Identity and DNA Surprises


My name’s Kara and I’m a NPE. When people ask me what NPE stands for, I tell them “Not Parent Expected” and then add, “it’s complicated,” because it is. I was born in Seattle to a single mom. My dad, who’d cleaned himself up briefly had relapsed into heroin use and left my mom just two months after they were married. They divorced before I was one. My mom’s parents were murdered when I was four—but that’s another story. So, it was pretty much just mom and me while I was growing up.

When I was around seven, my mom wanted to take a break from being a single parent and visit a friend in San Francisco. She told me I’d be staying with my grandparents. I wondered who she meant. Your dad’s parents she said, “Pop and Eva.” She then proceeded to put me on a bus in Bellevue with a large red suitcase and told me to get off in downtown Seattle in front of a floral shop across the street from a big department store called “The Bon.” Now, she did tell the bus driver these instructions too. I was to look for a big black man in a red car.

It was a terrifying experience for me. This was my first introduction to the other side of my family. The first week I stayed with my grandparents was a big adjustment. Everyone spoke differently and the food they ate was strange. They were loud and they constantly teased each other. And I take everything literally. Eventually I learned to mimic the speech patterns and body language of whatever group I found myself in. But there were a few bumps along the way, like the time my mom made me write, “I will not say ain’t” 1000 times.

One thing was true, no matter where I went, I had to fight to fit in. My mom’s family hadn’t been too pleased she’d married a black man. And Pop once told me black folks had to accept anyone who had a drop of black blood because white folks wouldn’t so that’s why the family accepted me. But you see, they really didn’t. My cousins once used my grandmother Eva’s face makeup to paint me black so I’d look like them. I had a rash for a week. And while Eva was kind, she did treat me differently from her other grandkids. Pop said it was because I looked white and she didn’t like white folks too much due to a near death experience from racism she had in Oklahoma when she was young. It didn’t really matter why to a young child; the pain of being singled out and treated differently was always there.

When my mom and I moved to Seattle from Bellevue in the fifth grade, she changed my race to “black.” At that time you had to choose only one race on those forms. She figured being black might help me with more benefits. In the first week, the school’s secretary called me to the office and took one look at me and told me she was changing me back to white. I told her she’d better not, that my uncle (yes, my dad’s brother) was president of the school board and she might have to answer to him. She left me as black.

I was proud of my bi-racial heritage. When people asked me my ethnicity, I’d tell them to guess. They usually thought I was Greek, Middle Eastern, or Hispanic. When I told them I was half black they were incredulous, “there’s no way” they usually responded. And then they’d pause and look at me funny and say, “Oh, I hope I’ve never said anything offensive.” I’d think, “Uh, you just did.” Sometimes I’d have to show them a picture of my dad for them to believe me. Even then, I could still see the doubt painted on their face; a doubt I never shared. It’s hard to see others so openly question who you are.

I’d also get comments from folks with darker skin than mine. They’d tell me I could never really understand what it means to be black because the color of my skin meant I could skate through life entitled like everyone else with my complexion. But I grew up hearing the stories of racism my family experienced throughout our collective history. Stories of a refusal of a place to get warm due to the color of my grandmother’s skin, of the police stopping my cousin for no reason. I’d hear about how people would stop my dad when he took my blond haired blue-eyed children on outings. These stories were woven into who I was.

While I’ve had to do a lot of defending my bi-racial status with people of every color, I also faced the prevalent racism in our society. Either because someone knew I was half black or because I do have a slightly swarthy complexion. Once a girl in 5th grade asked if I was black. I said, “yes” and then she slapped me. I was too stunned to react. I’ve been called “Oreo” and “Zebra.” Been spat on. And then there are the little remarks people make daily that mean no harm but are like mosquito bites, stinging just a bit.

Family and heritage has always been important to me. Maybe it’s because I never had the big family or community I deeply desired. There’s a yearning in my core that I could never explain. I think this is why I was fascinated by genealogy. I’m the keeper of my mom’s family’s genealogy book, the kind people made before the Internet, and my dad’s family’s research showing they descended from three slave brothers who were sold in Texas. I’ve always wondered where in Africa they came from. So, last Christmas I purchased DNA kits for my dad and myself so we could discover our African roots.

It was just two days before my 44th birthday in January when I received my results. It is difficult to describe to someone what this feels like who has never experienced such a thing. I imagine if you’ve received other life changing news, you’d have an idea. For me, my world stopped spinning. I felt sick to my stomach. I think for an NPE it’s one of those events you always know when and where you were when you found out. Like when the shuttle exploded or Kennedy was shot. Me, I’d just woken up and was in bed checking my email. When I saw the link that my test results were ready, I was so excited. But I knew instantly something was wrong. I didn’t have any African DNA. Not even 1%. Instead it said I was 50% Ashkenazi Jew. MOM’S NOT JEWISH??? I thought. SHE DOESN’T KNOW ANYONE JEWISH. (Now I know she did, at least for a moment). And my dad certainly isn’t Jewish. How can this be I thought? Then it hit me, there’s only one way.

