No (DNA) Bullying

No Bullying

There are hardly any hobbies that hold more passion than genealogy.  Once hooked by the bug, most people never retire and one of the things they worry about passing down to their family are their genealogy records – even if the family of today isn’t terribly interested.

So it’s easy to understand the degree of passion and enthusiasm, but sometimes this passion can kind of go astray and it crosses the line from something positive to something not nearly so nice.

Genetic genealogy is the latest tool in the genealogists’ arsenal, but it introduces some new challenges and unfortunately, with the increased number of people testing, we’re seeing some examples of what I consider bullying – for DNA, for identification and for information.

Bullying is unwelcome aggressive behavior that involves repeated threats, physical or electronic contact or a real or perceived imbalance of power.  Generally, the victim feels they can’t make it stop.  This has become especially prevalent in the cyber age.  And bullying is not just about kids.

I’m going to look at 3 types of situations.  It’s easy to see both perspectives, but bullying by any other name is still bullying, even though the bully probably doesn’t see it that way.  Guaranteed, the recipient does.

You’ve Got the DNA I Need

Let’s say that Aunt Gladys is the last person alive in a particular line who can provide DNA to represent that line.  But Aunt Gladys, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to test.  It’s fine to discuss this, to talk about her concerns, and perhaps you can find a solution to address them, like testing anonymously.

But let’s say that Aunt Gladys simply says “no,” end of story.  What then?

Yes, Aunt Gladys carries the information that you need, but it’s HER DNA that needs to be tested, and if she says no, then her decision should be respected, as difficult as it may be and as unreasonable as it may seem.  Maybe Aunt Gladys knows something you don’t – like she is adopted or some other secret that she does not wish to reveal.  Badgering Aunt Gladys from this point forward is going to do nothing other than cause hard feelings and make Aunt Gladys want to avoid you.

You may think you’re “just discussing” but from her perspective, you may be bullying.  Now, it’s OK to beg and cry once, but if you’re slipped into the realm of “if you don’t test, I’ll tell Uncle Harvey that you scratched his car back in 1953,” you’ve stepped over that line.

Won’t Answer E-Mails

I can’t tell you how often I hear this story.  “I match with person XYZ and they won’t share their information.”  Most of the time, they won’t answer e-mails.  And the question follows, of course, as to why they tested in the first place.

These tests have been around for a number of years now.  Many people have died or moved or the purpose of the test was fulfilled and they aren’t interested beyond that.  Think of your Aunt Gladys.  If you did convince her to test, it wouldn’t be for her, but for you and she certainly would not be interested in answering random e-mails.

There could be a number of reasons, depending on the testing company used, that someone might not answer.  In particular, many people test at 23andMe for health reasons.  It doesn’t matter to them if you’re a first cousin or any other relation, they simply aren’t interested or don’t have the answers for you.

It’s alright to send 2 or 3 e-mails to someone.  E-mails do get lost sometimes.  But beyond that, you’ve put yourself into the nuisance category.  But you can be even worse than a nuisance.

I know of one case where someone googled the e-mail of their contact, discovered the person was a doctor, and called them at the office.  That is over the line into cyber-stalking.  If they wanted to answer the e-mail, they would have.  If they don’t want to, their decision needs to be respected.

I Know You Know

This situation can get even uglier.  I’ve heard of two or three situations recently.  One was at Ancestry where someone had a DNA match and their trees matched as well.  At first the contact was cordial, but then it deteriorated into one person insisting that the other person had information they weren’t divulging and from there it deteriorated even further.

This is a hobby.  It’s supposed to be fun.  This is not 7th grade.

Adoptions

However, there are other situations much more volatile and potentially serious. In some cases, often in adoptions, people don’t want contact.  Sometimes it’s the parent and sometimes it’s the adoptee.  But those aren’t the only people involved.  There are sometimes half-siblings that are found or cousins.

For the adoptees and the parents, there are laws in each state that govern the release of their legal paperwork to protect both parties.  Either party can opt out at any time.

But for inadvertently discovered family connections, this isn’t true.  Think of the person who doesn’t know they are adopted, for example, who discovers a half-sibling and through that half sibling their biological mother.  Neither person may welcome or be prepared for this discovery or contact.

Imagine this at the dinner table with the family gathered, “Hey guess what, I got a half-sibling match today on my DNA.  I wonder if that’s some kind of mistake.  How could that be?”

