As of 2019, more than 26 million people have taken an at-home ancestry test, unleashing a tsunami of destabilizing secrets, from misattributed parentage (known in DNA parlance as “NPE” or “not parent expected,”) to unexpected siblings and half-siblings and children born of affairs and donor insemination. Many people are realizing that they have been lied to their entire lives by the people they love the most.
In her recent bestseller, Inheritance: A Genealogy of Paternity and Love, Dani Shapiro writes about feeling upended after a DNA test revealed a family secret that had been kept hidden from her for 54 years — her beloved deceased father was not in fact, her dad. She’d been conceived by donor sperm and her biological father, a 78-year-old retired physician, was very much alive. Shapiro was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, a blonde blue-eyed child who grew up feeling different from her family, in part because friends, relatives and strangers would frequently tell her that she didn’t look Jewish. “I had the sense that something was amiss,” she writes in her book. “I was different. I was an outsider.”
The DNA test proved she is only half Jewish — and unrelated to the woman she had always thought was her half-sister. It provided the missing clue that explained the lifelong mysterious disconnect that came from lacking essential knowledge about her past. Meeting her real father, she told The Guardian, finally made her feel “like a complete person.” The experience inspired Shapiro to launch her wildly popular (seven million downloads) podcast Family Secrets, which features interviews with people like her who have uncovered life-altering long-hidden secrets.
More on Broadview: When secrets become a burden
Like Shapiro, Tom Wilson, a Juno-award winning rock musician from Hamilton, Ont., grew up with the sense that something was awry in his family. His parents, Bunny and George, were an Irish-French Canadian couple who were a lot older than his friends’ parents. He didn’t look anything like them. Classmates made fun of him for “looking like an Indian.” He suspected he was adopted but when he asked Bunny, she always repeated the same line: “There are secrets I know about you that I’ll take to the grave.” She kept her word. Then, when Wilson was 56, he turned to a relative, Janine, a Mohawk woman whom he was raised to believe was his cousin, to ask her what she knew of his past. Her eyes welled up as she told him, “I’m sorry, Tom. I don’t know how to say this. I hope you forgive me…I’m your mother.”
The unmarried Janine had handed Wilson over to her aunt and uncle to raise and even though she was present for much of his childhood, Janine was instructed not to feed, bathe or comfort him. When Wilson did a DNA test with 23AndMe, he discovered that his birth father was a full Mohawk, who had died in 1991. He has since met the seven half brothers and sisters he never knew he had, most of whom live on the Kahnawake reserve in Quebec.
“When the secret ended, a giant wall came down around me and I felt free and I had a better understanding of who I was.”
Wilson writes about all this in his 2017 memoir, Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home. He chronicles his self-destructive behaviour, including drug addiction, alcoholism and infidelities, and how he felt haunted for most of his life by the idea that he was a stranger to himself. “Without identity we have nothing to offer the world because we don’t know about ourselves. When the secret ended, a giant wall came down around me and I felt free and I had a better understanding of who I was,” he tells Broadview. “Without overusing the terminology, it feels like being reborn. I feel that now my job is to understand what it’s like to be Mohawk. I’m shaking hands with a culture that I’ve just been introduced to — and yet I’m part of it.”
DNA discoveries like Shapiro’s and Wilson’s are at once shocking and illuminating. One thing’s for certain: Thanks to DNA testing, it’s getting harder to keep secrets.
Sophocles predicted this kind of thing would happen way back in 400 BCE: “Do nothing secretly; for Time sees and hears all things, and discloses all.” So did the Bible: “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”
Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.