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.