Who was she? A DNA test re­vealed this mys­tery.

How Alice Collins Ple­buch’s foray into ‘recre­ational ge­nomics’ up­ended a fam­ily tree

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY LIBBY COPELAND

Five years ago, Alice Collins Ple­buch made a de­ci­sion that would al­ter her fu­ture — or re­ally, her past.

She sent away for a “just-for­fun DNA test.” When the tube ar­rived, she spit and spit un­til she filled it up to the line, and then sent it off in the mail. She wanted to know what she was made of.

Ple­buch, now 69, al­ready had a rough idea of what she would find. Her par­ents, both de­ceased, were Ir­ish Amer­i­can Catholics who raised her and her six sib­lings with church Sun­days and eth­nic pride. But Ple­buch, who had a long-stand­ing in­ter­est in sci­ence and DNA, wanted to know more about her dad’s side of the fam­ily. The son of Ir­ish im­mi­grants, Jim Collins had been raised in an or­phan­age from a young age, and his ex­tended fam­ily tree was murky.

Af­ter a few weeks dur­ing which her saliva was an­a­lyzed, she got an email in the sum­mer of 2012 with a link to her re­sults. The re­port was con­found­ing.

About half of Ple­buch’s DNA re­sults pre­sented the mixed Bri­tish Isles blood­line she ex­pected. The other half picked up an un­ex­pected com­bi­na­tion of Euro­pean Jewish, Mid­dle Eastern and Eastern Euro­pean. Surely some­one in the lab had messed up. It was the early days of di­rect-to-con­sumer DNA test­ing, and An­ces­try.com’s test was new. She wrote the com­pany a nasty let­ter in­form­ing them they’d made a mis­take.

But she talked to her sis­ter, and they agreed she should test again. If the in­for­ma­tion Ple­buch was see­ing on her com­puter screen was cor­rect, it posed a fun­da­men­tal mys­tery about her very iden­tity. It meant one of her par­ents wasn’t who he or she was sup­posed to be — and, by ex­ten­sion, nei­ther was she.

Even­tu­ally, Ple­buch would write to An­ces­try again. You guys were right, she’d say. I was wrong.

We are only just be­gin­ning to grap­ple with what it means to cheaply and eas­ily un­cover our ge­netic her­itage.

Over the past five years, as the price of DNA test­ing kits has dropped and their qual­ity has im­proved, the phe­nom­e­non of “recre­ational ge­nomics” has taken off. Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional So­ci­ety of Ge­netic Ge­neal­ogy, nearly 8 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide, but mostly in the United States, have tested their DNA through kits, typ­i­cally cost­ing $99 or less, from such com­pa­nies as 23andMe, An­ces­try.com and Fam­ily Tree DNA.

The most pop­u­lar DNA-de­ci­pher­ing ap­proach, au­to­so­mal DNA test­ing, looks at ge­netic ma­te­rial in­her­ited from both par­ents and can be used to con­nect cus­tomers to oth­ers in a data­base who share that ma­te­rial. The re­sults can let you see ex­actly what stuff you’re made from — as well as of­fer the op­por­tu­nity to find pre­vi­ously un­known rel­a­tives.

For adoptees, many of whom can’t ac­cess in­for­ma­tion about their birth par­ents be­cause of closed adop­tion laws, DNA test­ing can let them by­pass years, even decades, of con­ven­tional re­search to find “DNA cousins” who may very well lead them to their fam­i­lies.

But DNA test­ing can also yield un­com­fort­able sur­prises. Some testers, look­ing for a lit­tle more in­for­ma­tion about a grand­par­ent’s ori­gins, or to con­firm a fam­ily leg­end about Na­tive Amer­i­can her­itage, may not be pre­pared for re­sults that dis­rupt their sense of iden­tity. Of­ten, that means find­ing out their dad is not ac­tu­ally their dad or dis­cov­er­ing a rel­a­tive that they never knew ex­isted — per­haps a baby con­ceived out of wed­lock or given up for adop­tion.

In 2014, 23andMe es­ti­mated that 7,000 users of its ser­vice had dis­cov­ered un­ex­pected pa­ter­nity or pre­vi­ously un­known sib­lings — a rel­a­tively small frac­tion of over­all users. The com­pany no longer pro­vides data on sur­prise re­sults. How­ever, its cus­tomer base has more than dou­bled since 2014, and now con­tains more than 2 mil­lion peo­ple — and as more peo­ple get in­volved with recre­ational ge­nomics, blood­line sur­prises are cer­tain to be­come a more com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence. The 2020s may turn out to be the decade that killed fam­ily se­crets, for bet­ter and for worse.

