On a punishingly hot afternoon last June, Ali Cole stepped into Philadelphia’s elegant, French Renaissance Revival Bellevue Hotel carrying Father’s Day gifts for a man she didn’t know existed two months earlier ― her biological father, who was not the man who had raised her.
Until last spring, Ali had no reason to question whether the man she grew up believing was her father really was.
And to make matters even stranger, her friend Jess McIntosh had been through something similar just six months before that, when an email from Ancestry.com landed in her inbox naming the man who had donated sperm to her mother more than three decades ago.
Neither woman had set out to find her father. Ali, 39, and Jess, 37, have been friends for more than 15 years. They were roommates as undergrads, and have seen each other through the stresses of college, starting their careers, breakups, and family deaths. Ali recently left a career in advertising to become a floral designer, and Jess is a political consultant and broadcaster. They’re both my friends, too, and I’ve watched over the last year as they confronted these exhilarating and painful new truths about their lives.
Both women had signed up for an online DNA testing service, spit into a vial and mailed it off to a lab for analysis. Ali had wanted to learn more about one branch of her family tree, and Jess had wanted to know more about her mother’s Mexican ancestry.
Neither was emotionally prepared for what the tests would find. What’s become clear to me listening to their stories and talking to experts is that it’s difficult to predict how a person might react if the story of their life is rewritten.
Spokespeople for Ancestry, 23andMe and MyHeritage all emphasized that the vast majority of their customers don’t confront shocking revelations about their families, which is undoubtedly true. But as Ali and Jess learned, there’s sometimes more at stake for some people ― and it’s not in those companies’ interests to highlight the downsides. Exploring your ancestry or trying to find biological parents isn’t new, though online DNA services have made doing so much, much easier.
Ancestry, 23andMe, MyHeritage and smaller competitors have analyzed the genes of more than 26 million people worldwide, according to a study published by the MIT Technology Review. All of those people paid around $100, spit into a vial and shipped it off to a company that then added their DNA to its vast and ever-expanding databases.
But doing so can abruptly reveal long-kept family secrets ― affairs, adoptions, long-lost siblings or entire new branches of a family. It also raises a long list of challenging questions that our society is nowhere near prepared to address: Where do your rights to learn these secrets end and the rights of others to keep them begin? What makes a family? What role should your DNA play in your sense of self or identity?
“We’re at the very early stages of a whole new ethic,” said Laura Hercher, director of research on human genetics at Sarah Lawrence College. “When you put your information out there, you don’t just do it for yourself, you do it on behalf of all your family members, who do not get a chance to consent.”
Even 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki has encountered surprises, she said at a Wall Street Journal conference in February. Her uncle, believed to not have any children, fathered at least one child; an adviser to the company also discovered his father wasn’t a biological parent, she said.
“There’s no family that doesn’t have a story,” she said. “If you’ve done 23andMe, it’s just a matter of time before you figure out your own family story.”
From what Ali’s been able to piece together in the last year, her story began at a house party in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in September 1979. Her mother, Dorothy Cohen (née Mao), then 28, was enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Michigan. She was divorced from her first husband and in a long-distance relationship with Brett Cole, then 41, who was separated from his first wife.
Dorothy had threatened to cheat on Brett if he didn’t get a divorce and marry her. She made good on that threat by sleeping with an acquaintance, a professor at the university, which she quickly confessed to Brett.
Six weeks later, Dorothy discovered she was pregnant. She was adamant that the child was Brett’s, and that she wanted to marry him and raise the child together. And that’s what happened. Alison was born June 6, 1980. The family moved to New York’s Long Island in 1983, where her sister, Emily, was born two years later.
“My young childhood was good. But then it wasn’t,” she said. “After my sister was born, they fought a lot and they fought badly, and they really put my sister and I in the middle of it a lot.”
Things deteriorated when Dorothy was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was ill, and Brett couldn’t handle the emotional strain. “My dad could not get his shit together when she was sick,” she said.
Soon after Dorothy’s cancer went into remission, she and the girls moved out. Brett “completely fell apart,” Ali said. He began hoarding his belongings and stopped taking care of the house and the property. He also developed an opiate addiction and various physical and mental health problems.
When Dorothy died in 1995, the girls moved back in with their father. He was in no shape to parent his young daughters, and Ali was embarrassed at the condition of her home. She felt abandoned by her surviving parent. “I know he loved me,” she said. “But he didn’t know how to talk to me and I was going through this very hard time, having lost my mom.”