So if you match someone as a half sibling or a cousin, and they don’t want to continue the conversation, be kind and respectful, and leave the door open to them if they change their mind in the future.  Pushing them can only be hurtful and nonproductive.

Dirty Old (and Formerly Young) Men

And then, there’s the case of the family pervert.  Every family seems to have one.  But it’s not always who you think it is.  By the very nature of being a pervert, they hide their actions – and they can be very, very good at it.  Practice makes perfect.

Let’s say that Jane likes genealogy, but she was molested as a child by Cousin Fred.  Some of the family knows about this, and some don’t believe it.  The family was split by this incident, but it was years in the past now.  Jane wants nothing to do with Fred’s side of the family.

(By the way, if you think this doesn’t happen, it does.  About 20% of woman have been raped, 30% of them by family members (incest), many more molested, and children often by relatives or close family friends.  15% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 12.  Many childhood cases are never prosecuted because the children are too young to testify.  Perverts and pedophiles don’t wear t-shirts announcing such or have a “P” tattooed on their forehead.  Often family members find it hard to believe and don’t, regardless of the evidence, casting the victimized child in the position of being a liar and “troublemaker.”  Need convincing?  Think of what Ariel Castro’s family said and how well he hid his dark side and the Boston bombers’ family comments about their innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.)

Jane’s an adult now and DNA tests.  She has a match and discovers that it’s on Fred’s side of the family.  Jane tells the person that she doesn’t want anything to do with that side of the family, has no genealogy information and wants no contact.  The match doesn’t believe Jane and then becomes insistent, then demanding, then accusatory, then threatening.

This is clearly over the line.  Jane said she didn’t want any continued contact.  That should have been the end of the discussion.

But let’s say this one gets worse.  Let’s say that because of this, Cousin Fred wakes up and decides that Jane is interesting again and begins to stalk Jane, and her children……

Does this make you shake in your shoes?  It should.  Criminals not only aren’t always playing with a full deck, but don’t play by any of the same rules as the rest of us.  Cousin Fred might just be very grateful for that information about Jane and view it as a wonderful “opportunity,” provided by his “supportive” family member who has now endangered both Jane and her children.

Who’s Yer Daddy?

In another recent situation, John discovered by DNA testing that he is not the biological child of his father.  He subsequently discovered that his mother was raped by another male, married to another close family member.  When John discovered that information, he promptly lost interest in genealogy altogether.

A year or so later, John matched someone closely who was insistent that he provide them with how he was related to them.  John knew, but he did not feel that it was any of their business and he certainly did not want to explain any of the situation to the perpetrator’s family member, who, by the way, had already mentioned what a good person the perpetrator was.  However, the person continued to harass and badger John until he changed his e-mail address.

I so wanted to ask these people, “What part of “NO” don’t you understand?”

Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe

In one final example, adoptees often make contact with their birth mother first, and then, if at all, with their birth father.  Sometimes the birth mothers are not cooperative with the (now adult) child about the identity of their father.  Often, this is horribly frustrating to the adoptee.  In at least one case, I know of a birth mother who would never tell, leaving the child an envelope when she died.  The child was just sure the father’s name was in the envelope, but it was not.  I can only imagine that level of disappointment.

Why would someone be so reticent to divulge this information?  The primary reasons seem to be that either the mother doesn’t know due to a variety of circumstances that can range from intoxication to rape, the woman never told the father that she had a baby and placed the child for adoption, the father was abusive and the mother was/is afraid of him/his family, the father was married, or the father was a relative, which means not only might the father still be alive, the mother may still have a relationship of some type with him.  The mother may have lied for years to protect herself, and in doing so, protected the father as well.

Clearly, this situation has a lot of potential to “shift” a lot of lives and not always in positive ways.  One woman didn’t want to make contact with her child other than one time because she had never told her husband of 30 years that she had a child before their marriage.  One woman made contact, but did not want to divulge that the child’s father was her older brother, still alive.  Victims often keep the secrets of their attackers out of misplaced shame and guilt.  Think Oprah here.  Mother may not be simply being stubborn, but acting like the victim she is and trying to preserve whatever shreds of dignity are left to her.  She may also be embarrassed by a lapse in judgment.  One adoptee realized when counting forward from her birth date that she was conceived right at New Years and when she realized that, she figured out that her mother, who drank heavily when she was younger, probably did not know who her father was, and didn’t want to admit that.

As frustrating as this is for the adoptee, the birth mother does have the right not to have her life turned upside down.  Badgering her will only result in losing the potential for a relationship from the current time forward.  Being respectful, understanding and gentle may open the door for future information.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

I can hear Aretha now.

