Strong emotions

Several weeks ago I received an email from an acquaintance of mine, a man I will describe only as a prominent African American personality. Let’s call him Alex. He emailed to say he had read my book, The Stranger in My Genes, and he wanted to discuss something with me. Privately.

My book, published by NEHGS, tells the story of a DNA test I took to help a cousin with his genealogical research. The results were shocking. They revealed that my father was not my father. Since it was released in September of 2016, I have heard from dozens of people – friends and strangers – who have had similar experiences. I assumed Alex was only the latest.

We met for lunch in New York City in early March. Alex showed up with a dog-eared copy of my book. Numerous pages were turned down and passages underlined. I was both surprised and flattered. While he and I have followed each other’s high profile careers, we had never actually met until this day.

Alex told me his story. He is 50 years old, an only child, and his parents were in their mid-40s when he was born. His mother passed away in the ‘90s, and after his father died in 2011, as he was going through his parents’ personal papers, he was stunned to discover that he was adopted. He confronted his one remaining relative, an aunt.

“I thought you always knew!” she exclaimed. She has since passed away.

He reached out to the agency that handled his adoption. They were very receptive to his questions, but what they told him profoundly altered his view of life.

It turns out his biological mother is a white woman of Irish heritage. Alex is only half African American.

[What] they told him profoundly altered his view of life.

The agency told him that nothing was known about his father, but they offered to reach out to his mother on his behalf. He eagerly agreed to it. Her response was devastating: she wanted nothing to do with the child she gave birth to so long ago, and she asked that he never try to contact her again. He persisted, instructing the agency to give her his contact information and to tell her that she could read about him and his very successful career on Wikipedia if she was ever curious. That was six years ago. He has heard nothing.

Alex confided in two close friends, but both only offered platitudes. “Suck it up,” they told him. “You’re still you. This changes nothing about your life.”

I heard the same thing from a few friends and relatives after my DNA test results came back. But it didn’t change the strong emotions I felt.

Alex feels the same way. And that’s why he reached out to me. During our lunch he read back to me passages from my book where I described the anger, depression, and feelings of abandonment I experienced. Some critics have taken me to task for those passages, accusing me of over-reacting and being a whiner. But I don’t care.

Here’s what I told Alex: never apologize for how you feel. Even after six years, I still saw genuine hurt in his eyes as he told me his story. Those feelings are real, I told him, and he doesn’t need to have them validated by others who have no idea what he’s going through.

The plan now is for Alex to take a DNA test. Will he find any close relatives who will be able to shed light on his real heritage?

Stay tuned.

About Bill Griffeth

After covering Wall St for almost 40 years, Bill Griffeth became CNBC’s Anchor-At-Large when he retired from day-to-day anchoring duties in December 2019. During his career he was nominated for six Cable ACE awards as Best News Anchor and for one Emmy for Best Documentary. Bill is the author of several books, including The Stranger in My Genes and By Faith Alone: My Family’s Epic History, both published by NEHGS. Next year, Audible will bring out his next book, Have At It, Sister, as an Audible True Crime Original. In the meantime, he is currently working on a sequel to The Stranger in My Genes. Bill is a former NEHGS trustee.

19 thoughts on “Strong emotions

  1. I really hate the people who tell you that you shouldn’t be feeling the emotions you are feeling, or belittle you for feeling them. “You’re still you!” but in this type of case you no longer know who you are. One of my genealogy students has a father who was adopted. She is in her 70s, has kids and grandkids. But she still feels a void in her life because she has no idea who her paternal grandparents are. She tells people she wants to know as she has health problems which may have genetic roots, but her desire to know the truth runs deeper than that. Most laws now allowing adoptees to find info on their birth parents do not stretch to cover the grand kids of birth parents. Her dad is dead, and I’m pretty sure the birth grandparents are long dead. We found out where he was adopted and I found addresses for the right office for her to write. Haven’t heard back from her yet if she has written them. I just hope they will work with her, and that she doesn’t end up having to go to court in another state to get the information released to her. I have also encouraged her to get a DNA test. But she has faced the same bewilderment and even scorn for wanting to know who her birth grandparents are that so many face for wanting info on birth parents. I’d love to hear how Alex’s search progresses.

