By Leslie Hicks | Photography by Jason Nuttle
From our almond-shaped blue eyes, asymmetrical noses, crooked bottom teeth and wide thumbs to our similar heights and gaits down to the cadence of our speech—despite the varying accents that we picked up from the families who raised us—these are the traits we share, my 32 siblings and I. We are also all donor-conceived, and until recently we never knew of each other’s existence.
The meaning of the word “family” was on my mind as I boarded the plane from Fort Lauderdale to Chicago on my way to meet a crop of new siblings. Until 2019, at the age of 36, I had no idea I was a donor-conceived person, though I always wondered why I didn’t look much like my father. If it wasn’t for a 23andMe DNA test, I would have never known the truth, and no one in my life who knew had ever planned to tell me. This sort of revelation is not so unique anymore. Most people have heard, seen or read about a story like mine. But as DNA tests grow in popularity, they’re revealing family secrets that once remained hidden. For me, the revelation of this secret opened a Pandora’s box of moral, ethical and legal issues regarding the rights of donor-conceived people. It also revealed truths about the commodification of and secrecy surrounding conception that I never imagined existed. One little test and these burdens suddenly became mine to bear.
There is something about travel that makes us want to talk, to search for fleeting moments of connection with people we may never see again. So, the first stranger I encountered, the Lyft driver, became my unlikely confidante, and our conversation began with the usual pleasantries:
Him: “Why are you going to Chicago?”Me: “To see family.” Him: “Are you from there?” Me: “No.” Him: “Who are you seeing?” Me: “My siblings.” Him: “Oh yeah? How many siblings do you have?”
I should have just said I was going to visit my sister, singular, if I didn’t want to explain. I was, in fact, going to visit a sister who lived in Chicago. But I also planned to meet four brothers, my sister’s fraternal twin, one niece, and Marie, the first sister who brought us all together. Marie was the one who found our biological father by deep diving into the family trees of distant cousins on Ancestry.com. Marie and I had become close since I reached out to her on Facebook during an early search for answers. The day I received my test results, I matched with a group of strangers who were all around my age, but I didn’t understand why. A quick internet search led me to Marie’s Instagram profile which contained a picture of her and our donor with the hashtag #dnamatters. She had just gone to meet him a few months before the photo was taken, after searching for him for years.
I like to think of my siblings and I as stars, celestial bodies gravitating towards one another from distant galaxies. There are currently 33 of us, including two new brothers who recently joined our ranks. We don’t know how many of us are out there, but we expect there are more, possibly as many as one hundred.
“Really?” My driver seemed genuinely interested and surprised. Cue the explanation.
Me: “I’m donor-conceived.”
Me: “My biological father was a sperm donor.”
Him: “Oh, wow! I’ve heard of that. So, you have a lot of brothers and sisters?”
Me: “Half-siblings, yeah. There’s at least 30 of us. Something like that.”
Him: “That’s amazing!”
“I guess…” and then, I hesitated. “Amazing’” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I think about our situation, but OK.
Without noticing the nuance in my response, he imagined how interesting it must be to be donor-conceived, how I must feel lucky to have this opportunity and how I must never feel alone with so many siblings.
“Thanksgiving must be poppin’,” he chuckled.
He didn’t understand that we were meeting for the first time, as adults in our 30s with spouses, children, families of our own. We never had the opportunity to meet each other before this, let alone sit down to a turkey dinner. And he didn’t understand that I do, in fact, often feel very alone in my experience, despite being one of the many stars in a galaxy of my donor’s making. My siblings and I may be strangers, but we are united by a mystery. Who are we, really? Who do we come from? It’s the mystery pulling us together to Chicago, some of us like string puppets still tied to our birth parents and their hang-ups. Some, like me, are searching for our pack. Others have had more time to adapt, but we are all looking for answers.
To be fair, some of our siblings rarely engage with our growing group. Being a donor-conceived person is not something everyone feels the need to explore. It’s understandable why many donor-conceived people choose to not go down the road I’m on. For many, the silver lining of a possible new family just isn’t worth the introspection or awkward handshakes and shirking an identity to embrace a new one isn’t something everyone wants to do. After all, we’ve been taught by the fertility industry, and by society, that we are anomalies and commodities, paid for by the people who raised us, and sold to them by the other holder of our genomes. We’ve been treated as if we are things, not living people entitled to the basic rights of one day having a relationship with those who made us.
On more than one occasion I’ve wished that I could shove it back inside my Pandora’s box, throw it in the dumpster and light that dumpster on fire, watching it burn to nothing but ashes. After all, my biological father was a stranger, paid for his “donation.” Perhaps he enjoyed a beer and a burger after leaving the clinic. He had the option to never think about me, a thought that has burdened my relationships with my family and my partners and has resulted in questioning my own self-worth and identity. The idea that my mother chose him to inseminate herself, based on a rudimentary checklist of physical traits, also disturbs me. As smart, college-educated people, I often wonder where my parents’ capacity for critical thought—or their concern for the person they were creating—was. There is more to a person than hair and eye color. Surely, they must have known that, even in 1983.
