When a DNA Test Shatters Your Identity
“These are boom times for consumer DNA tests,” Sarah Zhang wrote last month. But what happens when the results are shocking? Many people, she found, have turned to support groups on Facebook as they try to come to terms with surprising revelations about their own origins.
Last year, I asked my dad for a 23andMe kit for my birthday. My mother passed away 14 years ago and I’m an only child (or thought I was). I also got my dad and stepmom kits for fun; they bought another one for my husband. We were going to have a “reveal” party. I got my results first (I cheated and peeked), and was shocked to find out I am half Italian. Neither of my parents has any Italian heritage. Since I hadn’t previously disclosed Italian heritage to 23andMe, a very cheerful dialogue box appeared that asked, “Wondering where your Italian heritage comes from? Click on DNA relatives.” I did and a half-brother appeared—and that is when I knew that I wasn’t biologically related to my dad. Because I was worried that my dad would find out the same way I did, through the website, I spoke to him in person that same day. It was the most gut-wrenching conversation I’ve ever had. My father wept, but then admitted that he had had his doubts (but didn’t know how to tell me) due to the fact that he and my mother were separated when she became pregnant.
Many years ago, I had heard a rumor from my mother’s relatives that I wasn’t biologically my father’s child. I was told that she worked at an Italian restaurant and had a relationship with the owner. When my mom was very ill with cancer, I worked up the courage to ask about this. My mother denied it so emphatically and angrily that I felt foolish and ashamed wasting the limited time we had left asking a question that implied she was unfaithful to my father. My family members on my mother’s side are known for being colorful storytellers who rarely let the truth stand in the way of a good story, so I chalked it up to just that … a fiction. I wish it were possible to attempt a second conversation with my mom.
When I first found out the news, I considered taking a leave of absence from work, because I had difficulty focusing on anything else besides the revelation from 23andMe. On a hard day, I feel heartbroken about my mom’s secret. Her illness created an intimacy between us in the final months of her life and I felt that we were able to tell each other all the things in our heart. This news taints that memory and created a fresh bout of grieving about her death.
I’ve since met my biological father, his wife, my five siblings, their spouses and children, as well as other extended family. I found out that I was conceived between my biological father’s first and second marriages. They are just how you imagine a warm, big-hearted Italian family to be: accepting, loving, and eager to create a relationship with me (I realize how lucky I am in this regard). Not growing up with them or knowing them sooner feels like a loss. Seeing a therapist, journaling, talking to trusted friends, and the passage of time have helped immensely. On a good day (and most days are good), I feel a tremendous amount of compassion for my father who raised me, my biological father, and my mother. I’m saddened that she couldn’t tell the truth even at the end of her life—surely she would have known we would have forgiven her. I also have empathy for her, especially after reflecting on the fact that she faced the decision whether to terminate the pregnancy and then carried the burden of the secret of my paternity for the rest of her life. Her childhood was filled with trauma and abuse and I’ve come to accept that she didn’t have the skills to take ownership of her choices.
But what a surprise to have in middle age!
Kasi Mireles Taylor
Oh my! Talk about timing.
For 66 years I have not only known who my family was, but also done fairly extensive genealogy research.
Three or four days ago, it became clear to me that half of those folks have no relation to me. While I’m not devastated that my actual father is a man I’ve never met and didn’t know existed, the news was a gut punch. I teared up knowing that I had given my name—a name that I was proud of, but a name that I had no right to pass on—to my wife and to my sons.
I’ll not be joining this support group, but there is an odd comfort in knowing that it and its members are out there.
My siblings are coming to town this weekend to give me a hug and show their support. That means a lot to me. Our mom, my biological father, and the dad who raised me have all passed, so really this changes little. Perhaps the only real change is the new family members that are out there.
San Antonio, Texas
I, too, found unexpected results to my 23andMe and Ancestry DNA tests. When I got 23 percent Italian on 23andMe, I thought it was incorrect, so I tried Ancestry and got 30 percent Italian. I always believed I was half Irish, Swedish, and German.
