When people undergo DNA tests, they don't always know what they're signing up for. Those who are simply interested in their family's genealogy can end up uncovering a decades-old secret that creates a sudden and devastating rift among those they trusted most.
But as ABC co-anchor Whit Johnson learned, the long-hidden truths that lay buried in DNA can be powerful for a different reason. And he had to go against his father's wishes to find them out.
An accomplished journalist
According to his ABC biography, Whit Johnson is the co-anchor of Good Morning America and the anchor for the Saturday edition of World News Tonight.
But since joining the network in 2018, he's also served as one of its key correspondents. And this was especially true during the tumultuous events of 2020.
In the years before Johnson joined ABC, his reporting had already won him some significant accolades.
For example, he won a Golden Mike award in 2017 for Best Daytime News Broadcast in connection with his hosting of Today In LA on KNBC-TV. He also won a Los Angeles Emmy for a multi-part investigation into auto repair scams.
A family man
Johnson has two children with his wife and fellow journalist Andrea Fujii, but he also comes from a pretty big family.
He mentioned this in a tweet where seven family members came to his work, which he noted was only a fraction of his immediate family.
Some mysteries left unsolved
But his family also had some unresolved questions about their heritage because his father was adopted.
And as Johnson told it in a report for ABC News, his family was always curious about those missing puzzle pieces. But there was one reason why they never pursued that curiosity.
His father didn't want to know
From his father's perspective, his love for his adopted family was important enough to him that he feared digging into his biological parentage would cause a rift among them.
He believed that exploring those questions would come as an insult to them.
That opinion wasn't shared by Johnson's other relatives
All the family knew was that Johnson's father was adopted in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1950. But while he was satisfied with that information, the same could not be said for Johnson's mother.
Johnson said she had been curious about his regional, ethnic, and national background and bought him a DNA test through 23andMe to find it all out.
Initially, Johnson wasn't interested
Johnson's parents had divorced many years prior, but his mother's curiosity had only grown in that time. At first, Johnson didn't think knowing this information would make much of a difference in his life.
In his words, "Okay, what variation of British/Irish/Scottish could I possibly be?"
However, both his mother and Fujii convinced him, and his mom made it as convenient as possible for Johnson.
He said, "My mom literally walked out with the test tube and said, 'All you have to do is spit in this. We'll fill out the online profile together, and then you wait for the results.'"
Fire and forget
Johnson added that at the time, he didn't know what else 23andMe tests were capable of besides revealing demographic information.
So after he took the test and his family filled out the profile together at the dinner table, he forgot about it until his results came in a month later.
Already, there were some surprises
Johnson got most of the results he expected from his mother's side, but the test also seemed to fill some of the blanks on his father's side.
As he said, "There was this other part that showed that I'm Basque Spanish, and I had a small percentage of Native American, as well. I knew instantly that must have been from my dad, but, again, didn't think a whole lot of it."
Some idle exploration
His curiosity piqued, Johnson poked around the website and saw what else his results entailed. And while he wasn't looking for anything specific, he soon found himself in the "Your DNA Relatives" section.
At first, he just saw a line of distant relatives pop up, ranging from third to fifth cousins.
Names he had never heard before.
Since the name "Johnson" came from his father's adopted parents, most of the names for these distant relatives were different.
Johnson says, "But all these interesting Spanish names pop up. I found that fascinating."
A strangely appropriate warning
Johnson then clicked on a tab concerning his immediate family, which gave him a warning to the effect of, "Warning: You may not know everything that is in here."
Johnson said, "It actually warns people, like, 'Hey, get ready for some potential surprises,' kind of thing."
A surprising discovery
Since only his mother filled out a profile on the site, she was the only person Johnson was expecting to see in that section.
But then, another person popped up as a potential match for a first cousin.
The wheels in his head were turning
Johnson began to consider that because while his mother has siblings, none of them have any children.
But in his words, "First cousin, that's a close relative. That's the immediate under the umbrella of your grandparents."
There was only one conclusion to draw.
