When Who You Thought Your Parent Was Turns Out to Be a Lie

Where did I come from? Who am I connected to? The answers are not always simple.

Posted Nov 16, 2020

Identity is a foundational issue that transcends family. Where did I come from? Who am I connected to? It is through these questions of connection that we ultimately discover our individuality. But what happens when who you thought your parent was turns out to be a lie? A lot, in fact. Confusion, pain, and even undue shame. All effects of trauma

According to B.K. Jackson, founder of Severance Magazine, genetic identity issues can arise as a result of adoption, donor-conception, or other types of misattributed parentage event (MPE). Many readers of Severance have learned, for example, usually as a result of having taken a DNA test, that they have no genetic connection to the persons they believe to be their fathers. The very technical name for this most personal, life-altering experience is “not parent expected” or “non-parental event” (NPE). 

Misattributed parentage may result from many circumstances including kidnapping, informal adoption, undisclosed step-parent adoption, rape, assault, and paternity fraud. More commonly, it arises from donor conception and sexual relationships outside of the marriage, civil union, or partnership. 

B.K. Jackson spoke to me about Severance Magazine and the critical need it fills. 

Meredith: The word "Severance" is incredibly evocative and deep.
B.K. Jackson:
 When MPEs and NPEs speak, they’ll often say they feel untethered, unmoored, cast adrift. Becoming an MPE or NPE is to acknowledge that one has been cleaved from one’s family of origin. That rupture is typically sudden and shocking and bewildering. It’s not simply that they discover they’ve been disconnected from their families of origin, but also that as a result of that separation, they’re in a sense ripped away from themselves—from the identities they’ve always known. The word severance, it seems to me, captures the breadth and emotional impact of this experience.

Meredith: Please say more about NPE.
B.K. Jackson: NPE (not parent expected, non-parental event, non-paternity event) is a rather clumsy term that is used in genetics and by genealogists and genetic genealogists to refer to misattributed parentage resulting from situations such as informal adoption, kidnapping, undisclosed step-parent adoption, paternity fraud, donor-assisted conception, nonconsensual sex, or an extramarital affair. It refers to any situation in which it’s discovered that an individual presumed to be the parent of a particular child (and who is usually listed on the child’s birth certificate) is not the genetic parent. It describes both the situation and the person affected. Although most often it pertains to misattributed paternity, it can refer to misattributed maternity—for example, when people discover later in life that they were adopted (late discover adoptees) and that their mothers and fathers are not their biological parents. There’s another term that’s commonly used to be more inclusive, MPE—which stands for misattributed parentage event or misattributed parentage experience.

Meredith: Tell us about Severance Magazine.  
B.K. Jackson: New visitors to Severance may be in a state of shock about their discoveries and looking for information about how to cope with the trauma of having the genetic rug pulled out from under them. At that early stage, what they may need most is to know they’re not alone, that there are others who have had similar experiences. Others may be looking for how to cope with grief, rejection, and secrecy, or potential repercussions of search and reunion. 

When I discovered my own NPE status, I became aware of various Facebook groups for people searching for biological family. Based on my own experience and what I observed others were going through, it became clear that there was a need both for information and community. As a journalist with a background in magazine development, this seemed a logical way I might help fill the information gap. 

Learning and sharing are therapeutic. They bring some measure of control over a situation that seems out of control and threatening to one’s sense of self and integrity.

Meredith: There is such anguish when a connection with one’s familial roots is severed or extinguished. It affects belonging, identity, and one’s sense of self. The anguish is so natural and yet it can be so difficult to hold that emotion. 
B.K. Jackson: Whenever one has an extraordinary experience, knowing that they’re not the first or only is stabilizing and comforting. What’s equally important…is telling one’s own story. People who have not been severed from family often want to speak for us or over us. It’s important for people to tell their own truth. MPEs and NPEs have lost a great deal. They’ve been severed from their families of origin and have lost their sure footing in the world along with the identities they believed were theirs. Advocacy and storytelling are ways to take something back. Rather than have others tell their stories, they can take hold of the narrative. 

Meredith: Let’s talk about why parents who have adopted, and why individuals who were adopted, might be interested in or need Severance Magazine.
B.K. Jackson:  Families and friends may not know how [the individual] feel[s] and may not be able to understand the depth of their feelings and the extent of their trauma. As opposed to private groups, Severance is public. My hope is that it will help those who haven’t experienced this identity confusion to better understand those who have. Severance was designed, [foremost], for anyone who, for whatever reason, has been severed from biological family.