Earlier in the year, I got an out-of-the-blue phone call from a stranger claiming to be a distant relative. The person explained which branch of her family tree she thought I occupied.
Then she asked me to take a DNA test — just to be sure. I answered with a very prompt, “No thank you,” and extricated myself from the call.
Handing over my genetic info to someone I don’t know has risks that should seem evident to everyone. But after reading about the case of Alice Plebuch, I could see there were other potential issues, like discovering unknown family secrets.
According to the Washington Post, Plebuch took a mail-order DNA test from Ancestry.com in 2012 on a whim. She’d never known much about her Irish-Catholic father, who’d spent his youth in an orphanage.
When she got the report back, though, she’d assumed the company had made a mistake. In fact, she wrote them a starchy letter insisting that their results were wrong.
See, the report stated that a significant portion of Plebuch’s genetic heritage came from Jewish, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European sources. That didn’t match what she knew about her father at all.
“My sister sort of jumped on it,” she told Radio New Zealand. “She said, ‘That’s not surprising because we don’t look like (him).’”
At first, Plebuch thought the results might hint at some kind of tawdry revelation. Had her mother had an affair?
But further testing by family members brought to light an even more shocking truth: While Plebuch was clearly related to her brother and sister, a little deduction revealed that her father had no genetic connection with his own parents.
Her investigation didn’t stop there. She started using strategies that were similar to those of adoptees trying to find their birth parents.
Plebuch set various DNA sites to contact her when they received notice of someone who might be what they called a “DNA cousin.” Then once she got those notifications, she reached out to the individuals directly and asked to see their results.
The sites made it easy from there. When the third-party agreed, the software would show Plebuch where the genetics overlapped.
A breakthrough occurred in 2015. Plebuch had access to a male relative’s DNA-testing account, and the site showed her that he had a new match.
The woman was a North Carolina resident named Jessica Benson, and she agreed to swap results. “I wrote to her and asked her whether or not she was expecting to find Collinses and Kennedys and Nolans,” Plebuch said.
“And she wrote back, ‘No, it’s very strange. I thought I was Jewish, but I’m seeing Irish.’” Benson called her Aunt Pam Benson looking for answers, and Pam Benson then got in touch with Plebuch.
When swapping notes, stories, and pictures, the women realized where the discrepancy came from: Their fathers were born on the same day and had been accidentally switched in the hospital.
According to genetic genealogist CeCe Moore, such DNA surprises aren’t, well, surprising. “We see it every day,” she said. “You find out that a lot of things are not as they seem, and a lot of families are much more complex than you assume.”
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