Book review: “Why didn’t you tell me? by Carmen Rita Wong and “Normal Family” by Chrysta Bilton

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Bilton says she fact-checked her memoir “where I could”. Still, she makes some basic mistakes. In describing Debra’s young adulthood from 1967 to 1983, she writes: “The summer of love, which she might have been the poster child for, has faded over the past decade and a half and been replaced by skyscrapers, Wall Street and the beginnings of the Cold War, a special thanks to Ronald Reagan. The Cold War, of course, began in the late 1940s.

Debra was clearly ahead of her time. A single homosexual, she decided to start her own family in 1983, offering $2,000 to a handsome, athletic stranger she met in a beauty salon to become her sperm donor. Musician, Jeffrey Harrison has described an impressive family tree which he says included, as a great-uncle, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Bilton misses an opportunity to note Holmes’ relevance to a tragic chapter in American reproductive history. He wrote the infamous 1927 Supreme Court decision authorizing compulsory sterilization with the words: “Three generations of fools are enough.”)

These oversights are unfortunate, because when Bilton writes about her own experiences, far from the shadow of her mercurial mother, she shines a light on the impact of the secretive and unregulated world of sperm donation.

Harrison told Debra he wouldn’t share his sperm with anyone else. But he soon learned of the high demand for the genes of an attractive man in the burgeoning field of assisted reproduction. While artificial insemination had been around since the 19th century, by the early 1980s the development of in vitro fertilization had expanded the possibilities for people hoping to conceive children. He became a regular – Donor 150 – at one of the nation’s premier sperm banks, earning up to $400 a month for weed, gas and rent for eight years.

Bilton was 23 when Debra learned from a New York Times article that Harrison was the biological father of a number of other children, many of whom had met through a donor sibling registry. By this time, Bilton was struggling with alcohol issues, an abusive boyfriend, and an eating disorder. Over the next few years there would be more coverage of Donor 150 and its many descendants. The siblings formed a Facebook group which, thanks to DNA testing, grew to include several dozen.

Throughout his unstable childhood, Bilton had yearned for a traditional upbringing. After graduating from Barnard and moving to Florence for art school, she married and had two sons, eventually coming to terms with the realities of her own deeply complex and profoundly modern family.

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