Dear Editors: in response to "A Family Portrait: Brothers, Sisters, Strangers"
Dear New York Times Editors,
I recently connected with my sperm donor dad through 23andMe and want to offer a different perspective than what Eli Baden-Lasar represented in his photo essay from June 26, 2019.
When my parents married in 1983, my mom wanted so much to have kids—but my dad had already had a vasectomy following his first marriage. I don’t know if my mom would have married him, had there not been a possibility of having kids through donation. So you see, donation is not just a gift for the child, it’s also a gift for that entire family. This was true for my parents and it is surely true for Baden-Lasar’s two moms. I would be curious to know how they would interpret their son’s reductionist view of his creation as a “financial exchange”, so lacking in emotion that reparation was still owed.
My donor dad and I found each other in April of this year. It would have been enough for me to just learn his name. So I cannot describe how my heart overfloweth to get his newsy and humorous emails (he always writes back within hours!), to learn he is as anxious-hopeful for me to like him as I am for him to like me, and to pour over the family photos he sends.
Now that I know family tree branches exist in what I once thought was a void, I am hungry for details from all three of my parents. I feel connected back and back to the entirety of this beautiful human fabric—and likewise more grateful to contribute in my own unique and radiant way. Life, is what I’m trying to say, I feel life.
I asked my donor dad why he donated. He described working in the ObGyn department in the 1980s and how couples would come day after day desperate to have a baby. Together with his wife, he decided that donation was something he could do to help. When he told me donors were only paid $20 a pop—a paper-bag-to-envelop exchange that took place, no irony intended, outside the clinic underneath the flag pole—I laughed. I had already suspected, after seeing pictures of him serving in Haiti after the earthquake that he had a strong ethos of service. But when I heard how little money was in it for him, I knew what he had done was truly a gift.
With all that Baden-Lasar has invested in discovering his siblings, I am surprised that he never intended to contact his donor dad. It’s one thing to make art about growing up with the specter of the unknown; it’s quite another to have access to information and to willfully turn away. Where there are living cells, he sees only process and bureaucracy; where there is a hopeful couple, he sees only a financial transaction; where there is a something given, he sees only the wake of absence.
Is art better when we ask it to contort around the places we find most convenient to deny? Or, when it interrogates our assumptions with curiosity and imagination? And which is the more humane?
If I were to say something directly to Baden-Lasar, what I would say is this: we all feel lonely and disconnected at times. In a post-Industrial world, we all worry we are products of mass production. In fact, my 20s was when I most felt this way. I had expected adulthood to be this magical threshold into suddenly understanding everything about slacks and car payments, where my amazing adult friends would invite me to dinner on their very adult back patios every weekend.
I’m 33 now, married, and I still ask myself if my life will matter. I still go to therapy, I still am embarrassed trying to navigate adult finances, and I still have to live in corporate America. But never once thought it was because my parents bought their sperm in a paper bag. Rather, I have always seen my own struggles reflected in art, literature, religion; so I take comfort in knowing we all wrestle with these deeply human questions. I didn’t end loneliness when I got married, and I know I won’t end it by looking at a sperm bank marketing materials or even through connecting with my donor dad and my half siblings.
One thing this photo project affirms is that there is family and connection, in one form or another, all around us all the time. All we have to do is reach out for it and hold fast where we want to.