Faced with this fact, Johnson had to know who his cousin was, and he was so struck when he saw the photo that he couldn't even look at the name.
As he wrote, "The picture blew my mind. My jaw dropped. I fell back into my chair, and I had to turn away from the computer for a moment and just think about this for a second because I saw a picture of a man who looks exactly like my dad."
He struggled to think of what to do next
There was no doubt in Johnson's mind that the man he was looking at was his father's brother, but that raised more questions for him than it answered.
Johnson said, "At that moment, I'm like, 'This is a bombshell. This is a family revelation here. This is going to change everything for us,' and I'm immediately thinking, 'Well, how do I even contact this person, or how do I talk to my dad? How do I figure out the story?'"
Not as hard as he imagined
Although Johnson's paternal grandparents had already passed away by the time of this discovery, he figured his father's feelings about learning about his biological parents would make this a hard subject to broach.
However, after all this time, his father had also become curious about his biological mother and started doing his own research. He wasn't as successful, though.
Johnson didn't know that at the time
Since Johnson wasn't aware of this, he agonized over how he would tell his father. But after talking to his mom and wife, he wrote an email to his stepmom. He told her that while he was using 23andMe, he found something "VERY RELATED TO DAD."
Specifically, a man who was born in Utah six years after he was. The woman replied, "Oh, my God. Yes, Dad wants to know. We'll call you later."
In the meantime, Johnson had reached out to his newly discovered relative, who also marveled at finding a relative this close. Since he had been searching DNA websites for years, he wanted to know more about Johnson's family.
And after learning where and when Johnson's father was adopted, the man came to the same conclusion he did.
An emotional conversation
By the time Johnson's father called him and asked what was going on, he was clearly flustered and emotional. So Johnson warned him that what he was about to tell him was incredible enough to change all their lives. But much like Johnson, his dad had to know.
Recounting their talk, Johnson said, "I tell him, and he's in tears."
A long time coming
Johnson could tell that this news came as a major opportunity for his dad to release the feelings he thought he had to suppress for years. By total accident, he felt his family had done an amazing favor.
As Johnson wrote, "We opened this new door to him. We walked him through it. He didn't have to take that first step anymore. We began this journey together."
The next steps forward
Johnson noted that the timeline between this discovery and the revelation that left him, his father, and his stepmom in tears was just two hours.
And while everyone was still in disbelief by the time this line of communication opened, his father and surprise uncle were exchanging emails by the end of the day.
A weirdly small world
The three decided they were going to meet in Utah, where Johnson had worked as a reporter in Salt Lake City. As he would later discover, this meant that his uncle had watched him on TV without ever knowing who he really was.
As Johnson put it, "So, for him, when he put all of this together, it was a complete shocker."
They bonded instantly
When Johnson and his father met his uncle, he quickly noticed how much they had in common.
He gave some examples: "Some of their little geeky traits, how they're into fixing things, and their habits, and how they walk and how their hands look the same and their dimples look the same."
And while Johnson learned that his first cousin was actually this man's daughter, that wasn't the only surprise that this first meeting would reveal to them.
Because once the two brothers started digging through legal records and other documents, they discovered there was a third brother.
Another letter is sent
They learned that while all three had the same mother, they each had different fathers. And this third brother lived in Wyoming, so they explained the discovery they had made.
But this third brother's reply gave John's father the answers he had been too afraid to search for for years.
He was the only one who knew her
Although all three brothers were adopted, this third brother was raised by his grandparents. So, while that meant that his mother came in and out of his life, he actually knew her.
Not only that, but he had kept photographs of her.
The answer the father had always wanted
Shortly after contacting his brother in Wyoming, Johnson's father not only knew his mother's name but what she had looked like.
And when all three brothers met up, he had access to even more photographs of her.
But the search continues
As life-changing as these discoveries have been for Johnson's family, that doesn't mean they're over.
Now that they've been brought together, his father and his uncle in Utah are trying to track down a sister they've since learned about. And they're also seeking any sign that any of their fathers may still be alive. It's a long but rewarding road to family unity.