  2. Mr. Griffeth. Thanks for your post. I am the mother of one of those sons, one whose life I entrusted to another at birth some 50 years ago. I was young, and I covered my tracks, never anticipating that the me of some distant future would come to another opinion.
    Many years later, I changed that point of view.
    I spent years trying to locate him, and did. I sent a discrete letter, allowing for him to have a denial, in case. When he responded, I had to sit down to try to recover from the shock. He said he was not adopted, and even if he was, he had no need to discuss or meet siblings, no need to understand his background, no intention of speaking with me ever again. He didn’t want any relationship, whether it was true or not.
    The totality of the contact with that son was that call, and the letter. Although at the time I crashed into a welter of emotions and sadness, I have shared that story often with friends, which was healing. In time I have abandoned all hope of his ever contacting me, and just wish him well, regularly. I have been given the gift of other children, also now getting middle age, and I have a full life. I have friends whom I love, in abundance.As I have told this story over the years, I have found so many who are part of that triangle of adoption, the secret of the stranger in the genetic mix. Thanks for sharing your story.
    I am a truly fortunate person, and am (mostly) willing to let go of the need to satisfy my curiosity and complete the circle. I think of him often, and add him to my prayers. That is what I can do.

  3. Thank you for sharing this story, I hope to hear more about Alex and his DNA discoveries. If an adopted person reached out to me I would be happy to fill in the genealogical blanks. It would be interesting to hear from an ethicist, do we owe any privacy to our ancestors?

  4. Thank you for sharing your journey. Your support for “Alex” and his feelings about who he is good advice to everyone. An adoptees journey is so emotional that most cannot understand. The journey to find our roots is real and satisfying. My journey begun 7 years ago and brought healing to my birth mom and me in so many ways . And yes, there are some in this large circle of family who are my biological and adopted family who chose not to enter, but that is OK too.

  5. Thank you for sharing, not only Alex’s story bur others who shared. I too am a birth mother and have reunited with the son I gave up. With the help of DNA we were able to track down his birth father. While his BF has been willing to meet with my son and text with him, he refuses to tell his wife and other children about this child, even though it happened long before they came on the scene. No one should tell you “get over it”. You have a right to all your feelings, no matter what they are.

  6. I recommend your book to everyone – adopted or not. It is well written and really provides insights into the experience. I was lucky to have a good experience when, by accident (through a DNA test), I connected my cousin with a daughter he knew nothing about. They are thrilled to be in each other’s lives now. She still looks for her birth mother and I hope that, if she finds her, she will be embraced but there is a chance it could go the other way too. I wish the best for you and for Alex too as you work through things.

  7. This story is so powerful. It also illustrates how people hunger to know where they come from, their roots. Humans are a tribal species. Closed adoptions prevent that, so do surrogate parenting situations, and of course the tragedy when a parent for some reason abandons the child.

    This is indeed why we do genealogy. People claim it is silly, and then they find their own story. Knowing your origins is part of your self knowledge.
    I hope one day Alex finds peace.

  8. Some years ago one of my daughter’s had me do the autosomal test. I’ve connected with a lot of 4th+ cousins. No surprise, as I’m descended from several Mormon “plural marriages” with a multitude of half-siblings, all of whom can be found through the (more or less accurate) paper trail. It is at the fringes of the Mormon culture that the DNA connections become interesting. I’ve had a surprising number of contacts from adoptees with whom I share enough DNA for it to be significant, and I am happy to work with them. Sometimes all I can offer is a possible starting point for the paper trail. But I get the feeling that actually having a contact with someone who shares a common genetic ancestor with them makes a connection for them that helps place them in the world.

