When a DNA test surprises you
“I always felt like I didn’t fit in with my family,” said Steve Gordon, who sometimes wondered why he didn’t look like his sister. But after all, not all siblings look alike, so he didn’t dwell on it.
But when his sister took a DNA test last year to find out where their ancestors had come from, she was intrigued to find out that it showed only a 50 percent European Jewish background.
“We were raised in a Jewish family so we assumed it would be a higher percentage,” said Gordon. So he decided to take the test as well to compare findings.
Gordon found out that he and his sister shared the same Jewish ethnicity, but that he also had a strong Scottish/Irish/English component that his sister did not share.
The bottom line was that Gordon and his sister were not full siblings. “When I found out that we had different fathers, I felt like I was living in the Twilight Zone,” said Gordon, who is 70 and lives in Baltimore City.
He and his sister both used AncestryDNA, one of several online DNA testing companies. For around $100, the company analyzes the DNA in a sample of your saliva and matches the results to those from more than 10 million others who have taken the test to locate those likely related to you. The report may also indicate which region(s) of the world your ancestors most likely came from, their ethnicities, and an approximate time table of migrations.
Tracking down the facts
What Gordon eventually learned from contacting his other close matches was that his biological father had been a sperm donor while a medical student at Johns Hopkins, and Gordon was the result of an artificial insemination because of infertility issues.
Since learning this on Sept. 24 — “I’ll never forget the date!” he said — Gordon has found that his biological father eventually moved to Texas, married and had four sons, all of whom are also now physicians.
Gordon has been in touch with one of his half-brothers, who welcomed him warmly. They look forward to meeting. There is also a half-sister Gordon has spoken to but not yet met, and his sister has found a half-brother as well.
“It’s been a real revelation,” said Gordon, who finally now knows where his green eyes and fair complexion come from.
While such information can rock one’s foundation, Gordon doesn’t see it that way. “It’s nice to have new relatives,” he said, though admitting that it took a while to get over the shock and the new reality of what his background is.
His advice to others is to go into DNA testing with an open mind. “Don’t be surprised if something turns up that you weren’t expecting,” he said. “Be prepared for anything.”
Well-known author Dani Shapiro had a similar surprise when she took her DNA test. The author of the newly released book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, writes in Time magazine that when her husband asked if she wanted to take a DNA test, her initial response was, pretty much, why bother?
“I could easily have said no,” she writes. “I wasn’t curious about my ancestry. I knew where I came from — Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews on both my parents’ sides.
“Instead, I said yes. Why not? It seemed like a game, like those personality tests people often take online.
“The results, when I received them a few months later, changed everything I had ever understood about myself,” she continued. “I was only half Eastern European Ashkenazi, as it turned out. A person I had never heard of was identified as a first cousin.
“The truth was unavoidable. My beloved father, who died in a car accident when I was 23, had not been my biological father.”
Shapiro’s discovery led her to investigate the history, science and psychology of assisted reproduction, the same circumstances that were responsible for Steve Gordon’s conception.
“I have spent the past few years piecing together the story of how I came to be, the truth of where (and who) I come from -– and the ways in which my identity was scrupulously hidden from me,” writes Shapiro.
Not knowing one’s genetic make-up not only has psychological ramifications, should one find them out at a much later stage in life, but medical ones as well.
Shapiro was shaken, for example, to realize that she’d been giving her doctors incorrect information about her family history for her entire life.
Such has also been the case for Nancy H., who prefers not to give her last name. Adopted as an infant, she recently was able to find out who her birth parents were by finding siblings (both full and half) through DNA testing.
In doing so, she learned that her biological father died of colon cancer. When she told her family doctor about her newfound medical history, the doctor immediately wrote an order for a screening colonoscopy.
For B.K. Jackson, who also prefers not to give her full name, the finding that her father was not her biological father was not only a surprise to her, but most likely would have been to him as well, had she decided to tell him.
Jackson — whose mother left the family when her daughter was very young — spent years looking into what had become of her mother. Through DNA testing she eventually found numerous half-siblings, and has become quite close with them. They even have an annual family reunion.
In order to get a more complete picture of her genetic makeup, she asked her father if he’d be willing to take a DNA test. He agreed, and when the results came in, Jackson was shocked to find that her father was not her biological dad.
“I doubt that he knew,” said Jackson, who is writing a book about her genealogical journey. “I don’t think he would have agreed to take the test had he known.”
Did she tell him? “What would have been the purpose?” she asked. “He was the dad I knew and loved.”
