Gene tests can reveal daddy of all secrets
The boom in ancestry searches and DNA testing could backfire on families
When they hear my British accent many Americans take delight in relating stories about their family castle in Scotland or the ancestral village in Ireland. Growing numbers of black Americans are also keen to learn about the exact location of their African forebears.
The obsession with pre-colonial roots has fuelled a booming industry in DNA testing around the world. More than 15 million Americans have submitted samples for analysis to identify genetic markers in their family tree that point to countries of origin. Some hope for links to nobility, others for the thrill of learning more about family history.
“So I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt!” says Kyle, a customer on AncestryDNA, a leading commercial testing website.
He grew up thinking his roots were German but the $US99 ($138) test showed his family hailed from the auld country.
AncestryDNA not only pinpoints links to geographical locations and family trees, it can give details of other users who are “potential relatives”.
Increasingly the surprises are not so jolly. Catherine St Clair founded a Facebook group called DNA NPE Friends. NPE stands for “Not Parent Expected”.
As the amateur genealogist in the family, who had traced back her father’s links to the Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp, she was given a DNA test for her birthday by her four siblings. The results shook her to the core. She was only 50 per cent matched with them. At the age of 54 she learnt that the man she knew as her father was not her biological parent.
That was two years ago. Today her support group has nearly 3000 members. One is Hope LaMonica, 51, a self-confessed “daddy’s girl”. A DNA test to pinpoint her African heritage identified a named person who was “either your parent, your child or your identical twin”. Through the DNA testing company she sent a message to the man with details of her parents.
He wrote back: “I’m happy to share what I know but I am not looking to cause you any pain.”
When they spoke on the phone he revealed he was her biological father. She confronted her dad and he apologised and begged for forgiveness — he had known about his wife’s affair but agreed to bring Hope up as his own and keep the secret. “There’s nothing to forgive, you were trying to protect me,” she told him.
St Clair believes that the next 10 to 15 years will be a time of reckoning when many closely guarded family secrets will come tumbling out. Affairs, rape and incest are all issues her private internet group are grappling with. Some have contacted her distressed by rejection from their biological father or half-siblings.
Brianne Kirkpatrick, who has forged a career as a genetic counsellor, says the rate of children not being matched with a parent could be greater than 5 per cent, but admits statistical data is scarce.
“You do not have to do the test yourself for the surprise to come out. A sibling or a cousin can get matched to someone. So if you are a person that is harbouring a secret, it is time to think about who might discover it and who it is going to affect the most.”
The next 10 to 15 years will be a time of reckoning when many closely guarded family secrets will come tumbling out
Up to 5 per cent of DNA tests find children not matched to a parent