“At a certain point, he wasn’t capable of being a dad anymore,” she said.
Brett’s health continued to decline. He died of lung cancer in 2004, leaving Ali parentless at 24. Ali has no idea if Brett ever doubted whether she was his daughter. She began using Ancestry.com to research his family, about which she knew little, and build a family tree. She also decided to have her DNA tested to see if she could learn more about her lineage.
“When I opened the Ancestry results, I was actually disappointed at first,” she said. She learned she is about 25% Asian and 25% Eastern European, which she expected based on her mother’s background. But it also said she is 41% Irish ― “a shocking amount,” given that it was not part of her family’s ethnic identity.
A few days later, a woman identified on Ancestry as Ali’s second cousin sent her a message. Then another second cousin reached out, with a surname Ali couldn’t link to the Cole family tree. In fact, no one from the Cole lineage showed up among the more than 1,000 people who matched her DNA.
She began to suspect the truth before she confirmed it. “I think my dad might not be my dad,” she told her husband. Ali began to entertain fantasies about babies being switched at birth. It didn’t occur to her that she might be the product of a one-night stand.
Ali wanted her sister to take a DNA test, which was a tough ask. The sisters have a strained relationship, and while they were in a friendly phase at the point, they weren’t close. Ali couldn’t get Emily to take her calls. She finally asked via text, and Emily immediately agreed to take the test. When the results arrived, they were crystal clear: Emily didn’t share any of Ali’s mysterious DNA relatives, though it was clear they had the same mother. Ali and Emily were half-sisters.
“It’s very strange to wake up one day and suddenly find out you’re somebody completely different from who you thought you were,” said Ali. “I’m still trying to process that.”
Jess, however, has almost always known that her father was not her biological father. Jess’ mother, Nana McIntosh, was home sick from work when she saw a “Phil Donahue Show” episode on artificial insemination, still a very new technology in 1980. The show listed medical facilities offering the procedure in the U.S., including the Cleveland Clinic, which was within driving distance of her Ohio home.
Nana and Jess’ father were in their mid-30s had been married for six years at the time. They wanted children, but he’d had a vasectomy during his previous marriage. Nana made plans to travel to Cleveland. (Jess is estranged from her father and, at her request, I am not using his name in this article.)
The clinic told Nana a little bit about the donor, though he was always supposed to remain anonymous. He was a physician at the facility, healthy and married with children of his own.
Nana told Jess the truth quite early on. She and her husband divorced when Jess was 5, and he told his new girlfriend about her conception, who then told his entire family. Nana felt she had no choice but to try to explain it to her daughter so she didn’t find out from someone else ― an explanation that involved a turkey baster and an illustrated children’s book on human reproduction.
Jess had never felt close to her dad, and the news that he was not her biological father didn’t have much of an impact. “I was just sort of like without a dad, and now I was even more without a dad.” It was almost liberating, she said, “to not have a history.”
She’d had a big family on her father’s side, including three older stepsisters and tons of cousins. But when they learned Jess wasn’t his natural child, they completely abandoned her. She and her mother moved to the New York City suburbs. Nana didn’t remarry until Jess was in high school.
Jess says she never felt the absence of a father figure. “Dads seemed kind of overrated based on my friends, and so I didn’t really feel like I was missing out on much,” Jess said. “It was like an amusing, weird thing that made me a little bit different, and I was fine with it.”
Jess started a “half-assed search” for her biological father in college, and signed up for a donor-sibling registry. It didn’t produce any results, and life went on.
She tried 23andMe in 2014 to learn more about her maternal grandfather ― a Mexican immigrant named Mario Gutierrez who had changed his name to Myron Guthrie, told everyone he was French Basque nobility, and passed as white for most of his life. Jess’ uncle had discovered this only after “Myron’s” death.
She signed up for Ancestry.com in November 2017. When the results arrived about a month later, Jess was busy greeting guests for a housewarming party for the apartment she shares with her boyfriend in Brooklyn. She hurriedly opened up the email.
Though she had considered the test might connect her with other donor children, she hadn’t expected to learn the name of the man who had fathered them. But there it was, right at the top of the page: “Jon Rainey is your father.”
“It’s hilariously blunt,” Jess said.
Family secrets are as old as families. The reasons for keeping them haven’t changed much. To cover up a lie. To protect someone. To avoid social stigma. While revealing secrets can cause harm, so too does deceit.
