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A Modern Pandora's Box
September 9, 2014 3:05 PM   Subscribe

With genetic testing, I gave my parents the gift of divorce I found out I don't have any genetic predisposition to any kind of cancer, which was a great relief to me. But I also discovered through the 23andMe close relative finder program that I have a half brother, Thomas.
posted by Michele in California (85 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interesting ethical questions here, but the story itself has giant gaping holes in it. What, specifically, happened that led from Thomas the brother to the parents' divorce? Did the author tell his mother? Did his sister, with whom he shared this information? Did the father?

It's interesting to hear, but honestly, I just felt like the most important parts of this (beyond that 23andMe can lead you to relatives you didn't know you had, and give you inadvertent paternity results) were completely left out and rushed past.
posted by xingcat at 3:13 PM on September 9, 2014 [22 favorites]


It was seriously glossed over but you can infer that his dad was unfaithful, a child resulted (which was put up for adoption at birth), the genetics testing outed the situation in a way where the parents could no longer pretend "nothing happened" and the end result was his parents divorced:
At first, I was thinking this is the coolest genetics story, my own personal genetics story. I wasn't particularly upset about it initially, until the rest of the family found out. Their reaction was different. Years of repressed memories and emotions uncorked and resulted in tumultuous times that have torn my nuclear family apart. My parents divorced. No one is talking to my dad. We're not anywhere close to being healed yet and I don't know how long it will take to put the pieces back together.
This does not tell us if his mom knew back in the day but was okay with staying because it got covered up or if this was all news to her or what. But, surely, his father at least knew he had been unfaithful, whether or not he knew a child had resulted. And now everyone knew and it blew up.
posted by Michele in California at 3:19 PM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


The strong implication is that Thomas was the result of an affair that the author's father had some years ago & that finding out about the affair broke up his parents' marriage.
posted by pharm at 3:20 PM on September 9, 2014


From another Vox article:
When George figured out his dad had conceived this child before getting married — that the child was not the result of adultery — he was excited. "I thought it was the coolest genetics story, my own personal genetics story. I wasn't particularly upset about it initially, until the rest of the family found out, and their reaction was different."

His mother and sister could not handle the information, and his father went against their wishes, dedicating himself to reconnecting with his estranged son
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 3:21 PM on September 9, 2014 [19 favorites]


It's a strange, clunkily written diatribe against...I'm not sure what.

If you look at the front page of 23andme right now they are proudly showing a video of two sisters who found each other through DNA matching. So I suppose this person is asking that they include a warning label: "Danger: This may lead to you finding UNWANTED relatives!"
posted by vacapinta at 3:21 PM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


They must have changed something because when my results were available a few years ago, I had to click through a very clearly worded screen in order to see any matches for relatives. It specifically mentioned you might find out about previously unknown relatives.
posted by missmerrymack at 3:29 PM on September 9, 2014


Yeah, that bit from the followup article does make it sound like it's, well, personal weirdness in the author's family. I could understand the mother and sister being upset if Thomas was a result of an affair, but it seems both irrational and cruel to demand the father not acknowledge him. His birth had nothing to do with their family -- would you demand that someone never contact a child from their first marriage, on pain of divorce?
posted by tavella at 3:29 PM on September 9, 2014 [14 favorites]


Add a few homicides and/or suicides and this could be a Shakespeare play. Or a daytime talk show episode.

His point doesn't seem so strange to me. I kinda wonder how this works with HIPAA regulations, especially having the "see close family members" thing be opt-out.
posted by XMLicious at 3:30 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I actually teach a class about this, in part as a result of my own experiences, which connected me with my biological mother's family eight months after I got the test results (she passed away two years ago, and they're a giant Irish Catholic family, so having one more cousin or nephew or whatever was cool with them, thank goodness.) I tell people the same thing they should consider when doing traditional genealology -- that families can have a lot of skeletons in their closets, and digging around might unearth the skeletons. Something like five percent of all people were raised by fathers other than their biological father, and don't know it, and sometimes the father who raised them doesn't know it, and this will come out in the test.

I still think these tests are incredibly useful and valuable, but folks need to be ready for the possibility of what they may learn.
posted by maxsparber at 3:33 PM on September 9, 2014 [16 favorites]


Doing 23andMe as a family project is an extremely stupid idea. More families have this kind of weirdness than like to admit it. Genetic testing is nothing if not a high-powered dredge for secrets, some of them useful (Better schedule that colonoscopy) and some less so (handle it delicately if it turns out your genome comes from only one of your parents, or something like the OP turns up).

Not GT, but similar: On her deathbed my grandmother claimed that she was not, as it was always thought, the November-surprise sister of the family matriarch who had 11 kids, but the matriarch's first child, and the woman I'd always thought was my great-grandmother was actually my great-great-grandmother. GM was sworn to secrecy about this because she was conceived when the matriarch was 12 years old, and not yet married to the man who would go on to father the other 11, and so GM could never claim her proper place in the family.

Although this explained several mysterious things very neatly it started what can only be described as a war between two factions of the family and dozens of people are now not on speaking terms with each other over it. So yeah, beware the untimely revelation of family secrets.

