If You Don’t Want to Deal with Family Skeletons, Don’t Look in the DNA Closet

Amy Dickinson is an American newspaper columnist who writes the syndicated advice column Ask Amy. In a recent column, she published a letter from a reader asking how to handle a family surprise: upon having her DNA tested, the writer discovered she had a half-sibling that she was not aware of previously. She then shared this bit of information with her family, including with both of her parents.

The information was not well received.

You can read this rather interesting letter and Amy Dickinson’s advice in a number of newspapers, including the Detroit Free Press at: http://bit.ly/2QxfdL6.

Comment by Dick Eastman: I certainly cannot compete with Amy Dickinson’s nationally-syndicated advice column but I will offer one piece of advice to genealogists: If your research finds a something that was previously not widely known within the family, you might want to stop and consider the implications before you broadcast that information to your relatives. Do you really HAVE to tell everyone? or anyone?


Lots of skeletons in my tree. Literally. They are all dead. It would be the living ‘problems’, that are the difficult ones. The angst level decreases the further the living are away from the event. No one really cares about the recently discovered dalliances of one’s 2nd great grandfather. Not so relaxed though about a newly discovered half-sibling from say a business trip to Chicago, eh? Tread lightly, but a document for future generations.


Once DNA uncovers something/ facts become facts. Often facts become “alternate facts” and once in published form on the internet or other, the myths are replicated willy nilly. The interpretations however are or should be made by the individuals asking the initial questions. Caveats must be passed on at each level of sharing. The DNA Code of Ethics might be cited as a guideline but few of us are into genealogy that deeply to follow these steps. Each case MUST be weighed by it’s own merits or implications. Someone, somewhere, sometime will let the cat out of the bag! Carl


I have found several surprises in my reasearch alone, before I even started DNA research. What I have found is that something about a dead ancestor is no big problem, but if the person is living,it is a whole different story. I keep most of my research close to the vest, but it is documented.


My personal rule is that if the info will hurt living people, even if the info is old, I don’t share. I was lambasted on a gen board for this view–‘people have a right to know’. My view is that if they want to know, they can do the research themselves.

Liked by 3 people

    You’re right. People don’t have a right to know if that knowledge has the chance to totally disrupt what they’ve always thought to be the truth. Example: A child bought up to know a father who isn’t their biological father. Some common sense must be used when delving into the new truths exposed by DNA.

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It really won’t change the final outcome if it is you who happen to be the one to look in the DNA closet or not. Eventually a first cousin will, and it will become known anyway. What is important is being sensitive and not to be the one to reveal anything that may hurt someone.


Not by DNA but by digging into records, I found a full record of a life event in my generations-back ancestor revealed some unexpected details that the previously-known partial record had conveniently omitted. The person protected was long-lived and is still much beloved by several surviving family members. Thus giving lie to the allegation that “no one cares about the dalliances of one’s 2nd great grandfather.” They do.
So I have chosen to document the FACTS and the SOURCE CITATION in my own research, and will not be insisting on sharing with the aged descendants who still idealize the individual in question. It serves no purpose.


Also note that posting your DNA might show skeletons in someone else’s closet. I’ve been contacted by a woman who is almost certainly the daughter of a first cousin. She hasn’t asked me outright about possible family connections, but I’m waiting for that shoe to drop. Haven’t told anyone other than my brother, and we’re sorting out how to approach this with our cousin if this woman starts asking more questions. This is complicated by the fact that there are two possible fathers (brothers) who don’t really like each other. I’m about 90% sure of which it is, but since I don’t know for sure I’m reluctant to bring it up to either of them. Duck-and-cover may be the best approach here.


    Understanding your situation, I’ve found the more folks that know about this (including your post), the greater chance of opening Pandora’s Box. You might want to let her do her own research and plead ignorance. Believe me, there aren’t many positives that can come out of situations like this. Good luck


My husband’s DNA showed that his maternal grandfather was not his biological grandfather. Through research I had come across a wedding license that showed his grandparents married just a month before his mother was born. His mother was very close to her father and he never let on that she wasn’t his biological child, but he must have known. It didn’t take long to discern who the biological father was and one of his new biological cousins really wants to include my husband and his mother in her family tree and has been quite persistent about it. We’ve managed to dissuade her for now because we can just see no good that would come from this information possibly getting back to his elderly mother. This secret weighs on us though. I guess that’s a risk we took when we had our DNA tested.