This is part of what makes Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University, extremely uncomfortable about how direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies market themselves. “They treat finding out information about your DNA or genetics or heredity as kind of a lark, or a sort of fun, light activity,” he said.
It’s not in these companies’ interests to talk us out of giving them money, and there are no laws telling them they have to warn customers that a test might damage their families or unsettle their sense of identity. Caplan advises against using online DNA services, but urges people to really think hard about it if they’re going to do it anyway. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it: Think before you spit.
“Genetic information implicates your biological relatives. It’s not the same as knowing your weight or your blood pressure, which tells you nothing about anybody else,” Caplan said. “But if that’s not my dad, then maybe it’s not your dad, and maybe you didn’t want to find out.”
It’s irresponsible, then, to offer genetic testing without genetic counseling, he said.
“You have to know what you’re getting into, assume the risk in an informed, deliberate way,” he said. “You’re not going to stumble your way through this and wind up with the best possible outcome.”
This, of course, is not how Ancestry, MyHeritage and 23andMe see things.
23andMe customers have to affirmatively opt in to making the DNA information available to relatives on the website, spokesman Andy Kill highlighted. In the case of 23andMe, they can learn their ethnic heritage or genetic predispositions to certain traits without using other parts of the service.
Rafi Mendelsohn, a MyHeritage spokesman, emphasized that cases of revealing unknown paternity are rare, although the company doesn’t explicitly track that. “We have, however, seen the positive impact that DNA testing has had in connecting family members,” he wrote in an email, adding that they “are seeing lots of reunions, both in the U.S. and around the world.”
“Almost everyone who takes our AncestryDNA test finds something surprising, and for most customers it’s something exciting and enriching; but there are certainly cases where a discovery might be quite unexpected,” wrote Ancestry spokesman Mark Ranneberger.
He added that the company provides “a small, dedicated group of highly experienced representatives who speak to customers with more sensitive queries and guide them to their own discoveries.” The other companies offer similar services, although they’re not always equipped to handle delicate situations.
None of the experts I interviewed disputed any of that. All of the forms have language stating that you may discover something about your family background you find unsettling, said Henry Greely, the director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School in California. But the disclosures resemble those software update agreements all of us click without reading closely.
“They don’t go into a lot of detail about it,” said Greely, who has used Ancestry and Family Tree’s DNA services himself. “They don’t put it in bright red letters, 24-point fonts.”
After Emily’s DNA report came in, Ali reached out to the new Ancestry-linked cousins to try to learn the identity of her biological father. She eventually landed on the name of a man who was about the right age. She found his Facebook profile, which listed “Visiting Professor at University of Michigan” at the top.
He is a writer, and there was a lot of publicly available information about him. That’s how she discovered he had cancer, the same disease that took her parents. “And I’m like, fuck, of course he does,” she said. “Now I suddenly have family again but of course he’s dying of cancer like everybody else in my family.”
His Amazon author page listed an email address. Ali emailed him with a made-up story about researching her mother’s life for a podcast. “I need to figure out if he even knows who my mom is, because I can’t just start out with ‘I’m probably your kid,’” she said.
He wrote back the same day: “I believe you are referring to Dorothy Cohen, who is a person who is very near and dear to my heart. … There are very, very few people in this world that I liked as much as your mom.”
After downing some wine, Ali wrote back and told him the real reason she contacted him. She described what she knew about her biological father: He was Irish-American, lived in Philadelphia, and was a writer and former professor at the University of Michigan.
“My first reaction is joy. And my second reaction is, oh my God, what is my wife going to think? What is my family going to think?” he wrote back the next morning. “I think I need to go take a walk.” (At his and Ali’s request, I am not using his name or the names of his family members in this article.)
Ali had long felt there was something missing from her life, something that might explain things about her. She’d felt out of place in her own family, especially after her mother died. Her dad and her sister shared a closeness that she didn’t feel. She’d loved her father, but never really felt connected to him.
“I always thought I was just weird or that there was something wrong with me,” she said. “And I carried that well into adulthood.”
She began to feel her biological father was the missing piece that would complete her puzzle. She could sense there were shared traits, like a creative nature. But when they finally got around to the subject of meeting in person, there were signs the relationship might get complicated. His wife seemed to be struggling with the idea that Ali existed.
“Had I hoped that she was going to be like, ‘Come and be a part of our family and I’m your new mom?’ Yes, that’s totally what I wanted, even though I lied to myself for weeks and said that’s not what I wanted at all,” she said. “When that didn’t happen, that was hard.”