If you haven’t walked a mile in their moccasins, so to speak, you can’t possibly know the situation of the person on the other end of your request for DNA or information.  Don’t make the mistake of stepping over the line from excitement into bully behavior.

Think of the potential situations the person on the other end may be dealing with.  Ultimately, if they say no, then no it is and no should be enough without an explanation of why.  Generally bullying doesn’t work anyway, because someone who feels like you are threatening them or being too aggressive will clam right up and it will be that proverbial cold day in Hades before they tell you anything.  It’s important to keep communications from sounding like you’re demanding or entitled.  My mother always said “you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”  I always found that very irritating, probably because I needed to hear it just then – but regardless – it’s true.

Keep in mind, genetic genealogy is about genealogy.  It’s a hobby.   It’s fun.  If it becomes otherwise and puts people at jeopardy, then we need to take a step back and take a deep breath.

Most people don’t mean to cross the line into bullying.  They just get excited and sometimes desperate.  Hopefully this discussion will help us all be more aware of where the polite line is in communicating with our family members and matches.

If you are the victim of information bullying, cyber-stalking or someone puts you in an uncomfortable situation, there are steps you can take to remedy the situation.  Most bullying sites are directed at adolescents, but the advice still applies.

If you know you don’t want contact initially, then make your accounts anonymous or don’t respond to requests.  If you realize that you don’t want contact after the initial contact, for whatever reason, say so.  After that, do not engage in communications with someone who is attempting to bully you.  If they threaten you or threaten to reveal information or your identity if you don’t give them information or do something, that action falls into the blackmail realm, which a crime.  Complying with a threat to protect yourself or your family generally only results in more of the same.  You are not dealing with a nice person.  At this point, you are way beyond genealogy and your own internal “danger” sign should be flashing bright neon red.

If disengaging does not take care of the problem, save all messages/contacts and contact your attorney who may advise you to contact the police or the FBI if the problem crosses state lines.  Depending on what state you/they live in and exactly what they have done, you may have a variety of options if they won’t stop, especially if they do something that does in fact manage to turn your life upside down and/or a crime is involved, like blackmail.  Of course, this is akin to closing the barn door after the cow leaves.  Hopefully, the person causing the problem is simply an over-zealous genealogist, means you no harm, realizes what they have done or are doing, and will get a grip and compose themselves long before this point.

Bullying of course is not because of DNA or unique to genetic genealogy, but the new products introduce new social situations that we have not previously had tools to discover nor the opportunity to address in quite the same way.

31 thoughts on “No (DNA) Bullying

  1. I’ve had a similar problem Roberta..going to try to email you off here, if you don’t mind for your input. I’m getting desperate myself! LOL

  2. Most of the people I contact, do not respond. Those who do, I know I have only one, or two, at the most, emails with them before they cut me off, so I know I need to get all questions in that first email to them. Two emails seem to be their tolerance level. Therefore, under these circumstances, if they will not respond to my email, and we definitely have a paper match, I CALL IT A MATCH. In fact, if you have a paper match, why contact them at all. Another curious thing recently, 2 different men, after a few emails back and forth, then wanted to talk to me on the phone. One, I ignored, because after I looked at his tree, I found our paper match, and informed him thusly. The other one, I told him my husband did not think it was necessary for me to speak with him on the phone. He abrupted quit emailing me and we were in the middle of trying to make a match with a third party. So, what was all that about??????

      • No, but rather terse, usually an attachment showing where we match on a chromo, with CMs, longest segment, and others who overlap. Maybe I should “dumb down”. Anyway, I WILL NOT contact anyone else. If someone contacts me, I will take the ball and run with them, but otherwise. My great disappoint was

  3. Roberta I just had a very sad experience with DNA testing hoping to prove what was a long standing family story. At least the other person involved was just as willing and wanted to know if it was true or not.

  4. Excellent article/discussion! I have used DNA testing for three of my main surnames and there are still a few people who I would love to see have their DNA tested to help us with our family history but as soon as I see that they are not interested I back off and let things lie. Maybe they will change their mind eventually. People do harbor secrets at times and have a right to privacy! These are very good points to keep in mind. Thank-you for reminding us of all of the possible scenarios.

