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How would you react to life changing DNA test results?

(Unsplash, Ben White)

Like millions of people curious about their genealogy, 61-year-old James Johnston bought a 23andMe DNA testing kit.

“When it came back I knew my ancestry didn’t quiet match,” Johnston said. “I should have been pretty much 100 percent British Irish, but I had a lot of German French ancestry. It seems weird, it says I have a German great grandparent and there is just no way.”

Finding out you’re a different kind of white doesn’t sound like a huge deal. But Johnston had spent years researching his family’s genealogy and this new information made him suspicious.

“I was born when my mother was only 17 years old and my parents were married only two months before I was born. So I was kind of always a little suspicious. I don’t look like my brothers and I didn’t see anything in my dad in me. I asked my mom straight out over the years, I said, ‘Am I Robert Johnston’s son?’ and she said ‘Yes.'”

So Johnston bought a few more DNA kits, asked his mom and brothers to give up a little saliva, and sent their tests back to 23andMe. When their results came back, it revealed that the brothers he grew up with were only his half-brothers. After being pressed, his mother admitted that the dad Johnston grew up with was not actually his father.

“She was only 16, she wasn’t married, she got pregnant. Her boyfriend, who was my biological father, he joined the Air Force and she wrote him a letter and said that she was pregnant and I guess she never heard back from him. She started going with somebody else, who I thought was my biological father, and she married him two months before I was born. They decided, my dad, who I thought was my dad, that they would never tell me. He knew that I wasn’t his and they would just keep that secret.”

The father Johnston grew up with passed away, so he felt free to track down his birth father. He’s still alive, 80 years old, and lives just two hours away. Johnston made the drive to meet him.

“Ironically, he ended up working in the same auto plant as I did. For 20 years we worked in the same plant. He said he knew I was there and he thought about having somebody point me out but it never happened. So I’m really kind of uneasy about the way that he handled that.”

Discovering that your dad is not really your dad when you are 61 years old is shocking and emotional. But Johnston didn’t expect his family to be so upset by the news.

“My mother hasn’t spoken to me since all this happened. So it was a secret she really didn’t want revealed. I tried to talk to her and she just won’t talk. My brother, Mark, told me they see me as an ingrate. My stepdad kept saying, ‘You think you got a raw deal?’ I said no, I don’t. But I was just thinking I should have been told the truth, for a lot of reasons, just because it’s the right thing to do. There’s also the medical history.”

The decision to explore his DNA has cause a rift between Johnston and the only family he’s ever known. And after spending a day with his birth father, he’s not eager to nurture that relationship.

“I am just uncomfortable with it. I don’t know if it’s a deep psychological scar or what. But he didn’t seem to really show any interest in me until now. I wish he just would have said, ‘I’m sorry that it worked out that way and I’m sorry, I should have handled it different.’ You know, he never helped me in any way. He abandoned his responsibilities to my mother and to me.”

I asked Johnston what he thinks about these home DNA test kits. They can reveal life changing information, regardless of how emotionally prepared the recipient is. Does he regret learning this new information?

“I’m not sure. I think genetic research is important. I love the idea of being able to trace your family tree, that’s where this started for me. Sometimes I think it would have been better if I just left it alone. It brought out a lot. I was really emotionally distraught.”

I reached out to 23andMe and spoke with senior product specialist Lindsay Grove. She said they get a lot of calls and emails from customers who have had shocking results.

“We do a lot of training on how to listen and be empathetic and help the customer understand what they’re seeing. We’re not counselors so we try to stick to the science behind the report and explain what they’re seeing and how we got to those results.”

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