Not DNA related, but decades ago I sent for my maternal great grandmother’s death certificate. When I got it, I was surprised to see she committed suicide. I showed it to my dad who said to keep it quiet as mom’s family didn’t talk about it. Eventually at reunions you’d hear a whisper about it. After all my grandfather’s siblings died, people began to openly talk of it, and I finally shared the certificate and obituary. A bit of family history not ignored but not shouted about. Now we can talk about it without hurting anyone who might question if they couldn’t have done more for her back then. Modern medicine could probably have helped her but back then there was nothing. Better to not hurt the living than push new facts.


As one of the “skeletons,” I would offer the observation that the huge amount of DNA testing being done out there continues to free trainloads and trainloads of bagged cats. There have been so many of these “surprises” lately in so many families. I suggest everyone embrace this new normal. Every genealogical pedigree out there is now suspect. DNA does not lie. It may still take awhile for this all to become readily socially acceptable, but there will more and more stories like this. On the bright side, DNA is proof positive and purifies lineage. It thows “proof by paper” into the wind.

Liked by 1 person

    I must disagree strongly. DNA and records-based genealogy are both vital to our family history. In my case, DNA confirmed all my records research and family history back to the 3X great-grandparents generation, as far as I’ve gotten so far. I’ve connected with far-flung distant cousins and it has been the thrill of a lifetime. DNA as of today can show broad ethnicity, parentage and other close relationships but the records are irreplaceable for the full story.


“Purified lineage” is not a good way of phrasing this. Let’s not reduce it to that. Instead, let’s become more expansive. Precisely because DNA has arrived on the scene, I think genealogists need to start taking a more holistic and historical approach to our research. DNA doesn’t lie, but it tends to give us a flat, one-dimensional view of family relationships that’s just one part of the story.The other part is the very human response found in the written records that can add so much to our understanding. We need to recognize the emotional, historical and cultural ties of people who are not biologically related and build that into our family trees and narratives as well.


My eldest aunt had a child by one of her uncles back in the 1930’s. My cousin knew who his father was, but the uncle’s children and granchildren were not told until after my aunt passed away twenty years ago. The children and grandchildren wished they had been told about the relationship earlier so they could have enjoyed knowing my cousin more fully at a younger age.


    Exactly! These “skeletons” or family secrets, are PEOPLE with the right to know the truth about where they come from. It was through no fault of theirs that grandma messed around (or whatever the case may be), but to withhold some vital piece of info when you could share it, is wrong. My father’s birth father suddenly became unknown after DNA testing when we figured out his sister was his half sister. If only we would have known years ago, we cold have possibly met his BF, but he died of a heart attack before that could ever happen. Yes, be prudent with the info, but don’t withhold vital info because it will rock the boat or upset someone.


It’s not just DNA, and it’s not just immediate family, that will be bothered by facts uncovered during research. My mother could never get anyone in her family to talk about her maternal grandfather, who had died 10+ years before Mom was born. She and I finally drove to his former hometown and uncovered he’d been indicted twice for the murder of his father and brother, though never tried. The two victims were found staked out on the bottom of the pond on the farm the family had lost to foreclosure. The coroner’s jury decided they were the father & son who hadn’t been seen for ten years. Mom’s family still refused to talk about it, walking out of the room when Mom brought up his name. Forty years later my aunt claimed she’d never heard the story, though I was with her when Mom told her the facts. I never understood what the big deal was. It wasn’t like gggrandpa had gone to prison. Evidently his family supported him since his brothers and his brother-in-law contributed to his bail fund.


I understand the position to document the skeletons DNA uncovers but keep the information to yourself – however if you are the recognized family historian and put out a tree others will look at, and you suppress that information, then you are participating in a fraud. Tough call, yet with so many people just copying a tree and reposting it as their own, that misinformation can spread far beyond the immediate family.


Recently found out that my first husbands’ grandmother either committed suicide by hanging herself in the barn or she was murdered by an ex-husband. I’ve hesitated to tell my children because of the harshness of the “news”, didn’t think it was necessary to tell them.


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