A Call from Wendell: James's DNA Surprise Story

Intro from Brianne:

The uncovering of one DNA surprise can sometimes have a domino effect in a family. It is understandable how words like “unraveling” are used to describe situations like this, when multiple tightly-held secrets suddenly all become known in short order, and how panicked fingers begin to point and deflect blame. In the case of James and his family, the discovery that the father who raised James wasn’t his biological father led to the same discovery for his three siblings as well.

James shares with us the painful details of his mother’s misplaced blame on him after the secrets of his and his siblings’ misattributed paternity came to light. He writes about how he has been able to cope and move forward in the year since he made his own unexpected paternity discovery.

The television commercials about DNA testing mention DNA ties to health, interesting physical traits, and ethnic identity, but never the spiritual implications of the results. James’s faith tradition (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) places emphasis on family bonds that begin on Earth but last into the Afterlife. Thus, the impact of a “not the parent expected” (NPE) result after a DNA test taken for fun has sent ripples through his spiritual life as well, leaving him with questions he still grapples with.

These situations are never easy. As he forges a new relationship with a half-brother who has only become known to him later in life, James shares the struggles of an ongoing schism with his mother.

Thank you, James, for sharing your experience for my readers.


A Call from Wendell: James’s DNA Surprise Story

I had seen the phone number on my caller ID twice the previous week but decided not to answer.

Both times the person left the same message, he said his name was Wendell and asked me to call him back. When the phone rang this time, as my wife and I drove to Utah to see family, I decided to answer.

“Hi, this is James,” I said. “Hi, this is Wendell,” the caller said, “I’ve been trying to reach you.” “I know,” I said, “How can I help you?” Wendell paused and then replied, “I think you’re my half-brother.”

As Wendell’s words settled in my ears, all I could think to say was, “Who do you think our father is.”

To my surprise, Wendell didn’t say my father’s name.

Being a life-long member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, genealogy has always been a part of my church experience. One of my favorite family relics is my great-great-great-grandfather’s journal. So, when my son asked my wife and I to take a DNA test on Ancestry.com to trace our geographic lineage to the United States, I said, “Sure.”

When I was around nine years old I started visiting my grandparents in Utah during the summer. My grandparents owned a dairy farm, and that’s where my father grew up. I loved to hear stories about my father from my grandmother. During those years of visiting in the summer and working on the farm, I remember feeling a little more special than my adopted cousins. I was a true member of the family through blood, they were just adopted. It’s interesting now as I look back on my relationship with them. How I felt a slight feeling of superiority just because of my genetics.

As my wife and I drove and talked, I decided I would speak with my mom and siblings about my new discovery when we got to Utah.

You can probably guess that speaking with my mother was not as easy as speaking with my siblings. At first there was a significant amount of denial and anger from my mother, but slowly the conversation began to change and the truth started to come out.

She told me who my real father was.

Unprepared for the moment, my mother deflected responsibility for her choices to a variety of people and circumstances. She struggled to embrace an old truth with new understanding, but gradually she found a humble spot and was able to offer me information.

It’s interesting to feel like you know yourself and wonder who you are all at the same time.

Would things have been altered if I was raised by a different man? Would I still believe the things I believe? Would I still desire the same things I do? As a mental health counselor, I have helped others to deal with situations like this but never expected it to happen to me.

As I deeply struggled with the situation, a simple and profound answer came to my mind, “Life doesn’t regret itself!”

However I got here, I’m here, and I’m proud of the life I’ve created.

Whatever happens going forward will be my choice.

After talking with my brothers and sister they began to have questions about their own DNA. Amazingly, as their tests came back, we discovered that none of us came from the father that we had assumed. All of us were startled. I had previously felt alone, but now, I was grateful that we all had each other in this moment of shifting ground.

We rallied around each other and instantly became our own support group.

I still remember calling my cousin a few months after speaking with Wendell. I apologized for how I had felt towards him when I was younger. I then told him of my unique experience and he was amazed. It had only been a few years since my cousin had discovered his own biological parents.

