The Unanticipated Future Reader

June 11, 2019 § 5 Comments


by Nicole Harkin

I read Dani Shapiro’s new book, Inheritance, two weeks ago. I actually devoured it. The central questions of the book propelling me along: was she Jewish or not? Who was her father? Did her parents know?

Fascinating, I thought. But this could never happen to me.

I had done 23andMe a few years ago. The information I found aligned with the stories of my life. Surprising how DNA works. I only share 49% of my DNA with my siblings. Less than I expected considering how similar we seem. My family all have this nose. It isn’t bad but it’s distinctive.

After receiving that first set of information, I mostly ignored the emails from 23andMe. But for whatever reason last week I clicked. And then clicked to see about my relationships. And then I saw it. I have a half-brother.

I knew from Inheritance the data was correct.

Deducing that my father had another child wasn’t rocket science, since he had always been the philandering parent.

I emailed my new brother through 23andMe. And then spoke to my sister, Erica. We couldn’t tell how old our new brother was, or really anything about him, save that he shared around a quarter of our genetics. Then Montana, my youngest brother, texted, “Remember that time we found out we had a brother and weren’t really surprised?”

Yes.

I texted other close friends while processing. “You’re literally the fifth person I know that this has happened to.”

Fifth? Really?

A friend living in Germany was shocked that this information just popped up without any counseling.

“You are well adjusted but what about the person out there who isn’t?”

Good point.

Once Erica was connected to him on Facebook we could see his age. 55.

My new brother is older than me. I have something like a big brother. I’m not the oldest. I’m still the oldest. I’m processing.

We exchanged family pictures over text. I sent a link to pictures I have on my website about my memoir. An entire book about my childhood exists for my half-brother and his wife to read.

I can see a new sale on the Amazon author page. I imagine he has bought the book.

It took me thirteen years to write that well-received book. The book is my honest attempt to document what happened, when, and when possible why. My book is clear: I loved my father deeply. He was a real asshole. And he was capable of huge love. He was both. We are all both.

But as my new half-brother is introduced to me and my siblings, I don’t want him to see the warts. I want him to see the love. This is an odd feeling. I reconsider the memoir and wonder if I had, indeed, been fair? He’s the unanticipated future reader I never contemplated as I wrote the book.

When you write memoir, there are all kinds of instruction: don’t let anyone read it, let your whole family read it but don’t change things, etc. I had to pick my own way: I sent the book to my siblings before it came out. Montana read it, loved it, and offered two line edits. Erica couldn’t get through it. She cried too much. John read it long after it was published. But they all had the option. My new brother didn’t have that. Looking back, I now feel I largely wrote the book for my siblings. I considered what they would think and I made editorial changes based on how I thought they would respond. I left stories out that would be embarrassing or hurtful. However, at the end of the day, honesty was my guiding principal.

We, my four siblings and I, are a lot to take. Even for our spouses. I thank the universe or whatever you want to call it that we were all able to find partners that love us. We are funny, kind, loyal, smart, and sarcastic, with huge personalities. I can’t imagine living without them. And I can’t believe another one of us is out there.

We don’t know what will happen next. Our half-brother has had a life without our chaos. I just hope that my honest appraisal of our childhood and father doesn’t put him off joining some part of our chaos before we get to meet him.

______________________________________________

Nicole Harkin is the author of Tilting: A Memoir and an award winning writer and natural-light photographer based in Washington, DC. Her work can be found in Thought Collection and You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography. She is currently working on a mystery set in Berlin.

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§ 5 Responses to The Unanticipated Future Reader

  • juliemcgue says:

    Gorgeous piece. I want to read your memoir! I am in late stages of crafting a memoir about the search for my birth family. Four years ago I found a half-brother and sister, who had no idea about my twin sister and me. We are having a hilarious time getting to know one another.

  • ccbarr says:

    Its odd you only share 49% of your DNA w/siblings. I would expect this from my sister&me where we have same mother but different dads. Science-go figure.

  • Joanne says:

    Wow. What a story. I salute your compassion and honesty. This was a really interesting read and I’m curious to know what happens next. Best to you and all your siblings.

  • Maddie says:

    I shared this to my FB page… just yesterday I spit and mailed to 23andme. We live in interesting times of discovery!
    Thanks for sharing.

  • 1WriteWay says:

    Great story. Yes, the unintended consequences of DNA testing. Two of my cousins found half-siblings and a lot of unanswered questions through Ancestry.com and 23andme. What’s frustrating is when your parents are deceased and life remains a mystery. Even though you wrote your memoir unaware of a half-brother, one hopes that he reads it as it is: your experience, your memories, your hindsight. The different reactions your full siblings exhibited just goes to show that you can’t base whether and when to publish on how people might/might not react. It’s something I struggle with as I write “flash memoir,” so far only publishing those pieces that are not likely to make any waves in my immediate and extended family.

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