A DNA test, a surprise relationship, and an ethical quandry
December 28, 2017 1:10 AM   Subscribe

I took a DNA test, and found an unexpectedly close relationship with a total stranger; now I'm wondering what I should do about it.

So. I took an Ancestry DNA test, mostly out of curiosity, and to supplement the genealogy research I've been doing. My results were, for the most part, not very surprising; I had DNA matches to people who were descendants of my known ancestors on both sides of the family. My closest match was in the predicted range of "1st-2nd cousin"; this person had a username that consisted of religious title, initial, surname. I didn't recognize the name, but I also didn't think much of it; my maternal grandfather's family are from Kentucky, and Catholic, so I assumed it was someone related through them. But then I looked at "shared matches" and none of them were related on that side of the family; they included people who were descendants of my mother's father's ancestors, and people who were descendants of my mother's mother's ancestors.

This was kind of weird, so I Googled for this person's (distinctive) username and found someone posting on message boards and elsewhere with a similar name and identifying information; I was able to find out their name, the names of their parents, and of their grandparents. And I found...no obvious connections, at all. No shared surnames, no shared geographical locations; this person was born five hundred miles away from where I knew my grandmother's family to be located. But: my grandmother had a younger brother, who would've been 33 years old when this person was conceived. He worked in an industry that was closely connected to the area where this person was born. It's very possible that he would've been in that area at the right time, and based on the relationship range from the shared DNA, it's a strong probabilty to a near-certainty that my great-uncle is this person's biological father.

I've gotten my mother to test, for confirmation (I expect her results to be in the range of "first cousin"). And I have a dilemma; should I inform this person? They're an Ancestry member, so they've seen my test results, and will see my mother's, and will likely draw some inferences from them. I have no way of knowing if this is something they're aware of or suspect (if they have relatives who've taken the same test, they may have been surprised by the results not coming back as expected, but I can't know if that's the case). I don't really want to trigger an existential crisis in a total stranger, but at the same time there are other considerations (for instance, that this person is likely totally mistaken about their family medical history, on one side).

So, should I inform them, or leave it alone unless they contact me first?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If they are on Ancestry and took the DNA test odds are they are aware of this or at least have some questions about their family history.

I wouldn’t assume you’ve figured it out, either. It’s possible they are related to you in more than one way and this adds up to “1st-2nd” in the algorithm but is actually 2nd once removed or 3rd cousin plus 5th/6th/7th cousin from another branch.

I would message them but not reveal your theory, just say ‘hi, it looks like we’re matched, would you like to figure out our connection?’
posted by hamsterdam at 1:47 AM on December 28, 2017 [18 favorites]

Contact them. All of this happened a long, long time ago, if your theory is correct, and as someone else said, he signed up for DNA testing so is interested in relatives and history. You may both learn some interesting stories.
posted by mermayd at 4:24 AM on December 28, 2017

Mod note: From the OP:
I wouldn’t assume you’ve figured it out, either. It’s possible they are related to you in more than one way and this adds up to “1st-2nd” in the algorithm but is actually 2nd once removed or 3rd cousin plus 5th/6th/7th cousin from another branch.

No, the Ancestry tools include the amount of shared DNA and number of segments; this person matches 522 centimorgans across 23 segments. That means they share over 7% of my DNA. I was able to identify them; we shouldn't be related, at least not within the five or six generations I was able to go back. I used a calculator for the amount of shared DNA that puts the relationship at "1st cousin 1x removed"; this means that their parent was my grandmother's sibling. (Also NB that their shared DNA matches include people who descend from ancestors of my mother's maternal grandfather, and people who descend from ancestors of my mother's maternal grandmother. These two great-grandparents don't share any known ancestry, and they don't share matches to anyone related to me through any other ancestors.)
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 4:28 AM on December 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd contact them with something generic like "Hi, We matched DNA through my mother's side. I'm interested in identifying our shared ancestor; here's a link to my tree." Then they can reply if they want to or just ignore it. They may already know or suspect that their listed grandparent isn't a biological relative - Ancestry gives you the option to mark a step or adoptive parent as the "default" parent in your tree (I forget the exact term) or just use the adoptive parent in the tree without any indicator. I've done some genealogy on an adoptive lineage and it displays in that Ancestry tree as the default lineage for that person with no indication of adoption (we don't know the biological lineage and we were more interested in the history of the person who ended up raising the adoptee rather than the contributors of their DNA).
posted by melissasaurus at 5:50 AM on December 28, 2017 [18 favorites]

