A DNA test might not be your idea of the perfect Christmas gift, but that’s exactly what the patriarch of the McDonalds of Nashville, Tennessee, hit upon as the ideal present for the whole family. Of course Mr McDonald’s intention was to give the family an insight into their shared heritage through the DNA information. But that was not quite how things worked out — especially for his daughter Catherine.
Let’s get to know Catherine. By all accounts, the McDonalds were a contented family and she’d had a happy childhood. All kinds of normal, undramatic stuff happened such as the young girl getting a kitten when she was little. And affection for felines was something that would stay with her right into adulthood, which made the name most knew her by — “Cat” — all the more apt.
“My fur baby”
In a post on Instagram, Catherine wrote, “I can’t even begin to describe how much better my quality of life is with my fur baby.” This “fur baby” was her pet cat Eleanor, whom she had rescued from a kitten farm. There, the animal had been rejected as being imperfect, but the feline seemed to be perfect in every way as far as its new owner was concerned.
Eleanor had been just 21 days old when Catherine took her on some four years ago. Ever since the kitty’s been a support to her mistress and is actually a registered therapy pet. But there’s much more to Cat than just a love of four-legged critters. There was something that her parents recognized in her when she was just a little girl: a talent for music.
Catherine loved music — and she had an extraordinary aptitude as a player on her chosen instrument, the violin. After wowing her teachers at school with her skills, she started to record tracks and post them on her Instagram page. Her talented performances were rewarded by growing numbers of enthusiastic followers — nearly 18,000 of them to date! Whether her first love was her cat or her violin was a close-run contest.
Berklee College of Music
With her musical success in her school days and on her Instagram, Catherine’s next steps were obvious. She just had to go on to college to study music, and that’s exactly what she did. She was accepted by renowned establishment Berklee College of Music. She majored there in violin performance and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2017.
But Catherine’s studies didn’t end once she’d finished at Berklee. After that she went on to study for a Master of Arts in music performance at Belmont University, successfully completing her course there in 2021. Yet it’s not just academic success that Catherine has earned. She’s also garnered a bucketload of awards over the years for her talents as a musician.
Here are just a couple of examples of Catherine’s glittering successes over the years. According to her LinkedIn page she “ranked second in the New Mexico Old Time Fiddlers Association Finals.” And the Santa Fe Pro Musical Foundation named her as one of the “top ten Epic Artists of her generation.” So Catherine was no stranger to kudos when it came to her musical abilities.
Diamonds and Whiskey
Her journey as a musician continued to flourish. In one post on Instagram, Catherine wrote, “I have no idea what my music career is going to look like, but I’m starting to realize it may already be happening. I’m actually making a living full-time with music, half the time I forget I’m even getting paid.” That was after she’d spent a year working with a band called Diamonds and Whiskey, singing and playing her violin.
So it seems that Cat McDonald, by now in her mid-20s, was enjoying a happy and successful life. Or at least she was until her father gave her that fateful Christmas gift, the DNA test. These tests have become popular in recent years as the technology has advanced and the testing process has dropped steeply in price. But taking a DNA test can be fraught with pitfalls.
A $45 billion business
In fact, some people have been highly critical of the practice. Writing in British newspaper The Independent, journalist Georgina Lawton covered some of the controversies. She started with some mind-numbing figures. Apparently the DNA-testing industry is projected to grow into a $45 billion business by 2024. And it’s a sector that’s been plagued by “misleading information [and] lack of customer support” according to Lawton.
As Lawton pointed out, many of those who take DNA tests do so to find out about the likelihood of their contracting certain conditions such as breast cancer. But the question is, just how trustworthy are the tests — and the companies which are offering them? As Lawton wrote, “These profit-driven companies are unlikely to shout about potential medical errors, because arguably, they exist to make money from us first, and help our health second.”
A serious shortcoming
What’s more, it seems that very few of the companies which offer DNA testing provide any kind of aftercare. This can be a very serious shortcoming when it comes to results that may be distressing, given that they might show a propensity for life-threatening conditions. Of course Cat’s father didn’t gift the tests searching for medical information — it was all about discovering family heritage.
Not right for everyone
Speaking to newspaper The Gazette, genetic counselor Athena Puski of UI Health Care said, “Genetic testing is not right for everyone. Counselors have special training that allows us to help patients decide whether genetic testing is right for them, choose which risk factors and conditions to test for, and counsel them on the results of the testing and what it specifically means for them and their family.”
A grain of salt
Puski continued, “How I usually think of these direct-to-consumer tests is that they can be fun. You get interesting information. It can be a fun activity for the family, if they want to learn about ancestry. But take health information with a grain of salt, and don’t use it for your actual health management.” She pointed out that consumer DNA tests cannot always be trusted — they are not as accurate as those administered by health professionals.
