Discovering your roots can start with a home DNA testing kit.
The results, for many, can tell someone about their family history. But for a small percentage of people, the test results can give them a sudden reveal of an unknown relative.
MPR News host Angela Davis spoke with a writer who discovered her previously unknown biological father through a home DNA test and a family therapist on how to process big family secrets that may change your life.
Kirsten Lind Seal is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Minneapolis.
Here are four key moments from the conversation.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.
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How did you make the shocking discovery about your biological father?
Leeanne R. Hay: About five and a half years ago, I decided to take a DNA test because I was interested in finding out details of my genetic history. When I received my results, it showed that my dad was not my biological father. How did I know that? Because he did not show up at the top of the list of my closest relatives. The oldest son of my mentor showed at the top of that list, as a half brother.
I loved my mentor dearly, he was a wonderful man to me, and he was also my mother's boss. Both him and my mother had passed many years ago, and the only one who was still left was my dad, who was 93 years old at the time. I decided not to tell him, and I would never know whether he did know that my biological father was my mother’s boss, or if there was any other information he could share with me about why the secret was kept and how this all happened.
I published the book after he passed away.
How do people deal with those revelations? Why are they so important?
Kirsten Lind Seal: When this kind of discovery happens, it is a neutron bomb that goes off to a family system. People can be devastated. It does not matter how much you prepare to get that information, it still is a huge shock. Whether the parents are still alive can really make a difference, because you could confront or talk to them. If they have passed away, how do you integrate that into your sense of identity?
People need to know those revelations because they can have this feeling of betrayal, of not knowing why the secret was kept from them.
Leeanne R. Hay: Finding out who my biological father was answered a lot of questions I had throughout my childhood. My mother was not very kind to me and she was kind of absentee. After I had my two daughters, I saw a very devoted, loving, kind, patient grandmother. And I remember thinking to myself at the time, wow, I did not know she was capable of this.
It is interesting to see what commonalities I have, particularly with my younger half-brother. Even though I was not raised with him, we have a lot of similar interests and mannerisms. It makes me think about the nature versus nurture theories of biology.
What are some of the reasons people have for keeping secrets?
Kirsten Lind Seal: Usually, when there is a family secret, most of the time, it is because parents are trying to protect their children from something they feel is going to be too damaging or concerning. They also may not have the tools to share that information in what they hope would be a productive way. So they just do not say anything.
One of the most difficult secrets is often childhood sexual abuse within families, and it is clear why people want to keep those things secret. Other family secrets have to do with the history of the family, for example, children who are descendants of Holocaust survivors or war soldiers. It can be just too painful to share with their children, for whom they are trying to create this whole new life.
What advice would you give to reveal family secrets?
Two of the listeners, Mary from Duluth and Jenn from Minneapolis, called into the show and asked how tell someone a family secret, especially if they are kids or teenagers.
Leeanne R. Hay: I have spoken with over 1,000 NPEs, who were adopted products of an affair, sexual assault, donor conceived, all kinds of different variables. And including myself, I cannot express how important it is to tell your child the truth. It is easier to heal when you have the truth. But when you have a lie that festers, then what calls into question is, what else have they lied to me about? When you have a lie, you have already built a wall to stop and close off the space to heal.
Kirsten Lind Seal: I totally support what Leeanne said, I think it is really important to tell the truth, and I would say the sooner the better. Adolescence is a time where developmentally we really solidify our identities. Family therapy can be really helpful as a way to help have these difficult conversations. In the end, those secrets will probably come out. And if decades have gone by, there is a lot of lost opportunity for people to connect.
Listeners who called into the show shared their family secrets. Here are some of them.
Bree from St. Paul
About three years ago, I took a home DNA test and I found that I had 11 half siblings, all born in 1994. For context, I thought I was an only child. It was not until one of them reached out with a certificate that confirmed we are sperm donor children. After that, I was very confused. This has never even been hinted to me by my parents or anybody else in my family. It was a huge shock.
My fiancé and I are looking to have children relatively soon and if I have this conversation with my parents about having children, and the secret is not mentioned to me, I think that is probably when I would mention that I do know about it.
Jennifer from St. Paul
I have had a fainting issue pretty much all my life. That was one of the reasons for wanting to know who my biological father was. However, once I did, I did not find out anything valuable about my condition. My parents never hid the fact that the male figure who raised me, was not my biological father. When I was 8 years old, he adopted me, and he has raised, loved and protected me. He became my father.
I agree that you cannot prepare for what you are going to find. For instance, my great grandfather, who was in World War I, was recovering in the hospital from being gassed. He decided to take the name of a Canadian gentleman that passed away so he could get his pension. That is why my grandfather's last name on his birth certificate is not my father's last name.
Larry from Eden Prairie
I was adopted and that was no secret. I knew all my life, but I always wanted to know my family history. So in August 1992, I ended up sending a letter to my birth parents. A few days after, I received a letter back from my birth father saying that I had made a mistake, that they had a miscarriage and I was not their son. But I knew this was not true.
What I found out later, is that when they received the letter from me, my mom opened the letter, started reading it, and she just dropped it like it was burning her hands. I was their secret that they told no one in the family. They were afraid that this secret was going to ruin their lives. In the end, I connected with them. My mom told her sister, her sister told everybody, and my wife, at that time, and I went back for reunion. It just felt like home. My sister even said she always wanted a brother.
Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.