Aug 16, 2017 - Stories

Using 23andMe To Find Family


Paul Leventhal is a patient man.

Paul, right, and his brother Jimmy.

In his 70s now, he’s been searching for his biological father since he was 18.

More than two years ago, we wrote about Paul finding his half brother, Jimmy, using 23andMe. Their story — spanning decades and several continents — was dramatic and inspiring, but for Paul, at least, there were still chapters to be written.

“I joined 23andMe …primarily to trace down my genetic father,” he said. “Never did I imagine I would find a half brother on my maternal side who was born three years after me.”

It was a joyful surprise, and the two have built a relationship.

“(Jimmy) and I get along well. We bonded, and that’s never going to fall way,” Paul said.

And finding Jimmy using 23andMe gave him hope that perhaps his patience might pay off and he would uncover the identity of his biological father, too.

“I just waited for somebody to match,” Paul said of continued search on 23andMe.

It was a long shot.

Paul’s (and Jimmy’s) biological mother.

Waiting on a Match

Paul’s story is complicated, and like his brother, his childhood has a Dickens kind of bleakness.

Paul’s mother and father had divorced when he was just a year old. She’d become pregnant with Paul when his father was serving in Europe during the Second World War. The timing was odd, but Paul didn’t know that until later.

His mother, who he only has vague memories of, was hospitalized off and on for psychological problems throughout her life. When Paul was just one year-old, she put and him his older brother in a foster home where he stayed until he was almost five.

Around then, her former husband (and the man Paul at first thought was his father) brought him to Chicago to live with him and his new wife. Throughout his childhood, his father and stepmother remained distant to him. As for Paul’s connection to his mother, it was almost non-existent.

He has one fleeting memory of sitting on his mother’s knee — everything else he knows about his mother is from relatives. It wasn’t until Paul was 18 — when his father died suddenly of a heart attack — that he learned that his father wasn’t his biological father.

“He was on my birth certificate, but not my father,” Paul said. “My life was turned upside down.”  

Paul lived with this, his mother’s rejection and her family shunning him. Paul still feels deep disappointment toward her family for letting him be shipped off to a foster home for five years.

“I must have been quite an embarrassment to them and my maternal grandmother, who was still living at the time.”

Paul’s half-brother Jimmy’s young life was more filled with physical abuse, but Paul suffered more from emotional abuse.

Rejected by his mother and her family, Paul spent years trying to find his biological father. That’s part of why he eventually got his DNA tested with 23andMe. Connecting with Jimmy more than two years ago opened up a door into his family history, and renewed his hope of finding something out about his father.

So he waited.

“All I did was spit into a tube and sit back and wait,” Paul said.

Finding His Sisters

Paul’s biological father Bennett White.

And then earlier this year, a new relative named Catilin popped up on his 23andMe results.

“Without DNA, I never would have found Caitlin, I never would have made this match,” said Paul. “It was like a bomb going off.”

Caitlin was a niece, the daughter of a half sister with whom he matches on his father’s side. Over the next few weeks, he met Caitlin’s mother, his half-sister, and his two other sisters. They shared with him a photo of their and Paul’s father, Bennett White, who died in 1960.

“He looked like me,” Paul said.

Tall and thin, his father hadn’t been a great dad to his daughters or husband to his wife. A teacher, his drinking problems drove him to quit and take a factory job. How Bennett and Paul’s mother met, he does not know, but his mother was at one point at a state hospital in Ohio where Bennett lived. Paul thought it was possible that his biological father could have been in detox at the hospital when his mother was there being treated for her psychological problems, but he does not know.

“I believe I was the product of a brief affair,” Paul said. “I don’t even think he knew I existed.”

Paul has communicated with his sisters, Penny, Pam and Jane. They had one other sister who died as a baby. One of the sisters lives near him at his home in Florida, and they have met in person. Paul learned that his father had numerous affairs. It turns out he was married, and his wife was two months pregnant when he had an affair with Paul’s mother.

Later, he married another woman with whom he had two children, both of whom died at a young age.

As with meeting his brother Jimmy, Paul is trying to get to know his sisters, seeing what they have in common, and how they are different. And answering this question that has lingered with him almost his entire life has changed him a bit.

“It’s both a big relief to know who he was and to put a face and name and character to this man,” Paul said. “It has put my mind at ease a bit, but I don’t think I’m done searching.”

He also notes that none of this would have been possible without 23andMe.

“I never would have found Bennett or Jimmy without it,” he said.

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