Recently, we got to see the film Donor Unknown thanks to an online screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Actually the online streaming was pretty crappy (or our wireless is pretty crappy, or both), and the film paused every couple of minutes, but we watched anyway. I guess that tells you something. One thing it tells you is that we .have an intense desire to learn about the perspective of children who are donor conceived. I don’t know anyone personally who is donor conceived and over the age of about six. I really want to know what it’s like to grow up with this information, or lack of information.
The film was really well done. It wasn’t sensational at all, and I felt like it told the story with a lot of grace, when it would have been easy to play up the drama. In Donor Unknown, we watch the story of donor siblings finding each other and connecting, and we also get to meet their donor, Jeffrey, and hear his story. Eventually JoEllen, the sibling followed most closely in the documentary, gets to meet Jeffrey.
One thing that came out loud and clear from the film is the pain caused by lack of information. Danielle’s story was particularly heartbreaking. She’s obviously still angry and hurt from learning the truth that she was donor-concieved at age 13. Hurt enough that she didn’t tell her parents that she was talking to a reporter for an article that came out in the New York Times that featured her and donor sibling JoEllen. Both Lyn and I felt heartbroken for her and for her parents, who must have been absolutely crushed. Her parents were a straight couple and in the recent past it was quite common for such couples using donor gametes to be encouraged to keep that information from their children. The situation is a little better now, but secrecy is still the reality in some families.
The importance of connection for these young people also really stood out to me. Some were from single-parent families, some from straight families, and some from lesbian-headed families, but all of the children wanted to find these connections to siblings and to find out more about that part of their makeup that was concealed. (Many of them were only children, and I wonder if that was a part of their desire for connection with donor siblings.) They all clung to the sparse information in the report on the donor, much of which was not accurate. As the sibling group grew, they were clearly searching for what strains of appearance, personality, and interest connected them. And those roads eventually led to the donor. I feel that that same hole of missing information occasionally in our lives as we sort out who our children are and who they are becoming. We know that Leigh can make friends with any adult in under a minute, but sometimes struggles to make friends with a new playmate her own age, just like I did as a child. We know that Ira is very sensitive, just like Lyn was as a child. We notice those things and think about them. But what about the donor? What do Leigh and Ira do that is just like he was as a child? I wish I knew.
Lyn and I both felt oddly sad that our kids won’t get to “discover” the DSR when they are in their teens. Something about the discovery seemed so exciting and world-changing for the young people in the film. For our kids, at almost five and almost two, the fact that children in other families share the same donor is just an ordinary fact about their lives. Introducing the information so early has definitely been the right thing for our family, but it does mean that the story of Leigh, Ira, and their donor half-siblings will be a very different story from the one portrayed in this film.
The young people in this story also got to do something that one day our kids may do — meet their donor. When we first conceived our kids, my hope was that they wouldn’t be interested in meeting their donor. When we set out to create a family, I was, frankly, resentful of the donor and angry that he might some day claim a spot in our children’s hearts and lives. But my feelings have changed a lot since then. Now my feelings toward the donor are simply gratitude and hope. I hope that my kids are able to connect with him some day in some form, and I hope to be with them on that journey, feeling nervous, feeling excited, and feeling able to handle whatever the connection brings their way. So I was both excited and anxious to see what the donor, Jeffrey, was like, and how the initial meeting with JoEllen went. I loved Jeffrey in this film. He’s obviously a weirdo, but a wonderful weirdo. I love that this connection with his genetic children really means something to him. I wonder how those relationships will develop over time, since it’s also pretty clear that Jeffrey, a slacker beach-bum living in an RV, isn’t typical father material.
I also found the part of the film that focused on the industry of sperm donation interesting. The filmmakers made California Cryo out to be a fairly slick and somewhat creepy place, but they are the bank that does everything around donor conception as good as it gets (at least here in the US). I’m having lots of conflicting feelings myself around the business of gamete donation. On the one hand, I wouldn’t have my family without it. On the other hand, I do feel some discomfort with the fact that my kids conception involved paying the other party. I feel uncomfortable with the fact that banks allow for the conception of such a large number of siblings, that the industry is lacking in regulation, that donors are sometimes still used even when genetic health problems are reported in offspring, and that banks are secretive about much information around the donor, conceived offspring, and health details.
Finally, Lyn and I really wanted to hear more about the experience of the parents in these families. How did they feel as their children were exploring all of these relationships? The film gives a little of this, but not very much. In particular, the voice of the non-genetic parents (for kids that had one) was missing, and that is the relationship most likely to be threatened by any donor connections. According to the COLAGE DI guide, that’s also a relationship that donor conceived kids feel pressure to protect, and fear hurting their non-genetic parent(s) if they seek connection with a donor or donor-siblings. A bit of this parental experience came through with Fletcher’s parents, a Boulder teen boy with two moms, both of whom spoke on film, but no thread of how any difference in their genetic tie to their kid might have influenced things was drawn out. We’d like to see a sequel that focuses on the journey of the parents, so we can take notes.
In short, if you can rustle up a screening, see this film. Apparently it will be on PBS in the fall, and available on DVD after that in the US, and in the UK there is a DVD coming out now.