How DNA Tests Like 23andMe Are Exposing Family Secrets

Back in June, KQED's The Leap podcast released an episode titled "17andMe," the story of a man named Daley Dunham, who had donated sperm during his college years and, later in life, found himself forming relationships with 17 biological children. One of the most fascinating aspects of how this came about involved 23andMe, one of the primary companies making DNA testing commercially available.

For some of Daley's offspring, finding him had been a total accident; they hadn't even known they were conceived via donor until casually performing DNA tests. “There was this wave of four [kids] that came," Daley said, "and it corresponded with this Thanksgiving Day sale that 23andMe had, where it was half off.”

As the popularity of these affordable tests increases, so does the potential for familial upheaval across America. Bay Area resident Katherine* was initially surprised when her 23andMe test results were different than what she was expecting. Confusion turned to outright shock when she realized her genetic makeup did not match that of her siblings. Katherine's biological father, it turns out, was not the man she had been calling "dad" her entire life.

"The man I had known as my father confessed that he knew I was not his child... because he and my mother did not have a sexual relationship at the time of my conception," Katherine says. "When I approached my mother, she showed me [my biological father's] picture from Facebook, and I could see right away that he and I had the same smile."

"23andMe upended my life," Katherine continues. "I fell into a depression and for months I was very angry. I essentially lost all of my parents at once. I never had a great relationship with the man who raised me, I never got to meet the man who fathered me, and my mother has been so callous about my feelings that we are no longer speaking."

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Of course, for people who are fully aware that they're adopted, quickie DNA tests offer gigantic rewards. Jeremy Harris, a Nashville-based photographer, was adopted as an infant and grew up secure in that knowledge. His life was changed five years after the death of his adoptive mom when he submitted his DNA to Ancestry.com. He was quickly contacted by a second cousin, then a first, and then finally an aunt, who revealed that her brother was Jeremy's biological father. While that man was unwilling to meet up, he did provide some vital details about the woman he'd gotten pregnant 49 years before.

"He only remembered her first name, Betty," Jeremy says, "and that she was divorced and a nursing student at the hospital where I was born. So we began the search for Betty." Jeremy's girlfriend dug through public records for weeks until she found the right one. Once she did, they found Betty's address in the Yellow Pages.

"I wrote her a letter, telling her that I didn’t want anything, but my only desire was to let her know that I’d had a great life," Jeremy says. "I told her 46 years of info in a three-page letter and sealed it in an envelope with five or six photos of me as a baby and as an adult. Three days later, I get a text from Betty. I called her that night and we spoke for the first time. She told me her prayers had been answered. She had been waiting for me to find her all these years, and prayed every day that I would."

Jeremy Harris with his adoptive mother (left) and his birth mom, Betty (right). (Photos courtesy of Jeremy Harris.)

Now, not only is Jeremy in touch with a half-brother and sister, Betty has also become friends with Jeremy's aunt. Without Ancestry.com, it's unlikely that any of them would have ever met.

Heather L. Black, a graphic artist from Orange County, was located by her biological parents and three siblings after she performed a 23andMe test. "All we have known was her adoptive parents named her Heather Lynn," Heather's birth parents wrote to her, "and we are not even sure that she knows that she was adopted. If you happen to be this Heather, please know we are in no way trying to disrupt your life. We are only looking to meet her someday."

Soon, Heather discovered that their lives had been sometimes eerily close, without even knowing. "My sister's daughter goes to the same school as my son," Heather explains, "and my little brother was in the same second-grade class as my best friend. I love them. The bonding was intense and immediate. My older sister and I are inseparable. She is the best friend I never knew I needed."

Heather L. Black (left) now has a close relationship with her birth mother, Theresa Shively (right), thanks to 23andMe. (Photo by Ashley Berger, Grey Sparrow Photography)

For most users of ancestry kits, the results provide little more than quirky surprises. In a quick poll of my friends, the most common shock was the amount of Native American genes present in their tests -- by and large, no one was expecting any.

Another friend explained that her results had had a profound effect on her mother. "My mom has been convinced her whole life she is Swedish," Amy* told me. "She’s obsessed with being Swedish. I got [my results] and I am .1% Scandinavian, a.k.a., she’s not that Swedish! I got an email the next day saying 'Thanks for your call, we’re sorry you’re confused with your results. Here are some resources.' My mom had called to dispute my results!"

It's easy to forget sometimes that deoxyribonucleic acid -- DNA -- was only identified in 1953, and the Human Genome Project was only completed in 2003. Until very recently, tracing members of your family tree was conducted by paper trail only, and DNA tests were mostly for people with unusual family backgrounds, those at risk for certain diseases, or guests on shows like Maury.

Today, the ease and economy of access to DNA tests is radically changing not only our individual levels of self-awareness but also family structures as we know them. These tests help us discern risks of passing on diseases to our children, take preventative action against illnesses we ourselves are more likely to develop, and, most excitingly, allow us to gain access to family secrets that would have almost certainly stayed buried for previous generations. Perhaps, in the end, this testing trend will simply make families more honest with each other.

As Katherine figures out how to move forward with her discombobulated, post-test life, remarkably, she has zero regrets about finding out the truth about her real dad. "I can start over with this information," she says. "I have reached out to my biological father, although I have not yet heard back. I am being patient and hoping he will want to be my dad."

With all that has happened in her own life, what would she say to people thinking about testing their DNA? "Take the test," she says. "Take a chance on upending your life and bringing dirty family secrets to the light. My life had felt wrong, even when I didn't know for sure. Better to let the information change you and see how those secrets may have held you back. And then find a way to forgive it all."

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*Names have been changed at the request of interviewees.

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