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How faith, forgiveness helped ‘devastated’ man who uncovered startling family secret

SHARE How faith, forgiveness helped ‘devastated’ man who uncovered startling family secret

Stephen F. Anderson, author of “A Broken Tree,” is pictured in his Lindon home on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

LINDON — The first piece of the puzzle came when Stephen F. Anderson’s brother was involved in an accident and the hospital called for blood donations.

Anderson’s father was at the front of the line, but his blood wasn’t compatible.

That wasn’t conclusive proof of anything, but thinking her secret was out, Anderson’s mother made a startling confession: She admitted to her husband that the injured boy was not his biological son.

It was the first clue that something about the Anderson family might be amiss.

Many years later, Anderson used DNA testing to uncover the unbelievable truth about his family — his mother had given birth to nine children by six different men. None of the men were her husband.

“With a single blood donation, the dynamics of our family had changed forever,” Anderson said.


Stephen F. Anderson, author of “A Broken Tree,” is pictured in his Lindon home on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Anderson, who retired in 2016 after working at FamilySearch International for 26 years, has now published his unique family story in a book titled, “A Broken Tree: How DNA Exposed a Family’s Secret.”

It’s a story of jaw-dropping discoveries, anger and betrayal — and ultimately faith and healing. Anderson’s true account also shows the benefits and risks of DNA testing.

It was an emotional journey and not an easy book for Anderson to write, but the family historian felt strongly that it needed to be shared.

“This is the legacy I’m going to leave to our posterity so they will know the true story about who they really are,” Anderson said. “This is my gift to them.”

Family secrets

In the book, all names but Anderson’s are changed for privacy. He identifies his parents as Mark and Linda Anderson, and they have nine children, including five girls and four boys.

Stephen Anderson says he grew up loving the TV show “Leave It to Beaver,” because the flawless television family wasn’t anything like his own.

His father was a World War II veteran and firetruck salesman who liked to drink heavily with his war buddies. His mother worked several different jobs during his childhood, and often left the older children to care for the younger ones, he wrote.

“As it turned out, my mom didn’t much care for kids,” he wrote. “I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why she’d had so many children if she didn’t like taking care of them, but that’s just how it was in our home.”

In his mid-40s, Anderson approached his oldest sister, Holly, about recording her memories of their early family. Much to his surprise, she stiff-armed his request. He continued to beg until finally she agreed, but not until after their parents had both died. Then his sister died before both parents without sharing her memories.

But a few insightful stories remained and helped to get the the ball rolling, Anderson said.


Along with his brother’s blood donation revelation, Anderson learned that before his parents married, his mother had two boyfriends. One was a man named Sam and the second was his father, Mark Anderson.

Linda was first engaged to Sam, but the couple had an argument and broke up. Linda married Mark and shortly thereafter Mark enlisted in the Army. He was gone for four years.

One day many years later, Holly was upset with her father and complained to her mother, “I hate dad. I wish he wasn’t my father!” In that moment, Linda told her daughter that Mark wasn’t her father. Holly eventually learned it was Sam. It was later determined through DNA testing that the former fiance fathered the three oldest girls, Anderson said.

Another leak came when Anderson’s youngest sister, Carlee, overheard her older sisters say Mark wasn’t her father. She asked her mother for the truth and received it. She was conceived when a good-looking young man from Germany named Peter worked for the family business. One night while Mark was out drinking and playing cards, Linda asked Peter for a ride home.

Carlee apparently wasn’t the only child in the family fathered by Peter. Linda’s sister also delivered a baby. When the word got out, he was fired and quickly skipped town, according to “A Broken Tree.”

“With each new discovery, we were finding out that discovering one’s family history is far from boring,” Anderson wrote.

DNA testing ‘shock’

Given the family stories, Anderson and his brother Tim had good reason to believe other siblings had different biological fathers, but they wanted clear evidence. They questioned their mother’s honesty and their father wasn’t prone to answering personal questions. They knew the truth would only come with DNA testing, something millions of people have done in the last decade.

Then Mark Anderson died. The family obtained some hair samples with the hair follicle still attached at his funeral. Tim then secured a cheek swab from their mother, who didn’t object to the testing, and they submitted the samples, along with Stephen Anderson’s DNA, to a friend who worked at a reputable genetic testing firm in California.

The results came back with a traumatic jolt as Stephen Anderson learned that Mark Anderson was not his biological father.


