I was 29 years old when my dad delivered the belated and rather shocking news that he was not my biological father. Or, rather, his exact words, still relatively unfathomable, were that he “may” not be my biological father.
The facts as he unspooled them that strange evening are as follows: in the early 1970s, having been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, he embarked on a course of chemotherapy and radiation, the cumulative effects of which rendered him, at least temporarily, infertile. My parents consulted the local experts in North Carolina where they lived and were quickly presented with a solution -- artificial insemination with donor sperm. In Fall of 1973, my mother visited the clinic at the University of North Carolina Memorial Hospital. By August of 1974, she held me in her arms.
My father seemed to remember that the donor was a medical student, hand-picked by the doctor in charge, that he was supposedly of the same height and build of my dad, that he had been screened for major genetic conditions. And here is the weird part, although I have since learned that it was not an unusual practice at the time—the doctor mixed the sperm of the donor with the sperm of my father before inserting it into the body of my mother. Whether this was scientific practice or psychological gesture the doctor didn’t say. What the doctor did say though was this: No one ever needs to know about the donor. Do not tell your family. Do not tell your friends. Do not ever tell the child.
But 11 years ago, my father did tell me. After the first furious dash into research--getting my mother’s medical records, tracking down class pictures of the medical students, joining the online database DonorSiblingRegistry.org (The DSR, as we ‘donor conceived’ call it) -- I hit a wall. Any record of the donor had been destroyed, or so the hospital claimed. I didn’t seem to have the time or energy to do any more.
Enter Jennifer Kasprzycki. In Spring, 2014, Jennifer contacted me through the DSR. She too had been conceived via sperm donor at UNC Hospitals. We had both just turned 40—she was born three months before I was, and, it turned out, we were both almost 6 feet tall, had similar coloring, and suffered the same kind of seasonal allergies. Jennifer asked me if I’d be willing to take a DNA test—maybe we were half-sisters? And so I began my investigation anew, this time with the intention of documenting it all in a film.
The movie gave me an excuse to seek out the edges of my family story. What I haven’t mention yet is that I am an only child, my parents separated when I was 11 months old, and my mother died of breast cancer when I was 10; at some point “Looking For The Donor” began to bump insistently into other issues—What happened between my mother and father? What does ‘being a family’ mean in the age of divorce? Am I hoping that finding the donor will heal the grief left by my mother’s death? And P.S., what’s so important about biological relationships anyway? I ask all these questions with my two kids hovering…somehow they make the answers seem all the more important.
This film captures my psychological terrain and Jennifer’s exhaustive research. She spends hours every day on the computer, toggling back and forth between online DNA databases and genealogy websites, in the hope of finding her (possibly our) donor. Her relentless detective work, using what’s called “Adoption Methodology,” involves matching genomes with far-flung cousins, finding DNA sequences in common using chromosome browsers, building these cousins’ family trees with public records and comparing these trees to one another—slowly but surely building a paternal ancestry line.
I’ll skip the spoilers, but add that it gives me great pleasure the way that Jennifer’s story and mine have been woven together—from the fact that our mothers walked the same hospital halls on their way to conceive us, to the fact that she became my fearless guide and inspiration as I muddled through a wild family adventure.
The ostensible plot of THANK YOU FOR COMING is driven by the question “Can I Find The Donor”—it’s a treasure hunt of sorts; but the deeper question that drives the project is more like “What Can Be Known About That Which (Maybe) Cannot Be Known?” I set out with the idea that I’d either find my biological father or I wouldn’t—but somehow the search itself would be healing. And, because of the film, I’ve connected with multiple online and real life communities of people in my same donor-conceived boat. We support one another in ways I couldn’t have predicted when I began. The movie isn’t an overt political statement against anonymous donors, although there are some in these communities who wish the practice would be disavowed; still, my hope is that the film allows viewers to consider more concretely that the donor-conceived child grows into a donor-conceived adult with very real thoughts and feelings.
At any rate, it’s a decidedly personal story—a journey into layers of the past in an attempt to find meaning within my own complex family system, which includes not just the donor parentage but the effects of divorce, death, and secrets. It all sounds rather serious when written here—grief, loss, and loneliness as major themes—but there’s also, in major doses: hope, friendship, honesty, the pleasure of detective work, and a hearty appreciation of the strange twists and turns that occur in each and every mysterious human life. In the end, I think I’ve managed to replace the void left by the phrase ‘anonymous donor’ with something else—swapping communication for silence and relationships for absence—now there’s a film where before was only a Great Big Genetic Question Mark.