  5. Great article, Roberta. One of my family’s first matches at 23andMe was a lady who matched my great-aunt as a 2nd cousin. She gave me lots of info and it looked like this was a match in Indian Territory because our families lived near each other. She wanted to know where I lived, etc. Was excited about the match. The next thing I know, she sent an abrupt email and said “I have lost interest in this..I don’t know anything about my family nor anything about genealogy.” I have my suspicions about what this is about; there are stories in my family relating to my Choctaw and Chickasaw lines. I responded back, “okay, that’s fine.” I’m hoping someday she might change her mind, but I let it go. You just have to! – Revis

  6. Nice write up. My mother was an NPE, and now I find my paternal g mother was, and then either my father or myself…. then we have the prior 1000 years since surnames. Actually I take this all in humor, it is the Human condition. We all need love and affection, then there is just plain survival mode, as in war. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to the mothers side of the family… after all, she usually knows who the father is. If only nanna knew there would be something called DNA testing….millions of grandmums, starting to roll in their graves.
    It really doesn’t matter, we are always who we are, just not who we THINK we are.

    Now we know what people did, before TV and radio, and apparently, birth control.

  7. Very good advice.

    I do want to comment on adoption law as your statement is too simplistic:
    “For the adoptees and the parents, there are laws in each state that govern the release of their legal paperwork to protect both parties. Either party can opt out at any time.”

    Each state is different and adoptees are sometimes treated differently depending on what year they were born. It is rare that a parent will be able to obtain the current identity of the adoptee from the state or the agency without express written permission from the adoptee. For the adoptee, some states do not require the parents’ permission to release the original birth certificate. Some states allow the parent to “opt out” and some states allow the adoptee to hire a state approved intermediary to make contact and request permission. Most other states require the parties to “opt in” before identifying information is released. In all states, the adoptee can ask a court to unseal the file without the parents’ knowledge or permission, although it is rarely granted in most jurisdictions.

    That just covers “identifying information” obtained from the state or agency. Many states will release “non-identifying information” which is just as valuable (in some cases more so) as having a name. Some states even have birth indexes which contain the adoptee’s original name.

  8. Wow, your posting is absolutely brilliant! I can’t rave enough about it. You must send it to the NY TImes… or somewhere for the world to see.

    Somebody called a family tree “an agreed-upon lie.” When I have tried to help someone with their family tree by using public records, and if the records have disagreed with Grandma’s story, then the records are WRONG, even if there are multiple records that agree with one another in names and addresses.

    What is most difficult for us to accept is that other people’s personalities are different from our own. Some of us want to KNOW everything. We want the TRUTH. We thrive on TRUTH, regardless of its consequences. Well, surprise! Not everyone is like us! My relatives don’t want to know that I carry a gene for hemochromatosis, and if they carry it, they may have the disease or their children may have it, or that may account for their Dad having died when they were only six years old. Why wouldn’t they want to KNOW that?!!! Guess what. They don’t want to know. Period.

    As for digging up dirt, discovering that your French ancestors lived in the same village for at least 500 years and all had the same surname–well, that elicits a chuckle with underlying denial. I think that most people believe that their family is pure. No ancestor ever married a cousin, for example. Try telling them that there would have had to be a quintillion people on earth at the time of William the Conqueror for all pairings to have been between unrelated individuals. Try to give them a genetics lecture, and they’ll tell you they have to go because the Steelers are playing.

    If we are so devoted to TRUTH, we have to accept the TRUTH that other people are different from us. It’s tough. But it’s equally tough for them to face the truth.

    • I love your comment! I am a seeker after the truth! ;) Through DNA, I found out that my maiden name of “Pepper” was actually an adopted surname about 200 years ago and we are actually “Hamilton” and Scottish no less, instead of the English Pepper! That was a hard pill to swallow for some of my family. It was kinda fun being a Pepper, you know. :) Now we have to go and learn about Hamilton people…:/ Anyway, it has worked out. You are right though, some fill very satisfied with the pudding they already have and don’t want the pot stirred.

  9. I did not get to finish that. My great disappoint was a woman last week I contacted. She is my second highest match out of over 1000 matches, our longest seg, 42 cMs, and I got only one email response and she was not forthcoming. Go figure…….

    • Caith, I had a similar situation in which my nearest match was someone who was adopted and could not find any public records. He had no known “blood relatives.” I searched long and hard for his connection to me. I even sent him photos of great great grandfathers on various sides of my family, so he would have a sense of “belonging,” perhaps. One day after much correspondence about his life and education, he wrote that finding our connection doesn’t matter. I am his cousin, and now he has family. He has not replied to any email again. I have a feeling of our relationship being incomplete. It’s hard to put myself in his place, of course, but he seems at peace.