But even in the case of taking a DNA test to learn about family history, there can be serious and unforeseen consequences. Puski sounded a cautionary note. “They can provide links to family members,” she noted. “So there could be surprises in finding out about family members you may not know, that your father is not your father.” In other words, a DNA test may reveal some shocking information.
Those warning words from Puski might have been tailor-made for Catherine. For when she got the results of her DNA test, there was indeed shocking news: the musician’s most-cherished beliefs about her heritage proved to be an illusion. Her entire identity seemed to be in question. She poured out her heart in a TikTok posting, describing the turmoil that had upset her life.
Catherine wrote, “My Dad came up with the brilliant idea of giving the entire family AncestryDNA kits last year for Christmas. I have identified as Irish because my last name is McDonald and my hair is bright red. Turns out I’m 75 per cent Norwegian and the rest is like German and British and there’s like zero Irish.” This was obviously a distressing revelation for the young woman.
St. Patrick’s Day
But there was worse to come. Catherine’s post continued, “I found this out on St Patty’s Day so I called [my father] cracking up saying, guess what? I’m not Irish at all! He calls me up saying there’s no way you’re not Irish.” But her Dad’s protestations couldn’t alter the truth as revealed by the DNA testing. And the next fact to emerge was even more Earth-shattering.
An exact paternal match
Catherine’s emotional TikTok post continued, “So with my Dad on the phone, I log into my account to see if I have any DNA matches. And I had an exact paternal match, it just wasn’t him.” Now she’d found out that the man she’d called “Dad” all her life was not actually her biological parent. Not exactly the Christmas gift anybody would want.
An old family friend
Then things got even weirder. According to Catherine’s TikTok account, “I confronted my Mom and two of my aunts immediately. Everyone, including my mother, was… shook. But even my Dad recognized the name; apparently he was an old family friend.” So her supposed father was now telling her that he actually knew the man that had been identified as her real father.
Now armed with what she believed to be the name of her true father, Cat did what any of us would have done. She logged into Google and fed the name into the search engine. Sure enough, the man came up in the search. And now it was time for McDonald to take on board more shocking and unexpected information.
It turned out that the man she now believed to be her biological father was actually a real-life billionaire. “He’s the CEO for a major company and his three daughters work for him,” Catherine wrote. So what did the musician do next? We’ll let her continue the extraordinary tale. “Naturally, like the Millennial that I am, I drive halfway across the country to his corporate office,” she wrote.
“Refused to meet me”
Once Catherine reached her unnamed destination to meet this billionaire — whose identity she has not revealed — things didn’t exactly fall into place. Once again, we return to her own account on TikTok. “I tried to give him a letter, but when he heard my name he refused to meet with me.” So it seemed that this newly discovered father didn’t want to play ball with his daughter.
“I’m really happy to be alive”
Perhaps it was what Catherine had written in her letter that stopped the billionaire from agreeing to see her. After all, if you’re a billionaire and someone approaches you out of the blue claiming to be an unknown child, you might well be suspicious. But Cat described the letter’s contents thus, “Basically all it said was thank you, because I’m really happy to be alive.” That’s hardly a threatening approach.
Yet Catherine also said that her letter included the message, “You know as much as I do at this point, but I really want more answers.” It’s conceivable that this billionaire might have felt some trepidation at the implications of Cat’s desire for “more answers.” There may be things from his past — including presumably a tryst with her mother — that he would rather not dig up.
In any case, the fact is that we don’t know the identity of Catherine’s biological father. Although she claims to know exactly who he is — as does the man who has acted as her father for all those years — she has not chosen to give a name. There is of course another element to this story that we’ve scarcely touched upon: Cat has three half-sisters she’s never met.
So Catherine was left high and dry emotionally. She’d discovered the truth about her parentage, but it seemed there was nowhere to go with that information — not a pleasant situation for the young woman. Thankfully, though, she found out that help was available for people who find themselves in her position. A company called DNAngels was able to help her find support.
Not the cause of the problem
DNAngels put her in touch with a support group aimed at those who had discovered that the people they’d called mum or dad — or both — were not actually their biological parents. According to DNAngels such support groups were in the business of “spreading encouragement and reminding people who are now suffering an identity crisis that they are not the cause of the problem.”
A generous offer
Instead of just giving way to despair, Catherine has tried to create something positive from what has been a difficult time for her. She made a personal approach to Laura Leslie-Olmstead, executive director at DNAngels. Cat said, "I would love to channel this to a greater good. I want to ask my following to donate to DNAngels.” That’s a generous offer from someone who’s been through a truly traumatic experience.