He consoled and encouraged me about my situation. He was so understanding.

In the summer of 2018 I traveled to meet Wendell. The reunion was great! He is a big guy with a great family and a receding hairline just like mine. He was adopted at birth and raised by loving parents on a dairy farm in Arizona. When his adoptive parents passed away, he felt a desire to discover his biological parents. His searches lead him to Ancestry.com. His information was already in the system when mine appeared and linked us together. It was then that he was able to confirm who his biological father was.

Intrigued with my biological father, I began to search.

He was an only child. He worked in the oil industry and he died over-seas at age 53. Though my mother said he never knew I was his son, I found a newspaper article written by his family where my brother and I are stated as being his offspring. I found out his mom is buried in a cemetery just a few miles from where I live. I looked at pictures of him, his mother, his grandparents, his family. I also discovered he wasn’t a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

A few weeks later, my son and I were talking about my biological father, when he asked, “Has anyone done your dad’s temple work for him?”

For Mormons, this is an important question.

Church members are encouraged to seek out their dead ancestors that have not been baptized and sealed together as families and do this work for them at the temple. I replied to my son, “I don’t know, do you want to help me look it up?” There at the dinner table, we went to the church website to find out my biological father’s temple status; none of his work had been done.

I know what the church’s position is regarding temple work; we are asked to find our deceased relatives and perform temple work for those who didn’t do it while alive on earth. Though this has always been a simple directive it now seems so much more complex. I keep asking myself, “What am I hoping for by doing my biological father’s temple work?” When I consider this, I begin to probe my motives.

Maybe I want to feel connected to him in some deeper way. Maybe I’m hoping that God will send me some peace and understanding. I wonder if the dad that raised me and I love, knew anything about this and how he would feel about me doing my biological father’s temple work. I wonder if this would somehow help my mother with her shame and anger. I wonder if my new DNA will define me more than my cultural upbringing. I wonder if my great, great, great grandfather’s story would still be mine.

I wonder if this will change me in some way.

Not too long after returning from seeing my new brother, learning about my siblings’ DNA tests, and discovering more about my biological father, I received a call from my mother. The conversation began awkwardly.

I could tell she had something to say, maybe even an agenda on her mind.

She started out by saying that she had talked to two people about me. She wouldn’t tell me who they were. She had told these two people that I made my siblings take a DNA test and then revealed to them who their real fathers were. These people told my mother that I was a bad son for what I had done and that it was my mother’s right to tell her kids who their real fathers were, not mine. My mother than proceeded to tell me she was taking me out of her will and disowning me. She screamed that I was a liar and that she never wanted to talk to me again- and then she hung up the phone. True to her word, my mother has not spoken to me since that conversation.

Shame and vulnerability are hard to bear.

And sometimes it’s easier to terminate a relationship that is making you uncomfortable rather than dealing with a new reality.

For many who have discovered a new family, a new mother, a new father, a new sibling, there is no guarantee that things are going to go well. There’s no guarantee that the new family will love you, that the old family won’t disown you, or that your current family will understand you more.

But, even with all these unknowns, we seem compelled to want to know how we got here, who we are, and what makes us, us. But, often the amount of what we learn is accompanied with an equal amount of questions that seem impossible to answer.

At times, this new situation in my life seems big.

There are moments when it starts to feel a little overwhelming. There are stretches when I wonder if it can ever be worked out and then I remind myself, “Life doesn’t regret itself.”

However I got here, I’m here and I’m proud of the life I’ve created. Whatever happens going forward will be my choice.

This is my new world and it all came from a simple DNA test.

DNA Surprise stories are posted either with first names only, or pseudonyms. If James’s story resonates with you and you wish to be in contact with him, please reach out to me directly at brianne@watersheddna.com. James has done additional writing, recently authored his first book, and has offered to share his name and website with those who reach out with express interest.