“We see it ev­ery day,” says CeCe Moore, a ge­netic ge­neal­o­gist and con­sul­tant for the PBS se­ries “Find­ing Your Roots.” She runs a 54,000-per­son Face­book group, DNA De­tec­tives, that helps peo­ple un­ravel their ge­netic an­ces­tries. “You find out that a lot of things are not as they seem, and a lot of fam­i­lies are much more com­plex than you as­sume.”

Alice Ple­buch found her­self in this place in the sum­mer of 2012. To solve the mys­tery of her iden­tity, she needed more help than any DNA test­ing com­pany could of­fer. Af­ter all, ge­netic test­ing gives you the what, but not the why.

Ple­buch would turn out to be uniquely suited to the role of pri­vate eye in her own de­tec­tive story. Now liv­ing in the sub­urbs of Van­cou­ver, Wash., she worked as an IT man­ager for the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia be­fore her re­tire­ment. “I did data pro­cess­ing most of my life, and at a fairly so­phis­ti­cated level,” she says. Com­put­ers do not in­tim­i­date her, and nei­ther do big ques­tions that re­quire the or­ga­ni­za­tion and anal­y­sis of com­plex in­for­ma­tion. She likes to find pat­terns hid­den in the chaos.

Just the skills nec­es­sary to solve a very old puz­zle.

Af­ter the ini­tial shock of her test re­sults, Ple­buch won­dered if her mother might have had an af­fair. Or her grand­mother, per­haps? So, she and her sis­ter, Gerry Collins Wig­gins, both or­dered kits from DNA test­ing com­pany 23andMe.

The af­fair sce­nario seemed un­likely — cer­tainly out of char­ac­ter for her mom, and be­sides, all seven Collins chil­dren had their fa­ther’s hooded eyes. But she couldn’t dis­miss it. “My fa­ther, he was in the Army and he was all over the world, and it was just one of those fears that you have when you don’t know,” she says.

As they waited for their re­sults, they won­dered. If the An­ces­try.com find­ings were right, it meant one of Ple­buch’s par­ents was at least partly Jewish. But which one?

They had a gut sense that it was un­likely to be their mother, who came from a large fam­ily, filled with cousins Ple­buch and her sib­lings all knew well. Dad, who died in 1999, seemed the like­lier can­di­date. Born in the Bronx, Jim Collins was a baby when his mother died. His long­shore­man fa­ther, John Collins, was un­able to care for his three chil­dren and sent them to live in or­phan­ages. He died while Jim was still a child, and Jim had only lim­ited con­tact with his ex­tended fam­ily as an adult.

But still, the no­tion Jim could some­how be Jewish seemed far­fetched. His par­ents had come to the United States from Ire­land, and that his­tory was cen­tral to Jim’s sense of him­self. “He was raised in an or­phan­age; he didn’t have any­thing else,” Ple­buch says. “He had his Ir­ish iden­tity.”

She plunged into on­line ge­neal­ogy fo­rums, re­search­ing how other peo­ple had traced their DNA and ed­u­cat­ing her­self about the sci­ence. She and her sis­ter came up with a plan: They would per­suade two of their first cousins to get tested — their mother’s nephew and their fa­ther’s nephew. If one of those cousins was partly Jewish, they’d know for sure which side of the fam­ily was con­tribut­ing the mys­te­ri­ous her­itage.

The men agreed. The sis­ters sent their kits and waited.

Then Ple­buch’s own 23andMe re­sults came back. They seemed con­sis­tent with her ear­lier An­ces­try.com test, in­di­cat­ing lots of Ashke­nazi Jewish an­ces­try from ar­eas such as Be­larus, Rus­sia, Ukraine and Lithua­nia. She also dis­cov­ered that her brother Bill had re­cently taken a 23andMe test. His re­sults were a re­lief — sort of.

“No hanky-panky,” as Ple­buch puts it. They were full sib­lings, shar­ing about 50 per­cent of the rel­e­vant DNA, in­clud­ing the same mys­te­ri­ous Jewish an­ces­try. This knocked out an­other the­ory they had con­sid­ered — that Ple­buch might have been adopted.

Ple­buch found a fea­ture on 23andMe’s web­site show­ing what seg­ments along her chro­mo­somes were as­so­ci­ated with Ashke­nazi Jews. Flip­ping back and forth, com­par­ing her DNA to her brother’s, she had a sud­den in­sight.

There was a key dif­fer­ence be­tween the im­ages, lurk­ing in the sex chro­mo­somes. Along the X chro­mo­some were blue seg­ments in­di­cat­ing where she had Jewish an­ces­try, which could the­o­ret­i­cally have come from ei­ther par­ent be­cause fe­males in­herit one X from each. But males in­herit only one X, from their moth­ers, along with a Y chro­mo­some from their fa­thers, and when Ple­buch looked at her brother’s re­sults, “darned if Bill’s X chro­mo­some wasn’t lily white.” Clearly, their mother had con­trib­uted no Jewish an­ces­try to her son.