Nevertheless, when my wife and I told Ali we were planning a weekend trip to Philadelphia last summer, she and her husband quickly decided to come along. She told her biological father she would be in town if he wanted to meet.
That’s how they ended up at that hotel a couple blocks from Philadelphia’s iconic City Hall last June, nervously bearing gifts. Ali’s husband, a woodworker, made him coasters, and another friend made a cutting board.
“I hadn’t bought somebody a gift for Father’s Day in years,” she said. “And he bought me some books for my birthday, which was awesome because I hadn’t gotten a gift from a parent on a birthday in 14 years.”
After a nervous greeting, they went upstairs to the hotel’s opulent XIX restaurant to have lunch. They talked for two hours. He had a lot of questions for her ― about her family, her life so far, her interests. “It actually felt a little bit like an interview at times.”
Before the meeting, he’d asked for her permission to call her his daughter. “This is my daughter, Ali. She’s just in from Brooklyn for the afternoon,” he told the server.
“He made it sound like we knew each other, like he had raised me, which is very sweet,” said Ali afterward.
But that lunch has been the high point to date. Their subsequent emails grew tense, and they haven’t been in touch since September, when he told Ali he needed a break because his wife’s feelings of anxiety about him having another child were too strong.
“I fell into a depression for a solid month, because it triggers every single one of my abandonment issues and all of this stuff from my past,” Ali said.
Ali had spent most of her life dealing with her own family’s dysfunction, only to find herself now mired in a new family’s difficulties. The situation dredged up a lot of old, bad feelings for her, which is not what she’d expected to find after spending so much time pining for familial connection.
Ali did, however, get to meet her biological father’s three sisters in November. The youngest of the aunts, the one to whom Ali has grown closest, wrote her on Facebook with an invitation to visit the Philadelphia suburbs and spend time with the sisters and some of their children. Ali has seen that youngest aunt twice more since then, and even spent Mother’s Day with her and her adult daughter, and they text regularly. Ali’s father’s ex-wife, mother to their son who died as a teenager years ago, also reached out, and Ali has met or corresponded with several cousins.
Her aunts have welcomed Ali into their family, over their brother’s objections. He was angry about Ali’s visit and tried to forbid his sisters from seeing her again. Two agreed ― for the time being, anyway ― but the youngest refused.
Although Ali is upset about her father and his wife, getting to know the women in the family has been a blessing, and has made Ali believe that nature is stronger than nurture. “As much as we think we have a choice in our genetics and the things we like and the things that make us, we don’t,” Ali said. “My sense of humor, my way of speaking, the things that I’m interested in ― the natural world, flowers, birding ― these are all the same things these women love.”
Jess had very little trouble tracking down her donor. Jon Rainey’s photo was right there on the Cleveland Clinic website.
She didn’t see any of her face in his, though she thought he looked kind. “He has very smiling eyes,” she said.
She called the phone number listed on the clinic’s website the next day, but it went to a directory. She wrote him a message on the Ancestry website, where his profile was public, but could see he hadn’t logged on in a long time. She tracked down a DNA cousin who was able to provide the crucial link. The cousin told her that Rainey had been open with his family about being a sperm donor; his wife and kids know he likely has other children out in the world.
Still, Jess was nervous about reaching out, worried he might think she was after something.
“I don’t want to fuck with anyone’s life,” Jess said. “My life is fine. I don’t need money. I don’t need a father figure.”
She decided to send the cousin a message to see if she could help fill in some of the blanks about her life. Her newfound relative was “super into it,” Jess said. They still communicate regularly.
After their initial messages, Jess agreed to let her cousin tell Rainey about her. The cousin passed along his email address. Jess decided to wait a few weeks before writing to him.
“So I guess the important thing I want to say is thanks,” she wrote in a brief note. “You did a cool, weird thing 36 years ago, and I’m pretty grateful for it.
“If you were into saying hello sometime, I think that would be rad.”
He replied 13 days later. It was a nice note, and he told her about his family. They’ve been infrequently corresponding since then ― long, intimate emails, though they have never spoken on the phone or met in real life.
“It’s more like writing to a friend you’ve known a very long time,” she said. But she hasn’t heard from Rainey since last July. She figures she’ll probably send him an email wishing him a Merry Christmas this year, but is fine with things as they are.
“I was curious, and that was really the extent of it.” Jess said. “But try telling that to people ― or therapists ― and see if they’ll believe you.”
