BENTON, Wis. — Twenty-one years ago, the man who raised Dawn Clendenen told her that she was someone else’s daughter.
He had filed for divorce from her mother a few days before telling her, and a court-ordered paternity test confirmed his pronouncement.
“One day, you know you’re one person, and after that, you’re pretty much nobody,” Dawn said. “You have a name that you shouldn’t have. You have a family that you shouldn’t have had.”
Her father’s subsequent departure from her life still pains her.
Dawn, now 40, posted in April to a Facebook message board.
“I am looking to start or join a support group for people who were told one or both of their parents that raised them are not their biological parents and they thought they were,” she wrote.
Dawn and her husband, Russ, live in Benton, Wis. In the living room, a wall hanging created with enlarged Scrabble letters displays the intersecting names of Russ and all five of Dawn’s children.
Dawn and Russ sell vintage metal garage signs and handbags. Dawn also runs a housecleaning business, a dynamic vocation well-suited to her ebullient personality. When she feels depressed, she throws herself into work.
Dawn grew up in Dubuque with a younger brother and sister and three half siblings from her parents’ previous marriages.
When her family obtained the paternity test results in 2000, Dawn said, her mother was equally shocked and concluded that she had become pregnant with Dawn by way of a previous boyfriend.
That relationship ended shortly before Dawn’s mother became involved with the man who raised Dawn. In June 1981, two months after Dawn was born, her biological father died in a car crash.
Dawn also learned she shared her biological father with two half brothers.
She briefly met them and attended their weddings. Years passed, and she was consumed working odd jobs, raising her children and trying to survive.
“Now, I’m more content, with my marriage and with my business,” Dawn said. “I have more time to sit back and process things, I guess.”
Dawn acquired photographs of her biological father and recognized herself in his features, but she has not genetically confirmed her lineage.
In March, she purchased two mail-in DNA kits, one for herself and one for a half brother.
‘NOT PARENT EXPECTED’
Dawn spat into a plastic vial, boxed the contents and shipped it to AncestryDNA, a direct-to-consumer testing company. Founded in 2012, its database contains the genetic profiles of about 20 million people.
The DNA test estimates customers’ ethnic background and alerts them if they share a common ancestor with other users.
The company includes a warning in its terms of service that customers might uncover “unexpected relatives.”
Another company, 23andMe, launched its line of DNA tests in 2007 and oversees a database of 12 million profiles. It, too, warns users they might unearth findings like “your father is not genetically your father.”
The companies do not tally the frequency with which such findings occur, but a 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that more than 25% of U.S. mail-in DNA kit users said their tests identified previously unknown relatives. At-home DNA tests can be purchased for as little as $59.
Children who were unknowingly donor-conceived or adopted can ascertain their origins without petitioning a court to unseal their records. And harnessing the power of social media makes it possible to locate new relatives with just a click.
The promise of unlocking the information contained inside people’s genetic code can upend much more, including customers’ conceptualizations of family, self and security.
“We are animals. We come out wanting to survive,” said Yvette Saeugling, a Dubuque social worker and founder of Crossroads Counseling Center. “We have this instinctual need to belong.”
As the number of people who have their DNA tested grows, an increasing number of adults are finding out a parent is not biologically related, a happening known in professional genealogical circles as a “Non-Parental Event,” or NPE.
Hoping to humanize the experience, some refer to the designation as “Not Parent Expected.” Various studies have estimated that 2% to 10% of the world’s population has experienced an NPE.
Although the differing circumstances that surround NPEs make the topic a challenge to study, researchers analyzing the experiences of adoptees have found that those who determine their status at later ages report more distress and lower life satisfaction.
“It’s like they begin their life all over again trying to find that sense of belonging because what they thought they belonged to is no longer true,” Saeugling said.
The relationship with their adoptive parents is not necessarily severed, she said, but often strained.
The acronym NPE has been appropriated by online communities who use it as shorthand to describe themselves. Notable is the group NPE Friends Fellowship.
