Thank you, Science and Technology. 23andMe gave me a genetically “clean” bill of health. Information presented included risk for certain diseases, carrier status, drug response, genetic traits and “health labs.” 23andMe detected a couple of genes that indicated an elevated risk for non-life threatening conditions (psoriasis, restless leg syndrome). As for the possibility of inherited conditions, my test results detected no mutations or gene variants that might indicate any of the serious inherited conditions screened by 23andMe. Of course, this was before 23andMe suspended their health-related genetic testing to comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s directive. Lucky me.
After I received the health results, I played around with the ancestry section of the site. I was fascinated to find out that I was British and Irish. I didn’t figure that! Given my propensity for arguing, raising my voice in exciting situations, and talking with my hands (flailing uncontrollably while talking, actually), I figured there would be a bit of Italian in me. But no. Oh well . . . I was enchanted with being British and Irish. Turns out I was visiting my ancestors’ homeland when I spent that year abroad in college. Cheers! My adoptive mother would have loved to have known that. And with the Irish bit, I secretly imagine that I am related to Bono. Don’t laugh! My past, including my heritage and ancestry, had always been something I could play with in my imagination. Adoptees do that a lot.
I don’t know why I never thought to look at the DNA Relatives section of the site. I knew who my biological mother was. I knew that she didn’t have any other children. What were the odds that I’d find anything or anyone meaningful through a DNA match? First, I didn’t imagine that my birthfather was actually looking for me (most likely he was not aware of my existence). And given his age (early 70’s), I didn’t think he’d be spitting into a tube getting in touch with his genes. I didn’t venture to the DNA Relatives section.
A few weeks after analyzing the health data, I received an e-mail from 23andMe. It was a conduit e-mail, from a “potential relative.”
Through our shared DNA, 23andMe has identified us as relatives. Our predicted relationship is 4th Cousin, with a likely range of 3rd to 6th Cousin. Would you like to explore our relationship?
4th cousin (maybe even 6th)? Whoop de doo. I guess because of the fact that I had no blood relatives that I actually knew, except for my own boys, a 4th cousin did not rouse any sort of curiosity in me. Even if he was related to me on my paternal side, how would I know? A potential match would request lineage information via a list of surnames. A potential match with a common surname could help someone putting together a family tree fill in the blanks. I’m afraid my blanks go much deeper than that. I could not help anyone. I don’t have any surnames.
I ignored the message. But then I got a few more. They were all pretty much the same . . . . 3rd to 6th Cousin, 4th to Distant Cousin, etc. I finally decided to go online at 23andMe and check out the DNA Relatives. I knew that I could “shut off” the notifications if I wanted to, but I have to admit I was a little curious to see what kind of matches I had and how 23andMe presented the information.
Just as I expected, it was a little weird . . . and a lot overwhelming. The information link to the data looked like this:
762 potential relatives? Sheesh! What does one even do with this kind of information. Distant cousins? Who even cares? Okay, maybe a lot of people do care about distant cousins–it’s a way to find common ancestors and build your family tree. But I don’t have a family tree. Or even a bush. Or a weed.
Then I saw it. 1 CLOSE FAMILY. What? Who? I clicked on it. Before 23andMe would reveal any details, a warning popped up. I had to confirm that I really, really wanted the information. This was not a game.
23andMe asks for two layers of consent before it shows family relationships. First, users are given the chance to turn off the “relative finder” function, which shows relations as close as second cousins. Once you’ve opted in, if 23andMe has found any close relatives (closer than a second cousin), a warning is presented to the user via popup that explains how this “new” evidence of a close family relationship can be unexpected and even upsetting in some cases. Upsetting? Been there. Done that (with Margaret).
You may learn information about yourself that you do not anticipate. Such information may provoke strong emotion.
Thanks, 23andMe. Now I’m scared. But I clicked “proceed” anyway.
What the hell? My biological father? 23andMe found my biological father when no one else in the entire world (except for Margaret) knew who he was? Boy, howdy, this is not a game. Or is it? I felt like I had won the lottery. I just needed someone to confirm the ticket.
I didn’t even know what the information meant:
50.0% shared, 23 segments
But I sure as hell knew what “Father” meant. I would do the research later on the science and technical stuff. I had to contact this guy! Initial contact had to be made through 23andMe. I could hardly think straight as I wrote the message:
I am contacting you because 23andMe has identified you as a relative of mine because of our shared DNA. 23andMe has predicted, through our DNA “match,” that you are my biological father. You won’t recognize my name, because I was adopted and bear the name of my adoptive parents. However, my birth mother’s name is Margaret Michaels. I hope that the name Margaret Michaels is familiar to you, although it was 50 years ago and I understand that it was a difficult time for both of you. I hope that you will respond to my message and that you are interested in exploring our relationship. I look forward to hearing from you! Laureen Pittman (original birth certificate reads: “Baby Girl Michaels”).
Crazy, right? But it can happen. 23andMe even said so.
You can be confident that the matches listed in DNA Relatives are your relatives, even though they may be quite distantly related to you. The vast majority of relatives found by DNA Relatives share a common ancestor within the last five to ten generations. A few may be more distantly related. There is, however, the possibility of finding a much closer relative — including a parent or sibling. (23andMe Customer Care: What Can 23andMe Do For Me If I Am Adopted?)
It has happened before. The stories I found amazed me. Some scared me. Some were happy endings, or new beginnings. Sometimes the results were, indeed, unexpected. This story is one of my favorites: Whoops. How DNA Site 23andMe Outed Parents Who Gave Their Baby Up For Adoption. And this one: When Family Ties Turn Into Knots. I guess I liked the stories that
tore open the carefully crafted lies revealed life changing information and brought enlightenment to people seeking information.
Science and technology have this incredible way of uncovering secrets.
I waited for my secrets to be revealed.