Pennsylvania woman solves mystery of her lost family through DNA
June 26, 2016 12:00 AM
Cate Beckett, right, meets her half-sister, Donna Rauen.
Cate Beckett, left, and her half-sister Donna Rauen share a hug on the way to the parking lot.
Ms. Rauen wipes away a tear as she meets Ms. Beckett for the first time at Pittsburgh International Airport.
By Anya Sostek / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
After meeting for the first time just over a week ago, Donna Rauen and Cate Beckett drove from Pittsburgh International Airport to a LongHorn Steakhouse for a late dinner.
As they both proceeded to order a hamburger, the waitress made friendly conversation. “You two are sisters, aren’t you?” she asked.
It was a television commercial with the slogan “Find Out Who You Are” that prompted Ms. Rauen, 48, to pay $99 for a kit to test her DNA through AncestryDNA. She’d been adopted as an infant and spent more than 20 painful and frustrating years searching for her birth mother, giving up about a decade ago. She had long suspected she was British — feeling so comfortable in the English countryside that she’d vacationed there half a dozen times — and hoped the ancestry test could at least confirm her hunch.
“I might not be able to find my people, but I can find my country,” thought Ms. Rauen, of Burgettstown, as she swabbed her cheek in February for the saliva sample to send back to AncestryDNA.
When she got the report back several weeks later, she was so surprised to discover that she was 92 percent Irish that she initially overlooked another piece of information: the name of a first cousin who was already in the database.
“You know how you read something and it doesn’t really register?” said Ms. Rauen, an office administrator. “I got out of the page and I was working. A couple of hours later I thought, ‘Did that just say I have a first cousin?’ ”
She emailed the cousin and together they began trying to piece together the family tree. It soon became clear that the only possibility for Ms. Rauen’s mother was Marilyn Shaw, even though her cousin thought Ms. Shaw had been a nun through most of the 1960s.
Ms. Rauen began calling convents in Philadelphia, where she was born and raised. She found one with a record of a Marilyn Shaw who had left in 1966. “She kind of disappeared from the world for two years, which was exactly the time I was born,” she said.
DNA testing services such as AncestryDNA, 23andMe and Family Tree DNA were initially conceived to give people a window into their health histories or their ethnic makeup. But as the databases have grown — AncestryDNA, which launched in 2012, now has 1.5 million users — familial connections have become easier to track as well.
For adoptees who have exhausted traditional searching methods, DNA testing has been a breakthrough. Ms. Rauen begged Catholic Social Services for her records for years, ultimately finding out only her birth weight, and went so far as to examine birth records for all girls born in Philadelphia around her birthday. “Oftentimes the records aren’t there,” said Anna Swayne of AncestryDNA. “DNA is your only hope to figure out who you are and where you came from.”
DNA databases can connect family members based on how much DNA they share. Children share roughly 50 percent with each of their parents, for example, and about 13 percent with a first cousin. AncestryDNA doesn’t track exactly how many adoptees have found family members, but it’s now happening regularly enough that the company is sponsoring a television show on TLC, “Long Lost Family,” that helps adoptees and their parents find each other through DNA testing.
While the process can lead to happy reunions, DNA testing can also amount to swabbing Pandora’s cheek, freeing long-buried secrets. Information uncovered goes beyond just adoptions, said Sara Katsanis, a faculty member in the Initiative for Science and Society at Duke University. For example, she has heard of cases in which previous generations hid Jewish or African-American roots. Even in her own family, when she used the service 23andMe, she found a surprise branch of her family tree that may have stemmed from her great-grandfather’s job as a traveling salesman.
The availability of DNA testing could have implications for future adoptions, she said, as well as for egg and sperm donation. “There are family secrets and with genetic testing and the internet, these secrets are very difficult to hide anymore,” she said. “It’s virtually impossible to stay anonymous.”
In Ms. Rauen’s case, DNA testing came along too late for her to meet her mother, who died in 2005. The tall, auburn-haired Ms. Shaw was disowned by her strict Irish-Catholic family for leaving the convent and she left the country entirely after giving birth to Ms. Rauen, getting married in Montreal and giving birth to another daughter, Cate Beckett.
Ms. Beckett, an only child who had always wanted a sister, was thrilled when Ms. Rauen got in touch. The two messaged until 2 a.m. that first night in March and have talked and texted as “long-lost best friends” almost every day since.