  10. Thank you for your very eye-opening comments. We often do get too focused on our family research and perhaps might be inclined to over-step our boundaries. I appreciate your ability to put this situation into perspective for all of us.

  11. Roberta,
    thank you for this post, a good one…
    maybe “rights to privacy” would have been a better headline
    in any event you’ve expanded my horizons on delicate family issues

  12. All great points, Roberta, and much-appreciated advice for someone like me who can get, well, “overly enthusiastic” at times.

    For adoptees though, I doubt many of us would describe this as a “hobby” we engage in “for fun.” For people who are trying to research their distant ancestors that may be an apt description but for adoptees it is a “mission” to uncover the most basic information about ourselves that genealogical hobbyists take for granted.

    With so much information available online now and so little privacy, it is sometimes hard to know where to draw the line when going after that person who does not give the courtesy of a reply to an email. Sometimes a little digging has been appreciated. A match who changed his email address but forgot to update his profile at FTDNA sincerely appreciated that I had looked him up and contacted him through other means. So I do not take a non-response as proof of a “decision” that the party made not to have contact. Persistence can pay off and is not always equivalent to being a “nuisance” or a bully.

  13. I can feel the pain you mentioned.

    I have had some matches not email me back; my “father” is not who I grew up thinking it was and though my mother now says who it supposed to be I have lingering doubt (so I have tested further through 23andme).

    I hope to be in touch with you for guidance on what to do next.

    thanks.

    • Life is what it is. We must never judge others. Women (and men) do the best they can under any given set of circumstances, in most cases. I also heard the rumors. When I was tested and started my tree, and was related (dna and paper) to only members of the man up the street (I had researched his family), and not to the man and family in whose house I grew up………..I finally understood why they excluded me. Well, guess what, I never liked them anyway, and I am glad I am not related to them. In about 6 months, I got over it, and was in my reverse and rally mode.

  14. “Who’s yer daddy?” lol That made me laugh Roberta.

    On a serious note though, my frustration probably comes from the people who do answer my emails but know nothing about their own genealogy. I’ve had 2 matches where I had to make a tree for them just to find out who their own ancestors were. When I respond back to them, they usually say, “well I’ve never knew Grandma’s maiden name, where did you find that out?”.

    I shouldn’t complain though, I was a newbie at one time myself and learned a lot from others who were patient with me.

  15. I know you are glad to put this topic to rest before you are given an honorary Doctorate in Behavioral Science. Thanks for the article.

  16. Great content, well written. Indeed, whe should respect someone’s decision not to share information with us, even if we match.
    But simply not answering could mean anything: the e-mailadress is not actively used anymore by that person, he is on holiday, hospitalized, deceased, not interested, interested but preoccupied at the moment, internet problems, someone else of the family has opened the e-mail but forgot to tell that it belongs now to the ‘read mails’-category,…
    Nevertheless, I consider it a minimum of politeness to answer a kind request for having contact with just one sentence: ” I am sorry but I am not interested.” This is just a small effort that could prevent further “bullying”.

  17. Great article! I have inadvertently found family secrets using paper trails and I have wondered about the secrets DNA testing might reveal. Now I know the possibilities. I am a firm believer that some family secrets should be buried with the deceased; and it has seemed to me that DNA matching would possibly reveal those long buried and painful secrets that should to be buried!

    • The passage of time has a lot to do with whether a secret should stay buried or can safely be brought to light. Since we’re talking DNA here, those secrets probably involve rape, adultery or illegitimate children. Other possibilities include being related to some notorious character or having some unexpected ethnic/racial lineage.

      Any one of those things might cause pain or discomfort if they relate to a near term relative. Completely different if it happened to some colonial ancestor. A sad and tragic story no doubt, but isn’t history filled with sad and tragic stories?

  18. Very true article … but I have to admit it’s a sad one. There are parts of my family history I will never know because of these secrets/lies/embarrassments. Working on the histories of friends/ clients is enjoyable…but working on my own no longer is.

  19. Excellent article!

    When we do genealogy, we have two streams of information. One is what we find out. The other is what give out. We must be judicial on the latter.

    I don’t believe in “cold calling” relatives. Ensure they first have an interest in genealogy and they’ll be more likely to talk to you. If you must, ask them first if they are willing to give you information and specifically what information you’re looking for. Respect their wishes.

  20. Pingback: Why Don’t People Post Public Family Trees?

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