Book Review: “Why Didn’t You Tell Me?” by Carmen Rita Wong and “Normal Family” by Chrysta Bilton
Bilton says she checked the facts in her memoirs “where I could”. Still, she makes some fundamental mistakes. Describing Debra’s young adulthood from 1967 to 1983, she writes: “The Summer of Love, for which she could have been a poster child, had faded over the past decade and a half and been replaced by skyscrapers, Wall Street and the beginning of the Cold War, special thanks to Ronald Reagan. ” The Cold War, of course, began in the late 1940’s.
Debra was clearly ahead of her time. As a single gay woman, she decided to start her own family in 1983, donating $ 2,000 to a handsome, athletic stranger she met at a beauty salon to be her sperm donor. One musician, Jeffrey Harrison, described an impressive family tree that he mistakenly claimed included, as a great-uncle, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Bilton misses a chance to notice Holmes’ relevance to a tragic chapter in American reproductive history. He wrote the infamous 1927 Supreme Court ruling that allowed forced sterilization with the words, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”)
These omissions are unfortunate, because when Bilton writes about her own experiences, away from the shadow of her mercury mother, she sheds much-needed light on the impact of the secretive, unregulated world of sperm donation.
Harrison told Debra he would not share the sperm with anyone else. But he soon learned of the high demand for an attractive man’s genes in the growing area of assisted reproduction. While artificial insemination had existed since the 19th century, the development of in vitro fertilization in the early 1980s had expanded the possibilities for people hoping to conceive. He became a regular donor – Donor 150 – in one of the country’s first sperm banks, earning up to $ 400 a month for weeding, 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 then, Bilton had struggled with drinking, a violent boyfriend and an eating disorder. Over the next few years, there will be more coverage of Donor 150 and his many offspring. The siblings formed a Facebook group, which thanks to DNA testing grew to include dozens.
Throughout his unstable childhood, Bilton had longed for a traditional upbringing. After graduating from Barnard and moving to Florence for art school, she married and had two sons, and finally accepted the realities of her own deeply complex and completely modern family.