I was sure there must have been a mistake but we all know DNA doesn’t lie. I called my mom and am grateful she didn’t say it was impossible, as I’ve learned many mothers do when faced with this question. What she did say was she was surprised too. She told me that after my dad left her, she did have a one-night stand with a man she’d met in a bar on Aurora. But she genuinely never thought a pregnancy resulted. A number of weeks later, dad came back to get the rest of his stuff; they had one last hoorah and that’s when she thought I was created. She’d always told me I was born early to explain the timeline.

Now I knew my dad would be getting his DNA results soon and I didn’t want him to learn this news from a computer. So I went to tell him in person. My dad had eventually kicked his heroin in my teens. In my late twenties we worked hard to build a relationship. And by my thirties I felt comfortable calling him dad. Telling him he wasn’t my biological father was one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had. He hugged me and told me it didn’t change anything. He told me I have a right to know who my biological father is and what my genetic and cultural history are. And I agree with him. I believe it’s a human right to know to know your biological history.

So I splattered the internet with my DNA trying to find my biological father. While I did have about 12,000 cousin matches, welcome to being Jewish, none of them were close enough for me to figure out who he could be. I felt like crying all of the time. My foundation was toppled. I was raised bi-racial and in a flash I wasn’t—this is an integral part of who I am. Suddenly not knowing anything about half of yourself is mind boggling and numbing. Every time I’d look in the mirror, I’d question who I was. I’d wonder which traits I inherited. Did I look like him? I’d check the DNA website many times a day. For four months I lived in this hellish limbo.

Luckily a possible second cousin match popped up in late spring. I immediately reached out to him but he didn’t respond. Not being a gal who likes to wait, I decided to build him a family tree. I knew we shared at least the same great-grandparents. After a couple weeks of researching genealogy documents, reading obituaries, and calling possible relatives, I found a man who fit the time line and when I saw a picture of him on the Internet I just knew. I mean I looked just like him, which is a very weird experience for someone who’s never looked like any relatives other than her mother.

I reached out to this man sending him a snail mail letter suggesting he may be my biological father and he called me back the day after father’s day. He told me he was very ill and losing his memory and couldn’t help me. After speaking with more family members and a few more DNA matches appeared, I was able to figure out who my biological father is.

The man who’s ill is my half brother. Unfortunately, he was an only child. It saddens me more than words can explain his unwillingness to share medical and family history. The similarities we share, at least what I can find on the internet are striking. The “second cousin” match that led me to figure out who my biological father is turned out to be a first cousin once removed; his family also doesn’t wish to have contact with me either.

I do not want my heritage to be a secret. My biological father was Sam Rubinstein. He was a businessman and a philanthropist who died in 2007.  I will never know the man who was my biological father. I think because he was so prominent, few people are even willing to talk to me about him. Based on what I’ve learned about Sam from newspaper articles and people who knew him, I believe my entrepreneurial spirit, strong personal drive, and resiliency come from him (although I think the latter I inherited from on both sides). And I’ve been told so do my eyes. I have so many questions about my biological father, which may never be answered. How tall was? (I’m short but my boys are tall). Could he sing (I can’t)?  Did he need a lot of sleep (I don’t)?

I showed my mom a picture of Sam but she still couldn’t remember anything. I mentioned how odd it was for her to meet this man at a bar on Aurora, and she said, “Oh, it was a bar in a restaurant. I was 18 and only bars in restaurants would serve me alcohol. I was at the Canlis Restaurant. It was close to my apartment.” Sam’s condo was near the Canlis. Now I have a starting point for my story.

I have to remind myself often of my new identity. I’ve developed a mantra Katniss Everdeen style. A doctor in the Mockingjay told her to use this technique when everything she’s ever known is gone. She’s to start with the simplest things she knows to be true and work towards the more complex. Katniss starts with her name and I think that’s the perfect place for me to start too. “I am Kara Joanne Rubinstein Deyerin. My father was the Salmon King, his sister was Rose Jacobs. I have a half brother. I am half Jewish.” I find myself repeating this at least once a day to give me a foothold in my new reality.

And while I haven’t taken to hiding in tunnels yet like Katniss, I still have hard days. It’s surreal when part of what you’ve known as you is taken away. I continue to struggle with the concept of identity and who I am now and coming to terms with not being bi-racial. I recently had to fill out one of those forms again asking about my race. I couldn’t do. I couldn’t check a simple box. I just didn’t feel right to check “white.” And I would be lying, a fake, to say I was “mixed race” or “black.” Our identity is developed by the stories, family traditions, and experiences we’re immersed in growing up. It is these things that make up the fabric of who we are and now everything I’d known was based on a lie.

Since my discovery, a common response is, “I knew you weren’t half black!” This innocent reply reminds me how much I’ve had to prove my identity in the past. Every time I hear it, it rekindles the sadness I feel over the loss of half of myself. When I tell people Sam Rubinstein is my biological father, I now find myself having to prove the fact that I am a Rubinstein. I hope some day I no longer have to defend my heritage.

In trying to rebuild my story, I went to temple for the first time after the shootings in Pittsburg. One thing struck me, I looked like a lot of the people in the room. This was a first for me. Most of my life I wanted to walk into a room and feel like I belonged. That night, I felt this for the first time.

Some say being an NPE changes nothing, that you are the same, but they’re missing the point. A discovery like this forever changes how you see yourself—it can’t help but to. It shatters your identity and while you can pick up the pieces, it’s impossible to put them back together in the same way. So yes, I am still me, but a different me.