“That was when I knew that my fa­ther was the one,” Ple­buch says.

The next day, her sis­ter Gerry Wig­gins’s re­sults came back: She, too, was a full sib­ling who also dis­played sig­nif­i­cant Jewish an­ces­try. Then, Ple­buch got an email from a re­tired pro­fes­sor known for his skill at in­ter­pret­ing an­ces­try tests, to whom she’d sent hers. “What you are is 50 per­cent Jewish,” he wrote. “This is in fact as solid as DNA gets, which in this case is very solid in­deed.”

But how could their fa­ther have been Jewish? Could Jim Collins’s par­ents have been se­cret Ir­ish Jews? Or maybe Jews from Eastern Europe who passed them­selves off as Ir­ish when they came to the coun­try as im­mi­grants?

Now they re­ally needed the data from the cousin on their fa­ther’s side. If he also had Jewish an­ces­try, Ple­buch fig­ured, that could point to a fam­ily se­cret buried in Europe.

They waited for months, through a se­ries of set­backs — prob­lems in the lab, prob­lems with the mail. Mean­while, the sis­ters emailed back and forth.

Ple­buch asked her younger sis­ter: Did this rev­e­la­tion about their fa­ther’s eth­nic­ity un­nerve her? They’d been so cer­tain of their fam­ily roots, and “now we know noth­ing,” she wrote.

“It is the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morn­ing,” Wig­gins replied, “and the last thing I think about as I drift off to sleep.”

At last, Ple­buch was alerted that her cousins’ re­sults were ready. The data from their mom’s nephew re­vealed that he was a full first cousin, as ex­pected — shar­ing about 12.5 per­cent of his DNA with Ple­buch.

But the re­sults from her dad’s nephew, Pete Nolan, whose mother was Jim Collins’s sis­ter, re­vealed him to be a to­tal stranger, ge­net­i­cally speak­ing. No over­lap what­so­ever with Ple­buch — or, by ex­ten­sion, with her fa­ther.

In other words, Ple­buch’s cousin wasn’t ac­tu­ally her cousin.

And her dad’s sis­ter wasn’t ac­tu­ally his sis­ter.

Ple­buch was dev­as­tated. This find­ing knocked out the se­cretJews the­ory — but if it put Ple­buch closer to the truth, she still felt un­moored. She was deeply fond of Nolan, with whom she shared a birth­day. “I was afraid he was go­ing to re­ject me be­cause we were no longer bi­o­log­i­cal cousins.”

She called Nolan to share the re­sults of his DNA test. “He was sad,” Ple­buch says, “but he also told me I was the best cousin he ever had.”

Ple­buch and Wig­gins came to the stunned con­clu­sion that their dad was some­how not re­lated to his own par­ents. John and Katie Collins were Ir­ish Catholics, and their son was Jewish.

“I re­ally lost all my iden­tity,” Ple­buch says. “I felt adrift. I didn’t know who I was — you know, who I re­ally was.”

For Wig­gins, the rev­e­la­tion con­firmed a long, lin­ger­ing sense that some­thing was amiss with her fa­ther’s story. Study­ing the fam­ily pho­to­graphs on her wall, she’d thought for years that their pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther looked like no one in her im­me­di­ate fam­ily. Vis­it­ing Ire­land in 1990, she had searched the faces for any re­sem­blance to her 5-foot-4, dark­haired fa­ther. “There was no­body that looked like my dad,” Wig­gins says.

The sis­ters set about me­thod­i­cally pur­su­ing sev­eral the­o­ries. With Jim Collins and his par­ents long dead, Ple­buch knew she needed to un­ravel his story through the liv­ing. She signed up to take a class in Seat­tle on how to use DNA to find her fa­ther’s rel­a­tives.

If the woman Jim called his sis­ter was not his sis­ter, was there ev­i­dence of an ac­tual sib­ling out there some­where? Might that sib­ling have chil­dren? Might Ple­buch and her sib­lings have first cousins they’d never known about?

The dystopian novelist Mar­garet At­wood is fond of say­ing that all new tech­nolo­gies have a good side, a bad side and a “stupid side you hadn’t con­sid­ered.” Do­ing DNA test­ing for fun can carry con­se­quences few of us might an­tic­i­pate. It re­quires lit­tle in­vest­ment at the out­set, but it has the po­ten­tial to ut­terly change our lives.

