Ask Amy: DNA Disclosure Disrupts Entire Family
What do you do when you know a secret that you think you should share?
Dear Amy: A couple of years ago there was a divorce in my extended family.
After the split, my ex-uncle (my aunt’s former husband) discovered that my aunt was fathered not by my grandfather, but by another man (this was unearthed through a DNA genealogy site).
He told my aunt. My understanding is that she reacted with extreme anger and told him never to repeat the information. My ex-uncle has not told any of their children.
Unable to carry the burden, he let it slip and now I am in (arguably, wrongly) possession of this information. I’m looking for ethical guidance.
My mother now knows that her sister is in fact her half-sister, but she has not told her sister that she knows this. My mother has other siblings as well, and we have reason to believe that one of them is also likely fathered by this other man.
I have cousins who are unaware that they are not genetically related to our grandfather.
I feel I am not rightfully in possession of this information. Mostly, I believe that my aunt should inform her children, as well as the other sibling.
It seems that people have a right to know who they are related to, especially considering potential health issues, etc.
Is it appropriate for me to just sit on this family secret?
— In a Tough Spot
Dear Tough Spot: Of all of the people you mention, you are the least connected (or directly affected) by this news. Because of that, I don’t think you have the right to share it.
All of your information is indirect. Since this information is from your aunt’s ex-husband, and because his motives are suspect, I don’t think you should even assume that it is true; especially until someone with direct knowledge confirms it.
You and your mother seem to have developed a complex set of theories about other family members based on your mutual and indirect knowledge of this DNA test. However, because you both believe this to be true, your mother (not you) should talk to her sister about it.
She should lay the responsibility for this knowledge with her sister’s ex: “I wish Stan had not violated your privacy and disclosed this, but he did.”
Your mother could also take a DNA test, which would reveal the extent of their chromosomal sibling connection. Then it WOULD be her business (and, to a much lesser extent – yours).
Given how family secrets sometimes circulate like a game of “telephone,” I think there is some likelihood that your former uncle did tell his children (and probably others), but they are all sitting on this because they don’t realize that anyone else knows.
In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068
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