Stephen F. Anderson, author of “A Broken Tree,” is pictured in his Lindon home on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. Photographs of his great-grandfathers and grandmother hang on the wall.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that. I was in shock,” Stephen Anderson wrote in his journal. “Of all the kids in our family, everyone was sure that I was an Anderson. I look like all our uncles and many of our Anderson cousins. I never for a moment thought it could be any other way. ... I have so many questions that are running through my mind as I try to come to terms with this.

“I feel like I am on an emotional roller coaster, and I feel like I’m going to explode!!! ... Ohhhhh my head hurts. The muscles in my chest are so tight. I’m having a hard time thinking straight. This is such a shock to me. I don’t even know how I feel about this.”

These results were confirmed with a second test using skin flecks retrieved from his father’s electric razor. Tim’s test also confirmed that Mark was not his father either, but it did prove they were full-blood brothers, meaning they were fathered by the same man, Stephen Anderson said.

In time, DNA testing confirmed that six of the nine children had different fathers. In “A Broken Tree,” Anderson confronts his mother for answers and recounts a thorough search to find all the biological fathers. In the end, it’s unclear how much Mark knew about his wife’s promiscuity. It’s very likely that he was sterile, Stephen Anderson said.

Risky business

In his book, Stephen cites research showing between 5% and 10% of approximately 50 million DNA kits have resulted in cases of “nonfamily” relationships where one or both parents are not the biological parents.

The news is so difficult for some to fathom that they’ve formed support groups, including on Facebook.

“A lot of people are afraid to take a DNA test because they could find out that mom or dad is not their biological parent,” Stephen said. “They don’t even want to go down that road.”

The retired family historian recalls his father describing behavior among unmarried servicemen in World War II and the Korean War who realized they might die without fathering a child, so they looked for every opportunity to leave behind a “genetic legacy,” he wrote.

“Birth control was not easily available. ... If they died, there would be no consequences. If they lived, no one back home would ever know what they’d done,” Stephen Anderson wrote. “Many thousands of war babies were born as a result of this I’m-probably-going-to-die-anyway attitude. ... Now that DNA testing is so inexpensive and accurate, we are beginning to see people from around the world trying to link up to their biological fathers and their American families.”

Faith, healing, forgiveness

The more Stephen Anderson learns about his father, Mark Anderson, the more he loves and admires him. When he found out that the man was not his biological father, Stephen Anderson was crushed.

As a convert of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 16, Stephen Anderson spent more than 40 years doing family history research and temple work, mostly on his father’s line, and had many spiritual experiences.

When he learned the truth about this family, it felt like his family tree broke in half and he faced an identity crisis. That’s also how he came up with the title for his book.

“It was more traumatic than anything I’ve experienced in my life,” Anderson said. “I just never realized how important one’s identity is and the loss of it, how traumatic that is.”

“It’s a witness to me that God does guide and bless our efforts to find the truth and helps make things right.” — Stephen F. Anderson

Writing in a journal, and later the book, was therapeutic, but Stephen Anderson said healing came when he was vicariously sealed to his parents in a Latter-day Saint temple. Thanks to the sealing ordinance, he believes Mark Anderson’s line didn’t end with his death, but was restored. Knowing his tree was full again was a “remarkable” realization, Stephen Anderson said.

“All of Dad’s people were once again my people,” he said. “I am an Anderson, not the family line of my biological father.”

The need for Anderson to forgive his mother was challenging after he learned the truth. He explains and acknowledges her many issues in the book. Before her death, he told her he still loved her, he said.

“I don’t know what happened to Mom, if she was abused, if she was born with a genetic thing that made a mess out of her life,” Anderson said. “But whatever happened, I’m going to let God take care of that.”

Redeeming value

To this day, Anderson still shakes his head wondering what happened with his parents and looks forward to a frank family history interview one day in heaven. “It’s a crazy story, no doubt,” he says, but he’s at peace with everything now.

When he tells the story, Anderson takes delight in seeing people’s disbelieving looks and other perplexed expressions. On a more meaningful note, telling his story has given some people courage to share their own DNA-surprise experiences.

“I am finding that many are too embarrassed to share their experience because they feel like they are one of a very few who have this ‘stain’ on their family,” Anderson said. “When they hear me sharing my family’s experience, they seem to feel like they can tell me about it and get some of those feelings off their chest. It’s been truly amazing.”

In recounting the story many times over the years, people have asked so many of the same questions that Anderson decided to add a “Questions and Answers” chapter to the end of his book.

Along with the curious questions, one important theme of the story is recognizing that families can come in many different shapes, sizes and equations these days, so be understanding and forgiving, Anderson said.

He also hopes that sharing his story will give readers with similar family stories a sense of hope.

“It’s a witness to me that God does guide and bless our efforts to find the truth and helps make things right,” he said.