Af­ter re­search­ing her fam­ily his­tory, Lau­rie Pratt de­cided five years ago to en­hance her ge­nealog­i­cal knowl­edge by test­ing her­self and her par­ents. This was how she dis­cov­ered that her dad was not re­lated to her.

Pratt, 52, an air­line ground op­er­a­tions su­per­vi­sor in Orange County, Calif., went to her mother, who at first said the re­sults were “im­pos­si­ble.” But over time, her mother di­vulged hazy mem­o­ries of a short-lived re­la­tion­ship dur­ing a pe­riod when she and her hus­band were briefly sep­a­rated.

Her mother couldn’t re­call a name be­fore she died. The man who raised Pratt also died; she never told him he was not, bi­o­log­i­cally speak­ing, her fa­ther.

She searched over sev­eral years, even­tu­ally iden­ti­fy­ing a po­ten­tial can­di­date within the fam­ily tree of pre­vi­ously un­known cousins she found through DNA match­ing. She sent this man a let­ter — and days later, in Fe­bru­ary of this year, he sud­denly popped up in the An­ces­try.com data­base, iden­ti­fied by a saliva test as her bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther.

The man called her, and they spoke briefly on the phone. Though he was un­mar­ried when Pratt was con­ceived, he fret­ted over the idea that he had aban­doned a baby with­out know­ing it. Pratt asked if they could meet, and the man agreed, but asked if he could take some time first to process the news and tell his wife and daugh­ter.

Two days later, Pratt logged onto An­ces­try.com and dis­cov­ered that the man’s test had been deleted.

Re­ac­tions to DNA test­ing sur­prises vary dra­mat­i­cally. Moore, the ge­netic ge­neal­o­gist, says that, in her ex­pe­ri­ence, even those who are ini­tially dis­mayed end up glad that “they learned about the truth of them­selves.”

But seek­ers may be a self-se­lect­ing bunch, and those who find the truth thrust upon them by some­one else’s quest are not al­ways happy about it. Gaye Sher­man Tan­nen­baum, an adoptee who spent decades search­ing for her birth par­ents and now helps oth­ers on their quests, says in some in­stances, peo­ple are “out­right hos­tile” when they learn of a newly dis­cov­ered rel­a­tive.

The re­ac­tion is un­der­stand­able: DNA sur­prises of­ten im­ply ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs, out-of-wed­lock births and decades-old se­crets.

Re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Leu­ven in Bel­gium re­cently ex­am­ined the English-lan­guage web­sites of 43 di­rect-to-con­sumer DNA test­ing com­pa­nies and found that few com­pa­nies warn con­sumers about the pos­si­bil­ity of dis­cov­er­ing “mis­at­tributed pa­ter­nity.”

23andMe is un­usual in of­fer­ing mul­ti­ple warn­ings. (“Un­ex­pected re­la­tion­ships may be iden­ti­fied that could af­fect you and your fam­ily.”) “We are as trans­par­ent as pos­si­ble,” says Kate Black, the pri­vacy of­fi­cer for 23andMe, brought on in 2015 af­ter the com­pany was crit­i­cized for fail­ing to pre­pare con­sumers for such sur­prises. “We try to ed­u­cate and in­form peo­ple in ev­ery tool.”

Still, con­sumers may skim those warn­ings or refuse to be­lieve such sur­prises might lurk within their own fam­i­lies. Jen­nifer Ut­ley, the di­rec­tor of re­search at An­ces­try.com, says that even though she had seen many cases of sur­prise rel­a­tives in her work, she still found her­self in “com­plete shock” when she tested her own DNA and dis­cov­ered a first cousin she hadn’t known ex­isted.

“I had no idea who this per­son was,” says Ut­ley, who has since learned that her cousin was the prod­uct of a teenage re­la­tion­ship, raised by an adop­tive fam­ily. Of her fam­ily, she now con­cludes: “We’re the best se­cret-keep­ers on the planet.”

Pratt says she doesn’t re­gret test­ing her DNA. She found her­self both “dev­as­tated and cu­ri­ous” af­ter the ini­tial dis­cov­ery about her ge­netic her­itage. But, of course, that dis­cov­ery was not hers alone, be­cause her genes are not hers alone. Cases of un­ex­pected pa­ter­nity and se­cret adop­tions im­pli­cate other peo­ple.

“I think this jars him,” she says of her bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther. “He goes to bed the good guy — he’s al­ways been very re­li­gious, very Catholic. And he wakes up, he’s Mick Jag­ger. He has a baby. It blew his mind a lit­tle bit.”

In late April, Pratt sent the man an­other let­ter. She had “no de­sire to push my­self into your fam­ily,” she wrote, nor make a fi­nan­cial claim. What she sought were sto­ries about him and his fam­ily, to help her build a sense of where she came from. Just one meet­ing, a few hours, was all she asked.

