21 books to read this summer
A 2007 New York Times article introduced Bilton’s father to the world. Jeffrey Harrison (aka Donor 150), then 50, lived in an RV in Venice, California with four dogs and was one of California Cryobank’s most sought-after donors.
The dozens of parents who chose vials of his sperm were attracted by his interest in yoga, his background in acting, his height and blue eyes. (His acting consisted mostly of strip-o-gram appearances, and his good looks led to a nude appearance as Mr. November 1984 in Playgirl.) For Bilton’s mother, Debra, a iconic lesbian, Harrison was more than just a sperm donor. He was a living example of what she wanted in a child.
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“It couldn’t be just any sperm,” Bilton writes of Debra’s search for a prospective single adoptive mother in the early 1980s. “She needed someone who was beautiful. Talented. Someone who performed the role with brilliance and a pedigree.” Harrison, we learn, was related to a former Supreme Court Justice, and Debra is the granddaughter of former California Gov. Culbert Olson.
She first looks at the Repository for Germinal Choice, filled with the semen of Nobel Prize winners who have agreed to anonymously share their gifted DNA with the world. She receives three vials of genetic material from a Stanford mathematician. The first spreads across the entire dining table; the second does not lead to pregnancy. Before her final attempt, Debra hires a private investigator and abandons the third vial after learning that the donor is “the most bald, unattractive professor Debra has ever seen.”
Debra is getting her hair done when Harrison comes on stage from the left: “He looked like a god who just came down from heaven.” Over coffee, she persuades him to sell her his seed for $2,000. Payments will be made in $200 installments — one after every 10 seed deposits, giving Debra a chance to get to know Harrison better on her repeat trips to the cryobank. There is an additional request: to swear that he will not donate to anyone else.
A writer spent her career exploring her past. Then she did an ancestral DNA test.
To Bilton’s credit, the mythology surrounding Harrison’s X Factor exists primarily in her mother’s narrative. Of her own sublime conception, Bilton writes: Debra “self-fertilized, then both closed their eyes and chanted three Hindu oms.”
When Bilton’s younger sister Kaitlyn is conceived in the same way a few years later, Harrison begins to weep over the millions of chicken souls that are crushed by factory farming every day. Over time, Debra dawns that “even if she could get Jeffrey to play the role of the father, maybe he wasn’t a desirable candidate at all.”
Harrison tends to believe conspiracy theories, and at one point he believes he is the Messiah. But he’s not the biggest character in Normal Family. Born into privilege but with separated parents and a hidden family tragedy, Debra jumps from a cult to an ashram to a multi-level marketing system and through a series of love houses. She acts as a kind of Forrest Gump, bridging social epochs in the changing United States. She spends time meditating with the Beatles, teaching Tina Turner about Buddhism, dating Jeff Bridges and Warren Beatty, hanging out with Angela Davis, and working as “Ross Perot’s lesbian.”
Debra is very sympathetic as someone trying to do the impossible – as a gay mother in Ronald Reagan’s America, create a stable home for her children. Parent figures come and go as Debra’s love life unfolds. Annie, one of Debra’s early partners, disappears too soon for Bilton to remember her, then comes “Mommy Fay”, a divorced friend with children of her own, then Sable, Lily Tomlin’s assistant. Bilton cycles through homes and foster parents while Debra searches for love and financial security in what is often the only gay family in the neighborhood.
When Bilton begins to wonder why “Daddy” isn’t staying with them, Debra arranges for Harrison to drop by. “A dozen times a year Mom would clean Dad, give him a shower, maybe send him to a dentist and then have him perform on the stage of our lives,” writes Bilton. He is required by law to sign the birth certificate, although his role as a father figure is more of a guest role. The fight for Bilton isn’t that she was conceived with donated sperm, but that Harrison — sometimes homeless and often a drug addict — is her birth father.
Bilton doesn’t spend much time thinking about the rights of donor children or parents through assisted reproduction (which can discriminate against same-sex parents). And she doesn’t have much to say about class and race-based barriers to accessing reproductive technology.
The many feminists who pass through Debra’s life – like Jane Fonda, Angela Davis – are checked by name without their criticism creeping into the text. Davis, for example, wrote extensively about how the ideal of the patriarchal white family allowed society to blame black families for their poverty. There are utopian moments where the Amazonian presence of Debra’s friends envelops Bilton and sister Kaitlyn in warmth and support, but there’s also the awkwardness of Debra’s belief in “pedigree” and a good high sperm count as she struggles to somehow get into the form to fit a “normal” family.
Through the Donor Sibling Registry, Bilton’s half-siblings find each other and go public with their story, which Harrison sees. He begins dating some of his descendants and tells them about Bilton and Kaitlyn. The sisters receive messages from the Facebook group Donor 150 and later Ancestry.com. Bilton reflects on the role of genetics in her birth siblings’ dimples and the fact that many have cats and drain their phone batteries down to a splinter. But this part of the book is less interesting than the powerful story of Debra, who used money and conviction to get her children into existence and tried her best to create a sense of family despite their hardships and dependencies. When she “enacts” the idea of a father figure, all parents create a narrative that their children may or may not accept.
Late in the book, Debra finds out about all the children Harrison has raised with his paid donations to the cryobank and she decides to cut him off. She panics when she learns that Bilton has planned a reunion with her half-siblings. And Bilton recognizes that Donor 150’s many children are ultimately a testament to her mother’s agency: “Without her, none of these people would be alive, at least in the iteration in which they currently existed.”
Janet Manley is an Australian critic and author.
About truth, love and how I met my 35 siblings
Little, Brown and Co. 288 pp. $29
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https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/07/12/normal-family-sperm-donor-memoir/ Normal Family by Chrysta Bilton Book Review