It can be a great idea for many reasons to have the test, and I've considered having it done myself. But I would never tell anyone else until I had the results and I'd be very careful about what I revealed.
posted by localroger at 3:36 PM on September 9, 2014 [15 favorites]


And might there not be a slew of "You are . . . NOT the father!" type moments?
posted by jfwlucy at 3:38 PM on September 9, 2014


Oh, hell, you don't need genetic testing for this kind of drama. Just introduce alcohol at Thanksgiving.
posted by Muddler at 3:44 PM on September 9, 2014 [32 favorites]


Part of me thinks paternity verification when a birth certificate is issued should become standard so the children don't spend their whole lives with medical decisions influenced by fallacious family history. The rest of me is sure it'd cause more human suffering than it prevented.
posted by Zed at 3:47 PM on September 9, 2014 [11 favorites]


Genetic testing is what makes it a modern Pandora's Box. Alcohol and family holidays have been around for eons.
posted by Michele in California at 3:51 PM on September 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


Zed: that's been proposed a number of times. It's a standard "want" for the MRA types. The problem is that legally paternity is defined socially not genetically. This would move the law towards a genetic definition, lots of reasons for that, some of which you allude to.
posted by sfred at 3:51 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


There's a lot of this story that isn't the author's to tell, nor are we entitled to know the details. Whatever actually went down, apparently it was not okay in that family to have children you don't tell anyone else about. That's probably true in a lot of families.

I think the point of the story is that one could very well find out about more than just themselves when participating in this kind of research - or, as maxsparber points out, genealogy in general. My mom spent one weird obsessive year doing our family tree when I was a teenager, and she found all kinds of funny math* and I know there was at least one situation where her mother said "you put down that X had Y with Z in 19NN and then leave it alone."

*My mother put down the birth date my grandfather had on all his official documentation, only to find out many years later on his deathbed that he lied about his age to get into the army, which was the first time he had a birth certificate or any official documentation, and could no longer remember exactly how many years he'd fudged it by. He was probably either 89 or 91 when he died, but it means we probably got most of his many siblings' birth years and possibly birth order wrong as well.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:54 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Gah, what a clunkily written tale.

Also, undisclosed infidelity is so common it is a trope. Everyone's belief in their own genealogy (and in famous lines of descent) rests on something of a foundation of sand.

I'm not quite sure how George Doe or anyone who looks for genetic information overlooks this basic problem.
posted by bearwife at 3:58 PM on September 9, 2014


23andMe should totally use the Luke & Vader "I am your father" scene as an advertisement.
posted by happyroach at 4:01 PM on September 9, 2014 [10 favorites]


"That's not true. That's impossible!"

"Search 23andMe, you know it to be true."

"Nooooooooooooooo"
posted by Phssthpok at 4:05 PM on September 9, 2014 [60 favorites]


It was a bit of a relief after doing an ancestry.com DNA test to see that I was closely genetically related to my dad's uncle. We'll see if any more previously unknown relations come out of the wood work once these sorts of tests become more popular.
posted by davros42 at 4:18 PM on September 9, 2014


There is a family story that I have a half-brother out there, a son of my father's who was born before my parents met and given up for adoption by his young mother after my father refused to acknowledge the child as his and refused to marry the mother. It's hard to tell for certain whether the story is true, since my father never admitted it, but then again, my father is a pathological liar.

I'd actually really like to meet my mystery brother, assuming he exists. But I wouldn't want him, for his own sake, to meet our dad. Our dad is a handsome, intelligent, charismatic, narcissistic, needy, dangerous, selfish jerk. He was a neglectful, abusive parent. He's a womanizer and a con artist who has lied, stolen and cheated his way through life, leaving all manner of ruined relationships and ruined people in his wake. Neither one of his acknowledged daughters is even on speaking terms with him. Neither are any of his (unofficial) stepchildren.

Wouldn't that be an awful thing to find out, about your birth father? So even though I'd like to meet him just out of selfish curiosity, I keep hoping my theoretical brother is not looking for his family. I don't know how I'd break it to him if we found each other by accident. If I told him the truth about our father, he probably wouldn't want to believe me.

So I think maybe some secrets really are better kept secret. But given how rapidly DNA analysis technology is becoming cheaper and more available, I don't know how much longer anyone will be able to keep family secrets like this from coming out. Our culture is going to have to find a way to adapt. (And I should maybe have my "I am sorry to inform you that our father is an asshole" speech prepared.)
posted by BlueJae at 4:20 PM on September 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


it seems both irrational and cruel to demand the father not acknowledge him.

There may have been some inheritance issues involved - as I recall, in some states, acknowledgement of a child, born out of wedlock or not, allows them to take a share of your estate if you die intestate.
posted by corb at 4:45 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Also, undisclosed infidelity is so common it is a trope. Everyone's belief in their own genealogy (and in famous lines of descent) rests on something of a foundation of sand.

I've actually had a total stranger inquire about my ancestry, look at my pale, flushed complexion, and wonder aloud if I was sure there hadn't been an Irish postman in there somewhere.
posted by indubitable at 4:47 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


But given how rapidly DNA analysis technology is becoming cheaper and more available, I don't know how much longer anyone will be able to keep family secrets like this from coming out.

