Today we’re lucky enough to re-share a post entitled “Objects may appear closer than they are…” written in 2013 by a woman named Maggy. We’ve heard from others who discover they are NPEs (not the parent expected) in our #DNASurprise series of guest blog posts, but what happens when this discovery comes later in life? After you’ve spent five decades thinking you know the ins and outs of your family tree?
When Maggy was 54 years old, she discovered that her father wasn’t who she thought he was. Throughout the ups and downs of her discovery, Maggy has shared insightful blog posts – cathartic not only for her but also providing valuable insight to others going through similar experiences. Throughout her post, we see the theme of identity, and how DNA surprises can impact a person’s sense of self and belonging.
Whether we know it consciously or not, we all form an idea of who we are very early in life. Our identities are based on the people in our lives, our family histories, where we are from, and a million other things we identify with. These things and our relationships to them tell us who we are.
Because they are ingrained in us from our earliest memories, most of the time, we don’t even think about our identities; we are just…well…who we are. Every now and then, something can throw us off–for instance, a career change can be devastating. A person who has always identified himself as a teacher might go through an identity crisis if he was suddenly told by “the man” that he can’t teach anymore. But imagine a situation that goes beyond the outer husk of our lives and instead bores into the very core of who we are? As T.S. Eliot would say, “What do I do then? And how should I proceed?”
Who would have ever thought genetics could be so important to identity? I mean, here I am; 54 years old, Caucasian, gentile, from rural Oklahoma with roots on both sides of my family in the Deep South of what is now the United States going as far back as the 1600s. My family were farmers and ranchers for as far back as I can trace, and I’ve done plenty of tracing. In fact, I’ve traced branches on both sides of my ancestry to the 1200s. That’s a lot of ancestry!
But imagine finding out (through pure chance, at the ripe old age of 54) that you’ve got half of your history wrong. Imagine learning that, instead of Bible thumping farmers from Georgia, your father’s ancestors were living in Poland and Germany, studying the Torah. Imagine learning that, instead of a sharecropper’s son from Hollis, OK…a man who worked his way through college to become an educator, your father was a Holocaust survivor who barely made it out of Nazi Germany alive, and somehow became a doctor and an American, against almost insurmountable odds.
Genetics. I am still who I always was, but I am also fundamentally changed. My family is still my family, and yet they aren’t. And yet they are. I still love them as I always have, and I know they feel the same, but my beloved sister is now a half, and my favorite cousin isn’t even genetically related to me. It’s hard to take.
I’m not going to lie. This revelation has really messed with my head in a big way. I’m like NOMAD on the original Star Trek floating around saying, “Non sequitur; your facts are uncoordinated.” That’s exactly how I feel. Confused. Facts I’ve believed my entire life are now fiction. My identity doesn’t make sense anymore.
People who have never been through this have no idea what this kind of discovery does to a person. Almost universally, they spout platitudes like, “The people who raised/love you are your real family.” I’ll be honest; I want to punch these people in the stomach and see how they like it. Of course they’re my real family; nothing could change that! That’s never been at issue. People who say this don’t have any inkling as to what the real problem is. The real problem is that who I thought I was…my personal identity…has changed. Identity is fundamental, and to have to rewrite it at this late stage of life is devastating. I can’t see myself as the offspring of colonial Americans anymore. I can’t see myself as Scotch-Irish. Nor can I see myself as the child of a happily married couple. How sad.
What really ticks me off is that I could have known my father. Instead of losing him in 1962, my father died in 1994. I was robbed of that opportunity to meet him or even watch him furtively from across the street. For that, I will always feel betrayed.
It hasn’t been all bad. I have new relatives who seem really nice. I hope to get to know them. I’m sure they are in their own circle of hell right now, but I hope, with time, that they will want to know me too. I guess time will tell.
There is no magic age when it’s no longer shocking to learn your family isn’t who you thought they were. In her blog posts, Maggy poignantly captures the joy of discovering unknown relatives, as well as the destabilizing shock of learning her familial relationships are not as she previously believed. Sometimes new family members will welcome a newly discovered relative with open arms; sometimes the connection will be more complicated. The most important thing to remember is that although you may feel alone in your experiences, there are others, like Maggy, who are also navigating these new waters.
We want to thank Maggy for her bravery in sharing her story. Visit Maggy’s blog and read this post and others here.