Family Secrets Revealed by Genetic Testing
Are people prepared to find out the results of their genetic testing?
Posted Nov 16, 2019
Many years ago, my mother was a young student in biology class, learning about blood types, how they combined, and how they were passed on. The laboratory part of the class involved testing her own blood and identifying her blood type.
There was one little problem, though, with the results. Her father, a WWII veteran of the Pacific theater, knew his blood type: It was on the dog tags my mother grew up seeing on the dresser. My mother's mother, a nurse, had talked about her blood type before. And these results didn’t seem to match up in any way with my mother’s.
She went to her teacher, sure she must have done something wrong. But instead, her teacher had the sad news of informing her that her father didn’t appear to be her biological father.
Today, modern genetics testing, the technological descendant of my mother’s blood-type testing, is revealing similar secrets to surprised people across the globe. There’s even a new term created to describe these discoveries: “Non-Paternity Events” (NPE) identify situations where people have found out that their male relative was not actually their genetic progenitor.
23andme, MyHeritage, and Ancestry.com offer inexpensive, easy, and accessible test results, with a variety of different approaches. None offer or require individual counseling about the results, but all inform customers that results sometimes reveal startling and uncomfortable secrets.
- One man did genetic testing to discover more about his father, who’d died many years ago. Unfortunately, the genetic results revealed that the man he’d been raised by wasn’t his father. Instead, his father was a well-known East Coast mobster. Stunned, he posted the discovery on Facebook. An urgent phone call from his mother convinced him to delete the post, as she now revealed the secret history of his birth and heritage, which she’d hidden to protect him, his family, and the man who had raised him.
- Nikki discovered an unknown half-aunt through genetic testing, who was on the site researching her own health issues. Nikki assumed the woman was a close relative she hadn’t known. It turned out that the woman was the child of a woman who had lived next door to Nikki's grandparents and had been childhood best friends with Nikki’s grandmother.
- Paolo grew up in a large family. His grandparents had 18 children. At his grandfather’s funeral, a woman appeared with her two children and shared that they were children of Paolo’s grandfather. When Paolo later did genetic testing, they discovered their grandfather had three more children by two other women. They are waiting to find out if there are more to be discovered.
- A very good friend of mine was literally on the genetics testing website, showing the results to his father when up popped results indicating that a man whose results had been newly added to the data was my friend’s unknown son. Decades ago, as a graduate student in New York, my friend had been a sperm donor. Now, the technology introduced my friend and his father to their son and grandson.
- Pam knew she was adopted as a baby and did genetics testing expecting to learn something about her ethnic heritage. Instead, the program immediately introduced her to her biological father. "I was shocked. No warning. Just click, click. I expected to find out I was Irish, French? Instead, here's your father. He died a few years ago but lived only an hour away from me. He was the only one in his family who did genetic testing, but he has two other children." Now, Pam is wrestling with whether she should reach out to her siblings, whom she is sure don't know she ever existed. What will that do to them, and their beliefs about their shared father?
- Jay grew up knowing his Cajun grandfather's family had a diverse history but was surprised when genetic testing revealed he was 30 percent Italian. He sent the results to his mother, who called him immediately and revealed her secret, lifelong suspicions about an Italian family that she'd grown up knowing as family friends, but who had suddenly distanced themselves from her family, for reasons she never knew. His mother was relieved to finally have an explanation for why she never felt like she fit in with her older siblings. The testing results delivered these explosive secrets only a few months after the death of the man Jay had been raised with as his maternal grandfather, and the family is now dealing with complex legal matters related to his estate. To avoid making these matters even more complex, Jay and his mother have kept the results secret for now. Before telling me this story, Jay had never told anyone about this and was surprised what a burden it was, and how much relief he felt after sharing it.
- Years ago, I counseled several men who learned, late in life, that their older sisters had actually been their mothers. In older generations, this was a common familial response to teenage pregnancies, as a means to protect the teens from the lifelong consequences of such births. Sadly these strategies were also often used to conceal incidents of incest and sexual abuse. In therapy, we explored how these revelations affected my patients’ identities and their feelings towards their parents/grandparents and their sisters/mothers.
- This delightfully detailed post describes the complex history of two men in Virginia, Marcus, and Thomas, whose true relationship was lost in history, but recently revealed through genetic testing. Marcus, it turned out, was likely the illegitimate son of one of Thomas’ younger sisters. Thomas had become the guardian of his sisters after the death of their parents and then raised Marcus as his nephew/foster-son.
Maarten Larmuseau is a European researcher who recently studied paternity in Europe through an examination of the y chromosome in men whose ancestral records indicated heritage relationships to other European men. But Larmuseau’s results revealed that in city-dwellers from the Industrial Revolution, the rates of infidelity and non-paternity events were as high as 6 percent.
Past research has suggested that in a given year, around 2-3 percent of live births are the result of infidelity of some kind, and not the children of the fathers of records. In cases where infidelity is suspected, rates of non-paternity rise much, much higher, as high as 20-30 percent, confirming those gut suspicions.
Today, we have the ability to learn more about our history than ever before. The question is, how will we deal with these truths, and how will we rewrite our understanding of ourselves and our families?
Decades ago, my mother was faced with a complex and challenging discovery. The secret she learned changed her sense of self and altered, irrevocably, her relationship with my grandmother. But her relationship with the man who’d raised her was unchanged.
At the end of his life, my mother cared for him, and I believe he likely passed away, never knowing the truth that my mother had found revealed in her blood. Had he known, I don’t know if it would have changed anything, or if he would have learned the same truth that my mother did: Family is about far more than just blood and genes.