A 2007 New York Times article introduced Bilton’s father to the world. Then 50 years old, Jeffrey Harrison (aka Donor 150) was living with four dogs in an RV in Venice, Calif., and he had been one of the most requested donors associated with California Cryobank.
The dozens of parents who chose vials of his sperm were drawn in by his interest in yoga, his background in acting, his height and his blue eyes. (His acting consisted mostly of strip-o-gram gigs, and his good looks led to a nude appearance as Mr. November 1984 in Playgirl.) For Bilton’s mother, Debra, a cult-prone lesbian, Harrison was more than a sperm donor . He was a living specimen of what she wanted in a child.
“It couldn’t be just any sperm,” Bilton writes of Debra’s search as a prospective single mother by choice in the early 1980s. “She needed someone gorgeous. Talented. Someone who looked the part with brilliance and a pedigree.” Harrison was related to a former Supreme Court justice, we learn, and Debra is the granddaughter of former California governor Culbert Olson.
She first considers the Repository for Germinal Choice, stocked with the sperm of Nobel laureates who have agreed to share anonymously their gifted DNA with the world. She receives three vials of genetic material from a Stanford mathematician. The first spills all over the dining room table; the second doesn’t lead to a pregnancy. Before her final attempt, Debra hires a private contempt, and she abandons the third vial after she learns that the donor is “the baldest, most unattractive professor Debra has ever seen.”
Debra is getting her hair done when Harrison enters from stage left: “He looked like a god who had just descended from heaven.” She persuades him over coffee to sell her his semen for $2,000. The payments are made in $200 installments — one following each of 10 sperm deposits, giving Debra a chance to get to know Harrison better on their repeated drives to the cryobank. There’s one additional ask: to wear that he will not donate to anyone else.
To Bilton’s credit, the mythology around Harrison’s X Factor exists mostly in her mother’s recounting. Of her own sublime conception, Bilton writes, Debra “inseminated herself, then they both closed their eyes and chanted three Hindu oms.”
When Bilton’s younger sister, Kaitlyn, is conceived the same way a few years later, Harrison begins to cry over the millions of chicken souls crushed by factory farming each day. Over time, it dawns on Debra that “even if she had been able to rope Jeffrey into playing the role of Dad, perhaps he wasn’t a desirable candidate in the first place.”
Harrison is prone to believing conspiracy theories, and at one point, he thinks he is the Messiah. But he is not the biggest character in “Normal Family.” Debra, born into privilege but with detached parents and a hidden family tragedy, bounces from a cult to an ashram to a multilevel marketing scheme and through a series of lovers’ homes. She figures as a kind of Forrest Gump, bridging social eras in a changing United States. She spends time meditating with the Beatles, teaching Tina Turner about Buddhism, dating Jeff Bridges and Warren Beatty, hanging with Angela Davis and working as “Ross Perot’s lesbian.”
Debra is most sympathetic as someone trying to do the impossible — creating a stable home for her children as a gay mother in Ronald Reagan’s America. Parental figures come and go as Debra’s love life evolves. Annie, one of Debra’s early partners, disappears too early for Bilton to remember her, then comes “Mommy Fay,” a divorced friend with children of her own, then Sable, assistant to Lily Tomlin. Bilton cycles through homes and adjunct parents as Debra looks for a sense of love and financial security, in what is often the only gay family in the neighborhood.
As Bilton begins to wonder why “Daddy” doesn’t live with them, Debra arranges for Harrison to pop by. “A dozen times a year, Mom would clean Dad up, give him a shower, maybe send him to a dentist, and then have him appear on the stage of our lives,” Bilton writes. He is legally required to sign the birth certificate, though his role as father figure is more of a guest spot. The struggle for Bilton isn’t that she was conceived with donated sperm, but rather that Harrison — sometimes homeless and often using drugs — is her biological father.
Bilton doesn’t spend much time pondering the rights of donor children or of parents by assisted reproduction (which can discriminate against the same-sex parents). And she doesn’t have much to say about class- and race-based hurdles to access to reproductive tech.
The many feminists who pass through Debra’s life — such as Jane Fonda, Angela Davis — are name-checked without their critiques creeping into the text. Davis, for example, wrote at length about how the ideal of the patriarchal white family allowed society to blame Black families for their poverty. There are utopian moments in which the Amazonian presence of Debra’s female friends wraps Bilton and sister Kaitlyn in warmth and support, but there is also the awkwardness of Debra’s belief in “pedigree” and a good high sperm count as she strives to somehow fit the mold of a “normal” family.
Through the Donor Sibling Registry, Bilton’s half siblings find one another and go public with their story, which Harrison sees. He begins to meet with some of his offspring and tells them about Bilton and Kaitlyn. The sisters receive messages from the Donor 150 Facebook group and later from Ancestry.com. Bilton ponders the role of genetics in her biological siblings’ dimples and in the fact that many have cats and let their phone batteries run down to a sliver. But this piece of the book is less interesting than the powerful story of Debra willing her children into being with money and persuasion, doing her best to create a sense of family despite her hardships and addictions. If she “stages” the idea of a father figure, so do 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 helped bring into being with his paid donations to the cryobank, and she decides to cut him off. She launches into a panic when she learns that Bilton has planned to host a reunion with her half siblings. And Bilton realizes that the many children of Donor 150 are ultimately a testament to the agency of her mother: “Without her, none of these people would be alive, at least in the iteration in which they currently exist.”
Janet Manley is an Australian critic and writer.
On Truth, Love, and How I Met My 35 Siblings
Little, Brown and Co. 288 pp. $29
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