    With others, it is more complex. One was a genetic 2nd cousin, once removed, which surprised me, because I thought I knew all my 2nd cousins. I could not tell her anything about her mother, but I could tell her of growing up in the family she came from, and something about their lives. I had been close to her grandmother, who was my grand-aunt. I was able to give her information about the family that she came from, and the kind of people they were. I think it eased her mind: she had hired a private detective to identify her family, and he had left her with a negative impression of at least some of the circumstances surrounding her early life. I hope my recollections helped her see our family in a more human light, as people who struggled with stumbling blocks in life, and overcame them with dignity and grace. They were remarkable people in many ways.

    That story adds another dimension. In high school, I became pregnant, and released my baby for adoption. It left me with an immense grief that went unrecognized. I was supposed to go on with my life as if nothing had changed. But how do you do that? I’m not sure I did it very well, and I carried that pain for decades, assuaging it with visions of where my son might be in the life he had. I had put out feelers for him, and had nearly given up that I would ever make contact.

    Then one day I got an email that started “I was born…” and ended “I am wondering if you might be my birth mother.” After I stopped hyperventilating and crying, I sat down and typed, “Yes, I am your birth mother, and I have been waiting for this moment for a very long time.”

    We have a relationship that has grown close. It is not a fairy tale ending, but he is a member of my family, who simply accept him as he is, and he accepts us as we are, all of us imperfect beings. He has an uncle, and half-siblings, and cousins, and nieces and nephews. He has people who worry about him, and celebrate for him.

    And I think both he and I could begin healing. That horrible grief for me, and a deep feeling of abandonment for him. And that is something else I could offer some of the adoptees who have contacted me. Part of this process is forgiveness, too, both of oneself and for the other we do not know. Even when there is no reconciliation, these things are possible. Not easy, but possible

  9. As someone who has been working on her genealogy for over 40 years, I certainly understand the “need to know”…why else would I still be doing this? My husband of 45 years is so pragmatic, if he found out tomorrow that he was adopted, his response would be “so what, doesn’t change who I am”. I traced his family back to Germany in the late 17th century. When I showed him and said “this is where you came from”, his comment was “no, I came from Pottsville PA”. Everyone is different, and human emotions are very complex.

  10. I understand your feelings; I had the same situation, but in a far distant way. Two cousins took the DNA test. and we weren’t who we thought we were. We found out, after some work, that a great-great-grandfather was illegitimate and that he had used his mother’s name. We were a little upset at first, even though the fact was so far from our lives. If it had been me instead of a distant relative, my upset would have been magnified five times.

  11. I read The Stranger in my Genes and loved it! I recommend it to everyone. I am not adopted, but the situation Alex is in also bothers me. I think deep in all of us is the desire to really know where we come from. Thus, adopted or not, we dig into the past wanting to discover who we really are and where we came from. Thanks for sharing your story and Alex’s story.

  12. Bill, I saw you speak in Houston at the Family Tree DNA Conference in November, 2016. You referred in your book to blog you found about a woman who discovered that her brother was not her brother. I suspect that I am that woman. It was an incredibly shocking discovery, especially given that we only found each other as adults. There were several weeks that we didn’t know which of us was the offspring of “our” father. Only one could be. He wasn’t. I never told him because he was terminal then. DNA or not, I love him and miss him incredibly. Sometimes there are very strong emotions that are related to DNA and genealogy that aren’t because of a discovery of adoption or a misattributed parent. Some are due to the actions and choices of the parents we have, which are often very difficult to reconcile. DNA now has the potential to set a lot of records straight, confirming parentage and siblingship, or not, and disproving parentage as well. This isn’t so much of a brave new world as it is a stunned new world. Ultimately, I think we become very “self-sufficient” in that we really can only rely on who we our, who we’ve become, and who in our lives we love. It really puts love in perspective.

    Thank you so much for your book. It’s a very brave thing to write that story because you know you’re going to be a target and endure criticism. You give hope to so many.

