This author's 'Normal Family' includes a sperm donor dad and 35 siblings
Growing up in the 1980s and '90s, Chrysta Bilton didn't know any other families like hers. Her mother, Debra, struggled with alcoholism and cycled through various cults. She was also a lesbian, who longed to be a mother, but there weren't a lot of options for her. One day, Debra met a handsome stranger named Jeffrey Harrison in a Beverly Hills hair salon and decided she wanted to have a child with him.
"So she asked him out to lunch and offered him $2,000 to father her child," Bilton says, and Harrison reluctantly agreed. "I don't think he realized what he was signing up for. I think my mother had a plan for him that was well beyond that initial transaction," Bilton notes.
As the years passed, Harrison was in and out of Bilton's life. Debra told Bilton and her sister that she and Harrison were good friends who had decided to have a child together.
Bilton learned much later that the day Harrison went to the sperm bank with her mother was the start of a long career for him in sperm donation. The two went to the California Cryobank, a sperm bank founded in 1977. There, Harrison saw other men lining up to donate sperm for money, and got the idea that he could do that too. Though Debra made Harrison promise to never donate sperm to another woman, that's how he ended up making a living for almost a decade.
It wasn't until 2007, when Harrison shared his experiences as Cryobank's "donor 150" with the New York Times, that Bilton's mother told her the truth of her origin story — and Bilton learned about all her siblings.
"It turned out that a lot of the stories my mother had told me about my upbringing were fibs, which was her tender word for bending the truth," Bilton says. "This moment when she unveiled the story of these donor children, it's really what led me to start investigating the story of my life."
Bilton found out that Harrison's good looks and artistic nature had made him a popular sperm donor. She says she even heard stories that, "the head of the California Cryobank was himself promoting my father's sperm when parents would call. ... He even went so far as to have my father be the only donor that came to the sperm bank's second grand office opening."
Bilton's memoir, Normal Family: On Truth, Love, and How I Met My 35 Siblings, is about growing up different and trying to understand the meaning of family when you're biologically related to so many children from the same donor.
"In many ways, this book is a coming-of-age story about coming to terms with where we come from and unpacking the stories of our parents' childhoods and their own secret traumas and struggles," she says. "I think sharing these stories, even though parts of them are hard, I think it can just open up conversations about what that's like and so people can get help."
On growing up with a "larger-than-life" mother
My mother is a magical and incredibly loving woman, but she's also incredibly complex and willful. In many ways this book is about growing up with her. ... She's someone who, throughout my childhood, often paid the bills through wild pyramid schemes that led us to living in multimillion-dollar mansions one minute, to being on the verge of homelessness the next. [My book is] about this biological family, but it's also a portrait of growing up with my mother.
When I first discovered the siblings, I wanted nothing to do with them for almost 10 years. ... They had started a Facebook group for the children of donor 150 that was growing by the day. And soon after my mother told me about this biological family, one of those siblings reached out to me on Facebook. And I had a panic attack, because growing up I had such a complex family unit.
My mother had a hard time staying in relationships, so in addition to having my father in and out of my life, I also had many second moms who would come in sometimes with their own children. So I would develop these relationships with these stepsiblings. And then when they broke up, those would end. And so I think the idea of having more potential family members was just so overwhelming for me that I couldn't deal with it at that moment.
On how her view of her siblings has changed over time
I had an absolutely wild experience with one sister who, it turned out, had gone to the same tiny art school across the country that I had gone to. ... She had such an enthusiastic view of this entire thing, it it changed my attitude and it made me realize that the way I viewed this larger biological family was largely a choice, and that any moment I could be enthusiastic about it and see the beauty in it. ...
I'm very close with several of them. For a long time we had a Facebook group that then became hard to keep track of. So we moved to WhatsApp and then that was too overwhelming because I'd open my phone and have hundreds of messages. So then it moved to Discord, where we're now, and topics are arranged by theme. ... It has been a really positive thing.
On the similarities between her siblings
The vast majority of us have the same big toe. We have the same dimple on our left cheek. Many of us share ADD as something we struggle with. We all have the same laugh. So the similarities were truly wild. I think also the emotional experience of this discovery, many share a similar journey with it. ...
I felt very connected to them and in a strange way. I grew up in a very tiny family. I didn't have cousins, but several of them who had larger families compared it to the experience of having cousins. There's definitely a biological connection that I don't think you can deny, and most of them feel that way.
On sperm donation regulation (and lack thereof)
Back in the late '70s, early '80s, that was really the birth of this business. Back then, it was really the Wild West, and a man could donate as many times a week as he was able to produce enough sperm for the donation — and my father did that for almost a decade. So what's especially wild to consider is that there's still no regulation in the United States. In the U.K., a donor sperm can be used to create a maximum of 10 families. But in the U.S., it's different. And there's no legal limits on how many children a donor can produce. ...
I think that there should be more regulation on the industry. They've taken away anonymity in the U.K. with sperm donors and I think by the time children reach 18, they're allowed to know the identity of their sperm donor because studies have been shown that when children know, whether they're adopted or they're donor conceived, knowing the identity of the father has serious health benefits.
I do strongly believe that children should have the right to know where they come from. But all of these beautiful young men and women came from my father who were living beautiful, wonderful lives. And if it weren't for my father donating the way he did, they wouldn't exist. If my father wasn't as quirky as he was, I don't know that he would have donated and given all these parents all of their beautiful children.
On her father hiding his paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis
My father doesn't believe that he has a mental illness, I should say, and he didn't agree with that diagnosis. So he felt that there was no need to mention it in his donor profile because he thought that it was ridiculous. And, since that time, we know a lot more about mental illness. We know a lot more about the biology of it. And I didn't know growing up that that could be something that was in my genetic inheritance. I just thought my father was this quirky, eccentric man. And for much of my upbringing, I loved him and enjoyed when he was around.
On interviewing her father for the book
I interviewed my dad extensively for the book. I tried to present his point of view when it differed from mine or my mother's. What was interesting is, while my father has many conspiracy theories about the world today, he is incredibly lucid about the past. And when talking about the story of my conception, for example, his and my mother's stories lined up exactly. So that was amazing. And I also discovered a lot of things about my father's childhood that I didn't know that gave me a lot of compassion for him. So that was a wonderful experience.
On what it's like to have a stable family of her own now
It's magical. It's wonderful. I would trade nothing for it. Just the idea that I'm not at risk of being evicted from my home tomorrow. It's not a huge life stressor if we have a doctor's bill that comes up that was unexpected. One of the silver linings, I think, from coming from an unpredictable childhood is that if you're able to get out of that, you just feel so grateful for everything.
Sam Briger and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Carmel Wroth adapted it for the web.
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