Things have started to fall into place for Ms. Rauen. Her lifelong interest in painting, for example, makes more sense now that she knows her grandmother and great-grandfather were painters. Ms. Rauen had desperately searched for years for her mother’s health history in hopes of getting clues about fertility problems that had led to five miscarriages. Doctors thought a drug that her mother had possibly taken for morning sickness might be partially to blame, but it turned out those ran in the family, too.
“I can’t have kids and it’s really wonderful to understand that this comes from somewhere,” she said. “I don’t feel the blame. You always wonder, ‘Did I do something wrong? Did I eat the wrong thing?’ ”
For Ms. Beckett, 45, a forensic investigator and former police officer in New Orleans, the discovery also solved a mystery or two.
Ms. Shaw, who ultimately earned a doctorate in the course of a long teaching career, died in a New Orleans hospital weeks before Hurricane Katrina would devastate the city. “The timing was a blessing,” said Ms. Beckett. “She was on full life support and in the hospital she was in, she wouldn’t have survived.”
In her final days, she mentioned to Ms. Beckett that if she’d ever had another daughter, she would have named her Bernadette — a comment Ms. Beckett found so strange that she’d Googled Bernadette Shaw — finding no hits because Ms. Rauen’s name had been changed to Donna when she was adopted shortly after birth.
“Maybe she was trying to muster up the courage to tell me,” she said. “It’s bittersweet. I really wish she were here to experience all of this.”
When she was in college, Ms. Beckett had become pregnant (she later miscarried) and her mother had been adamant that Ms. Beckett not put the child up for adoption, telling her, “It will haunt you for the rest of your life.”
Most adoptees using the “autosomal” DNA testing that Ms. Rauen did aren’t lucky enough to hit on a first cousin — many find second or third cousins, which make definitive searches much more difficult. Men can use a different kind of DNA test, using their Y chromosome, that can follow their paternal line and sometimes come up with their surname — a powerful tool for adoptees.
On her father’s side, Ms. Rauen found more-distant relatives, but was fortunate to find one who was so passionate about genealogy that she swabs relatives at family gatherings. Eventually, they determined that the most likely choice for Ms. Rauen’s father was Robert Farrell, a 79-year-old living in Doylestown, near Philadelphia.
Ms. Rauen agonized over whether to contact him, with many of her friends advising against it. Eventually, she decided, “God hates a coward,” and wrote him a letter. “I just decided to take a leap of faith and do it.”
Mr. Farrell’s son ended up opening the letter and immediately asked his father if it was possible he had a daughter with a woman named Marilyn Shaw.
At first, trying to remember back almost 50 years, the name didn’t ring a bell. Six hours later, he picked up the phone to call Ms. Rauen: “I remember your mother. Welcome to the family, dear.”
As a police officer working the beat in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Roxborough, he’d answered a call at Ms. Shaw’s house. “She stole my heart in the first glance,” he said. But several months after they started dating, she moved to Upper Darby, where she was teaching eighth-grade. It was about an hour drive away for him — “you might as well move to Florida” — and the relationship fizzled because of the distance.
“If she would’ve told me she was pregnant and that I was the father, I would have walked her right to the justice of the peace and married her,” he said. “She was a beautiful, wonderful lady.”
Last weekend, Ms. Beckett flew from New Orleans to Pittsburgh, meeting Ms. Rauen for the first time just outside of airport security, where Ms. Rauen presented her with flowers, tears and hugs. At dinner afterward they ordered nearly the identical hamburger and told the waitress that they were, indeed, sisters, marveling over their shared mannerisms and quirks.
They drove last weekend to Philadelphia to meet Mr. Farrell and his family, eating hoagies and pizza and salad for what he called “one of the best little family picnics you could ever imagine.” While Ms. Beckett reminds him more of Ms. Shaw, Ms. Rauen is the spitting image of his family. “I couldn’t deny this kid if I tried,” he laughed. “The past month has been one of the happiest months of my life finding my little girl.”
The family is already planning its next reunion in New Orleans. And Ms. Rauen and Ms. Beckett are plotting a bigger trip for next spring, to Ireland to trace their newly discovered roots.
After so many years of searching for her family, Ms. Rauen is reeling over the accidental discoveries. “Who spits in a cup and gets a family three months later?”
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