, 2014

Genetic tests lead to big question:
‘Where did I come from?’

The first in a three-part series chronicling Cheryl Whittle’s search for her biological father.
by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

MONASKIN—Growing up, Cheryl Whittle had always felt unloved, unwanted and out of place in her own family. Unlike her sister, Sandi, who was tall, thin and outgoing, Cheryl was short, plump and shy. Sandi was the apple of their father Joe Wilmoth’s eye, while Cheryl often feared him.

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So in 2009 when genetic testing revealed Joe was not Cheryl’s biological father, the 61-year-old retired nurse was surprised but not shocked.

“I never felt a part of him,” said Cheryl. “I grew up believing in my heart that I did not belong.”

And now, a great deal of what happened during her childhood makes sense.

Her quest

Cheryl was watching an episode of Oprah in 2008 when she was intrigued by a segment about 23andMe, a new internet company that sold genetic tests directly to individuals. The episode highlighted the company’s founder, who was nine months pregnant. The tests, she said, provided information about her unborn child.

As a registered nurse, Cheryl had always been fascinated with genetic testing. She and her husband, Dickie, married when Cheryl was only 14 and he was 20. She was pregnant but the baby girl was stillborn. And even though the two later had other children, Cheryl thought the DNA test could provide information as to why she had a stillborn daughter. She had also done a great deal of geneological research on her father’s family and thought the test would add some insight.

Testing was fairly simple. The company, 23andMe, offered an at-home spit test, which Cheryl purchased at $495 each for her husband and older half-brother, Milton Wilmoth. She was hoping by testing Milton, it would reveal some more information about her father’s lineage. Instead, it revealed more questions.

The results

A few months after taking the tests, Cheryl was browsing the company’s Relative Finder, a database that allows customers to find relatives based on shared segments of the 23 chromosomes. Although Cheryl found some distant, unknown relatives on her list, her brother Milton’s name didn’t appear as a possible relative. So she checked Milton’s list for her name. She didn’t appear as a relative for him either.

“I kept studying that thing for nine months,” said Cheryl. “I didn’t know how to use it. I kept putting me and Milton in and nothing would come up.”

Confused, she contacted another user for advice and eventually called on an expert in genetic geneology. Cheryl thought she was using the Relative Finder incorrectly. The expert, however, confirmed her fears. Milton didn’t share any chromosomes with Cheryl and they couldn’t possibly be half-siblings. In fact, they weren’t even related.

Cheryl shared her findings with Sandi, who was devastated. Not only was Sandi disappointed that she and Cheryl may not be full sisters but she was also concerned that she too may not be Joe’s biological child.

“Sandi knew that they definitely treated me different,” said Cheryl. “She was very upset that nobody told us. Sandi used to say it was the best kept secret ever. Nobody wants to tell us anything. If they know anything, they won’t tell us.”

Although Sandi was reluctant to take the genetic test, Cheryl eventually convinced her. Sandi’s test not only revealed what Cheryl had suspected about her biological father, it also revealed that Sandi was at a high risk for colorectal cancer, a disease she was diagnosed with shortly after taking the test. She has since died.

“This was very hard on Sandi,” said Cheryl. “It was very upsetting to her.”

Sandi’s DNA test showed that she and Cheryl did share half their chromosomes, which meant they were half sisters, sharing a mother but not a father.

For the past three years, Cheryl has been consumed with locating her biological father.
The desk and wall surrounding her computer at her home on the Rappahannock River in Monaskan are covered in papers and charts, mapping out family trees. There are pictures of relatives that have sprung up on various internet geneology sites Cheryl has never met. Is one of the men her father?

“I’m not just looking for ‘Daddy’,” she said. “What I really want to know is who I am, where did I come from?

“It would be nice to know if I had sisters or brothers out there, that I could get to know. But I don’t expect a big family reunion, an ‘Oh, it’s my long lost sister!’ type of thing. I’d just like to find out if they are out there.”

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