A lot of people on Ancestry or the other services are there because they are adopted or have a parent who is adopted. I mean, I’m not and I guess you aren’t, but it seems a disproportionate number are. So I wouldn’t assume that this is a surprise at all to the new cousin. It may be, but it would bet that it’s not as big a surprise as it is to you.
Just reach out and talk to them. Even if your sleuthing is correct and it turns out your great uncle is a scoundrel it’s not a reflection on him or you, and there’s a good chance that this will help expose the complexity of people’s lives and history, not bring up something bad in current memory.
posted by dness2 at 6:13 AM on December 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm actually coming at this from the opposite side. I was put up for adoption and took 23andme and Ancestry tests to see if I could find any genetic relatives. I have a family tree up, but it's of my parents and not my birth parents, so it wouldn't match any "genetic relatives."

On Ancestry, I got linked to a 1st or second cousin. I haven't contacted them yet because I'm not sure what to say. Instead, I've been combing through Ancestry and obituaries to try to find people in their family tree that could be a birth parent.

So, long story short, try contacting them, they may be avoiding reaching out to you because they're not sure what to say.
posted by drezdn at 6:16 AM on December 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

I would not contact them. If they are on Ancestry because they're trying to search for that kind of information, they'll have found the match. I think more harm than good could come of reaching out to a total stranger with potentially disruptive information, such as infidelity, someone not fathered by who they thought they were.
I would have a different opinion if you had something substantial to gain -- for example, if you were adopted and wanted to connect to lost family members. But I think the medical information question isn't that big a deal unless for example there is very specific, known definite genetic problem they have to be aware of. TLDR: I wouldn't go there.
posted by velveeta underground at 6:54 AM on December 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Further clarification: this person wasn't adopted. I found their birth announcement in an online newspaper archive, and their parents' engagement announcement, and wedding announcement, from several years previously. Their parents had been married for slightly less than three years at the time this would've occurred. My great-uncle was also married, at the time. This person's parents are now dead. My great-uncle is also dead. This person has at least one other sibling; my great-uncle has three living children. And I already contacted them out of curiosity (before I worked out the likely connection); the response I got back was basically "Huh, I don't see a connection either. Odd."
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 6:54 AM on December 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

And I already contacted them out of curiosity (before I worked out the likely connection); the response I got back was basically "Huh, I don't see a connection either. Odd."

That hugely changes things! I think I'd leave it alone at this point. You've reached out, they didn't follow up, they have your contact info, they can reach back out to you if they change their mind.
posted by lazuli at 7:03 AM on December 28, 2017 [10 favorites]

Yeah you buried the lede. You _already_ contacted them, and they didn’t show any interest. Leave it alone. Your super sleuth skills are maybe not as good as you think, and even if they are, this person still probably doesn’t care.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:08 AM on December 28, 2017 [12 favorites]

I think the ‘them’ refers to great-uncle’s living children, not the person who is the surprise connection.

I think you can contact the person who is the surprise connection with “hey want to figure out how we are related?”

If I am wrong and you already contacted this person, then yes let them be, modulo any specific genetic health info (just having health info for some ancestors wrong isn’t a generic reason, you’d need something really unusually important in the family medical history).
posted by nat at 7:16 AM on December 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

My question to you is this-what do you hope to achieve by contact?

Because there are cans of worms that do get opened by dna tests, family history that may or may not be uncomfortable. If you do contact I would not speculate as to HOW the genetics happened that way.