  13. I try always to respect the feelings of those whom I meet, with whom I may not always agree. It is not how we feel about the facts that determines our disposition toward the truth they may reveal. It is the fact that feelings are always important to each person who has them, so let us respect those feelings and people first, and perhaps discuss how we feel later when there is no question of “who is right”. People are more than simple feelings. Let feelings be what they are, and look for what makes the people valuable, and possibly a source of insight for you.

  14. Thank you for sharing such an incredible story. It is sad to realize that the world today, for most people, has become so insensitive to others feelings. God bless you both.

  15. I happened across this wonderful blog post the first time I have celebrated my dad’s birthday without him in the world. I miss him terribly.

    I, too, am adopted and have always known. I have been doing family genealogy for about 8 years. When I hit 50, I purchased DNA tests for me and members of my family. I eventually found out who my birthparents are with a combination of DNA and traditional methods on my own.

    I made facilitated contact with my birthmother through my adoption agency, but never talked to her directly. At this point, I already knew who everyone was on her side of the family. She was fearful, thought perhaps I was mentally unstable and needed to find who I was or something. I was also an unacknowledged secret. I got some medical information and a promise of one single letter which I have yet to receive 3 years later. She chose to emotionally detach back when I was born, any responsibility ended when relinquishment papers were signed.

    I found that I was a carrier for a rare genetic disorder a couple of years later. I again made facilitated contact to merely inform my birthmother of the possibility she could be a carrier (and if so, her other children and grandchildren could be). Her reaction was one of that I was trying to find a way of making contact (which is something I can do directly if I so chose). I don’t know if the information was ever pursued. But, I feel I did the right ethical and moral thing, regardless.

    I certainly don’t know what emotions are swirling in her head. I am sure they are powerful and conflicting. They could be related to the nature of my conception (of which I have no detail, and could be a contributor to Alex’s rejection). I see the range of emotions already discussed; from pragmatism, to feelings of complete rejection, to being stunned. We all have our coping mechanisms. I don’t feel rejected by her, I just feel not included and a bit sad for her. And honestly, I don’t want inclusion if I am not welcome. I guess I tend to be more pragmatic, but it would be interesting to discover where I got certain traits.

    The bright side is that I have discovered my genealogy in large measure to a 1C1R I made contact with. The irony is that I am probably the only biological family that is regular contact (we share an interest in genealogy). My biological tree informs me of where my genes have come from, and where some of my interests originate. My family tree informs me of how hard life was for my ancestors and what shaped the way my family (and me) act.

    I hold no malice towards my birthmother. And, I will certainly keep her privacy. But, DNA has a way of showing up one way or another.

    I hope Alex is successful in his search following his DNA test(s). There is a certain satisfaction of figuring things out on your own without feeling beholden or powerless to others for that information. May there be peace in the resolution.

  16. I, like you, found out via DNA test that my dad is not my father. I was 46 and devastated. Now I’m 48…and still feeling the same, hopelessly alone and misunderstood in a world of people who say, “you’re still you” or “your dad’s still your dad.” They don’t get it. I just wish there was someone that I could talk to, someone like you who would actually understand. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m about to reread your book again, this time in hopes of finding ways to cope with my life.

  17. Bill, last year about two years ago I began helping a 70-something Marine find his birth parents. Then he backed off. Last year about this time he wanted me to look again. He was told (his entire life) that he was the youngest of many siblings and the parents could not afford to keep him, so he was adopted out. He only discovered his adoption when he obtained his birth certificate to join the Marines at 18 (where he served three tours in Vietnam). What I discovered had a grain of truth–but he was the eldest of several children and his birth mother was pregnant at 15. He had enough clues that I confirmed my research through the local papers and official documents. He is so shocked, thinking his birth parents lied to him all these years (when in effect, they were doing what many did in the late 1940s). He is now, finally, a year later, considering reaching out to his half-siblings and his step-siblings. I’m longtime friends of him and his wife, and I hope I’m invited to the party. Lastly, I would love to see if you’re interested in a speaking engagement for my local DAR chapter. Many thanks.

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