These are the key ingredients of a story that has tugged on heartstrings in Sweden this week.
For Swedish journalist Carina Bergfeldt, it all began with an offhand remark from her ex-stepmother that triggered a memory that had been buried for decades.
“At my nephew's first birthday party, I saw my former stepmother for the first time in ages and we were just sort of casually talking when I mentioned how fun it was that so many of us had gathered for the occasion. She suddenly said, 'Yeah, the only person missing is your half-brother' and I almost spat out my coffee and was like, 'What?!?'” Bergfeldt told The Local.
Her stepmother referred to “that kid your dad had in the US” and went on to recount a phone call that Bergfeldt's father had received in 1992 from a Colombian woman in the United States who said that she was raising a son that was the result of their short-lived fling in Florida a few years ago.
Bergfeldt said the revelation left her “dumbfounded” and spurred all kinds of questions. Was this true? How could that woman in the US be sure that it was her father? After the birthday party, Bergfeldt spoke to her older brother Nicklas, who was as shocked as she was. But then his memory was triggered. He recalled overhearing parts of that phone call – something in English about a child.
Jeffrey Nielsen is set to come to Sweden this month to attend his new half-sister's wedding. Photo: Carina Bergfeldt/SVT
“He suddenly figured out that what he had heard so long ago was true. So then we started talking about what to do next. My ex-stepmother could only remember the first name of this woman: Mariana,” Bergfeldt said.
Armed with that, and a journalism background that netted her the Swedish Grand Prize for Journalism in 2012, Bergfeldt started chasing her biggest story ever. The story of her secret brother.
Reporting assignment takes an unexpected turn
After moving to Washington DC in 2016 to become Sweden's public broadcaster SVT's US correspondent, Bergfeldt was struck by the barrage of advertising she heard for DNA testing sites like ancestry.com. She thought this could be the best way to discover the truth, but she was scared.
“I bought a DNA test but I sat on it for a year. I was afraid of finding out and I was afraid of not finding out,” she said.
She eventually decided to contact ancestry.com to pursue a story on the new American obsession of do-it-yourself DNA kits and flew out to the company's headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her test results pointed to an unknown seventh cousin, leaving Bergfeldt “so disappointed”.
“I realized then and there just how badly I wanted to find out that I did have a brother,” she said.
Bummed by the results, Bergfeldt caught a lucky break. The ancestry.com employee she was interviewing mentioned that the annual RootsTech conference, the biggest genealogy technology fair in the world, was under way in the same city. This was her chance.
Bergfeldt decided she could not let this “random twist of fate” go to waste. She went to the conference and took basically every DNA test available. Even if she didn't discover anything about a long-lost brother, she figured it would at least make for a good story for SVT. But a week later, her 23andme results came in.
“I clicked the link, and then he popped up. Jeffrey Nielsen, half-brother.”
Ever the journalist, she took out her phone and filmed her immediate reaction. Then she and her four brothers started to Google “like obsessed people”. The only clue they had to go on was Jeffrey Nielsen's short 23andme bio: “Military, frequent traveller.” Her report, and her life, had just taken a major twist.
'I just blew it off'
Jeff Nielsen, meanwhile, had pretty much forgotten all about the DNA results from his 23andme test.
“When I got the results, I was really interested in my mom's side, because she is Colombian. So the results showed I was part South American, part West African, all this cool stuff. When I saw that my dad's side was Swedish, I didn't think much of it because my dad had always said he was Danish, and I figured they were close enough,” Nielsen told The Local from the Joint Base Lewis-McChord military base outside of Tacoma, Washington.
Carina Bergfeldt and Jeffrey Nielsen reunited in Washington DC. Photo: Carina Bergfeldt/SVT
What the 28-year-old American didn't realize is that his dad Ken, who had raised him from when he was a baby, wasn't actually his biological father. But since the DNA test results didn't raise any immediate red flags, Nielsen didn't think much of it. He had bigger things to worry about, like his upcoming wedding and his career in the US military.
In March, as he was about to start a vital training exercise, he received a Facebook message from a Swedish woman claiming to be his half-sister.
“I completely thought it was a scam. I laughed at it and send it to the rest of the family, and just blew it off,” Nielsen said. “When I got back from training a week later, I answered her and realized she wasn't joking.”
Bergfeldt convinced him to log in to 23andme and see the results for himself. “It was all true,” he said.
Nielsen immediately called his mother, who was about to board a flight.
“At this point, I figured it was true but I didn't know if my dad knew so I wanted to tread carefully for other people's sake. I asked her if she knew an Ingemar Bergfeldt and she immediately said yes. There was no quibbling about it. It was like the silver bullet had finally been fired,” he said.
His mother Mariana and father Ken agreed that they would tell Nielsen everything once they returned home to Philadelphia.
“I tried to have fun with it. It turns out my brother knew, so the first thing I did was to call him and say, 'Dude, how could you have known I was Swedish and let me waste four years learning German!'” he said.
Nielsen said that the revelation was surprisingly bereft of drama and that everyone was both at peace with it and perhaps even relieved that the truth was finally out there. But there was still one more twist. This whole deeply personal experience was going to be shared with all of Sweden.
Personal story shared with all
Although Bergfeldt said she “really struggled” with whether or not to even tell Jeff Nielsen the truth, out of fears of destroying his family's life, she not only went through with it but also decided to film everything and turn it into a documentary for SVT.
“That was an exceptionally awkward conversation but I had told him right away that I was a journalist and that I had found him while doing a story so I would want to film this,” she said.
They agreed not to film their very first meeting, when Nielsen flew out to Washington DC to meet the Swedish sister he never knew he had. But the rest of their weekend together, as well as Bergfeldt and her other brothers' search, all played out in front of rolling cameras.
The result was the 24-minute documentary 'Min hemliga bror' (My secret brother)
, which premiered on SVT on Tuesday and is already the most-seen programme on streaming service SVT Play.
Nielsen said his decision to participate in the documentary was “really easy” and that he fully supported the idea.
“This is just the truth of my life, there's nothing to be embarrassed about,” he said.
Nielsen said his mother had some reservations about the whole thing but he's not only thrilled to have found his Swedish family, he's also happy with the way the documentary turned out.
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Bergfeldt too said the reaction to the short film has been completely overwhelming.
“I have hundreds of messages from people saying that they were crying while watching it. My Instagram is just drowning in sweet messages,” she said.
Nielsen and his wife will make their first ever visit to Sweden later this month to attend Bergfeldt's wedding in Skövde and meet his four brothers. One person who will not be involved in the family reunion is Ingemar Bergfeldt. Carina hasn't spoken to her father in around ten years and her discovery of a long-lost brother only widened their rift.
“I feel bitter towards my dad because he kept a person from us for 28 years that I wanted in my life and I don't feel like it was his decision to make to take that brother away from me,” she said. “So I'm pissed off, but Jeff is more understanding and completely accepts why his parents did what they did.”
Although she said they are still “nailing down” the agenda, the siblings are excited to show Nielsen the best of what Sweden has to offer.
“For Jeff, this will be like a parallel universe. If my dad and his mother would have made a different decision, he could have just grown up as a Swede in Sweden instead of an American growing up in New Jersey and Philadelphia,” she said.
That idea of getting a glimpse of a life that could have been isn't lost on Nielsen, either.
“I already sort of had that because my mom's Colombian. Had she never met Ken, I might have grown up there and been a completely different dude. Now I have two places in the world to get that feeling – it's crazy!” he said. “I'm just so excited to meet all of them and hang out with. It turns out we have a lot of shared interests so I'm sure we're going to have a million things to do.”