Real Life

In­ves­ti­gat­ing your an­ces­try on­line can bring sur­prises, as Tanith Carey found out

Woman (UK) - - This Issue -

A wife’s sur­prise dis­cov­ery af­ter tak­ing a DNA test

When I met my hus­band-tobe, an­thony, one of the most in­trigu­ing dis­cov­er­ies I made about him was the fact he had a fam­ily coat of arms. I spot­ted it on a signet ring worn by an­other rel­a­tive – three stags’ heads and the motto, ‘facta non verba’: ‘deeds, not words’. I also dis­cov­ered he had a huge fam­ily tree, full of well-to-do landown­ers who could be traced all the way back to the 14th cen­tury.

Part of the rea­son why it in­trigued me is the fact that my fam­ily are from much more hum­ble ori­gins. They are a mix of Ir­ish im­mi­grants who left af­ter the potato famine, East En­der Jews, plus some Welsh crafts­men and an In­dian grand­fa­ther who ar­rived in Lon­don in the 1930s and made his for­tune set­ting up a vine­gar fac­tory.

I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in fam­ily his­tory. In 2011 I be­came one of the first Bri­tish jour­nal­ists to sign up to the gene-test­ing com­pany 23andme, which promised to tell me a bit more about who my an­ces­tors were – and the health is­sues I might have in­her­ited from them.

All I had to do was send off a sam­ple of saliva to the firm’s Cal­i­for­nia head­quar­ters. Then six weeks later I logged onto the site.

Fam­ily shocks

As well as telling me that I have the gene for smelling as­para­gus in urine and pro­duc­ing wet ear­wax, it also cor­rectly iden­ti­fied that I am, in­deed, the mother of my chil­dren (and that my hus­band is their fa­ther) – as Lily, Clio and An­thony also sent in their sam­ples anony­mously. So there was no doubt in my mind that the ser­vice works.

23andme also al­lows you to see de­tails of other in­di­vid­u­als who have used the ser­vice and with whom you share DNA. Over time, I re­ceived more and more no­ti­fi­ca­tions, usu­ally telling me about dis­tant cousins whose Ir­ish an­ces­tors had headed for Amer­ica.

How­ever, a cou­ple of weeks ago I had a big catch-up on the site and spot­ted that one of the names on the list of 500 dis­tant rel­a­tives was none other than my posher hus­band.

Ac­cord­ing to the anal­y­sis, it turns out we share a sec­tion of DNA on the 18th chro­mo­some, due to a rel­a­tive four or five gen­er­a­tions back.

In other words, we were fourth or fifth cousins. As our fam­i­lies haven’t ex­actly been mov­ing in the same cir­cles, this im­me­di­ately led to all sorts of fevered spec­u­la­tion about il­licit up­stairs-down­stairs-style af­fairs. This wasn’t the first time 23andme had opened a can of worms for me. Four years go, its an­ces­try ser­vice told me that the woman I’d al­ways known as my late grand­mother’s much younger sis­ter was, in fact, her daugh­ter. She’d been born out of wed­lock – and raised by my great-grand­mother in­stead. Even my late fa­ther be­lieved the woman was his aunt. Cue all sorts of fam­ily drama about what had re­ally hap­pened and how se­cret this fam­ily his­tory should be.

With an­ces­try ser­vices be­com­ing more and more pop­u­lar, it seems that un­com­fort­able DNA bomb­shells are be­com­ing more com­mon too. Over 12 mil­lion peo­ple around the world have used one of the home-test­ing kits pro­vided by these firms (which cost be­tween £60 and £120), de­cant­ing their saliva into a test tube or tak­ing a swab from in­side their cheeks.

These kits are un­cov­er­ing se­crets that would other­wise have gone to the grave. In fact, so many are sur­fac­ing that there is a now a global net­work called the NPE Friends Fel­low­ship – NPE stands for ‘Not Par­ent Ex­pected’ – to sup­port in­di­vid­u­als who have dis­cov­ered their fam­ily re­la­tion­ships aren’t what they were led to be­lieve.

The net­work’s founder is Catherine St Clair, who was given an An­ces­try DNA test for her birth­day, two years ago. When Catherine’s brother took a test too, she was stunned to see that the re­sults re­vealed he was her half, rather than full, sib­ling. It meant that the late fa­ther she’d al­ways known as Daddy hadn’t fa­thered her af­ter all. She man­aged to track down her bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther, a man her mother had once worked with, who had also since died, and she later went on to find two half-sis­ters through the site.

Catherine says the NPE Friends Fel­low­ship, whose Face­book group has 3,500 mem­bers from 12 coun­tries, helps in­di­vid­u­als come to terms with a wide va­ri­ety of sce­nar­ios.

Catherine says, ‘Peo­ple don’t re­alise that hav­ing an NPE dis­cov­ery can re­ally be a sig­nif­i­cant trauma. It makes them ques­tion ev­ery­thing.’

Be cau­tious

To be fair to 23andme, the com­pany knows this can be an is­sue. For this rea­son, 23andme’s spokesper­son, Andy Kill, tells me sign­ing up to site’s ‘DNA Rel­a­tives’ fea­ture is only an op­tional fea­ture. ‘We do alert cus­tomers to this fact, and this is ex­actly why you must make an ac­tive choice to par­tic­i­pate in the tool as it may dis­cover un­ex­pected in­for­ma­tion or re­la­tion­ships,’ he says.

How­ever, while a home DNA kit might have un­cov­ered an un­com­fort­able truth in my fam­ily’s re­cent past, Adam tells me I am prob­a­bly wast­ing my time dig­ging for any scan­dals that might help ex­plain how An­thony and I are re­lated. And our shared DNA is not so shock­ing af­ter all.

Robin Smith, a se­nior re­searcher for 23andme, points out that I share about only 0.1% of my genome with my hus­band. ‘Gen­er­ally speak­ing, fourth cousins – of which the av­er­age per­son is ex­pected to have about 1,000 – share a set of third great grand­par­ents, peo­ple born about 150 or so years ago. We all have 32 third great grand­par­ents, so there are a lot of pos­si­bil­i­ties [for un­cov­er­ing dis­tant rel­a­tives].’ But while my re­la­tion­ship with An­thony is less scan­dalous than we thought, DNA dis­cov­er­ies about the more re­cent past will con­tinue to change fam­ily dy­nam­ics and re­write fam­ily his­to­ries.

Af­ter all, the post-war gen­er­a­tion, whose se­crets are now be­ing re­vealed, could never have fore­seen their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren would find it so easy to open their Pan­dora’s box. As the pop­u­lar­ity of ge­neal­ogy grows, keep­ing fam­ily se­crets will be­come much harder.

‘It can Be a sig­nif­i­cant trauma’

Tanith thought An­thony’s fam­ily moved in much gran­der cir­cles than hers

An­thony and Tanith just af­ter they got en­gaged Tanith’s daugh­ters Lily and Clio also had a DNA test

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