She still hasn’t heard back.

By early 2013, the Collins chil­dren were hot on the trail of a hun­dred-year-old mys­tery.

They had their fa­ther’s birth cer­tifi­cate, in­di­cat­ing that he’d been born on Sept. 23, 1913. They wrote to his or­phan­age and learned that their dad had been sent there by the New York So­ci­ety for the Pre­ven­tion of Cru­elty to Chil­dren.

Ple­buch won­dered if Jim Collins, just a baby at the time, had some­how been con­fused with an­other child when he was taken from his fa­ther’s home.

She found a foren­sic artist said to be skilled in un­der­stand­ing how faces change over time. She sent her a pic­ture of her dad sit­ting on his fa­ther’s lap when he was about 11 months, along with pho­tos of him as an adult. Were these of the same per­son?

Prob­a­bly, the foren­sic artist ruled. The ears hadn’t changed, and the mouth, chin and fa­cial pro­por­tions seemed the same.

If the mys­tery of their fa­ther didn’t be­gin with his par­ents’ life in Ire­land, nor with his own time in the or­phan­age, Ple­buch and her sis­ter con­cluded it must have hap­pened shortly af­ter Jim was born. Un­usu­ally for the era, his mother gave birth not at home but at Ford­ham Hos­pi­tal in the Bronx.

Could some­thing have hap­pened there?

By this time, the sis­ters were us­ing tech­niques de­vel­oped by Moore and oth­ers to help adoptees try to find rel­a­tives in a vast uni­verse of strangers’ spit. Ev­ery time a site like 23andMe in­formed them of what Ple­buch calls a “DNA cousin” on their Jewish side — some­one whose re­sults sug­gested a likely cousin re­la­tion­ship — they would ask to see that per­son’s genome. If the per­son agreed, the site would re­veal any places where their chro­mo­somes over­lapped.

The idea, Ple­buch ex­plains, was to find pat­terns in the data. A group of peo­ple who share seg­ments on the same chro­mo­some prob­a­bly share a com­mon an­ces­tor. If Ple­buch could find a group of rel­a­tives who all shared the same seg­ment, she might be able to use that — along with their fam­ily trees, fam­ily sur­names, and an­ces­tors’ home towns in the old coun­try — to trace a path into her fa­ther’s bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily.

The work was slow and painstak­ing, com­pli­cated by the fact that Ashke­nazi Jews fre­quently marry within the group and of­ten are re­lated in mul­ti­ple ways. This can make dis­tant rel­a­tives look like a closer match than they ac­tu­ally are. But the sis­ters forged on, send­ing at least 1,000 re­quests for genome-shar­ing to DNA cousins through 23andMe. It be­came Ple­buch’s full-time job.

Some ig­nored their over­tures, while oth­ers were drawn in by the saga and de­voted their own ef­forts to help­ing the sis­ters un­tan­gle it. It was as if the Collins sis­ters had plugged into a larger fam­ily, a web of strangers who wanted to help be­cause gen­er­a­tions be­fore, their an­ces­tors had shared soup, shared heartache, slept in the same bed.

One DNA cousin made a clever sug­ges­tion: Why not search for ev­i­dence of a baby born around the same time un­der a com­mon Jewish sur­name, Co­hen? He rea­soned that the nurses, per­haps re­ly­ing on an al­pha­bet­i­cal sys­tem, might have con­fused a Collins baby with a Co­hen baby. CeCe Moore was by now vol­un­teer­ing to ad­vise Ple­buch, and with ad­di­tional help from Tan­nen­baum and the New York City Birth In­dex of 1913, Ple­buch found a Sey­mour Co­hen born in the Bronx on Sept. 23. DNA cousins fanned out on the In­ter­net, track­ing down a de­scen­dant of Sey­mour’s sis­ter.

Ple­buch wrote to the woman, a pro­fes­sor in North Carolina, and of­fered to pay for her test kit if she’d con­trib­ute some­thing com­pletely free and ab­so­lutely price­less: her saliva. The woman agreed.

Weeks later, the re­sults came back. No re­la­tion.

Af­ter that red her­ring, Ple­buch de­cided to dive deeper into the 1913 birth in­dex, to find ba­bies who were in the hos­pi­tal at the same time as her fa­ther. It was no easy task: The list of chil­dren born in the Bronx in 1913 ran 159 pages, was not or­dered by date, and didn’t dis­tin­guish hos­pi­tal births from home births. But she man­aged to iso­late all the male chil­dren born on Sept. 23, as well as the day af­ter and the day be­fore. She fur­ther nar­rowed the list to names that sounded ei­ther Jewish or eth­ni­cally neu­tral — 30 ba­bies in all.

