, and in some cases, physically, once we have that knowledge.
One of the wonders of the genome is how it enables us to time-travel, both backward and forward. Scribbled within it are clues to our ancestry, which can give us an emboldening sense of continuity, coherence, place — how marvelous to imagine ourselves the sons of Levi, the daughters of African queens! But scrawled within it, too, are clues about our future, which can be downright terrifying. Rather than expand our sense of possibilities, they foreshorten them. There are dread mutations slumbering in our cells. From our genes, we learn how we may die.
Eleven years after her mother died of breast cancer, Masha Gessen, a Moscow-based journalist and the author of the fine family memoir “Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace,” tested positive for a BRCA1 mutation, which disproportionately afflicts Ashkenazi Jews and significantly increases the risk of dying young.