Best-selling author A.J. Jacobs is trying to build a family tree of the entire world
He can show President Obama is related to 44 U.S. senators, including Republican Ted Cruz
Jacobs hopes to hold a Global Family Reunion in June 2015
His goal is to break the Guinness Book of World Records for family reunions
Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
Not knowing exactly where my ancestors come from has always bothered me. I know my grandparents were born in the United States and believe my great-grandparents were too, but beyond that my family tree is pretty bare.
Adding some leaves and figuring out my family’s origins have been on my life “to do” list for a few decades now and while I still need to do the work, I’m heartened to learn a little bit more about the cousins I never knew I had.
You see, I’m related to President Barack Obama, Albert Einstein, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and even my fellow CNN colleague Chris Cuomo, co-host of “New Day.”
Really, I am.
The credit for learning about my new-found family connections goes to best-selling author A.J. Jacobs, the guy who lived life according to the Bible for a year for his book “The Year of Living Biblically” and tried every imaginable diet and workout for another book, “Drop Dead Healthy.”
He’s now trying to build a family tree of the entire world (and stage the world’s biggest family reunion – more on that later). His inspiration, he says, came from an email from a man who said he was Jacobs’ 12th cousin.
“I was a little bit creeped out,” Jacobs joked during an interview. “But then it turned out he really was. He had a family tree of 80,000 people on it.”
Jacobs, an editor at large for Esquire magazine and a father of three, said he became obsessed with genealogy, playing around on sites such as Geni.com, WikiTree.com and FamilySearch.com, which he says have “megamonster family trees” with millions of people on them.
He’s also interviewed hundreds of people – from scientists to genealogists to statisticians – and is working with hundreds of volunteers to create the world’s family tree and track down his own cousins.
He learned he’s related to celebrities (Gwyneth Paltrow, Olivia Wilde), current and former presidents (Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush), and even a wizard. OK, not a real wizard exactly.
“A.J. Jacobs is my cousin, and I’m his cousin, and we are probably cousins,” said Daniel Radcliffe of “Harry Potter” fame in a video for Jacobs’ project. (Side note: If my daughters learn we’re related to “Harry Potter,” they will fully expect an invitation to Hogwarts!)
(To find out who you are related to, head to GlobalFamilyReunion.com and try to have the names and approximate birth dates of your grandparents and the names of any semi-famous relatives and ancestors handy!)
Jacobs likes to show how some of the people you would never imagine are related actually are. For example, he points to Obama and his 44 cousins in the U.S. Senate, including Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the biggest critics in the Congress of the Obama administration.
Cruz is actually the husband of the President’s 14th cousin once removed.
“Wonder how they’ll take the news?” I asked Jacobs.
“I’m hoping it would nudge people to be a little more open-minded,” he said, admitting to being slightly idealistic. “I don’t think it’s going to cause world peace to break out, but I think it will help. It can’t hurt.”
Now will the Obamas invite the Cruzes for Christmas dinner? And will they invite my family since we are related to the Obamas, too?
“I just love the fact you can take any two people, any two people on the street … and see how they’re related,” said Jacobs, declining to speculate on whether we’ll actually get a holiday invitation from the first family. “And it drives home this extraordinary fact that we all do come from the same ancestors.”
“We are all one big family.”
In that spirit, Jacobs is planning what he calls a Global Family Reunion for June 6, 2015, in New York City. Tell your first and second and third cousins and beyond, because Jacobs is trying to break the Guinness Book of World Records when it comes to family reunions.
The current record is 4,514, he said. “I’m shooting for at least 5,000 at my family reunion.”
I asked Jacobs if he’s worried that the current record holder, a family in France, might get wind of his project and try to top it.
“Listen I am very inclusive. I welcome the competition,” he said. “I want my reunion to have satellite reunions around the world. Maybe they can have their reunion at the same time. I’ve got to give them a call.”
Jacobs’ effort to hold the largest family reunion ever will be the subject of a book he’s writing. The documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, host of CNN’s ‘“Inside Man,” is also making a movie about it. All proceeds from the Global Family Reunion will go to fight Alzheimer’s, a disease that “affects 60 million members of the human family,” he said.
There is one downside to the “we are all related” concept, he conceded. Let’s just say it can get uncomfortable at times, such as when you marry your cousin.
“It did happen to me,” said Jacobs. He and his wife did DNA testing using the site 23andMe.com and learned they are cousins – not second or third cousins but distant cousins nonetheless.
“I think it adds a little spice to the marriage,” said Jacobs with a smile, which seemed to imply that I might stop laughing once he told me more.
“I am sorry to say you are married to your cousin as well,” he said. “You married your cousin, so did everybody watching.”