Her hope was that one of those ba­bies would share a sur­name with one of the peo­ple that the DNA match­ing sites iden­ti­fied as a likely rel­a­tive. So she searched me­thod­i­cally.

“Ap­pel” — noth­ing. “Bain” — noth­ing. “Bam­son” — noth­ing. It was an­other dead end. The sis­ters went back to the chro­mo­some seg­ment match­ing, both at 23andMe and Fam­ily Tree DNA, where they had also up­loaded their ge­netic data. They bought at least 21 DNA test kits for them­selves, rel­a­tives and strangers sus­pected of be­ing re­la­tions. Ple­buch found she and her sib­lings matched to 6,912 likely DNA rel­a­tives, with 311,467 “seg­ment matches” among them — seg­ments along the chro­mo­somes that over­lapped with those of the Collins chil­dren. Which is to say, 311,467 po­ten­tial clues.

The data they had kept on spread­sheets quickly be­came over­whelm­ing, so their brother Jim, a re­tired soft­ware and sys­tems en­gi­neer who had worked on NASA su­per­com­put­ers, de­signed an iPad app called DNAMatch to help them and other seek­ers keep their data straight.

Ple­buch was de­ter­mined and un­usu­ally well suited to the task of solv­ing a puz­zle hid­den in big data. She and Wig­gins searched this way for two and a half years. But she was hav­ing no luck find­ing some­one closely re­lated to her fa­ther’s bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily — they sim­ply weren’t in the sys­tem.

Per­haps they didn’t know about DNA test­ing, or couldn’t af­ford it, or weren’t in­ter­ested.

All the sis­ters could do was keep work­ing and wait­ing, hop­ing the DNA test­ing rev­o­lu­tion would make its way to strangers who shared their blood.

Ul­ti­mately, the crack in the case came not through Ple­buch’s squad of help­ful DNA cousins, but through a stranger with no ge­netic con­nec­tion.

It was Jan. 18, 2015, a Sun­day, and Ple­buch was feel­ing down. She was writ­ing an email to her cousin Pete Nolan — the beloved rel­a­tive it turned out she wasn’t re­ally re­lated to — to up­date him on her stalled search.

As ad­min­is­tra­tor of his 23andMe ac­count, she had per­mis­sion to check the list of his DNA rel­a­tives yet rarely did so, since new rel­a­tives rarely showed up. But she de­cided to check it this day — and this time, there was a new per­son. A stranger had just had her saliva pro­cessed, and she showed up as a close rel­a­tive of Nolan.

Ple­buch emailed the woman and asked if she would com­pare genomes with Nolan. The woman agreed, and Ple­buch could see the seg­ments where her cousin and the stranger over­lapped. Ple­buch thanked her, and asked if her re­sults were what she ex­pected.

“I was ac­tu­ally ex­pect­ing to be much more Ashke­nazi than I am,” the woman wrote. Her name was Jes­sica Ben­son, a North Carolina res­i­dent who had taken the test on a whim, hop­ing to learn more about her Jewish eth­nic­ity. In­stead, she wrote, she had dis­cov­ered “that I am ac­tu­ally Ir­ish, which I had not ex­pected at all.”

Ple­buch felt chills. She wrote back that her fa­ther had been born at Ford­ham Hos­pi­tal on Sept. 23, 1913. Had any­one in the Ben­son fam­ily been born on that date?

Jes­sica replied. Her grand­fa­ther, Phillip Ben­son, might have been born around that date, she wrote. Ple­buch be­gan to cry. She started comb­ing through her list of baby names from the 1913 In­dex. No “Ben­son” born that day in the Bronx. But then, well af­ter mid­night, she found it:

The New York City Birth In­dex had a “Philip Bam­son,” born Sept. 23 — one of the names she had searched among her DNA cousins. This had to be Phillip Ben­son, his name mis­recorded on his birth cer­tifi­cate.

Ple­buch knew in her bones what had hap­pened. This was no an­cient fam­ily se­cret, buried by shame or for­got­ten by gen­er­a­tions.

This was a mis­take that no one had ever de­tected, a mis­take that could only have been un­cov­ered with DNA tech­nol­ogy. Some­one in the hos­pi­tal back in 1913 had messed up. Some­how, a Jewish child had gone home with an Ir­ish fam­ily, and an Ir­ish child had gone home with a Jewish fam­ily.

And the child who was sup­posed to be Phillip Ben­son had in­stead be­come Jim Collins.

Pam Ben­son was stunned by what this stranger was telling her over the phone. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kid­ding me,’ ” says Pam, who is Jes­sica’s aunt and the daugh­ter of the late Phillip Ben­son.