"Based on the purchases of other shoppers with a similar genome in their immediate family, Amazon 23andMeDeals recommends these products..."
posted by XMLicious at 5:00 PM on September 9, 2014 [11 favorites]


This vaguely feels like an ad for 23andme, especially when you add in the detail that the kid wasn't even the result of infidelity. There's basically not much of a story here besides "so my family is full of weirdo drama llamas".
posted by emptythought at 5:02 PM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


There is more to it. It's meant to be informed consent. The author notes that the relative-matching feature is now opt-out, that doesn't meet any ethical standard in biomedical ethics that I can think of. I mean, even if you are a strong adherent of a paternalistic model you'd want to know the results and the family context before deciding whether or not to inform the pertinent parties.
posted by oddman at 5:16 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


I had a friend whose father, back in the day, got his high school girlfriend pregnant. The kid was given up for adoption. The father grew up and married but never told his wife about his earlier child. The kid showed up on his father's doorstep one day. I don't know all the details about the ensuing chaos but I know that this almost destroyed a marriage. They weathered through it all and now the whole family sees the kid (now an adult) a couple of times a year.

These things happen without DNA testing too.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:18 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


These things happen without DNA testing too.

There was a guy in my freshman biology class that complained that the recessive/dominant trait stuff doesn't make any sense because he has some dominant traits and his parents both had the recessive trait. The professor cut him off and suggested talking about it in office hours, so I don't know how that played out.
posted by peeedro at 5:27 PM on September 9, 2014 [32 favorites]


I don't know, saying that this "story has giant gaping holes" or describing it as a "clunkily written diatribe" seems very... uncharitable? Greedy? The author just found out some serious shit about his family, which led his parents to get a divorce (!!!), and you complain that he hasn't aired the dirty laundry enough for your narrative satisfaction?

I mean, imagine that you (yes YOU reader - you right there, yourself, personally) found out that your mother or father had an extra child that he/she didn't know about when he/she got married - pick your father or mother, whichever would be more scandalous - and then you found out about the situation as part of a seemingly unrelated professional product. Further imagine that this caused such a rift in your family that your parents got divorced and certain people stopped speaking to certain other people. Now, if you were to write about this event in your professional capacity, but still trying not to give anyone's identity away or getting too deep into family drama... how would that turn out? Would it really be so much different than this essay?
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 5:30 PM on September 9, 2014 [7 favorites]


If you're a parent who gave up a child for adoption, I think it is time to prepare for the likelihhood that they will locate you in the next five years. Closed adoption came about at a time before DNA testing, and is impossible in a time of DNA testing.

If you have secrets you've kept from your kids, sit down and tell them. It's all going to come out, and you need to get ahead of it.
posted by maxsparber at 5:32 PM on September 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


My 9th grade biology teacher would illustrate the whole Mendel/basic genetics concept by having people do the old school little b/Big B eye color chart from their parents and grandparents. That is, he did that until the year before I had him. That year, a very agitated girl said out loud, "This is wrong. This is WRONG." Her Mendel chart made no sense at all as both of her parents had blue eyes, where hers were brown.

That would be the day she found out she was adopted.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 5:35 PM on September 9, 2014 [14 favorites]


For those of you complaining about the structure or writing of the article in the FPP, the other article linked by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug says that it is a "transcript of Vox's conversations with him.", rather than an article that "George Doe" sat down and wrote (though it does say he "updated" it without any indication of what was changed).
posted by Etrigan at 5:44 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Eye color is complex - two blue-eyed people can in fact have a brown-eyed child.
posted by winna at 5:49 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


They can, but it's not common while infidelity and adoption are fairly common so....
posted by Justinian at 5:56 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh, hell, you don't need genetic testing for this kind of drama. Just introduce alcohol at Thanksgiving.
posted by Muddler


Yep. My then-girlfriends drunk uncle. What an asshole. No divorce but lots of trouble, sadness, and dismay.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:34 PM on September 9, 2014


I mean, imagine that you (yes YOU reader - you right there, yourself, personally) found out that your mother or father had an extra child that he/she didn't know about when he/she got married - pick your father or mother, whichever would be more scandalous

Mom, hands down.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:44 PM on September 9, 2014 [12 favorites]


I toured a genetics lab attached to University of Washington a few years back and we got talking about field trips and what they show kids. I suggested they might run the genome of a few kids right there as part of the demonstration segment but they were very adamant that they were not going that direction for reasons much like the above.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:11 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


This is why I love people who loudly proclaim they can trace their lineage back X generations and they're descended from some famous person. I always think they're in for a big surprise should they ever have DNA testing.
posted by Ik ben afgesneden at 7:13 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I think the tipping point for many people - I know it is becoming the one for me - is wanting to know a medical history. As an adoptee, I have no idea what diseases or illnesses I should be looking out for. It would be nice to know. My birth mother made what she thought was the best decision at the time, I'm totally cool with that. I don't want to cause any family drama, I wish I could find out one without the other. I'm scared to open that Pandora's box, but the older I get, the more I think I should just go for it.
posted by NoraCharles at 7:34 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


I think all families have weirdnesses, and surprise extra kids is just one potential weirdness.