The nonprofit organization runs a network of online support groups that are tailored to the intricacies of human kinship, including NPEs, adoptees, donor-conceived children, parents of NPEs and NPE family and friends.
The Fellowship, which has served more than 9,000 people, posts user-submitted advice on its discussion boards, addressing topics that range from interpreting DNA results to contacting biological family members.
On the latter subject, one contributor recommended establishing contact with a biological father by sending a letter but addressing it to the father’s workplace rather than his home. He might be married, the author wrote.
Some people decide to locate their biological next-of-kin to make up for lost time, while others seek only a medical history.
Some hope to find their place in the universe, and others are curious why they are the only person in their family who likes antiquing.
WAITING FOR ANSWERS
When he was a teenager, Alan Jackson told his mom and dad that he wanted to meet his biological family.
He had long wondered, who were his blood relatives? If he saw them, would he find himself?
“Everyone goes through every day of their life knowing they have them,” said Alan, now 31.
Craig and Jean Jackson were unable to have children, but they wanted to raise a family. They worked with Catholic Charities to adopt Alan.
In 1989, they brought home their son to a handsome brick house located on a country lane near St. Catherine, Iowa.
Growing up, Alan rarely discussed his adoption, but he noticed the physical differences early on. Alan’s parents and younger brother — who also is adopted but from a different family — are White.
“When I was 4 years old, I remember asking my mom and dad, ‘Why am I Brown?’” Alan said.
The Jacksons knew that Alan’s biological mother is Mexican-American but lacked other biographical information. His adoption was “closed,” which meant that the Jacksons had no contact with Alan’s birth family.
Jean and Craig explained to their sons that their biological parents loved them.
“They just couldn’t care for you the way that they wanted you to be cared for,” Jean said.
Years later, when Alan expressed his desire to contact his birth family, his parents urged him to wait.
“I thought it was too early in his life to have all that thrown at him,” Jean said. “You’re still trying to get through high school, figure out what you’re going to do with your life.”
Once he turned 25, Jean said, she would share his adoption papers.
Alan graduated high school in 2007, then attended Loras College, where he ran track. Things picked up with the band in which he played guitar, and he left school to go on tour. That group split, and Alan played with two more.
He later earned a welding certification, then worked at Collins Aerospace.
When Alan turned 28, Jean gave him a letter from his birth mother.
His mother, Gloria, had decorated it with a drawing of an eye. Tears streamed from it onto a heart that had been pierced by an arrow. The drops continued down to the arrowhead before falling into a martini glass.
Alan read the letter often and showed it to his friends. Like her son, Gloria expressed herself through art.
After the letter was misplaced, Alan realized that he needed to find “the real thing.”
“I knew the day would come when he wanted more information,” Jean recalled. “All of a sudden he came and said, ‘I did this DNA test.’”
When customers submit their saliva samples to companies such as AncestryDNA or 23andMe, their DNA is digitally coded and entered into a database.
Algorithms then predict relationships based on similarities among customers, specifically the number and length of shared segments of DNA.
“It’s not that they are going to be exactly identical, but the degree to which they are identical tells you the degree of close relationship,” said Ryan Haasl, an associate professor of biology at University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
In a study published in the journal “Science,” researchers estimated that about 60% of searches for individuals of European descent — the ethnic group with the largest number of samples — will yield a match of a relative who is a third cousin or closer.
Parents generally share 50% of their DNA with their children.
Some relationships, such as first cousins and first cousins once removed, share less DNA but of a similar quantity, which can make those relationships harder to distinguish.
“The resolution of these ancestry tests is not going to allow you to recognize a long-lost uncle,” Haasl said. “It might point you in that direction, but then you have to do some additional work to find out what that level of relationship was.”
Alan received his results in March 2020 but struggled to interpret them. He found assistance from one of many online DNA detective groups. When people hit roadblocks, a host of helpers are ready to assist.
