Familius Interruptus: Lessons of a DNA Shocker

(Originally published 29 January 2017)

Last week I became one of ‘those’ people. 

Researching genealogy has relied on family stories, written diaries, and documents. Now it has the truth. DNA. DNA doesn’t lie, it just gives you the facts. Unbiased, unwavering, insensitive facts.

People talk about the dangers of using DNA to research genealogy. DNA might reveal that the stories, diaries, and documents sometimes lie. Sometimes, even a birth certificate lies because the people who created it were there for the birth, not the conception.

On 23 January 2017, I became one of those people who found out that the DNA test disproved everything I had been led to believe about who I was, and to what family I belonged. I found out that the man who raised me as his son, was not my father.

_dsc0018-2Six decades ago, my mother became pregnant with a man known to her and our family. I was born in December of that year. I looked enough like my mother, that it probably wasn’t too difficult to sell the idea that I was the legitimate child of my father. In addition, the man we believe to be my father was tragically killed in an accident when I was five, so I didn’t really have a chance to interact with him as I grew up.

If it were not for the DNA test, I would have never known…until one of my children took a DNA test. Truth can be relentless.

What Do You Say to the Half-Son?
The news was unreal, then surreal, then it got strange. There is no way to describe how it feels to have a fundamental truth about yourself suddenly proven wrong. The displacement of my reality was not a sudden shock, but a creeping wave of unrest and confusion.

Some people might have been hesitant to share this information with others. Those people hate me. I’m not a private or secretive person, and after I realized that I had lived a lie for almost sixty years, I was determined to end the secret as quickly as possible.

Most of the immediate family members of both families have passed away, so other than ‘honor’ of both families, and the memories of the people involved, this was a matter that impacted me and my children. While trying to be sensitive to both families, I posted the news on Facebook.

Mostly, the reaction was stunned silence. I found out later that many people had read the post, but what do you say to someone in my position? I’m willing to bet even Hallmark doesn’t have a card for this situation.

The reaction was typically positive and supportive. There was a suggestion that the DNA test might be wrong, and a couple of people began suggesting that the affair might not have been consensual. I gave a terse response to one of those comments and deleted it.

Who Knew?
One of the first questions that occurred to me was, “Who knew, and when did they know it.” It is somewhat of a pointless exercise because most people have passed on, and those still alive who may have known are not likely to implicate themselves in the deception.

I am confident my mother knew, or strongly suspected I was not her husband’s child. Several reactions and responses to questions about my family history seemed indicate she was deliberately vague and at times, almost disruptive to my research.

Among the most obvious oddities was her insistence that my fraternal grandfather was half to three-quarters Native American. This was almost always followed by a reference that my coloring, (brown hair, brown eyes, and dark complexion) was Native American. The last time she made this reference, my brother had already proven that as far back to 1803, and beyond there was no Native American blood in the Kiser or Warner family.

The Brutality of Deception
Deception is an insidious malady. The bigger the deception, the more it infects a person’s sense of well-being. I can’t imagine what my mother experienced during a lifetime of keeping this deception going, especially when the man who was most likely my real father died. His sudden death, mixed with the probability he was my father, could not have created a more chaotic mix of emotions for my mother.

As I became an adult I tried to analyze my mother and father’s relationship. It was clear that they were not in a positive emotional relationship. To me it felt more like they were performing the expected roles, but not with any emotional connection. It’s possible that was their behavior around me, but I suspect it was noticed by others.

My interactions with my mother were typically civil, but I would never have considered them warm. I don’t think she treated my brothers any different. That was who she was as a mother.

However, now I have to wonder if she saw me as the child that added complications in her life. Did my presence create a psychological conflict within her? Did she fear that other people might have known and were talking behind her back?

Moving Forward
I can’t imagine what would have happened if the truth would have come out when I was a child, and perhaps it was best for everyone that it didn’t come out, but the collateral damage of maintaining a deception likely affected my mother’s relationships with my father, with the family, and with me. I am disturbed that she didn’t respect me enough to tell me at some point. To deny me the truth was unfair to me and my children.

The lesson of this is that deception can be as destructive as the truth. My mother may have believed she escaped the consequences of her situation by lying and maintaining that lie, but I don’t believe she did. I think she created a hole in her life, and now a lot of people are falling in that hole. 

But now it is time to move forward. It is strange, but my last name feels like I am lying every time I say it. I feel I have to say, “My name is Paul Kiser, but actually I’m not a Kiser by blood.” I don’t think I’ll do that when I go through immigration next week, but still, the impulse is there.

Fortunately, my children, and the children of the other family are intrigued by the new family history. As offsetting as this is in the old world of hiding shame and embarrassment, the new world doesn’t end when someone’s decades old indiscretions come to light.

And this is where the story begins.