My great-grandparents had been told, by their parents, that they were too young to marry; one day, they snuck out to the courthouse anyway, married, and went home to their respective families without breathing a word of it to anyone. No one knew until some months later, which is when my great-grandmother had her wedding portrait taken and signed their ketubah, but my great-grandfather was on a trip to Europe by then and didn't sign it himself til he got back.

Many years later, in her late nineties, we asked my great-grandmother about her wedding and she said "Oh, Harry was in Europe when we got married." We were actually a little worried about her mental acuity, because she kept insisting that this was so when it made no sense (though she had been very sharp up until then), before we pieced the whole story together.
posted by nonasuch at 8:06 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Part of me thinks paternity verification when a birth certificate is issued should become standard so the children don't spend their whole lives with medical decisions influenced by fallacious family history. The rest of me is sure it'd cause more human suffering than it prevented.

The Department of Ag says it costs $245,000 to raise a child to 18.
There are 81.3 million children in the USA. (source)
How about 1/25 births have "Paternal Discrepancy"?

That's 3.25 million "paternal discrepancies" (and assuming a 50/50 split of cost between man and woman) resulting in a cost of $398,125,000,000 in the USA alone.
posted by unixrat at 8:21 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


and assuming a 50/50 split of cost between man and woman

In real terms, children tend to cost women a whole, whole lot more than they cost men. That "cost," both literal (in terms of dollars) and figurative (in terms of impact on their bodies and lives) is often seriously under-counted for women.

That strikes me as a really big can of worms to open in this discussion.
posted by Michele in California at 8:32 PM on September 9, 2014 [11 favorites]


That strikes me as a really big can of worms to open in this discussion.


Like... a box of some kind?
posted by unixrat at 8:36 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


That's 3.25 million "paternal discrepancies" (and assuming a 50/50 split of cost between man and woman) resulting in a cost of $398,125,000,000 in the USA alone.

How is it a cost? Wouldn't the cost just be shifted from the non-biological father to the biological father, even granting the logic of your question (which I'm not sure I do)?
posted by dialetheia at 8:45 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


even granting the logic of your question (which I'm not sure I do)?

There was no question.
posted by unixrat at 9:04 PM on September 9, 2014


Fair, sorry. "Even granting the logic of your comment," then, my question stands.
posted by dialetheia at 9:23 PM on September 9, 2014


The thing to say is that genome sequencing is getting cheaper at twice the rate of Moore's law. So there will be a point, sooner not later, where this will cost like 1 cent and take like 2 seconds. In too many cases is it outrageously useful- Counsyl is getting towards significantly reducing incidence of Tay-Sachs in America. I don't know about paternity testing but this will have the cultural effect as big as microchips, and in the same shape: it won't look like it will have any changes except in certain places, and then everything will change.
posted by curuinor at 10:08 PM on September 9, 2014


This is why I love people who loudly proclaim they can trace their lineage back X generations and they're descended from some famous person. I always think they're in for a big surprise should they ever have DNA testing.

Not always. I've found 5 people on 23andme that share my two distinctive stretches of Native American DNA. 4 of them also share an identifiable LCA of William Tabor and Hagar Stovall, my six-times great-grandparents (Hagar was likely half-Powhatan.) And during the Richard III investigation, they were able to trace his mother's descendents through 17 generations and find matching DNA.
posted by tavella at 10:12 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


The ethics of this are exceeedinly shady. Presumably opting out means people can't find you as well? Otherwise its just kind of a nightmare scenario where by trying to find out if you have any proclivities for illness you might have people you're not interested in ever seeing again tracking you down.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:13 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Presumably opting out means people can't find you as well?

Well, at least until GoogleGenes gets started up. Once they have drones roaming around picking up genetic samples...
posted by happyroach at 12:24 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I discovered just doing regular genealogical research that my great grandmother lived as a child with her uncle and aunt. Shortly after the aunt died, GGM (now aged 20 or so) married the uncle in a great hurry and promptly had a child who also then died. Her next child was my grandfather.

Nobody who could shed light on this curious story is alive today, and I still can't decide whether I'm glad not to be stirring family shit or sad that nobody can flesh out the story any more than that.
posted by emilyw at 1:58 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


The ethics of this are exceeedinly shady. Presumably opting out means people can't find you as well?

I doubt 23andme is destroying data after sending it. What worries me is where that data ends up 20 years down the road.
posted by Leon at 2:56 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


> Well, at least until GoogleGenes gets started up. Once they have drones roaming around picking up genetic samples...
Given that Google was an early investor in 23andMe and that the company founder is married to Sergey Brin, you could say that it already exists. My understanding of the 23andMe business model is that it's essentially subsidising genetic testing (or at least was when they first launched - I'd imagine costs have tumbled since then) to build up a huge database of genetic data. The real money isn't in linking people with their lost relatives, it's in mining that trove of data and the potential health developments that come from it.
posted by leo_r at 3:06 AM on September 10, 2014


I doubt 23andme is destroying data after sending it. What worries me is where that data ends up 20 years down the road.

I already knew this kind of testing was available, but haven't paid much attention. Reading the article reminded me, and my first thought was this kind of information would be cool to know about yourself - maybe I should get myself sequenced. My second thought was there's no way in hell I'm letting some random company have this data about me just for the fun of it. A few years from now, it's probably going to be cheap and simple enough that any hospital will do it as a matter of course the moment they draw a blood sample, but we can pretend the healthcare industry will be regulated in some effective manner.

