A local Detroiter finds out the results from an at-home genetic test that changes their world.
Editor’s note: This story was written by a local community member who prefers to remain anonymous.
My world, like author Dani Shapiro’s, was upended by a DNA test, but my story takes place in Detroit.
Like Shapiro, I learned that my beloved dad was not my biological father.
Unlike Shapiro, the sperm donor in my case was Jewish, and he wasn’t a medical resident arranged for by my mother’s doctor. The sperm donor was my mother’s doctor, a well-regarded OB-GYN who practiced at Detroit-area hospitals from the 1930s-1960s.
As I recently learned through the Detroit Jewish News Foundation’s William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History, he also was a member of many local Jewish organizations.
I took the Ancestry DNA test several years ago. With two Jewish parents, I was curious about my percentage of Jewish heritage going back through generations and was hoping to learn about distant relatives to fill out my family tree.
Plenty of people showed up: a few close family members whose names I recognized and several thousand second-, third- and fourth-to-sixth cousins who remain a mystery.
I attributed this massive number of cousins to Eastern European Jews living within the Pale of Settlement who married not only other Jews but often within their own families. As a result, Ashkenazi Jews like me share more DNA with one another than do average populations (a concept known as endogamy). Our shared DNA often comes from multiple shared ancestors and makes us look more closely related in a familial way than we actually are.
As in Shapiro’s memoir, Inheritance, a first cousin whose name I did not recognize suddenly appeared on my Ancestry DNA list. This individual contacted me through the site, asking if my mother had difficulty getting pregnant and the name of the obstetrician who had delivered me.
When I supplied the doctor’s name, I was told he was a grandfather to this individual, making this person’s parent my half-sibling. According to DNA relationship charts, first cousins share the same amount of DNA as do half-aunts/half-uncles with half-nieces/half-nephews.
The only way our shared DNA makes sense, I was informed, “is that my grandfather is your biological father. No doubt about it, and probably involving in vivo fertilization [of an egg within a uterus]. My grandfather was probably experimenting with what was then a new procedure using his own sperm.”
I brushed it off, attributing the considerable amount of DNA we shared to Jewish endogamy. At the time, I didn’t know nor want to accept that DNA results are actually 100 percent accurate among close Jewish relatives.
“Don’t contact me again,” I said, feeling very unsettled, even more so when this individual’s parent showed up on Ancestry DNA as my half-sibling.
I decided the only way to prove that my dad was in fact my biological father was to have a close relative on his side of the family take an Ancestry DNA test. A paternal first cousin agreed to do so, but when the Ancestry DNA results came in, we were not a match at all. All the relatives on my dad’s side of the family who showed up on my cousin’s list were absent from mine.
This was when devastation — and six months of sleepless nights — set in.
What had happened? Did my parents know? And if so, why hadn’t I been told about the circumstances surrounding my birth? How could I not share DNA with the father I adore?
Furthermore, who was I really? Who were the people I biologically descended from? What was my real health history?
My identity felt shattered.
Coming to Understand
True, what happened to me occurred in an era when the shame surrounding infertility was intense. Additionally, doctors often were looked upon as gods. They didn’t have to explain and patients didn’t question, especially when the physician was well-respected in his field.
“A practice of the day was to mix donor sperm with the intended father’s sperm to keep alive the possibility that the child was biologically his,” Dani Shapiro wrote in an article for Time magazine. “There was a commonly used term for this: ‘confused artificial insemination.’
“Back then, the medical establishment took great pains to allow couples to believe what they wanted about what [the doctors] were doing. Couples were often told to have sex before and after the procedure to further the sense that the husband could be the father.
“Once a woman had become pregnant, the couple might be told that her blood levels showed she must have already been pregnant.”
Eventually, a relative was able to confirm that my parents had indeed grappled with fertility issues that had been resolved with in vivo fertilization using my dad’s sperm. I asked if donor sperm was involved as well.
“The doctor just told your mother he would take care of it,” was the response. I am certain my mom would not have asked further questions of any doctor.
In the end, I am convinced that neither of my parents knew the truth about my biological father, who, in my opinion, handled the procedure in an unethical and short-sighted manner, and on a still-unknown number of patients.
For him, the thought of readily available at-home DNA tests was unimaginable. But did he not think about the consequences of his actions? Did he consider the possibility that patients he had inseminated with his own sperm could have offspring — half-siblings — who could fall in love and marry and have children of their own?
And exactly how many half-siblings who have not been DNA tested do I have?
I recently took a 23andMe DNA test, which revealed another half-sibling — six years younger than I — outside the doctor’s nuclear family. As more and more people take these tests, there could be more unexpected and jarring revelations.
So how have I started to heal?
Getting support from my spouse, a few close family members and friends, and someone whose spiritual insights I value and appreciate.
Sharing the truth with my children, who have the right to know about their origins.
Realizing I am not alone: Home DNA tests now warn users they could be in for some surprises, and multiple stories similar to mine come out in the media every week.
Most important, feeling gratitude I was raised by an incredible dad. “I will love you forever,” he told me. I will love him forever, too.
Read more Dani Shapiro’s DNA story.