Learning the Truth
Silver Spring resident Dorie Hightower thought she knew everything about her family. Then she took a DNA test.
At first, Hightower tried to downplay the startling new information. “Besides having these strangers who I was connected to, I was not connected to anybody on my father’s side,” she says. According to the company, she wasn’t related to Darcy—or to the mysterious Gary, who turned out to be one of Darcy’s distant cousins. “I knew nothing about the accuracy of these tests. I thought it was bogus.”
Convinced there had been a mistake, Hightower pushed the results to the back of her mind and went about living her life. Retired now, she spends much of her time on artistic pursuits. She takes guitar lessons, sings in a choir, designs and sews her own clothing, and hosts a monthly jam session with friends who play everything from rock music to blues.
Hightower, whose husband, Jim, died of a heart attack five years ago, texted her 30-year-old daughter, Lindsey, and 33-year-old son, Jesse, and spoke to a few friends about the test, but remained highly skeptical of the results. Days later, she got a message through her Ancestry account from someone claiming to be her half sister. The woman, Karen, who didn’t want her real name used in this story, had been researching how the two could be related. Hightower told Karen that she’d been busy with other things and hadn’t had a chance to closely examine anything on Ancestry.com.
Leave me alone, she thought. I don’t need another pen pal.
In the meantime, Hightower and Darcy asked a mutual first cousin to take a test. When that woman’s results came back, Darcy was listed as a close relative. Hightower was not.
“That’s when I got a little emotionally wrung out,” Hightower says. “[Before that], I thought this was some kind of quack thing. I didn’t know how accurate DNA testing is.”
About a month after receiving her results, Hightower called Ancestry’s customer service number to inform the company that it had screwed up her test. Her reaction wasn’t uncommon. “Ancestry recognizes that the information we provide to our customers can be surprising and, at times, life-changing,” Utley says. “[We work] hard to help our customers understand that some of what they learn about themselves might be unexpected.”
The company says it measures hundreds of thousands of DNA markers with 99 percent accuracy. When Hightower’s request for a free second test was politely declined by Ancestry, she begrudgingly ponied up the money for a redo. But she never sent it back. Before she could, she emailed an older cousin on her mother’s side. I got some really weird test results, she wrote. Do you or your brother know anything about this?
A minute later, her phone rang.
“Your father couldn’t have kids,” her cousin blurted out.
About two years ago, a man named Kevin Wigell took a DNA test and discovered that he’s 49 percent Jewish. The 61-year-old was floored. “My father is Catholic. As far as I knew, my mother was Methodist,” he says.
Wigell had decided to take the test after his daughter, who’d undergone successful surgery to treat Crohn’s disease, was contacted by 23andMe because the company wanted to collect her DNA for a study on the condition. When her results came back, she was listed as one-quarter Ashkenazi Jew, which sparked her father’s curiosity.
“There was no history of Jews in our family,” says Wigell, who lives outside of Pittsburgh. “How I got to be 50 percent Ashkenazi Jew was a total mystery to me.”
It was a mystery that Dorie Hightower would soon help solve.
Following the bombshell from her cousin that her father’s childhood osteomyelitis—a bone infection—had likely rendered him infertile, Hightower got in touch with Karen, the woman who had claimed to be her half sister. After studying her DNA matches for countless hours, as well as the matches she had in common with those matches, Karen had concluded that she and her half siblings listed on Ancestry.com were the product of a sperm donor named Robert (not his real name). She’d hired an Ancestry genealogist who specializes in cases of “misattributed parents” to help her figure it all out.
“[My mom] was shocked and in disbelief,” says Hightower’s son, Jesse.
Hightower later called another person identified by Ancestry as a relative—a half sister, Nancy (her name has been changed), who lives in the Pacific Northwest. “It was kind of like a blind date,” Hightower says of the call. “Her voice sounded kind of familiar, like a friend of mine’s who lives here. That was weird. We were interested in what each other had done for careers and how many kids we had. We were looking for things we had in common. …All three of us were brought up Jewish and we all married non-Jewish men. We’re all fairly short. They’re shorter than I am. I’m 5’3. They’re like 5’1.”
When she laid her head on her pillow that night, Hightower wanted to scream. Initially she felt anger toward both her father and her mother, who died in 2017. Next came sadness.
“There’s so many mixed emotions because you don’t really know who you are anymore,” she says. “I was left with questions about why they never shared this with me. Did my mom even share this with my dad, or did she just sneak off and get pregnant without telling him? I don’t know.”
For the thousands of people who continue to discover through these tests that their familial backgrounds aren’t what they thought they were, a new reality can be jarring, says Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland and an expert on how family influences identity.
“We don’t exactly know how much of the shaping that families do for us is genetic,” the Takoma Park resident says. “If our parents make us who we are, that’s literally by making us who we are and also by shaping us after we’re born and developing. People kind of have an intuitive feel for that, which is probably more important than the science. But they don’t really know. When you find out something like your biological parents are not who you thought they were, it can change your sense of your own story.”