Jess has also found six half-brothers and half-sisters via Ancestry and 23andMe, including two sets of siblings. None of them had known they were donor children before taking DNA tests. They’re all in their 30s now, some with kids of their own or parents who are no longer living. The information about their families has been devastating in some cases.
Jess fears she was the one who accidentally broke the news of being a donor child to one of those half-sisters. She wrote her an email, but never heard back.
“It never occurred to me that it would be traumatic for the other donor kids,” she said. “I just assumed they were like me. … This has major ethical implications that I have not even started to think through despite having been thinking about this for my entire life.”
In a more positive development, Jess spent a weekend this April with two of her half-siblings, a brother-sister pair. “It was incredibly easy to be around them. It was sort of like I always hoped it would be, inasmuch as there was an immediate familiarity. We have very similar mannerisms, ways of speaking, processing humor,” she said. “It was like hanging out with people I had known for a very long time.”
As direct-to-consumer DNA tests become more popular, more people will face situations like those Jess and Ali have encountered.
“The level of secrets that’s being uncovered is far more than I anticipated and probably most people anticipated,” said Debbie Kennett, a genealogist based in the United Kingdom. There are many ways family secrets can be uncovered, but nothing matches the certainty, ease and cost of an online DNA test.
“DNA is just another way of revealing these secrets, but I think that fact that it’s science-based, in some way it has more of an impact,” Kennett said.
The medical community is also engaged in a debate over whether it’s still even possible to sustain the idea that donor parents or people who give children up for adoption could maintain anonymity.
The growing number of people searching for donor fathers on these websites has also raised tricky legal questions about what rights the children have to use these services to identify and contact their biological families. In one case, a sperm bank threatened to sue an Oregon woman for attempting to contact the biological father of her daughter.
In Kennett’s view, the right to know the truth about one’s lineage supersedes the rights of those who seek to conceal the truth. Jess wasn’t party to the agreement her mother made with the Cleveland Clinic. Ali will never know if her parents knew the truth ― and if they did, it was their choice to withhold it, not hers.
“In some ways, the DNA tests are actually rectifying past wrongs. I think everyone has that right to know their identities, have access to their family history, to their medical history,” Kennett said. “And if they’re denied that, then that really is very much unethical.” Family medical history alone could save someone’s life by making them aware if they are predisposed to certain health problems.
Anyone who submits their DNA to these websites is opening themselves up to surprising and discomfiting revelations, said Hercher, the Sarah Lawrence College genetic research director. “It may be an invitation they didn’t mean to extend, but it is an invitation.”
Jess’ mother confessed to a fleeting feeling of anxiety when her daughter first told her she’d found the sperm donor. They’d always been close, and Nana, now 75, had never had to share her daughter’s affection with anyone.
But she liked the thought of Jess having access to more relatives. “As I get older, it’s kind of been a concern of mine that we don’t really have extended family,” Nana said.
For Nana, the experience has proven the wisdom of telling Jess the truth, even as a child. “It’s when you keep it a secret that the revelation becomes difficult,” Nana said.
For Ali’s younger sister Emily, both nothing and everything has changed. She still has the parents she thought she had, and her love for Ali hasn’t diminished. But it resurfaced difficult memories of her mother’s illness, of her parents’ marriage disintegrating, and of the sense that they had been keeping things from their daughters. She wondered what else had been hidden.
There is so much Emily would like to ask her mother as she struggles to fit this new truth into her conception about the kind of person Dorothy Cohen was.
“I see her now more as a human. She had issues in her life that were difficult and she may have made a decision I would not have agreed with if I had been there,” Emily said. “But still, in the grand scheme of things, it was her life and her decision.”
Over the last few months, both Ali and Jess have become more accustomed to the revised versions of their stories.
While Jess thinks it would be nice to meet her biological father, she doesn’t feel a need to expand her family. “I have a family. It is not made up of blood relatives,” she said. “My family is my mother and my friends.”
Ali is less sanguine, in part because her biological father’s illness and his wife’s unhappiness about fitting her into their lives.
“It’s been made very clear to me that if I didn’t exist, it would be better,” she said. “And that’s a very hard thing to deal with.”
Forming a relationship with her newly discovered relatives, however, goes a long way toward making up for that, Ali said.
“My dad’s no longer in the picture, and I don’t imagine that he ever will be,” she said. “But because of this, I now have family ― and real family who genuinely care about me.”