Who was she? A DNA Test Only Opened New Mysteries by Libbie Copeland primarily followed the journey of Alice Collins Plebuch and her sisters in discovering the true identity of their father, Jim Collins’, and in turn their own sense of self. Alice Plebuch decided to take an Ancestry.com DNA test one day in 2012, expecting to find that her entire genetic pool told the story of her parents who were both Irish American Catholics. Upon receiving results that showed one of her parents was European Jewish, thus meaning Plebuch herself was fifty percent Jewish, she was completely shocked and confused as to her family’s past. Plebuch took the test again, just to ensure that the results were truly accurate; she was read to fire an angry response back to them, explaining that their method was flawed, and that she was of course completely Irish Catholic. Many websites such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com reveal surprising familial connections or lack thereof among their subjects, with only 23andMe providing a warning of such discoveries prior to allowing the customer to take their test. In 2014, 23andMe estimated that around seven thousand users of their site uncovered unexpected family members, most commonly being siblings and undivulged paternal relations. Plebuch’s initial thought upon receiving the results of her confirmation test was that her mother could have had an affair, and that her deceased dad was not actually her biological father. Plebuch and her sister believed this to be unlikely, because they knew their mother’s family extensively; Jim Collins’ family on the other hand was lesser known to the Plebuch sisters. Collins grew up in an orphanage, therefore his lineage was more difficult to trace before DNA testing became accessible.
Because Plebuch worked as an IT manager for the University of California, she was well-acquainted with sifting through data and finding concrete solutions, which she would go on to do for two and a half years to find the truth about her and her father’s heritage. Plebuch then mentions how strongly her father identified with his Irish identity; this was the only sense of self Collins possessed when growing up in an orphanage, surrounded by people who he could not relate to on a familial level. He carried his Irish lineage like a trophy that almost solely distinguished him within a plethora of young orphans. The two sisters then decided to ask their mother and fathers’ nephews to take DNA tests to reveal on which side of the family there was a discrepancy. Meanwhile, the Plebuch sisters discovered that their father was most likely the genetic culprit, based on the sex chromosomes of Bill, Plebuch’s brother. After receiving their cousins’ results, this suspicion was confirmed; the Plebuch’s were in no way related to their father’s nephew, Pete Nolan. Nolan and the Plebuch’s still keep in contact even though Alice worried that they would lose touch after learning they are not blood relatives. After uncovering this information, the Plebuch sisters realized that Collins’ sister was not genetically his sister, thus inviting even more confusion regarding the family tree. Plebuch wondered if there was a dark family secret that had been kept hidden for years; were Collins’ parents actually European Jews who managed to disguise themselves as Irish Catholics when immigrating to the United States? Plebuch desperately wanted to understand both her and her father’s past.
The story then momentarily deviates and discusses the story of Laurie Pratt, a fifty two year old airline ground operations supervisor in Orange County, California. Through taking a mail-in DNA test, she discovered that the man who raised her was not truly her father. Instead, her father was a man her mother had a short relationship with while her and her husband took a break from each other. Her mother could not come up with a name, but Pratt eventually discovered him through newly revealed cousins. She reached out to the man who later appeared on the DNA testing website as her genetic father. He agreed to meet up with Pratt later, after discussing the freshly found information with his wife and daughter, but days later, his DNA profile disappeared from the website. Pratt reached out to him again, saying that she did not want to interfere with his life or cause any harm, but rather just hear stories from his past to learn about herself; the man never contacted her again. Copeland then details how genetic testing can cause upsets within families, because unexpected DNA results can imply affairs, lies, and betrayal on a catastrophic level.
The article then returns to the story of Alice Plebuch and the unknown identity of her father, Jim Collins. In 2013, Plebuch had the thought that maybe, as a baby, Collins could have been mistaken for another child, resulting in the two children going home with the wrong set of parents. After contacting a forensic artist that confirmed a baby picture and an aged picture of Collins resembled the same person, Plebuch assumed that the switch must have happened even closer to when Collins was born. Collins’ mother actually gave birth at a hospital on September 23, 1913, which was extremely rare for mothers to choose at the time. Meanwhile, the sisters continued to search for “DNA cousins” but could not find anyone of relevance in through their efforts; discovering her father’s true identity became Alice Plebuch’s entire life mission. One the “DNA cousins” Plebuch found on a website then advised the sisters to search for similar Jewish baby names at the same hospital on the same day Collins was born, like Cohen for example. While this suggestion would eventually be tangent to the correct solution, this specific search yielded no answers.
The eventual answer to their father’s past came almost by accident when Plebuch was emailing her supposed cousin Peter Nolan, feeling rather upset by the hopelessness of the situation. On a whim, Plebuch decided to check Nolan’s list of relatives once more, just in case a new person had been added, even though they usually weren’t. On this day, a woman from North Carolina, Jessica Benson, who had hoped to learn more about her confirmed Jewish heritage, had appeared on Nolan’s list of close relatives with them being actual first cousins. Benson then learned that she was in fact Irish, an unexpected turn of events for her. This excited Plebuch because of the endless possibilities upon finding her; this woman potentially had answers regarding her father’s identity. Plebuch asked if there was a relative in Benson’s family who had been born on September 23, 1914, in Fordham hospital in the Bronx. Benson affirmed that yes, a Phillip Benson, her grandfather, was in fact born in that hospital close to that day. This turned out to be Plebuch’s actual father rather than who she had grown up with, who was in reality Phillip Benson. The real Jim Collins was raised as Jewish and did not live in an orphanage, but rather with his parents. He was extremely tall compared to his parents who were both under five foot five, similar to Phillip Benson, also known as Jim Collins, who raised Plebuch. The story behind the mix up stemmed from the nurses carelessly handling the babies and relying on a mother’s sight alone to identify their child; very poor records were kept for births in actual hospitals until the 1930’s and 1940’s.
When the two families finally met, being Jessica Benson and the Plebuch sisters, there was no expected strangeness of discomfort, almost as though they recognized each other. While Alice Plebuch was subconsciously jealous that their father did not receive his birth-right to a specific upbringing outside of an orphanage with his true family because of the struggles he endured, both sides of the family were happy that such a mistake happened at the hospital, because they were all created as a result of this mishap. In a way, Plebuch was grateful that her father had passed away before this information was revealed, because he was deeply proud of his Irish heritage as I mentioned above; finding out that he was genetically Jewish might have destroyed his sense of personal being. As a result of this tiresome, extremely long search, Plebuch did not resent genetic testing websites, but was rather glad she learned the information she did, as she now has a more truthful sense of identity, even if the mistake was inherently tragic for the young men who did not know they were supposed to live different lives.