The Lawn­dale, Calif., woman sent off for her own DNA kit and dis­cov­ered that, rather than be­ing part Jewish as she’d long thought, she was part Ir­ish, and first cousins with a man she’d never heard of — Ple­buch’s “Ir­ish cousin,” Pete Nolan.

The fam­i­lies com­pared the birth cer­tifi­cates for Jim Collins and Phillip Ben­son and found they were one num­ber apart and signed by the same doc­tor, sug­gest­ing they were pro­cessed close to­gether in time. Ple­buch be­gan to re­search the ways an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion of hos­pi­tals kept track of their lit­tlest charges. In the book “Brought to Bed: Child­bear­ing in Amer­ica, 1750-1950,” she found an as­ton­ish­ing pic­ture, taken at a Man­hat­tan med­i­cal in­sti­tu­tion the year be­fore her fa­ther was born. It shows at least a dozen new­borns piled on a cart like so many cab­bages.

“Ev­ery time I show it, when I give lec­tures, the whole au­di­ence gasps,” says au­thor Ju­dith Walzer Leav­itt, a child­birth his­to­rian and a re­tired pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son. “You can un­der­stand how pos­si­ble it was to switch ba­bies in­ad­ver­tently.”

In 1913, hos­pi­tal births were still un­usual, and pro­ce­dures to iden­tify ba­bies were in­con­sis­tent. Some hos­pi­tals kept ba­bies sleep­ing in cots by their moth­ers’ beds, while oth­ers kept them in nurs­eries, in­creas­ing the chances of a mix-up. While it’s hard to know what prac­tices were in place at Ford­ham Hos­pi­tal, which was shut­tered in 1976, Leav­itt says it was not un­til the 1930s or ’40s that it be­came stan­dard for hos­pi­tals to give ba­bies and their moth­ers iden­ti­fy­ing wristlets or an­klets. In 1913, they more typ­i­cally “just de­pended on moth­ers’ recog­ni­tion or nurses’ re­mem­brance.”

The fam­i­lies ex­changed pho­to­graphs. Pam Ben­son saw Ple­buch’s short, dark-haired dad Jim Collins, who looked far more like Ben­son’s 5-foot-4 grand­fa­ther and 4-foot-9 grand­mother than did her own blue-eyed, 6-foot fa­ther, Phillip.

“My grand­fa­ther came to my dad’s shoul­ders,” she says. She had once asked her dad how he could be so tall. “He said, ‘re­ces­sive genes.’ ”

The Collins sis­ters had long had their own ex­pla­na­tion for why their fa­ther didn’t seem to re­sem­ble his sib­lings. Roger Wig­gins, Gerry’s hus­band, re­calls meet­ing Jim’s tall, lanky brother in the 1970s and ask­ing Gerry about it. “She said, ‘Well, my dad was in the or­phan­age, and when he was in the or­phan­age he was mal­nour­ished.’ ”

Ple­buch and Pam Ben­son took to call­ing each other “swapcuz,” though in fact they share no ge­netic re­la­tion. And now Ple­buch dis­cov­ered she had a real new first cousin: Phylis Pull­man, the daugh­ter of the bi­o­log­i­cal sis­ter Jim never knew. In late 2015, Ple­buch flew to Florida to meet her. Sit­ting at op­po­site ends of a couch, the diminu­tive women were like mir­ror im­ages; they could have been sis­ters.

Pull­man told her the fam­ily story of how, when her tall Un­cle Phillip was court­ing his first wife, her ob­ser­vant Jewish par­ents didn’t be­lieve he could pos­si­bly be a mem­ber of the tribe.

“He had to bring his birth cer­tifi­cate,” says Pull­man. “Lit­tle did we know it wasn’t his birth cer­tifi­cate.”

In Jan­uary, all seven Collins sib­lings joined Pull­man and Pam Ben­son on a cruise. It was oddly com­fort­able, Pull­man says — no strange­ness among strangers, as if blood rec­og­nized blood. Even Pam Ben­son, the daugh­ter of an Ir­ish­man raised Jewish, who didn’t share genes with any of them, felt at ease. “It was like were all one big swap fam­ily,” she says. She and Ple­buch have been work­ing to­gether to try to get New York State to an­no­tate their fa­thers’ birth cer­tifi­cates, to re­flect their true parent­age.

But the rev­e­la­tions have also felt like a loss. Pam Ben­son’s late fa­ther was a Jew, only he wasn’t, and some­times her daugh­ter would come home and catch Pam cry­ing over what he would have thought of this. How were she and Ple­buch to rec­on­cile that their fa­thers weren’t what they thought they were? And, for that mat­ter, what were they? Was Jim Collins a Jewish man be­cause he was born that way, or an Ir­ish­man be­cause he was raised one?