Is there anybody doing this kind of testing and actually guaranteeing privacy? I'm talking actual protection of privacy here, not just terms-of-service Don't Be Evil type guarantees. For example, buying a kit containing a random password with cash, sending it in with no identifying information (other than your DNA, that is), and looking up the results using the password without having to disclose your name.
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:38 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Is there anybody doing this kind of testing and actually guaranteeing privacy?

Refreshingly (to me), these people are explicitly not guaranteeing any kind of privacy, and in fact won't let you participate unless you pass a test showing that you understand the privacy implications.
posted by emilyw at 5:03 AM on September 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


A few years from now, it's probably going to be cheap and simple enough that any hospital will do it as a matter of course the moment they draw a blood sample
At least at the moment, hospitals still require genetic counseling if you get testing there, so I don't think hospital testing is likely to be super cheap anytime soon.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:49 AM on September 10, 2014


I tell people the same thing they should consider when doing traditional genealology -- that families can have a lot of skeletons in their closets, and digging around might unearth the skeletons.

My dad was adopted and he found his birth family the traditional way, before the internet even! The reunion . . . did not go well. To the point that, now that I am doing my own genealogy research, I am terrified that somehow his birth mother will find out and think that we are tracking them down again. She even has an Ancestry.com account and I'm pretty worried that one day she will sign back on and not only see that I also have an account, but somehow find out how much research I have done and how much I know about her family (my tree is private, but I still worry).

Part of me just wishes that we would all do genetic testing and find out that we are not even related so that the hurt feelings can go away, despite the fact that both my dad's birth mother, birth father, and his mother's parents all verified that Dad is in fact her child. And part of me never, ever wants to do genetic testing because I don't want to find any more skeletons.
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:05 AM on September 10, 2014


23andme don't offer health reporting for new customers, I had a look for UK based testing and the first one I found was £825 (about $1330),with rather limited health reporting. I'd classify that as a disincentive
posted by epo at 6:32 AM on September 10, 2014


I discovered just doing regular genealogical research that my great grandmother lived as a child with her uncle and aunt. Shortly after the aunt died, GGM (now aged 20 or so) married the uncle in a great hurry and promptly had a child who also then died. Her next child was my grandfather.

Nobody who could shed light on this curious story is alive today, and I still can't decide whether I'm glad not to be stirring family shit or sad that nobody can flesh out the story any more than that.


I got you on this -- your GGM, let's call her Mary, moved in with her father's sister Ernestine and Ernestine's husband Frank who owned a local chain of used clothing stores. She moved in when she was about fourteen and Frank, working very hard to build up his business ably assisted by his secretary Martha, saw very little of her. Three or four years later, Ernestine's health started failing and Mary, being a diligent and thoughtful young woman, started serving as her nurse and general companion. Frank was very grateful and started taking notice of this capable young woman who had come into his life.

Ernestine, unfortunately, was not the most pleasant of invalids; she was passive aggressive and demanding, ordering her young niece around and issuing orders couched as plaintive requests. It was too cold, it was too hot, the soup tasted funny, that girl had forgotten her medicine, why was she being ignored, where was her shawl, there was just no pleasing Ernestine. Frank and Mary, meanwhile, had discovered, independently, that they were deeply attracted to each other in a romantic way; Frank admired Mary's patience and consideration while Mary admired Frank's hard work and the respect with which he treated Martha's abilities even though she was a woman. Ernestine being alive, they never spoke of this to each other, but it was evident from the way they interacted that they regarded each other with great tenderness.

Eventually, Ernestine's illness took a turn for the worse and her health declined rapidly. The doctor shook his head and said "I don't know what's wrong with her. She wasn't that sick before..." and trailed off. In two months, Ernestine was dead. The doctor signed the death certificate and Frank and Mary were married and, shortly after, Mary began expecting a baby. They noticed that, rather than seeming happy for them, people were avoiding them and business at Frank's stores diminished considerably. They started hearing whispering around them and realized that they were being ostracized; the people in town believed that Mary had poisoned Ernestine in order to marry Frank, whose business had been thriving. The stress of this induced premature labor and the baby didn't survive.

Appalled by this, Martha left a note explaining what she had done; she was in love with Frank and had convinced herself that Frank was in love with her because of the respectful way he had treated her. She'd never dreamed that he was in love with Mary. She had put poison into Ernestine's medicine in the hopes of marrying Frank herself but she never meant to hurt anyone else; with this knowledge, the police were able to track down evidence to prove her story true. Her note explained that she was fleeing the country to join a convent and devote herself to good works. The police never found her.

With this new evidence having come to light, the people of the town repented of their earlier treatment of Frank and Mary and took pains to be welcoming to them. Frank's business improved and Mary, in a few years, gave birth to the healthy baby who would become your grandfather.

I read a lot of Agatha Christie.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:51 AM on September 10, 2014 [25 favorites]


Mrs Pterodactyl, I love your interpretation of my ancestor's closet-skeletons, but I have to point out that in my case Mary moved in as a child with her mother's brother Frank and his wife Ernestine, before later marrying Frank.