“How would you feel if you looked in the mirror and you didn’t know who you resembled?” said Laura Olmsted, founder of DNAngels.
The nonprofit organization, based in Carbondale, Ill., links clients to one of about 30 volunteers who help research their family relationships.
The organization conducts parental searches at no charge.
“DNA is how the NPE world became the NPE world because so many people were realizing that something’s wrong with their DNA,” said Olmsted, who also is a lead genetic genealogist. “They aren’t matching the people that they were led to believe were their biological family all their life.”
The organization receives eight to 15 requests daily. Clients want answers.
Mapping a family tree is time-consuming, with some spanning three or more generations.
Volunteers have solved more than 700 cases this year, 70% of which were completed within one week or less.
Olmsted founded DNAngels in 2019 after she learned that her late father was not biologically related.
“I had to grieve the loss of my father all over again,” Olmsted said.
Her biological father also had already died. She grieved for him, too.
DNAngels is staffed by a clinical social worker who can consult with clients who are experiencing a crisis and refer them to resources in their state. The organization also manages online support groups.
Volunteers, often former clients, can offer suggestions if a person wants to contact newly discovered family.
For all of the turbulence DNA testing has created, Olmsted said it has deepened her belief in the importance of family.
“You know, the ones that are present in your life and who are there when times get tough,” she said.
After combing through Alan’s test results, his “angels” located potential telephone numbers for Gloria.
Alan called her on his way to work. It took three tries. His voice quaked.
“She was like, ‘Who is this?’ and I’m like, ‘I’m your son,’” Alan said. “There was a long pause, which had my mind all over the place.”
They met two days later.
“That was the first time I talked to somebody who has the same blood as me face to face,” he said.
Through Alan, Gloria declined to be interviewed for this article.
During their visit, Alan explained over food and drink why he waited to contact her. Gloria told him the reasons that she placed him for adoption.
The COVID-19 pandemic derailed in-person introductions for more than a year, but the families are planning to gather. They will give thanks eye to eye and heart to heart.
FAMILY OF CHOICE
All her life, Mary Musselman knew she was adopted. She was well-provided for and loved.
Years later, Mary sought a health history that only her biological family could provide.
“I had a feeling when I did it that I was not going to get what I was looking for,” she said.
Mary, 52, recently moved to Cassville, Wis., where she cares for her son, whom she said was diagnosed with depression.
She experiences it, too, and wants to know if her family is at increased risk of developing other health conditions.
Mary had her DNA tested in January, and a friend mapped her family tree on Ancestry.
Mary said a biological cousin soon direct messaged her on the platform to tell her she was an “affair child,” that her parents are deceased and that the family wants no contact.
“I just wanted to have the chance to meet my birthparents and give them a hug and tell them, ‘Thank you,’” Mary said.
Just as the search for answers through DNA testing can be snuffed, it sometimes unveils something fundamental and precious.
Tristen Edwards, of Peosta, Iowa, also hoped to procure health information when she took a DNA test several years ago. She was donor-conceived and without records as to her biological father’s identity.
Tristen, 36, was surprised to learn that she had a half sister, and the two made contact in 2020.
Her sibling did not have a health history, but they discovered something equally treasured: shared experiences and values. Both are children of military families and desire to serve others.
“It’s neat to have a tie to the world, to have a connection,” Tristen said. “I think you choose your family. You choose whom you love.”
A few people responded to Dawn Clendenen after she proposed starting an NPE support group, but their interest appeared to evaporate after a few exchanges on the message board.
Her half brother submitted his DNA in the kit she purchased him, but due to technical holdups with the testing company, she still awaits the results.
Dawn wants to spend time with her half brothers to learn about them and the man from whom they all are descendants.
Some of Dawn’s children also have different fathers, a fact that she said is nothing to be ashamed of.
“Who you are raised by is more important than who created you, in my opinion,” Dawn said.