My son might not be my son

Should I tell him? He's been asking about hereditary health traits, and I've been wondering for years


Cary Tennis
October 8, 2010 4:20AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

Forty years ago (roughly) my (then) wife went to the bridal shower of a friend, came home smelling of sex, and just about raped me.

Nine months later she delivered a son. I loved him, raised him and thought little of it, although he is far different from his older brother both in looks and personality. I had some suspicion, but the marriage seemed to settle down, so I let it go. About a dozen years later the then wife began an open affair resulting in divorce.

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My son is very health-conscious and takes good care of himself. Lately he has been investigating his health history, and asking questions.

I've told him what I know about my family, but never mentioned the suspicion that his biological father might be someone else. (I have my suspicions as to who.)

So the dilemma -- I love my son and have no desire to hurt him, but on the other hand he seems worried about an inherited heart condition that affects me, and I could ease his concern by telling him what I know. Yet another side of the problem is that I have no idea of the health history of the suspected father.

So what to do -- shut up or tell?

Suspicious

Dear Suspicious,

This is tricky. I've thought it through, and this is what I suggest. Tell your son that if you're going to seriously talk about inherited characteristics, you ought to be scientific and start with a DNA profile. After all, any discussion about hereditary traits must begin on a foundation of science, and a DNA profile is the logical place to start.

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And then ask him for a buccal swab of the inside of his cheek. So you can send it to a lab. Just because that's the logical way to proceed.

If you are a scientific type, or a good actor, he might find it believable.

Of course he may say that what you actually need is a full genome sequence. But you could say, well, that's not quite commercially practical yet, and this is a start. Just to verify, scientifically, that you're my son.

And he might say, well, Dad, now, is there any doubt?

And then you're in hot water.

So it may be tempting to see if you can get a DNA sample without his knowledge.

Would it be an invasion of your son's privacy if you went behind his back and did a DNA test on a hair follicle or blood sample? Well, it certainly might feel that way to him. So I think it's best to be open and say you want a DNA profile ... for scientific reasons.

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And hope for the best.

If it turns out that he's not your biological son, what then? Do you have to tell him? I think so. It will answer his question: What health characteristics did he inherit from you?

In this case, none.

So whose health characteristics did he inherit? If you think you know who the father is, do you tell your son that, too?

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I think at that point it's time for your son to talk to his mom. She ought to have better information about that.



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Cary Tennis

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