My most charitable interpretation is that Mary became pregnant by some other means not involving Frank, and Frank then offered to marry her in order to stave off single motherhood, a fate worse than marrying one's own uncle.
posted by emilyw at 7:30 AM on September 10, 2014 [6 favorites]


I mean I guess that COULD be it*. Poor Martha, it just wasn't meant to be.

*Translation: That makes a lot of sense and is very likely correct.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:34 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


My half sister does not get on, nor wanted to meet particularly much our mother-- but she really wanted to meet me when she found I wanted to meet her.

As far as I'm concerned, your family are your family. Grown ups who make babies can deal with the fact they made babies who grow into adults, and your sibling may find it worth it to know you even your dad does suck. It could go either way as people's feelings are all over the map on the meaning of family and shared ancestry (it matters greatly to me but not to some).

I have actually found that weirdly my sister is actually MORE angry about the adoption, and feels more... abandoned.... as in I think for her she was actively hurt about it, whereas I just thought of it as a neat thing to find out about and assumed there were reasons that had nothing to do with her not wanting me.

My dad told his wife but not their kids so it was a big surprise for them. My mom and his wife actually hung out a lot as they were all part of a big group of friends. I watched this video with my mom, her husband, my dad, his wife, my mom's sister (who was bff's with my dad's wife) and my half sibling on my dad's side and my mom's nephews from her sister....all hanging out.

It was WEIRD, all these people that I'm related to on all sides all hanging out but me! I have been extremely fortunate that they are pretty awesome people, my dad can occasionally be an ass about class issues (as in he seems to think badly of me for being raised with middle class people while simultaneously I'm like, dude, you are the one that stuck me with these people?).

To me, my family is all very special, meaningful, and real in the most basic sense. I would disown someone for being unloving, but not for enduring terrible pain to send me to better circumstance out of love. That seems like a cruel reason to disown your own family, and a denial of real and powerful familial love that was there.

Most biological parents are not interested in secrecy, they may be shocked because they were TOLD there would be secrecy, but what a lot of mothers were told was that they were unworthy of ever knowing their children and they didn't deserve to ever know them.

So from their perspective, their children don't need them and they are doing their duty by staying in hiding. And adoptees do sometimes do a weird thing of turning up on their biological parents door step with an expectation of being welcomed AND ALSO told how meaningless and non-family they think biological family are and can you just say all of your medical history and tell the potentially excruciating story of how I was born and what happened and all that and then, by the way, I might not be interested in knowing you again after that, because just to remind you, you're not all that important and not a real mom and I don't need you in case you forgot about all that adoption painful stuff, just a reminder. In my many years of experience supporting mothers through reunion this tends to be hard to help mothers deal with. The thing most good counselors will do is talk through the validity of all forms of motherhood for those who were told "a true mother would give their child a better life" and that even if our kids, or worse, our communities, don't validate our motherhood, we can seek the support of other adults who do. There is also the issue of women who very much, literally, were forced to give up their children, including my own mother who was told she had to pay thousands of dollars and manifest a car and car seat and place to stay if she wanted to keep me when of course, the maternity home designed their program for mothers to have NOT contingency plan when the majority want to change their minds after the birth. That was not an accident on their part, and even still those homes tend to be designed to pretend to offer "unbiased support" to vulnerable mothers in need and then slowly help the women see the "truth of the loving choice of adoption as the only good plan for their child".

The other trouble-shooting is of course that adoptees are sometimes expecting a deeper relationship, but I think it's actually more often the other way around- that mothers more often want more of a relationship and the adoptees only tend to be hoping for that if things didn't work out with the adoptive family. (Which happens.) To which I personally think biological parents should try to help their adult kids out. A piece of paper can't stop the moral obligation I think we all should have to kids we bring into the world, especially if the adoptive family that were planned to support them don't wind up able or willing to do that.

In general, it's best to tread lightly and carefully and kindly if trying to meet folks this way-- and have very low expectations because sometimes, family just suck eggs and you may find out you were better off not knowing some of them, or they don't want to connect. But you might find that you're much better off finding and knowing a few of them too.

I also think there's a.... selfish, clan oriented sort of love in biological family? It's something that meant a lot to me because I was never allowed to benefit from it and told it's selfish of me to want, yet... most people have it as a given. We DO sometimes have powerful bonds with genetic relatives-- my sister and I are... so amazingly similar, it's just... amazing... down to spiritual beliefs and life path choices.... in fact both of my parents have amazing similarities with me, I can't tell when their thoughts are things maybe I said to them because how do they think the same exact things I do? Sometimes that doesn't happen even with genetic relatives, but it's pretty cool when it does. We all know people (or are people) who have terrible terrible genetic relatives, but we all know people (or are people) who have had very special and magnificent relationships with genetic relatives. I still think it's the love that binds us, but I think shared ancestral memory and the love and bonds that have happened over many many generations do still live in many of us, and there are some special things that can happen when that love lives in the genes. After all, love is simply a biological phenomenon, there is no reason to think that it can't exist in forms we don't currently understand, and beyond bonds of space and time that have broken family connectedness. Some families are disconnected even in the same room together, but I think some can maintain love even when far apart, disconnected by cruel situations of fate.
posted by xarnop at 7:43 AM on September 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


The police never found her.

