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?