Genetic Surprises

Popular genetic testing sites like Ancestry. com and MyHeritageDNA advertise a joyful process where you send off your sample and get back a world of DNA information that allows you to claim your full heritage and identity. They probably tell you in the fine print that you might uncover some unexpected and even unwelcome surprises, but they don’t push the point.

Sometimes the connection to what you thought were your ancestors isn’t affirmed. In fact, you might find yourself an outlier, a person whose DNA doesn’t match the family you grew up in at all. It happens often enough, and is upsetting enough, to lead to the formation of groups of people in just this situation.

They do have customer service people trained to help if you turn out to be among the unlucky “who the hell are you?” group.

It was AncestryDNA’s customer-service rep who had to break the news to Catherine St Clair.

For her part, St Clair thought she was inquiring about a technical glitch. Her brother—the brother who along with three other siblings had gifted her the DNA test for her birthday—wasn’t showing up right in her family tree. It was not a glitch, the woman on the line had to explain gently, if this news can ever land gently: The man St Clair thought of as her brother only shared enough DNA with her to be a half sibling. In fact, she didn’t match any family members on her father’s side. Her biological father must be someone else.”


You might think that finding out who you truly are is a good thing, but apparently it’s more unsettling that one would imagine. Sometimes it works out well, as people find new family members whose existence they didn’t even imagine. Sometimes it works out badly, leading to feelings of loss and alienation.

We all construct a story about ourselves, about who we are, what we’re a part of. Being able to do so is crucial to our mental health. Not being able to do so is profoundly debilitating.

I have my story, which I wrote in my memoir Good Daughter, Good Mother in 2016. I’m not particularly interested in digging deeper, in sending off a sample to see if my storytelling capability really has Irish roots. I believe it does, and that’s enough for me.

How about you? Would you send a sample off to If so, what would you hope to find?

Before online genealogy was available online, much less DNA testing, my mother’s cousin Ella undertook a manual search of the Halpin family line. Perhaps expecting glory, she instead came upon an ancestor who died in San Quentin after murdering his wife. So scandalized was Ella that her project came to a grinding halt.

Perhaps that’s in the back of my mind. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.