While my journey has been painful, I can’t throw it away; my mind doesn’t work like that. The journalist in me must know more. It is not easy for a donor-conceived person to take the hardline position that I have, that genetics do matter. There are no laws or regulations in place to track the biological relationships of donor-conceived people in this country, despite the for-profit nature of the industry and the ability of the clinics selling our genetic material to handle basic record-keeping. While some clinics and doctors choose to do this, many don’t, and the option is still left to individual choice. There are also no laws limiting the number of children a single donor can produce. But it’s not the responsibility of donor-conceived people to figure out an ethical way to create babies; it is the responsibility of those profiting from the largely unregulated infertility industry. It is also the job of the people who participate in the transaction of creating life to ask the person they’ve created what they need now to be OK. I know the inherent, inescapable feeling of pieces not quite fitting together. But the vindication of knowing I was right, often while being told I was wrong, rings hollow as the reality of what I was robbed of sets in. We deserve better than the bare bones, DIY approach to finding our donors and relatives.
Through the process of “donation” (a misleading term, in my opinion, since sperm and eggs are paid for), we have been stripped of the genetic ties that others take for granted. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandmothers, grandfathers—for donor-conceived people, the message we’re sent is that, unlike other humans, these biological relationships don’t matter to us. Rather, it’s the people who we were told we are related to that should matter most. They’re the ones who wanted us, after all. Many people I’ve encountered who have these biological, familial relationships often try to rationalize my experience, saying, “Your father is still your father,” as if I should know better than to question my relationship with the man who raised me, who I loved deeply before he passed away in my early 20s. They act as if I shouldn’t question my relationships when they’ve been so misrepresented for most of my life. Yet, in the same breath these people will remark on how much I look like my half-siblings when I show them photos. In that vein, imagine how much I must resemble my biological father. Resemblance isn’t only skin deep.
My paternal grandmother died when I was 12 years old. I saw a photo of her with a glass of wine and a newspaper and immediately recognized myself. I should have been allowed to know her. Who got to decide that knowing my own grandmother was something I didn’t need? The fertility industry and the people who exchanged money to make me, I guess. My parents. All three of them. But most of all, I wanted to know my biological father and for him to know me and that I exist. For him to see my daughter and understand what he missed out on by so casually throwing us all out into the universe. She’s his grandchild, as good as any other. And we were lucky because, as it turned out, he was entirely willing to meet us. But by the time I found out, and found my sibling group online, and found out through them who he was, it was too late. The pandemic put a stranglehold on our plans to meet, and he died from complications of dementia during lockdown. My niece, who I met in Chicago, the daughter of my biological dad’s oldest son from his marriage, one of the two sons he raised, sent me video of him which was taken before he passed. In it he expresses his love for his family, his granddaughters. The two times I could watch it to completion, I was sobbing. I’ve been made into a voyeur, an outsider looking in on my own flesh and blood.
In the last few years, home DNA testing, has empowered donor conceived people which is how my siblings and I found each other. And that, in itself, is amazing because despite the odds stacked against us, especially the 1980s babies like me, with few records, no legal standing and the circumstances of our conception often shrouded in secrecy—if not shame—we now have the chance to see ourselves in each other, and to have siblings, where, at least in my case, there were none. I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t awkward getting to know perfect strangers based on our shared DNA. But there is something truly powerful about family connection. My time in Chicago affirmed everything that I had sensed. There is a spark of recognition between us all, and it feels damn good to acknowledge it. Sharing my story requires smiling and nodding at the responses I get. It can be exhausting.
“So, what if you meet one of your brothers in Chicago, and you guys, like, hook up?” the Lyft driver asked with a wry smile. Questions like these remind me that to the rest of the world, we are a still a sideshow, a series of possible gaffes in a twisted rom-com.
“That would be incest,” I reply. “Most people aren’t into that.”
He shrugged, seeing that I didn’t like his joke. It’s not that I don’t have a sense of humor, it’s that he is far from the first person to ask me that. After a long pause, the Lyft driver asks, “So, do you know who your dad is?”
Him: “Are you going to meet him too?”
Me: “No, he died last year, before we could.”
I see his face fall in the rearview mirror. He had been rooting for me, for us, for a happy ending. All he says is, “Bummer.”
An uncomfortable silence follows, and I wait for it to sink in, to let it stew, hoping that he might understand that it’s not some big joke, or bad movie plot, that my journey involves trauma and pain. When we pull up to the terminal, I gather my things to hop out, but before I can he asks, “What was his name, your dad?”
Me: “Jack Cunningham. He was a pilot.” Then I think to myself, ”He should have been an astronaut.”