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Once upon a time

That’s the way all of the fairy tales of The Legal Genealogist‘s childhood and youth began.

And, at the end, it was always “…and they lived happily ever after.”

Except that not all fairy tales had happy endings.

once-uponThe Brothers Grimm had some truly horrific elements in some of their stories: a young woman forced to drink wine until her heart burst and then her body hacked into pieces; a stepson decapitated by his stepmother who then cooks his body in a stew and serves it to his father; even the evil stepsisters of Cinderella with their eyes pecked out by doves.1

And, alas, in real life, a lot of the stories that begin once upon a time don’t conclude with happy endings.

The problem is when we go into it thinking, expecting, wanting and hoping that they will end that way.

Nowhere is this more of an issue, more of a concern, than in the case of unknown parentage, when genealogists and genetic genealogists set out to reconstruct an unknown family using the clues hidden in our DNA.

Having so many people who have DNA-tested is making it easier and easier to embark on a search for unknown parents, or surrendered children, whose sealed records in the past made it difficult if not impossible to find. The problem is… the search doesn’t always result in what we might hope for.

There cannot be a person with an unknown parent situation who doesn’t want and hope — deep down inside — to find the happy ending at the end of the search. To find the sweet and gentle parent who has been searching for that given-up child and loving that child every day they were apart. To find the siblings who welcome the lost into the fold with open arms. To find the extended family who open hearts and homes.

Or, from the other side, to find the child who had the wonderful adoptive family, who is now a success and happy, who will accept the parent and the parent’s family with love and forgiveness.

And it simply doesn’t always happen.

There are, most assuredly, many searches in unknown parentage cases that do end with absolute story-book happy endings.

But nothing about life comes with guarantees. For every publicized case where an unknown parentage searcher finds an amazing relationship with a parent or sibling, there is another case — often unpublicized — where the end result is bitterly unhappy.

Where the parent who is found never wanted to be found, doesn’t now wish to be found, doesn’t want any contact with the child, doesn’t care, may not be psychologically capable of caring, may have mental illness issues, may simply be too old and too tired and too set in his or her ways to absorb the disruption in life that the search can cause.

Where the family that is found is dysfunctional, needy, selfish, even just downright mean, the very antithesis of the family in which the searcher was raised.

Where the facts that surface as the result of the search are simply horrible: rape, incest, even murder, all of the very dark aspects of the human condition that can and so often do lead to a birth or surrender of a child for adoption.

Where, looking at the other side, the child who is found is the one with the not-always-expected issues. Mental, medical, psychological. Where the surrender “for a better life” didn’t result in anything resembling a better life. Where anger and grief are the driving forces behind the search.

And — on either side — the higher the hopes and expectations, the harder the blow if those hopes and wants are dashed in the end.

As one who was raised in an intact family — dysfunctional in many ways, but intact — I am not going to tell anyone in an unknown parentage situation not to search for answers. I join with those who believe that every person has a right to know his or her personal history.

But I have seen enough as an observer of the search community, the genealogical community and the genetic genealogy component of that community, to know that there are still too many people who push forward into a search without taking the time to truly stop and think about what they may find when the search is over.

To consider the potential for disruption in people’s established lives — and the fact that some are not and never will be able to cope with that.

To consider what may really lie at the end of the search road.

To sit, perhaps, with a counselor and review the pros and cons.

To get help with understanding the point of view of the person on the other side.

And in even more cases than we may hear about, to be able to absorb the blow when a parent who is found says — and some do — “I never wanted you, I was happy you were gone, I don’t want you in my life now.” Or, on the other side, to absorb the blow when a child who is found says — and some do — “I hate what you did to me, you owe me, I want you to be as unhappy as I am.”

Every story of unknown parentage begins with “Once upon a time…”

But only some end with “…and they lived happily every after.”

No-one should set out on the searcher’s road without being truly ready for whatever may be found at the end of that road.


  1. See Jesse Greenspan, “The Dark Side of the Grimm Fairy Tales,” History in the Headlines, posted 17 Sep 2013, ( : accessed 28 Jan 2017).
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