Growing up as an only child, Tyler Sievers was comfortable with solitude.
His mothers expected their son to occupy himself – and so Sievers became a creative and resourceful boy. For 18 years he lived happily as a party of one.
And then he sent his DNA to Ancestry.com, and got 20 half-siblings back.
He was conceived in March of 1999, using donated sperm banked at Pacific Reproductive Services in San Francisco. The donor was selected by his mothers from hundreds of options, using data that profiled each man’s broad particulars. Age, height, weight, eye-color. Medical history, family history, hobbies and skills. Sievers’ moms made their choice and his biological mother was inseminated. On Dec. 23 of 1999, Tyler Hammill Sievers was born.
His mothers were always blunt about their son’s origins, explaining early on that his father was a donor. Sievers was curious in the absent way that kids are, and admits to imagining his father from time to time.
“I’ve always kind of known, they didn’t hide that from me, though I didn’t press for details like his name or where he lived.”
Mostly, Sievers didn’t really think the circumstances of his life were unique. It was just a life, after all, like anyone else. Even if he’d wanted to know the details of his conception, that information was locked down, unavailable. “My moms told me the selection was an anonymous process. There was a packet with all his information (except his name) and that’s how they chose him,” Sievers said. “I like that it was anonymous. Choosing a donor based on a physical photo feels kind of shallow.”
Sievers is tall, well over 6 feet. He’s thin, his face angular, the chin prominent and cleft. Small dimples bracket the corners of his mouth, and his smiling eyes are blue. He’s a sweet kid, soft-spoken and tender. Not the kind of guy prone to bravado.
Last fall, his biological mother suggested Sievers take an ancestry test, thinking it might be fun to fill in some blanks. “We wanted to know about my ethnicity, countries I’m from,” Sievers said.
In October, he deposited saliva in a test tube and sent it off to Ancestry.com. Then the North Bay fires broke out, and he forgot all about it.
Ancestry.com is a geneaology service that’s been around since the 1980s. It uses DNA extracted from saliva to build family trees. It’s peppy advertising campaign features customers finding their unique happy endings: “Holy crow! I’m related to George Washington!!” and “So I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt!” The service costs $99, and has sequenced the DNA of millions of people. With its huge pool of participants, Ancestry is able to link its customers to their relatives, and does so with 99 percent certainty. The process takes between four and six weeks, and results are delivered via email.
“We didn’t even know about the feature that links you to people you might be related to,” Sievers said, remembering the shock of his emailed results. From Ancestry’s analysis of Sievers saliva, a large number of “really close matches” were made and over 200 probable cousins found. Within days, a woman named Melody reached out to Sievers, sure that he was part of what she called their “donor cluster”: 20 people ages 13 to 24 on the East and West coasts with 99 percent probability of sibling ties. The quiet kid who’d grown up in a house on his own was suddenly part of an enormous family.