Frank and Mary were smart from the very beginning.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 7:45 AM on September 10, 2014 [8 favorites]


Frank and Mary were smart from the very beginning.

READERS OF THE FUTURE: This is a joke reference to this comment.

You may now return to your moonbase in peace.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:30 AM on September 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


I mean, imagine that you (yes YOU reader - you right there, yourself, personally) found out that your mother or father had an extra child that he/she didn't know about when he/she got married - pick your father or mother, whichever would be more scandalous

Frankly, I'd be more astonished if my father (BlueJae's dad's twin, pretty much) didn't have other kids scattered hither and yon.

An ex of mine was adopted. Thankfully, his birth mother was okay with him getting in contact eventually (he was largely unimpressed, but), which was a good thing as there was definitely some medical stuff he needed to know about.

I think perhaps the way to handle that sort of situation is to have doctors be allowed, by proxy, to be in contact with doctors of the birth parents to relay any necessary medical info. Keeps privacy, no need to ever have to think about it if adopting your child out was traumatic in some way, but necessary info gets to the people who need it.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:36 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think the above poster is right; if you plan adopt out these days in the belief that it will stay a secret, it isn't going to work, unless you have no living relatives within several degrees. You will be found if your child looks for you; not only will they be able to zero in on you from genetic registries, it's very likely that it will be extraordinarily easy and cheap for someone to pick up a glass you left and immediately or almost immediately identify you as a relative. If you can't face an effectively open adoption, and you don't want a child, abortion is the the option to take.
posted by tavella at 9:05 AM on September 10, 2014


I'll bet the notion of prenatal genetic testing would shake up the abortion debate quite a bit.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:12 AM on September 10, 2014


> This is why I love people who loudly proclaim they can trace their lineage back X generations and they're descended from some famous person. I always think they're in for a big surprise should they ever have DNA testing

Well, wait. When people say they can trace their lineage do they necessarily mean their biological lineage? Or their family heritage?

I presume -- and please, correct me if I'm wrong, I'm curious -- that if, say, a kid who'd been adopted was doing a "My Family Tree" project at school that they'd document the family they'd been adopted into, not their birth parents.

I have no idea if the family tree I have, which was made by relatives, has people who were adopted in it. That's not what it's about.

(I am speaking as someone who isn't adopted and who is the same race as pretty much everyone else in my extended family; I know other families can be more complicated.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:25 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I read that this kind of thing has been an open secret among people who do genetic testing for years. They even have a euphemism for it: a non-paternity event. Before consumer DNA testing kits became a thing, this is how it usually went down. Kid shows up at hospital or doctor's office with genetic disease that can only be explained if both parents are carrying a recessive gene and both gave it to the kid. Mom and Dad both get tested to confirm the diagnosis. Kid and Mom both have the recessive gene, but Dad doesn't. Ergo, Jerry Springer "You are not the father!" scenario ensues.
posted by jonp72 at 10:05 AM on September 10, 2014


That strikes me as a really big can of worms to open in this discussion.


Like... a box of some kind?



I posted this so we could cordially discuss someone else's Pandora's Box, which is very different from having a shit show amongst ourselves.

However, here is a recent comment of mine which kind of delineates how rough mom's have it in this country at the moment if you want a small taste of my opinion on the subject.

It isn't that I am unwilling to discuss it. It is that there is currently a MeTa raging on which is apparently largely rooted in how gendered issues get discussed on the site. It looks to me like the second fighty one basically back-to-back. So, it looks to me like emotions are currently running high in regards to discussions of this very kind. High emotions tend to foster the worst kinds of misunderstandings which get to be very difficult to resolve. Once people on both sides have been seriously hurt...let's just say that it is a whole lot easier to burn down a bridge than it is to rebuild it.

FWIW, I have been told that my father paid child support for six years for a kid that was obviously not his. The child was obviously mixed race. The birth of that child caused my father's third divorce in an era where divorce for any reason was a huge scandal and where interracial relationships were hugely scandalous to the point of people getting killed over stuff like that.

So it isn't that I am unsympathetic to the man's side of this. But if you start this discussion about Men's Rights and paternity and you basically start it with me, please rest assured that I have some strong opinions and a lot of statistics on how women are screwed over wrt reproductive, sexual & economic morality (for lack of a better term) so much more than men on a routine, daily basis to a point where people are blind to it and we have to, as a society, deal with that in some meaningful way before I am going to get too up in arms about men being screwed over wrt child support payments.

And, given what I have said above, this is maybe not the time and place to get into that.
posted by Michele in California at 10:33 AM on September 10, 2014 [6 favorites]


FYI: I made the above comment before seeing that this discussion is already being dragged into that MeTa.
posted by Michele in California at 10:40 AM on September 10, 2014


Add a few homicides and/or suicides and this could be a Shakespeare play.

There's two 'cides to every (Shakespeare) story.
posted by DynamiteToast at 10:45 AM on September 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


Most biological parents are not interested in secrecy, they may be shocked because they were TOLD there would be secrecy, but what a lot of mothers were told was that they were unworthy of ever knowing their children and they didn't deserve to ever know them.

