Startling Revelations

Tuesday, May 21, 2013 by darco
Posted in

My father, Dr. Robert Bugg Quattlebaum, was born on November 23rd, 1923. To put things into prospective, he was an army medic in World War II. By the time he got around to having me he was 57 years old. There was clearly a bit of a generation gap between us.

In early 2001, my father was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He passed away that summer. It was a bad year. I miss him greatly.

Fast forward a decade or so and the world is now a totally different place. Star-trek-like computing gadgets are common. Video phones actually work and work well. You can even spit in a tube and get your DNA analyzed, giving you important information on your disease risk, for less than two-hundred dollars.

Which brings me to 23andme.com. If you've never heard of 23andme.com, it is a relatively inexpensive chip-based genetic profiling service. You start by ordering a kit, spitting in a tube, and mailing it off to them for analysis. There is a strong social aspect to the website which allows you to find both distant and close relatives. My wife and I got a great deal a while back and signed up.

During the sign up process, I found some of the warnings to be curious. Stuff to the effect of, 'you can't unlearn what you find out from this, so if you can't handle the truth then you may not want to consider this service'.

This got me to thinking: I bet a few people learn some rather startling information. Imagine signing up and then finding that you have a 25% genetic match with... A childhood friend who lived down the street. Oops. Someone just got busted.

There are many variations but they all cause a bit of an identity crisis—and potentially a strong sense of betrayal. Clearly, the 23andme.com experience has the potential to be profoundly shocking and life changing. But, hey, I'm not one of those people, right? No worries here.


For my 30th birthday, my wife arranged for both my mother and my sister to fly in and visit for almost a week. While the four of us were at a wine bar in Santana Row the day before my birthday, the topic of 23andme.com came up. My wife and I started raving about it. Both my sister and my mom looked interested enough to give it a try.

The next day my mom says she needs to talk to me about something...in private. We go to a local coffee shop and sit down. The first thing she starts to talk about is—of all things—Santa Claus.

Really? Santa Claus?

When, as a child, I figured out the truth about Santa, I was outraged that my parents so brazenly lied to me my entire life. I felt betrayed and I let them know it. I'm long since over this, but apparently I made a strong impression on my mother about how much I despised being lied to.

It turns out Santa wasn't the only secret my parents kept from me.

Then, without realizing it, she gave away the punch line: "I think your father had a vasectomy before we got married".

Time froze. It was like I was watching it happen on TV, not an actual participant in what was happening. It didn't feel real. The man that I had known my entire life as my dad was not my biological father. And I didn't find out until the day I turned thirty. Incredible.

She would go on to say that she was unable to get pregnant with him and that they decided to try in-vitro fertilization. It worked and they had a son—me. My dad knew from before the day I was born.

There are some "facts" in life, like your biological origins, that you just take for granted—no matter what evidence is presented to the contrary. After my mom told me the truth, I could see it plain as day: about the only physical attribute I shared with my father was an abnormally large noggin. My blood never made any sense—something I just attributed to me not understanding how blood types were inherited. Any other explanation was literally unthinkable for me at the time.

And now, here I was.

A flood of questions breathlessly came over me. How is someone supposed to react to news like this? Should I be angry at her for not telling me? Should I be thankful for her telling me at all? What do I do now? How am I supposed to feel? I picked a question out of the ether: why now?

She said she was afraid that I would eventually, somehow, figure it out on my own, given the genetic research I was doing. As for why I wasn't told earlier, well, part of that answer is where Santa Claus comes in—she was too afraid at how angry I might be from not being told the truth for so long. (I cannot describe my amusement at how Santa Claus became twisted into this story)

My parents originally had good reasons to keep this information from becoming public, but going into detail about these reasons is not something appropriate for this medium. However, based on what I now know, I am convinced that they did the right thing. Ultimately this information was kept from me because they loved me. Knowing that, I can't blame them.


So then, who really is my biological father?

The procedure was performed by a fertility doctor at Baptist Medical Center in Jacksonville, Florida. The donor (whom I now refer to as Dr. Y) was one of the residents—apparently it was common practice for them to be donors at the time. My mom knew of no records for the procedure; it was all very strictly under the radar. As a result, my birth certificate has no hint that I am not the biological son of Dr. Robert Bugg Quattlebaum.

I have managed to locate the fertility doctor (not to be confused with the resident doctor, who was the donor). He seems to still be practicing, some 31 years later. If anyone might have records shedding more light on this subject, it would be him. But honestly, I'm not sure if I should (or if I even want to) reach out to him. I'm certainly curious, but something is stopping me. Not quite sure what.

One fact remained true both before and now: My biological father was a medical doctor. For some reason I can't explain, I find that comforting.