DNA tests can have life-altering consequences, say consumers

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The contents of an AncestryDNA kit. Jane Olson’s world was turned upside down when she received the results of one of these at-home DNA tests. (Ancestry)

See also Legal, emotional surprises possible results of DNA tests

At 52 years old, Jane Olson said her life took a turn straight out of a soap opera script. 

What started as a simple desire to learn more about her family tree quickly turned sour as information she never wanted to know was brought to light. When Olson received the results of DNA tests she and her father took from Family Tree, her DNA and her father’s didn’t match. 

“I thought there’s two possibilities: either my father is not my father or they accidentally switched the tests,” said Olson, whose name has been changed to protect the privacy of her family members.

She called Family Tree and asked them to check the tests. After three months of waiting for an answer, Olson decided to take a second test through Ancestry. The results were the same. 

Olson turned to her older sister, who she described as their mother’s confidant, for answers. 

“I thought maybe she knows about this. Maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t know about this,” Olson said.  

Olson’s sister was also in the dark but offered to approach their mom to try to figure out the truth. This proved to be a dead end. Olson’s mom had spent 50 years keeping a secret — and she’d continued to do so until her death in 2018. 

Olson decided to have her mom’s DNA tested as well to try to piece together who she really was.   

“When she matched me and dad didn’t, it was obvious,” Olson remembers. “I cried every day for three months.”

She said it tore apart her perception of her family. 

“When you find out your father is not your father, you not only lose your father, but your mother is not who you thought she was and your siblings are not your siblings,” she said. “In essence, you lose your entire family.”

Her parents had divorced years earlier, an event she attributed to her father’s infidelity. Learning the truth about her identity and that her mother had been unfaithful years before her father had been made her realize he wasn’t as responsible as she thought he was. 

“It really turned my whole family story on its head,” she said. “It really is kind of a mind-blowing thing. It changes your paradigm. What you thought you knew, you didn’t know.”

For Olson, the most difficult part of this new discovery was figuring out what to do with the information and how to move forward with it. The first thing she did was tell her husband and her kids, but she battled with how to approach the topic with her father. 

“I believe we all have a right to the truth, which means he did,” Olson said. “But I just could not imagine sitting down with this man at 85 and telling him he was not my father. I also felt like he had been my father and deserved to keep feeling like he was my father.”

At the time, Olson’s sister and her father were estranged, so the thought of tainting the only father-child relationship he had left seemed like a cruel thing to do. Eventually, she decided the greater good would come from not telling him. 

Olson’s father died in April 2019, and she said she still wonders if she did the right thing by not telling him. 

It’s been more than two years since Olson’s world was turned upside down and she said while she’s finally come to terms with it, the effects have continued to ripple through her life. 

According to Olson, her story isn’t as uncommon as people might think. 

“People need to be aware that this is out there and it’s not some weird, freaky thing,” she said. “If you go back far enough in anybody’s family, you’re going to find this.”

A Pew Research report completed in August found that 27% of individuals who had used a mail-in DNA test like AncestryDNA said they learned about close relatives they previously didn’t know about.

BYU law professor Stephanie Bair, who has a background in genetic information laws, said as more people are finding out about family relationships through these tests, the public needs to be aware that DNA testing can open these doors — even if individuals themselves haven’t consented to a DNA test. 

“There’s a lot of information that people can gain about you just based on your family members submitting to those tests,” Bair said. “And not everyone wants those relationships to be revealed.”

It’s a reality Olson has felt, and continues to feel, firsthand. 

“I don’t tell anyone,” she said. “Which in some ways frustrates me because this isn’t my secret. I didn’t do anything wrong and I shouldn’t feel like I have to hide this.”

A few months after her father passed away, Olson received an email from her first cousin once removed on her biological father’s side. The cousin explained he had done extensive genealogy work based on DNA testing and could help her pinpoint her relation to her biological father’s family. After emailing back and forth, Olson decided to call him. 

“The reason I contacted you is that I am 89 and I’m starting to lose my memory,” Olson remembers him saying. “I have all this family history information and I didn’t want you to not be able to access it.”

Olson said the man had figured out who her grandparents were, something she herself had already done, and that she was the illegitimate child of one of their six sons, all of whom are deceased. Olson said it was remarkable that he had reached out to her, a total stranger, when there was no personal gain in it for him. 

Now Olson is grappling with whether she should contact her biological father’s family. 

“How would you like to have to be the person who calls up and says, ‘Hey, I’m your potential half-sibling from an illicit relationship that nobody knows about with your dad and my mother’?” Olson asked. “Who’s gonna want to hear from me?”

Even if Olson does reach out, the family may or may not respond. “It might not even result in anything,” she said. 

Regardless of the pain that learning the truth has caused her, Olson said she doesn’t regret taking the DNA test. 

“There’s power in the truth,” she said. “I’m not keeping her (Olson’s mother) blasted secret anymore.”

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