I found I have two Italian first cousins I’d never heard of. My father—who I now believe was not my biological father—had both of his parents born in County Clare, Ireland. I always relished in my Irish heritage. Now I feel left out on a limb. There are no siblings left alive; my parents have passed. I have asked my nephew (my sister’s son) to do the Ancestry test to see if I come up related to him. I am 72 and now wonder, who the heck was my father? Is this correct, or was there a mistake somewhere?
This interesting test has turned out to be a nightmare. I lie awake at 2 a.m. wondering where the connection is. Very baffling.
I always knew that I was adopted. It was a bedtime story meant to reassure me that I was wanted and loved. But as I grew older, I would stare in the mirror and wonder who I looked like. Did I have any half-siblings? Where were my birth parents? When I married and had children, questions about my nonexistent medical history suddenly seemed more important. After my parents died, I searched for my birth family and found a second cousin who helped identify my birth mother. My birth mother had died just nine months before I took my DNA test. I learned that I attended church in Oklahoma City with her and never knew. (My godfather, who arranged the adoption, was the pastor, but tragically died in a plane crash before I could ask him about my adoption.) My birth mother attended the college football games where I performed in the band’s halftime show. Her aunt bought a house down the street from me.
Once I had identified my birth mother, I used DNA cousin matches to identify my father, who had died in 1993.
Even though my birth family has been wonderful and accepting, I still struggle sometimes with my sense of identity and sense of place. There are huge swings in emotion: elation at having found my birth family, gratitude for my cousins’ acceptance, and a profound sense of loss and grief over two people I will never meet. I feel the insecurity that I have crashed someone else’s party and don’t really belong.
Although I was prepared for the factual information that might be revealed and knew that it might not have a positive outcome, nothing prepared me for the emotions that came with even a relatively happy ending. The emotional extremes of having a gain and a loss all at the same time are difficult to express.
San Antonio, Texas
About three years ago, when I was almost 60 years old, I learned through an Ancestry DNA test that my dad was not my biological father. Ever since then, I have felt as if one of my wings has been cut off. I learned that such an event can bring emotions similar to those in the seven stages of grief. At this point, I have reached the stage of reflection.
I do not know whether I was conceived during a long-term love affair, in a single moment of passion, or in an act of brutal violence.
“How do you feel knowing that Opa is not your real grandfather?” I asked my own daughter in a text message. Her immediate reply read: “It’s not DNA that makes a family.”
Because I was about to become a grandparent, I decided to do 23andMe just for full disclosure for the next generation. Never in my wildest imagination did I expect to find that I was only 50 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. Not being able to explain this, I had my sister do the test. She was 100 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. This had to mean my father was not my father. I was shocked and devastated. I had my brother do the test and he came back with a different father altogether.
My mother is 93, with dementia, and initially she denied that my father was not my biological father. But when I had her alone, she admitted the truth.
I am not sure I am glad I found all this out, but it has been fascinating to put the pieces together.
Chevy Chase, Md.
Several years ago, my dad passed away. He was a secretive man, and I never knew much about his family history. My husband gave me an Ancestry DNA kit for my birthday so I could learn more about my father.
Be careful what you wish for, right?
The results didn’t make much sense. Instead of Irish and English, as predicted, my Ancestry test revealed a great deal of Sephardic Jewish and Greek/Turkish heritage. It also yielded a “first cousin” I didn’t know.
I attributed this to faulty results, like so many people do. But my “first cousin” turned out to be a half-nephew I didn’t know existed, from one of four siblings I also never knew I had.
My father was a complete stranger.
It took me a year to come to terms with the reality, and then nail down who I thought my father might be—then a few more months of background checks and internet stalking to decide whether I wanted to make contact.
I sent that first letter on my birthday last year, August 21. It’s been almost a year since my world turned upside down, but in that time I have met my birth father, a new stepmother, a half-sister, and a half-brother; I’ve spoken to another half-brother and know there’s yet another. I am the youngest of at least five.
DNA is unburying all those dirty little secrets. I don’t regret the truth, but truth comes with responsibility. We need to start responsibly handling something so drastically life-altering.
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