Ple­buch has come to agree with her younger sis­ter that if their dad were alive, it would be right to tell him the truth about his birth. But she con­sid­ers it a mercy that Jim Collins didn’t live through the era of recre­ational ge­nomics. This was a man so proud of his her­itage that his chil­dren gave him an Ir­ish wake, with Wig­gins singing his fa­vorite song, “Danny Boy.”

“My dad would have lost his iden­tity,” Ple­buch says. “He’s been kind of spared that.”

She and her sib­lings also think about what would have hap­pened if Jim Collins re­mained with his bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily, and had be­come Phillip Ben­son, as he was sup­posed to. As the two fam­i­lies ex­changed old pho­tos, Ple­buch came across one of a young Phillip sit­ting on a horse and felt a pang of jeal­ousy. She wouldn’t be­grudge Phillip for those happy child­hood days — but it should have been her dad on that horse.

If not for the switch, Jim would have been raised in an in­tact home. He al­most cer­tainly would have com­pleted high school and might have done some­thing with his gift for math­e­mat­ics. In­stead, he served in the Army and later as a Cal­i­for­nia prison guard — spend­ing his ca­reer in in­sti­tu­tions like the one that de­fined his child­hood. He made a de­cent life for him­self, but his kids still grieve for the losses of that lit­tle boy. “In the or­phan­age, my fa­ther got an orange for Christ­mas,” Ple­buch says.

And yet, were it not for what hap­pened in 1913, Alice Collins Ple­buch would not ex­ist. The Collins chil­dren owe their lives to an ad­min­is­tra­tive over­sight. A nurse’s mo­men­tary lapse of at­ten­tion, per­haps. It was a ter­ri­ble thing, and yet, how can they re­sent that it hap­pened?

It is as­ton­ish­ing what DNA test­ing can do. The same tech­nol­ogy can cleave fam­i­lies apart or knit them to­gether. It can prompt painful rev­e­la­tions, and it can bring dis­tantly re­lated mem­bers of the hu­man fam­ily to­gether on a quest, con­nect­ing first cousins who look like sis­ters, and solv­ing a cen­tury-old mys­tery that could have been solved no other way. It can bring to light a split-sec­ond mis­take com­mit­ted by some­one long dead, in a city across the coun­try, in a build­ing that no longer ex­ists. It can change the fu­ture and it can change the past.

It can change our un­der­stand­ing of who we are.

Ple­buch says she and her sib­lings de­cided as a fam­ily “we were not go­ing to be bit­ter.” It is a com­plex feat, made nec­es­sary by old-fash­ioned er­ror and mod­ern­day tech­nol­ogy, to grasp that a ter­ri­ble thing hap­pened, and that you are grate­ful for it. Nor does Ple­buch re­gret what she’s learned. She does not re­gard DNA test­ing as a Pan­dora’s box bet­ter left closed, though this thing she un­der­took ca­su­ally turned out, she says, to be “the big­gest deal in the world.”

It is the truth, af­ter all.


Alice Collins Ple­buch poses for a por­trait af­ter meet­ing rel­a­tives in Seaford, N.Y., on June 24. Af­ter her “just-for-fun DNA test” in 2012, she plunged into on­line ge­neal­ogy fo­rums.


FROM TOP: The Collins chil­dren — from left, Kitty, Jim and John — with their long­shore­man fa­ther, John Josef Collins, in 1914. Collins, a wid­ower, was un­able to care for his three chil­dren and sent them to or­phan­ages. He died while Jim was still a child. Jim and Alice Nis­bet Collins on their wed­ding day. Alice Collins Ple­buch’s fa­ther, James “Jim” Collins, with his chil­dren. Sec­ond row: Jim Collins, John Collins, Bill Collins, Brian Collins and Ed Collins. Third row: Alice and Gerry Collins Wig­gins.

Ple­buch’s search led to a fam­ily she never knew about that was in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to her own. A Collins baby was raised a Ben­son and a Ben­son baby was raised a Collins. These are the bi­o­log­i­cal lines re­vealed by DNA test­ing.


Phylis Pull­man, left, first cousin to Alice Collins Ple­buch, and Alice chat with Alice’s sec­ond cousins Dan Klein and Jerry Klein while look­ing over photo al­bums of their fam­i­lies

FROM LEFT: A child­hood photo of Phillip Ben­son. Phillip Ben­son and his son Kenny, fu­ture fa­ther of Jes­sica Ben­son. Sit­ting, from left, are Phillip Ben­son’s first wife, Es­ther Abo­lafia Ben­son, their son Kenny, and Phillip Ben­son. Be­hind them are Ida Cott Ben­son and Sam Ben­son.




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