DNA Testing: Expect the Unexpected
What happens when you find out you’re not who you thought you were?
Posted Nov 20, 2019
This is a post I never expected to write, mostly because I was never really interested in my family background. But my husband wanted to learn more about his ancestry, so last Christmas we swabbed and mailed in our DNA samples. And just like that, I learned that the man who raised me was not my biological father. Shortly thereafter, my friend and colleague Wendy told me she’d just had a similar experience. Both of us were reeling from what we learned, but we were nonetheless intrigued and wondering about what this meant in our lives.
Let’s start with Wendy’s experience, which she has allowed me to share here. Wendy is a licensed psychologist in her late-50s. Her long-term boyfriend is adopted, and she thought it would be fun if he knew his DNA. He agreed, and she decided they might as well test hers, too, even though she knew it would come back half-Hungarian, half-Latvian, because that’s her family heritage. Then she learned she’s 55 percent Ashkenazi Jew. Wendy says, “It was shocking. Oh my God, is this my test? But then I experienced this deep knowing that yes, this is the truth.”
After getting her results, Wendy got in touch with cousins on both sides of her family tree and asked them to also get tested. “I really wanted to know. I had flow charts all over my wall trying to figure out if I was adopted, if my ancestors went into hiding during the war to protect themselves, if maybe there was an affair or even a sperm donor, because my parents really struggled to get pregnant.” A cousin on Wendy’s mother’s side took the test and found out they were indeed related, as expected, but there was no Ashkenazi Jew in the report. That meant that Wendy’s Jewish heritage came from her father. Then a cousin on her father’s side did the test and also found no Ashkenazi Jew. “So I knew that it was either an affair or artificial insemination.”
My own story is relatively similar. When my results came back, I learned that I’m 97.6 percent Ashkenazi Jew. This was validating, despite my lack of religious practice, because to me being a Jew is a lot more than religious practice. It’s who I am. Then I read the information about close relatives and noticed that my father’s name wasn’t on there, nor were the names of any cousins on my father’s side of the family. At that point, I realized that some rumors I’d heard when I was very young, maybe 5 or 6 years old, were true. The man who raised me was not my biological father. In reality, I was the product of an affair my mother had with our family physician.
I had at times wondered, especially during adolescence, when I wanted to be part of any family but my own, if that was actually the case. But for the most part I didn’t think much about it. I simply decided that my father was the man who raised me, and then I pushed it out of my mind. Until suddenly, at 58 years old, I had proof that he was not my biological father.
Needless to say, both Wendy and I were emotionally buffeted by this information. At the same time, however, both of us felt that our DNA results confirmed something we’d always, on some level, felt and known about ourselves. Wendy says she was often mistaken, as both a child and an adult, as Jewish, so the results made a lot of sense. As for me, well, I’d always felt that maybe I’d been dropped off by aliens into a family where I didn’t belong. So we both knew, even though we didn’t know. Until we knew.
Wendy says that initially she was angry with her mother for never telling her the truth, even though she understands that her mother was of a generation that kept secrets to protect both themselves and their children. She says, “The story was always that I got my eyes from my mom, my mouth from my dad, and so on. And now I know that a big part of that story is not true.”
My initial response was to take down all the pictures I had of the man who raised me and give them to other family members. I just didn’t want those pictures, which I’d been looking at forever, around the house. I also found myself rethinking aspects of my entire childhood. To be fully honest, despite 27 years of therapy, I don’t have a clue about what to do with this information and how I feel about it. I’m not sure I want to deal with it at all.
One thing I do find interesting, or maybe just ironic, is that my entire professional career has focused on helping men with problematic romantic and sexual behaviors, including doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who’ve crossed sexual boundaries – men like my biological father, a doctor who had an affair (likely for a decade or more, both before and after my birth) with my mother, his patient.
Despite the ongoing emotional confusion and challenges, both Wendy and I are glad we took the DNA tests, and we would both do it again. Wendy says, “I’m absolutely glad I know. It puts so many things into perspective. There was a deep knowing that was always there, and now it’s confirmed.” I could easily make the same statement, adding the fact that this knowledge has caused me to appreciate and to invest more deeply than ever in the existing friendships and family relationships that I have.
If you have a DNA testing story, please share it in the comments section below. Wendy I and would both like to hear from others with similar experiences.