Editors note: This story refers to a previous story, first published in the March edition of InMaricopa, earlier this year. Read the previous story here.
For Maricopa resident Dawn Houle, a bid to learn more about her family tree recently came to an unceremonious conclusion: She located her biological father and reached out to him, only to be turned away.
For Houle, the journey to learn the twists and turns of her family “stump,” as she calls it, has been wrought with frustration.
After discovering the woman she thought was her mother wasn’t, Houle told her story to InMaricopa a few months ago and from there, a local genealogist, Phyllis Lewellen, reached out to Houle to help solve the rest of the puzzle.
Houle turned over the data from her search to Lewellen who, after a bit of work, helped Houle locate her biological father, a man named John Brooks, who lives in Polo, Illinois.
Lewellen explained it was a little quicker process than normal.
“Most of the time, we’re having to start fresh,” she said. “With Dawn’s story, we had one of the parents figured out, so that helped.”
Houle and Lewellen both wrote letters to Brooks. Lewellen wrote to explain the process and how she concluded that Houle and Brooks were related as father and daughter. Houle wrote to tell Brooks about her family and to explain that she wasn’t interested in anything financial or of material value. She only wanted to connect and learn about her family.
A week later, Houle went to check her mail and found what looked to be a fat letter of response from Brooks.
“I had included a self-addressed stamped envelope in the letter I sent him,” Houle said. “So, when I’m checking my mail and I saw my own handwriting, I was shaking like a leaf. It looked like a thick letter, and I was hopeful that he’d responded to tell me his story.”
Instead, Brooks had returned the entirety of the correspondence that Houle and Lewellen had sent and scribbled his response on the back of one of the pages: “Not Interested.”
“It was an utter disappointment,” Houle said. “And I just started to wonder, how many more people are going to reject me?”
The journey has been a challenging one for Houle. She was looking for Brooks’ side of her story and maybe a chance to learn more about the family she never knew she had.
Anytime someone decides to learn more about their family tree, they must be ready for whatever may come of that decision.
No one knows this better than Houle, whose own genealogical search before meeting Lewellen would reveal how little she really knew about her relatives. And about the family secret kept from her for decades.
“I thought I was reaching out to find possible relatives,” she said, “not realizing I would have this bomb dropped in my lap.”
“What they did was illegal,” she told InMaricopa in March.
Houle’s journey began in 2013 when she took a DNA test and requested to be alerted to matches with other users of the website, Ancestry.com.
Houle waited six years for an answer and finally, in 2019, there was an email alerting her to a hit on her DNA and that it was a niece, which was odd considering she was an only child.
Over the next two years, Houle researched her genealogy and asked questions only to discover the mother who raised her, Carol Whitt, was actually a friend of her birth mother, Barbara Hughart. The two women had agreed to a scheme in 1969: Barb would use Carol’s name when she checked into the hospital in Rochelle, Illinois, to give birth, and then hand over baby Dawn to Carol and her husband.
Dawn would grow up in the nearby rural farming village of Ashton, about 75 miles west of Chicago. Carol’s husband was “out of the picture” by the time she was 7, she said.
The shocking discovery came after Houle asked an aunt, Whitt’s sister, to take a genetic test. The results came back showing they shared no DNA.
Adding to the pain was the fact some members of the family kept this whole arrangement a secret for 40 years.
Both mothers passed years ago, Carol dying in 2009 of natural causes and Barb dying in a car crash in her 30s. But there was one more major question to be answered: the identity of her biological father.
Untangling the web
Lewellen and some friends in Scottsdale work together to help people in their respective communities search for their biological parents.
Most of the time, they help people who were adopted.
“For the most part, the resolutions are positive,” said Lewellen, who has helped 25 others find long-lost relatives. “Every now and then, you have a situation like Dawn’s, and it’s unfortunate.
“I’m really proud of the way that she’s handled it.”
Houle’s story is unique in that she didn’t know who her mother was. Most of the time, people do not know the identity of their true father.
“I’m part of a Facebook group called, ‘Not parent expected,’” Houle said. “There are a ton of people on there who have found out as adults that their father wasn’t their father. It causes them a lot of pain.”
DNA testing has opened many doors that were previously closed. While bringing the truth into the light can be painful, there are some positives, as Houle explained.
“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” she said. “DNA doesn’t lie, obviously. I hope that it will force people to be more open and honest with their families, instead of keeping all this in the closet.”
While the response from her biological father was disappointing, Houle doesn’t regret the journey. It’s supplied her with some of the answers she’d long sought.
“I think the best thing is that now, I look in the mirror and see my mother and where I came from,” Houle said. “I used to try to see the similarities between me and my fake mom and there just weren’t any. But now I can see the similarities between me and my biological mom, and it makes me happy.”
With her birth mother’s early death, there’s a lot of genetic health history that Houle will likely never know. She had her DNA analyzed by 23 and Me, and most everything came back as she would expect.
“It was all good,” Houle said. “Nothing scary. I’m a white woman, so of course it said I’m likely to have high cholesterol. Nothing shocking there.”
The next piece of the puzzle Houle figured out was that her half-brother, Shawn Brooks, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is her full brother. The two share the same father, John Brooks.
If anyone is looking to take a similar journey as Houle, she has a little advice.
“I’d tell them to be prepared for the unexpected and to not take things too personally,” Houle said.
And the experience also left no doubt that all these years later, her real father, at least in spirit, is Ambrose Little Bear, Carol’s second husband. Her stepfather. She honored his memory with a tattoo on her back.
“He was the best thing that came into my life,” Houle said. “I learned a lot from him. He taught me about respect, self-respect and being a good person.
“I absolutely have the right guy’s name on my back,” she said. “Ambrose will always be my dad.”
This content was first published in the August edition of InMaricopa magazine.