This is not generic to me. I just found out I am actually part Jewish instead of part Greek as we thought I might be (I took the test so I could tell my mother once and for all which of two men was her biological father but the test blew that right out of the water.) Since I can only surmise that the Jewish ancestry had to come from that direction after exhausting all other possibilities....I can see where any other Jewish relatives I have might not be so particularly eager to acknowledge the connections.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:34 AM on December 28, 2017

Leave it. Infidelity is devastating, and belated news of an infidelity-based birth is doubly devastating.
posted by Capri at 8:36 AM on December 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your DNA results are out there, pointing to you as a possible blood relative of this person, right? So it sounds like the information is discoverable by the person in question, if they choose to pursue it. In that case, let it be. It's up to them.
posted by desuetude at 9:45 AM on December 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

It sounds like this information is easily discoverable by this person, and also like it would have potentially more emotional weight for them versus for you. That is, for you this seems to be mostly a matter of curiosity, whereas for them it at least potentially could be distressing news (although there is really no way to know -- it's possible this person already knew about an affair, sperm donation, or some other random situation that you're totally unaware of, and they are also doing Ancestry purely out of curiosity and/or to learn more about a situation they already have some knowledge of). Given all that, I would let it be and allow the other person to reach out if they wish to.

I feel like the concern over medical stuff is a stretch, unless you are aware of a serious genetic disorder in your family (which I assume you would have mentioned if that were the case). Since the person is already on Ancestry, they have the info to investigate if they so choose.
posted by rainbowbrite at 10:34 AM on December 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sheesh. All these people saying, OH, they can see it if they want to contact you.
Hello, two things:
1. They took the test and made it public.
2. They took the test knowing full well there might be surprises.
3. They took the test knowing full well that those surprises might be uncomfortable.
4. They took the test and made it public knowing that one of the primary purposes of the darn thing is to put people in contact.

Whether they aren't contacting you because they don't know what to say, or aren't contacting you because they haven't even noticed the match, or hey, maybe they think the possible infidelity is on YOUR side of the equation and don't want to risk hurting YOUR feelings... this whole back and forth is ridiculous.

It's an expected potential result of taking the test and making it public. Just contact them already.
posted by stormyteal at 11:51 PM on December 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

> It's an expected potential result of taking the test and making it public.

Your comment is operating on a number of enormous assumptions about a random stranger's motivations for using a DNA test, what they expected to find, and how much they are interested in using Ancestry's contact features to connect with distant relatives. I mean, different people do things for different reasons that may seem weird to you, and vice-versa.

For example, maybe this person did the DNA test in the first place because they wanted to learn about lineage of their mother's side of the family, and they were never even curious about their dad's side. Maybe they got the DNA test as a gift from a genealogy-enthusiast family member but they themselves aren't super-into it personally. Maybe they want to fill out their family tree but are completely uninterested in chitchat with distant cousins based on having a shared five-greats-grandfather (this last bit is likely to be my fate if I eventually do a DNA test.)

In terms of expecting surprises and being contacted, I think most people are expecting to be surprised to find that their great-grandma wasn't really 1/16 Cherokee, or that their presumed Scottish blood is actually German, or that their African-American lineage includes more or fewer white forebears than those named in family histories. Not necessarily potentially uncomfortable surprises about their own parentage.

If the stranger does suspect that their father is not their biological parent, or if they do get curious about their DNA results, they can always reach back out to the OP. After all, the only reason that the OP could put a theory together is because they personally know about their great-uncle's employment in an industry with geographical ties to the stranger's birthplace -- this connection is going to be pretty obscure for the stranger to puzzle through on their own, as his family is 500 miles away from the OP's family. But I don't see what there is to be gained for the OP by pushing the issue beyond a quick "hey, want to look into this shared DNA connection?"
posted by desuetude at 2:09 PM on December 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

I did the test out of fun this year, because my wife wanted to on her birthday. I discovered my dad (who died 25 years ago) wasn't my father, that my biological father is still alive and that I am of Spanish and Russian Jewish descent rather than Scottish. And I have three more siblings.
I'm quite grounded so it didn't upset me - but there are some family members on their side who would be devastated to know. And the family I grew up with who didn't know that I wasn't full blood family have been shaken.
Also for those who say that people who do the test know what they are getting into, I disagree...
My newly-found sister forgot to privatize her tree and was doing historical research - not trying to find surprise siblings.
A second cousin just turned up who did the test because her husband bought it as a fun birthday present. She didn't know that DNA matches would show up even if she didn't construct a tree. And due to a slip of a poorly chosen username she was uniquely identifiable in the real world, on Facebook, etc.
Tread lightly.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 2:15 AM on December 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

According to your followup you already contacted them, and it sounds like they aren't interested in delving into any surprises in their parentage.
posted by yohko at 9:41 PM on December 31, 2017

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