Through her dogged persistence and growing expertise in DNA, Jackson eventually identified the man who was her biological father. (He is no longer alive.)
Relief and surprise mingle
How have all these discoveries affected Jackson’s life?
“After finally having found out what had become of my mother, and feeling a new sense of wholeness as a result, it was mind-boggling to discover that I had another, even bigger, mystery to tackle,” she said.
“Not everyone is glad to have discovered their truth — it can knock your sense of identity out from under you,” she added. “But for me, it helped make sense of previously bewildering feelings of being misplaced in my family. At some level, I always knew I didn’t belong. But I didn’t know why until now.”
For Jackson, DNA testing has given her the opportunity to find out where she came from and connect with her people.
“In my case,” she said, “I found so many wonderful siblings and cousins who not only welcomed me with open arms, but also provided information and photos of my birth father, grandparents and great grandparents.
“But many who experience DNA surprises aren’t always that lucky. Often they’re rejected by their birth families out of disbelief or shame, and are made to feel like dirty secrets that must remain hidden. All they want is to know who they are.”
Indeed, the happy reunion stories shown on television commercials for the DNA testing companies are not always what people experience.
Nancy H., for example, has met with her newly found full sister and other half-siblings. (A presumed full brother has not responded to any attempts to contact him.) But after the initial flurry of excitement, Nancy said, “There’s a sense of ‘what’s next?’ Where do we go from here? We’re just feeling our way.”
Sources of support
Because of the emotions and questions DNA findings can bring forth, companies such as Ancestry are training their customer service representatives to help callers cope with such issues.
“Ancestry recognizes that the information we provide to our customers can be surprising and, at times, life-changing,” said Jasmin Jimenez, a company spokesperson.
“Ancestry works hard to help our customers understand that some of what they learn about themselves might be unexpected, and our team of member services representatives are trained to help customers understand and interpret their DNA test results.
“And for customers with more sensitive queries, we offer a small, dedicated group of highly experienced representatives who can help guide users to their own discoveries,” Jimenez added.
Numerous Facebook groups are also available to help people interpret their test results, offering emotional support and even practical advice on how to approach family members about secrets they may have hoped would remain hidden.
Sometimes the results of DNA testing are not necessarily life-changing, just surprising. Cathy Shapiro, for example, who lives in Stevenson and is the owner of Cathy’s Ginger Spices, was always told that she was of Russian and Polish descent.
Her DNA test, however, showed that she is actually over 60 percent German, with another 30 percent Argentinian and the rest Gypsy, with a small amount of Neanderthal thrown in for good measure. “I’ve heard that’s not unusual!” she laughed.
“My whole life I thought I was one thing, and now I have all these new cultures to learn about,” said Shapiro. “I guess the moral of the story is, unless you know for sure, there are many surprises left about your family tree.”
Andrew Der found that out as well. Der, 65, an environmental consultant who lives in Fells Point, was born in Hungary and moved to the U.S. as a child after his parents fled the Hungarian Uprising. They had no relatives in this country, but Der believed that at least one of his mother’s parents was Jewish, though the family did not practice Judaism.
Several years ago the husband of a cousin Der did not know reached out to him to let him know that in poring over Hungarian records, he had found that both of Der’s maternal grandparents had been born Jewish. Curious, Der took a DNA test himself, and learned that he’s more than 50 percent Eastern European Jewish.
“I’ve since found out that I had relatives who died in the Holocaust,” said Der. That discovery has been “bittersweet,” he said, because both his parents have died, and now he’s feeling a further sense of loss for family members he never knew — indeed, never even knew he had.
It has also made him think of how the rampant anti-Semitism in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries probably led to his grandparents’ decision to abandon their religious beliefs and hide their identity even from their children and grandchildren.
“It makes you take a step back and think about what you know — and don’t know — about yourself and your family,” said Der.
Nonetheless, he said he has found these revelations exciting, further reinforcing his pride in his diverse background.
“But it certainly puts to rest the idea that there are no more surprises in life,” said Der. “Who knows…there could be even more.”
Since Ancestry began in 2012, more than 10 million people in 30 countries have taken its DNA test. Note that, after obtaining DNA results, there are additional monthly charges for use of the company’s database and family tree service. See ancestry.com.
Another company, 23andMe, also offers a $99 DNA test, plus an optional service (additional $125) with information on genetic health risks your DNA and family history suggests. They claim more than 5 million customers. See 23andme.com.
FamilyTreeDNA claims 2 million users. In addition to family DNA analysis, they offer more specific analysis of male and female ancestry, and more comprehensive DNA analysis for additional charges. See familytreedna.com.