A True Story of the Impact a DNA Test Can Have
What happens when a new technology is so disruptive that secrets long buried are unearthed, creating havoc and, in some cases, wonder?
Back in the 80’s, before we had internet or mobile phones, I created a TV series on ABC called HeartBeat, about a group of women ob-gyns.
After hanging around their office, I wrote an episode about an orthodox Jewish couple having fertility problems. The doctor asks if they would consider using a sperm donor. The couple recoil, especially the husband. But the doctor says she’ll mix sperm from the donor with the husband’s sperm, so “only God will know who the father is.”
The husband repeats, “Only God will know.” Then he nods.
A great number of children were born from this method, from the 1950s on, and the donor, usually a student who needed money, was promised anonymity. But today, with DNA testing widely available, it’s not only God who knows. There are websites and support groups for Donor Conceived People (DCP), like the Donor Sibling Registry, which can often help people find their bio dads. The dads, who donated decades ago, may discover they have as many as 30 offspring. Wild? Hard to grasp? A California painter has met 18 of his kids so far.
A friend, Nance, told me recently that she and her daughter, Kim, had just found out that the father who’d raised Kim was not her biological dad.
How could that be? I asked.
Nance said that before Kim was born, she’d gone to the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto and had a chance encounter with a singer-songwriter named Charlie. Nance had recently learned that her husband, Dave, whom she’d helped put through medical school, had been having affairs, but Nance had never slept with anyone but Dave. She believed she was pregnant with their second child when she set off with a girlfriend for Toronto.
At the festival, Charlie, a handsome, tall, and playful blond, struck up a conversation with Nance and there was instant chemistry. That evening they went for a walk, spread a blanket in a secluded grassy spot, and made love. “For the first time in my life, I was coloring outside the lines,” Nance says. “It was about being young and free.” Her husband had often teased her, calling her “parson,” because while the sexual revolution was raging, she wasn’t playing.
When she returned from Toronto she told Dave what had happened with Charlie. She’d scheduled an appointment with her gynecologist in the coming week, and if she was pregnant, she said, there was a remote — extremely remote — chance that Charlie might be the father. “Are you okay with that? Let’s sleep on it, and tell me in the morning,” she said. But he told her right away: he was okay.
Kim was born 8 months later, weighing 6 pounds, 12 ounces — “hardly a premie,” Nance says. That made her feel sure Kim was Dave’s daughter, and “I didn’t give it another thought.”
Dave was extremely close with Kim, and when she was a senior in high school, he asked Nance to tell her about the small chance that a different man was her bio dad. On a long walk along the lake in Wisconsin where they lived, Nance told Kim, who remembers the conversation but says, “It didn’t seem like a big deal.”
Six months later Dave died in a car accident. “I had such a strong connection with him that the story of a different dad was shoved deep in my unconscious,” she says. Yet she’d always felt that somehow she didn’t belong in her family, that something wasn’t right. “I couldn’t put my finger on why,” she says. “I didn’t look anything like my dad, although my mom said I had his lower lip and his science mind.” Kim loved drawing, writing, and dancing. She played piano, harp, and then took up banjo, which seemed odd; no one they knew played banjo. The first time she’d heard one, though, she was enraptured by the sound.
She enrolled in and dropped out of naturopathic medical school twice. “I was following my dad’s footsteps,” she says. But the second time, at the first lecture, while everyone was madly taking notes, “I was drawing people’s backs,” she says. “I wanted to have fun and celebrate — with music, dance and creativity.” She took a job with a film company and later became an award-winning photographer and filmmaker. A scout recruited her for a modeling job; she was flown around the world for photo shoots, and used the income to create short art films.
Fast forward to 2016. Kim was turning 41. Her older brother was getting a DNA test and offered to buy her one for her birthday. In recent years, she’d remembered the story about a possible different dad, and said, “Sure.” She expected the test to confirm that Dave was her father, “and I could stop musing about the alternative.”
The results showed that she and her brother were only half siblings. “It was a shock,” she says. “I’d never really thought it was true.” Her mother, who’d had trouble remembering Charlie’s last name, was able to recollect it, and Kim hit the Internet. She found an album of Charlie’s songs produced at the University of Wisconsin, where he’d gone to school, and learned he’d played banjo — the instrument that had compelled her to learn it. Then she found an obituary! Charlie had disappeared in 1986, after going sailing alone on Lake Michigan. The boat was found, but not his body, and he was presumed dead.
One of the pictures she saw had a close-up of his hands. “We had the same hands!” she says. “I have really long nail beds and crooked pinkies. No one in my family has crooked pinkies, but Charlie and I do.”
From Charlie’s obit, she learned the names of his three siblings, all of whom were involved in the arts. She wrote a graceful, non-intrusive letter to his brother, who had a film production company (another propinquity), and he responded with joy, welcoming her to the family. The siblings had loved Charlie and were devastated when he disappeared. Now they learned he’d left a daughter!
Kim says, “I hit the jackpot with that family. They’re warm and close and pulled me right in.” But she began to have physical ailments and suffered confusion and depression. ”The most painful part for me was losing the dad who’d raised me — again,” Kim says. “I’d lost him when I was 18, and now I’m grieving him all over. It’s like a constant ache — I wish we could sit down together and talk about this. I’d ask him, ‘What was it like for you — to look at me and not know?’ I could never hear his side of the story.”
She also mourned the father she’d never met. She wished she’d been able to visit him, play music together and share what they wrote. “It’s grief for daddy. I just want a fucking dad,” she says with a laugh. “What I mean is, I’m longing to know myself, and the imprint Charlie left on me is strong. It’s on a cellular level — I’ll carry it all my life.”
For Kim’s mother, the DNA news was surprising but not disturbing. She has a strong spiritual life and if she has a longing, it’s for “the deeper truth of who we are, beyond our genetic inheritance.” She adds, “Our true nature is mysterious. Our very presence on this planet is a cosmic mystery, and we’re here so briefly.”
Kim wishes she’d been told about the “small chance” early on. She felt solace when she learned that others felt the same way, “that trauma comes from secrecy.” She found a passage from Thomas Mann’s novel, Joseph and his Brothers, that spoke to her:
“Everybody has a father…nothing comes first and of itself, its own cause… everybody is begotten and points backwards, deeper down into the depths of beginnings, the bottoms and abysses of the well of the past.”
At-home DNA testing — that’s brought knowledge of their beginnings to Kim and thousands of others — is becoming a full-blown movement. More than 20 million people have taken DNA tests, the majority in the last three years.
But the tests are creating moral and legal issues that have yet to be thrashed out. Some donors are going to court to prevent donor offspring from contacting them. Sperm banks are beginning to accept only “ID disclosure” donors, who agree that when the children turn 18, they have the right to learn the donor’s identity. Andrew Vorzimer, one of the country’s top attorneys in reproductive law, says, “Donor anonymity will suffer the same fate as the cassette tape.”
What do you think? Should there be a protocol for reaching out to unsuspecting relatives? How would you feel if you discovered a family secret about your ancestry? Please leave a comment.