SHIRLEY Muñoz Newson, 64, from Wyoming, USA, felt like an outsider until a DNA test blew her world apart.
She then learned what family really is.
“With trembling hands, I handed my boyfriend Scott the DNA results and asked him to read them.
“As I heard the words: “Jim Morgan has a 0.00% chance of being Shirley’s father,” it felt as though my world was being torn apart.
“I drove straight to my mum Jean’s house to confront her. Her response was as cold as ice. If Jim wasn’t my dad, she said, then she wasn’t my mum either – and she’d take a DNA test to prove it.
“Ever since I could remember, I’d felt like I didn’t fit in with my Irish-American family. My parents and seven siblings were all tall and fair, while I was small with brown eyes and olive skin.
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“As a child, there were constant comments and jokes from people in our small town. Was I the postman’s daughter? Did I have a different dad? Confused and humiliated, I pushed the hurt down and pretended I was fine.
“But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Growing up, my family never showed me much love. Mum recoiled from holding my hand and Dad didn’t hide his dislike.
“I didn’t have a good relationship with my siblings either, except for my brother Bill, who was three years younger. I sensed my other siblings resented me, and that my arrival had changed the family in some unspoken way.
“As the years went by, I got married, built my career as an accountant and raised my children – Chris, now 46, Lindsay, 41, and TJ, 38. I got divorced in 1992 and had a second, brief marriage from September 1997 to April 1998.
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“In summer 2000 I started dating Scott. A few months later, my dad – then aged 80 – developed a heart condition, and announced that he’d always suspected I wasn’t his – and wanted us to take a DNA test.
“In a strange way, I wasn’t shocked, because I wanted to find out, too – I’d always felt something wasn’t right. Two weeks later, on the evening of my 43rd birthday, the results revealed Jim was not my dad.
“Weeks later, another test confirmed I wasn’t my mother’s biological daughter either.
“There hadn’t been an affair, so there was only one explanation I could think of: I had been switched at birth. I ran into the bathroom and wept.
“As I looked in the mirror, I saw a stranger. Whose life had I been living all these years? And who had been living mine?
“After telling my children, I confided in my brother Bill. Along with Scott, they supported me no end. Needing answers, I went to the public library to trawl through the archive of newspapers from 1958 and hired a lawyer so I could have patient files and medical records opened.
“I discovered another girl had been born at Campbell County Memorial Hospital, Gillette, Wyoming, on April 8, 1958 – to a 20-year-old unmarried woman called Polly Muñoz.
“It was later determined that somehow, within the first few hours of us being born, the babies were switched, and I went home with the Morgan family, while the other baby, named Debbie, went with Polly.
‘Leapt with joy’
“The hospital had no idea the mix-up had occurred, and when approached, they came up with outlandish scenarios as to how it may have happened, suggesting that someone off the street had come in and switched the babies.
“It was ludicrous, so I decided to file a lawsuit against Banner Health Systems, which staffed and operated the hospital.
“Within six months, both my birth mum and Debbie had been traced by an adoption intermediary and my attorney, who called them and told them what had happened.
“I felt sure that Debbie was the only other person who’d truly understand what I was going through. But when I called her in October 2001, she rebuffed any suggestion that we meet, and then wouldn’t pick up my calls. Then, three days later, I answered my phone to hear a low, quiet voice.
“It was Polly, my biological mum. My heart leapt with joy. She told me she lived eight hours away, but when I asked to meet up, she said it wasn’t possible yet – her husband had never been happy about her having a baby out of wedlock and didn’t want to discuss it.
“Meanwhile, Jean, Jim and my siblings were preparing to meet Debbie. They threw her a big party and I reluctantly agreed to attend, bringing Scott and my son TJ with me.
“Seeing banners that read “Welcome to our long-lost daughter” hurt my heart, as did watching this tall woman fit right in with her excited new family. Debbie and I shared a hesitant embrace, but I left soon after – it was all too much.
“A few days later, Polly suddenly came to visit me. I could see myself in her features and colouring, but it wasn’t the reunion I desperately wanted.
“There were no hugs, just cautious chit-chat. Likewise, my biological half-brother and half-sister from Polly’s marriage wanted nothing to do with me.
“The rejection was so painful, but thankfully I was able to build a relationship with my mother’s sister, my aunt Mary, who showed me a huge amount of love, teaching me about my heritage and how to cook Mexican food.
“In November 2001, I changed my middle name from Marie to Muñoz to honour my Mexican background.
“Although I didn’t have any further contact with Debbie, through interviews she later gave to the press, I learned that despite being devoted to Polly, she mourned the childhood she missed and often wondered about who she would have been if she’d grown up with her rightful family.
“In 2003, I adopted Austin, now 22, and Scott and I married the following year. My lawsuit against the hospital was settled after mediation and I tried to find some peace.
“Two years later, in September 2006, Debbie died aged 48, while Jim died in August 2009, at 88, and Jean in December 2018, at 94.
“I’d had little contact with the man and woman who raised me in the intervening years – with everything that had happened, our relationships just broke down, although I’m still close to my brother Bill.
“And by the time Polly died in September 2016, aged 74, she had only got in touch to ask me for money.
“I coped by denying all my emotions, convincing myself I was fine – until Austin kept badgering me to write a book about it.
“Although I had therapy over the years, when I finally sat down to start writing in September 2021, the floodgates opened, and I realised I was a mess. Writing my book helped me to finally find the peace I had been searching for.
“People ask me if I wish the switch hadn’t taken place. But I believe this all happened for a reason, giving me the chance to find my strength, share my story and to help others.
“When the truth was revealed, there wasn’t a neat, fairy-tale ending, and I’ll never understand why my biological mother and siblings rejected me.
“But I’ve created a family built on more than just DNA. From my brother Bill and long-lost aunt Mary, to Scott and my incredible children, grandson Dace, 13, and granddaughter Irelynn, two, I have a life full of love.
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“That’s the most important bond of all.
- The Little Dark One: A True Story Of Switched At Birth is available at Shirleymunoznewson.com.
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