Iiiiiiii dunno about this. I think a lot of mothers who gave up their kids for adoption didn't want to have and raise kids. So, later on . . . they aren't interested in connecting with those kids.
posted by chainsofreedom at 10:51 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I just sent away my 23andme kit yesterday. I'm actually hoping it will point me to some relatives I don't know about, my existing family is very small and so far I'm the only one who's taken any steps to remedy that (one daughter). I've done some work on my family tree but mostly on my dad's side, and it's basically one long skinny branch that ends at Ellis Island. Hopefully this will give me a few more data points to work off of.

23andme don't offer health reporting for new customers...I'd classify that as a disincentive
posted by epo at 6:32 AM on September 10


They don't for now, but will be bringing that back as soon as the FDA lets them. They still provide you with your full uninterpreted genetic data which you can then feed into a number of free software programs to view the same health information they would have provided. I plan on doing this as, due to my small and splintered family, there's little to no medical history available.
posted by bizwank at 10:52 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Speaking as someone with no urge to have kids, the whole biological family thing has always seemed weird to me.

When any one of the grandkids does something cool my father is wont to say "See? Blood will out". Occasionally I remind him that 4 of his 8 grandkids are adopted, but it doesn't seem to slow him down.

For that matter there are four more kids I consider to be my nieces and nephews who I share no no blood relations with. Why would it matter?

That said given the popularity of IVF, etc. it's clear that there are a lot of people who are absolutely obsessed with their bloodline and will go to amazing lengths to have a child that continues it. Seems awful self-aggrandizing to me, but humans are weird that way.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:02 AM on September 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


Well at the base we really are just vehicles for replicating DNA, no?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:12 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


There's a lot of myths about the idea that most birthmothers didn't want their children, myths that are not founded in actual evidence.

"Ninety-four percent of non-searching birthmothers when contacted by their adult birth children were pleased, according to a recent British study. (“The Adoption Triangle Revisited: A Study of Adoption Search and Reunion Experiences,” British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2005"

While on the one hand it's fine for some people to not care about their biological families or have exactly equal love for every single human as they do family or non-family-- but most of us do not see obligations and duties and love toward family as the same to non-family.

It's a bit unfair that as adoptees many of us ARE missing something and the default of our culture has been that we are NOT ALLOWED to value that- that we being superficial or selfish or whatever. It's totally unfair. Most people love their children more than other people's children, and we don't tell them they are bad or selfish or over focused on blood unless some tragedy has torn them apart when suddenly they are told they are not allowed to feel a loss by other people.

It's ok for there to be variation but I don't think it's fair to DEVALUE the position that some of us value our family even when we are disconnected and want to find each other again. The laws, policies, and culture has been set to devalue our connections with our ancesors, the cultures of our pasts, and our family members who we share tribal history with in our blood. It's fine for individuals to not value this, but it's not fair to rip other families apart and shame them for trying to find each other which is the default of how our culture often treats families.
posted by xarnop at 11:17 AM on September 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


And all the more so, if I have a deep love for all human beings, that I would absolutely cherish people who created my very body and consciousness and made it possible for me to exist, people who shared the same womb experience with me, people in whose cells share the same memories of ancestors past, carry the memories of the battles to exist in a brutal realities, of sacrafices our ancestors have made for the chain of life to continue. There is love in those cells. Some may have carried deeper love than others, lived out more integrity than others, some family may be more or less worth knowing, but I think there is so much more consciousness within us than we interact with on the regular, and a wisdom in knowing ourselves and our family members and our histories in a deeper and more compassionate way.
posted by xarnop at 11:23 AM on September 10, 2014


Actually some people do call other people bad or selfish for loving their own children more than other people's children, trust me, but I take your point, xarnop.
posted by corb at 1:03 PM on September 10, 2014


Bullshit, corb. I have never heard any parent ever in my 35 years on this planet call another parent selfish for loving their children more than someone else's, mostly because they love their own more than they love anyone else's.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:25 PM on September 10, 2014


Nor, indeed, have I ever heard any person, childless or no, say that until this day.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:28 PM on September 10, 2014


Whoa. Let's not cuss at another mefite because their experience is different from yours. I was a full time mom for a lot of years. I have had people act like I was stupid and a doormat and a pushover and all kinds of other code words for "bad" in some way and "overindulgent mom" (a form of selfishness, I think). Maybe not the exact words corb used, but much the same sentiment.

And I am 49 if you want to use the age card.
posted by Michele in California at 1:29 PM on September 10, 2014


I have never heard any parent ever in my 35 years on this planet call another parent selfish for loving their children more than someone else's,

Don't deal much with the foster care system, do you?

Or adoptions gone wrong.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:20 PM on September 10, 2014


And all the more so, if I have a deep love for all human beings, that I would absolutely cherish people who created my very body and consciousness and made it possible for me to exist, people who shared the same womb experience with me, people in whose cells share the same memories of ancestors past, carry the memories of the battles to exist in a brutal realities, of sacrafices our ancestors have made for the chain of life to continue. There is love in those cells. Some may have carried deeper love than others, lived out more integrity than others, some family may be more or less worth knowing, but I think there is so much more consciousness within us than we interact with on the regular, and a wisdom in knowing ourselves and our family members and our histories in a deeper and more compassionate way.