When Heather Torrance, 60, wanted to dig deeper into her family’s genealogy using DNA testing, her husband was apprehensive. Glenn Campbell Longland grew up the only blond and blue-eyed child in a household of brown-haired, brown-eyed parents and siblings. When his mother was dying, she asked Longland, searchingly, if he had questions.
“He always felt something might be a bit off,” Torrance said from their home in Halton Hills, Ont.
Longland was right and his test results revealed the long-held secret: The man who raised him was not his biological father. A lone surviving uncle in Scotland confirmed the truth over the phone. “As Glenn started saying, ‘I’ve taken a DNA test,’ this man tripped over his words, saying, ‘I’ve been holding onto this for 58 years,’” Torrance recalled.
Longland, now 61, learned he was born following an affair between his mother and her cousin. The family elders knew, as did the doctor who delivered Longland, but all were sworn to secrecy. “I had felt betrayed and cheated,” said Longland. He never got to know his biological dad, who died in 1989.
While the couple gained closer relatives and while Torrance, a passionate genealogist, redrew a new family tree, she advised others doing DNA kits to be mindful: “Anything is possible.”
For those who innocently hope to learn more about their ancestors or ethnic makeup but stumble on weighty family secrets instead, genetic testing kits are proving to be a Pandora’s box for the modern age.
While most Canadians find nothing terribly startling in their test results, other families are rocked by serious, far-reaching interpersonal revelations. Experts working with such families have seen misattributed parentage; siblings who turn out to be half siblings; children born of affairs, one-night stands, teenage pregnancies and other once-taboo relationships, as well as late-in-life discoveries of adoption, or sperm and egg donation.
The discoveries can destabilize families, experts warn, this as mental health supports remain slim. Testing technology, they argue, has quickly outpaced the lifelines available to people navigating uncharted waters.
“DNA testing has changed the way family secrets come out and it’s happened really fast,” said Brianne Kirkpatrick, a Virginia-based genetic counsellor who helps families deal with unexpected DNA test results. “We need to have a cultural shift in how we keep family secrets.”
Despite such risks, the kits have become popular gifts at Christmas. It’s left some experts worried that families don’t grasp the full scope of what they could be signing on for. “If you go into this thinking it’s just a fun Christmas gift you got in your Secret Santa, you may not really fully be aware of the potential outcomes,” said Alexis Carere, president of the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors.
The testing begins with saliva collection: People spit into a tube, mail off their kits and await their results. They also fill out online profiles about their questions, be it ancestry, ethnicity or genetic health concerns. Users can opt in to connect with and direct message their DNA matches – people who could be related to them.
It was late one night in September, 2018, when Meghan Richard scanned her list of DNA matches. The 44-year-old barista from Dartmouth, N.S., took the test because she wanted to know if she carried certain genes linked to breast cancer risk; her mother died of the disease at 44.
“This thumbnail picture popped up of this very pretty brunette – 26.7-per-cent genetic match,” Richard recalled. The stranger was seeking information on her biological family, including a deceased mother who sounded a lot like Richard’s mom.
“I was faint,” Richard said. “I sent her a message saying, ‘I hope this isn’t alarming to you but I think you might be my sister.’” The women messaged each other and met in Ottawa two weeks later.
“It wasn’t like meeting a stranger. It was like meeting somebody you knew a long time ago and you picked up where you left off,” Richard said. “She just looks exactly like my mom.”
The sister, who is 11 years older than Richard, was given up for adoption at birth by their mother, who got pregnant while working as a pediatrics nurse in Montreal. The father was a divorced, older Jewish man. The union would have been grounds for disowning in their staunch Catholic family in the early 1960s, Richard explained.
“I think how mind-boggling it must be,” Richard said of her mother, “that years later, I was able to spit in a tube of plastic and reveal her deepest secret that she took to her grave with her.”
Richard said the experience gave her meaningful insight into her mother’s struggles: "It helps me understand my mother as a human being so much more.”
As wrenching as some DNA discoveries are, they can offer a richer understanding of relatives’ complex lives and relationships, said Edmonton’s Nancy Bray, a volunteer “search angel” who helps people interpret their test results with more compassion toward their family members.
“There is such tension between who we think we should be, who we think our ancestors were, and who we actually are as humans,” Bray said. “The secrets we are uncovering were likely the result of incredibly difficult life decisions and events.”
Many of these families can experience shock, guilt, anger and denial. Such disclosures can be traumatic because they upend the narratives people carry with them all their lives, according to Paulette Bethel, a Houston-based “discoveries coach” who coined a term for the feeling – “identity disruption."
Today, genetic counsellors are pushing the major DNA testing companies to start providing more mental health resources so these families aren’t left in the lurch.
Only 23andMe has dedicated information online for people grappling with difficult findings. There are links to online counselling and a crisis line, advice on talking to loved ones and testimonials from other affected families.
According to the website, 23andMe does not employ a therapist: “The world of genetic testing is relatively new,” the website reads, “so resources related to the discovery of unexpected relatives via DNA results are somewhat limited.”
An Ancestry spokesperson said in an e-mail that “member services representatives” help customers understand their results but did not elaborate; MyHeritage DNA and FamilyTreeDNA did not respond to queries about support.
For now, most help comes from private peer support groups on Facebook. Another project, NPE Friends Fellowship, offers dozens of highly specific support groups for various relatives, including those who uncovered and those who kept a family secret. The non-profit organization also hosts symposiums, conferences and even cruises for people dealing with an “NPE” (“not parent expected”) discovery.
In some families, genetic surprises are cause for celebration.
After browsing his Ancestry DNA matches two years ago, Ross Thompson, an iron worker in Uxbridge, Ont., found a daughter he never knew he had. The website listed Stacey Fitzsimmons as either Thompson’s parent or his child. Thompson stared at the screen for a few days before writing her a letter. After corresponding online, the strangers met in Toronto.
"The first time I ever went to her apartment, we share 60 per cent of our books on our bookshelves. Our décor is the same. We’re both very tattooed. ... We talk the same, we have exactly the same mannerisms. It’s freaky,” said Thompson, whose two teenage children quickly connected with Fitzsimmons, too.
The backstory involved an early teenage sexual encounter Thompson had with a slightly older girl, who got pregnant, then moved away and never told him. While he acknowledged that life as a teenage dad would have been challenging, Thompson wished he’d met this daughter sooner.
Had Thompson and Fitzsimmons each used a different brand of DNA test, the father believes they’d never chance upon each other: “I wouldn’t have a story."