In the best children’s stories the parents are done away with early on. Mom or dad — sometimes both of them — are dead and gone even before the opening “once upon a time.”
It’s a plot device that helps the reader make an emotional connection with the characters. It also starts the arch of the protagonist’s transformation from, say, a cinder-covered floor washer to princess, or from puny sorcerer’s apprentice to King, or from a group of lost children into adventurers in Neverland.
As a successful children’s book editor, “Marcia Brady,” knows all about this storyteller’s tool. She’s even used it before. But what Marcia didn’t know was that the plot of her own life story had just such a twist.
In her early 30s, while Marcia was busy juggling her career and tending her young kids, she learned that the man who raised her wasn’t her biological father. Her parents had used a sperm donor when they were told they couldn’t conceive on their own.
“I never even suspected it,” she said. “I look more like my dad than anyone else in my family.”
Marcia is not alone. In a modern twist to the search for roots, donor kids like Marcia are turning to 23andMe for answers about their ancestry. For some the reasons to test often have less to do with finding a biological father and more to do with simply learning basic information about ancestry, medical history or finding out about whether they have siblings. They want information about themselves they can’t find any other way.
In Marcia’s case the revelation that her parents had turned to a donor to conceive, drove what turned into a years-long search into her background and family history. Even before coming to 23andMe, Marcia used the same kind of pluck and drive seen in the best characters of fiction to track down two half-sisters through a donor registry. They confirmed their sisterhood with a DNA test. Then a few years later, when 23andme opened for business, she got tested.
When Marcia’s results arrived, she was shocked to find a match for a half-brother. Because he was six years younger, Marcia assumed he would be the biological child of the donor, which would lead her to the donor’s identity.
“He didn’t log into his inbox on 23andme for three months. Those were the longest three months of my life!” she said. “When he finally saw my letter he replied that same night. It turned out he was another offspring of the donor. He hadn’t known of anyone else in his situation and was really excited to learn more.”
They discovered they only lived two hours apart, and hit it off from the moment they met. Two years later, a new half-sister joined their 23andme list.
“It’s very exciting!” Marcia says. “I can’t wait to see if anyone else is out there.”
Unlike those great old children’s books, Marcia’s story isn’t fraught with suffering. She loves her father, the man who raised her. In fact she’s never told him that she now knows that he isn’t her biological father, because she didn’t want to somehow hurt his feelings. That’s why she wants to remain anonymous.
But still the news that he wasn’t her father changed Marcia’s understanding of who she is and it raised many questions.
Who was her biological father? Would he want to know about his offspring and (ten!) grandchildren? What traits might he have passed onto her that she has in turn passed on to her own children?
She and her new found half-siblings feel like a family now, although one with a big mystery at the core. A mystery they are determined to solve.
Marcia isn’t alone in trying to fill in the blanks in her family history. Just like adoptees have done before them, the children of parents who used “assisted reproduction” to conceive want to learn more about their biological ancestry.
But this push for more information sometimes pits the desire of the donors to remain anonymous against the rights of their children to know even the most basic facts about their background. 23andMe allows people to contact members with whom they may be related, but keep both parties identities private. It’s up to the individuals whether they want to respond.
This kind of search for ancestry has even woven its way into popular culture. The plot of 2010’s “The Kids are All Right” and the 2013 comedy “The Delivery Man” revolve around the offspring of donors searching for their biological fathers. Also in 2013 was a documentary on MTV called “Generation Cryo” that followed a teenager’s quest to find her biological father and her half siblings.
But for many donor kids testing is less about finding a biological father but simply learning basic information about ancestry, medical history or connecting with a biological sister or brother.
Finding A Sister
Cynthia Lund, a 33 year-old massage therapist in Salt Lake City, said that when she signed up for 23andMe in the back of her mind she had the idea of possibly finding her biological father. But for Cynthia, who knew since her 14th birthday that she’d been conceived using a sperm donor, it was also simply a practical decision.
“I had no family health history for one side, and I wanted to know if there was anything I should be concerned about,” Cynthia said.
She subscribed to 23andMe, in part, because she wanted to know about any potential health risks. In the back of her mind she wondered if she’d learn something more about who her father was.
Instead she found her half-sister.
“I was playing with the site’s Relative Finder when I noticed a link to ‘view your close relatives,’” Cynthia said. “There was a disclaimer that said something like ‘are you sure you want to know’ and my heart started racing, of course I want to know.”
It was overwhelming, she said. She was crying and “freaking out.”
“As soon as I composed myself I started typing a message,” she said. “It probably took me an hour. I checked every five minutes for the next several days until I finally heard back.”
It took a little over two weeks before her half sister saw the message. Then it was her turn to “freak out,” Cynthia said.
“She and her mom freaked out just like me and my mom did,” she said.
She responded to the email and the two women, who are about two years apart, finally talked on the phone. They spent several hours sharing their life stories with each other, finding that they had more than just DNA in common, but that they had some similar interests and personality traits. A few weeks later, Cynthia took a flight from her home in Utah to see her newly found sister in San Diego.
“It’s ridiculous how much a like we are,” she said. “We definitely pass for full siblings. We look SO much alike!”
Both Cynthia and her sister were raised as a single child, so finding a sister was both exciting and a little surreal for them both.
Since their first meeting, the two have become very close. They went together to Italy for a 10-day vacation, and they now are visiting each other pretty regularly. Cynthia said they’re either exchanging phone calls, texts or emails almost daily.
“It’s so great having a biological sibling, especially when I hadn’t had that experience for my first 30 years,” she said. “We’re definitely family! “
While Cynthia is still interested in learning about her donor dad if possible, that’s not something that her half sister is focused on.
“I don’t want anything from him, I just want to see what he looks like and help me understand family medical history,” she said. “It’s hard to explain but I only have this half picture of myself. 23andMe is perfect service for anyone like me who has this sort of black hole in their history and wants to know more about themselves.”
Kathleen LaBounty, another donor child searching for information about her biological father, has been searching for years. Oprah and National Public Radio featured her six-year search for her biological roots and her advocacy on behalf of the donor children.
In her Herculean search she’s sent more than 600 letters to prospective fathers, all went to the same medical school in Texas from which donors were used at the fertility clinic her mother used to conceive.
A well-grounded and happy child, Kathleen said that when she was 8 years old her mother told her she’d been conceived with the help of a donor. The first thing Kathleen did was run downstairs and hug her father, saying she felt so much love for him for making her his own.
The revelation also helped her understand some of the most obvious differences between her and members of her family. She’s short and skinny. They’re tall and burly.
“In family photos I don’t blend in well,” she said.
Her search for more information about her ancestry has taken on more import in part because she now has children of her own. She wants to know about her family medical history. Recently she joined 23andMe. She learned that she has Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. Raised as an agnostic but one who attended a Baptist school, this was news to her.
Many of her closest matches in 23andMe’s Relative Finder are from Russia. She connected with a third cousin, who lived just ten minutes from her home.
“He looks like Ben Stiller,” she said.
She’s been able to communicate with other distant relatives connected through 23andMe’s DNA Relative tool, which she said has helped her get a better picture of the paternal side of her ancestry. She’s also recommended 23andMe to others who, like her, were looking for family. Two of those who she recommended the service to, turned out to be half-sisters, she said.
“I would love it if close relatives would eventually submit their DNA and I could connect through 23andMe, but if it never happens that’s OK at least now I know my heritage,” Kathleen said.