Review of Normal Family by Chrysta Bilton

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When Chrysta Bilton’s mother found “The One”, she knew it. He was a stranger on the street and not someone she would marry, but he was the man she would persuade to share her cum so she could ‘go home, pull out a turkey baster and s ‘to impregnate, to permeate”.

That our existence begins with a clash of cells doesn’t mean there’s nothing divine about it, Bilton believes. As one of 36 children conceived with sperm from the same donor, Bilton considers genetic inheritance and fate from an unusual perspective in his memoir, “Normal Family: On Truth, Love, and How I Met My 35 Siblings”.

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A 2007 New York Times article introduced Bilton’s father to the world. Then 50-year-old Jeffrey Harrison (aka Donor 150) lived with four dogs in an RV in Venice, Calif., and he had been one of the most requested donors associated with California Cryobank.

The dozens of parents who chose vials of his sperm were drawn to his interest in yoga, his acting experience, his height and his blue eyes. (His acting consisted mostly of strip-o-gram gigs, and his good looks led to a nude appearance as Mr. November 1984 in Playgirl.) For Bilton’s mother, Debra, a cult-prone lesbian, Harrison was more than a sperm donor. He was a living specimen of what she wanted in a child.

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“It couldn’t be just any sperm,” Bilton wrote of Debra’s search as a future single mother of choice in the early 1980s. “She needed someone beautiful. Talented. Someone who looked at the role with flair and a pedigree. Harrison was related to a former Supreme Court Justice, we learn, and Debra is the granddaughter of former California Governor Culbert Olson.

She first considers the Repository for Germinal Choice, filled with the sperm of Nobel laureates who have agreed to anonymously share their gifted DNA with the world. She receives three vials of genetic material from a Stanford mathematician. The first overflows onto the dining room table; the second does not lead to pregnancy. Before her final attempt, Debra hires a private investigator and abandons the third vial after learning that the donor is “the baldest, most unattractive teacher Debra has ever seen”.

Debra is having her hair done when Harrison enters from the left of the stage: “He looked like a god who had just come down from the sky.” She persuades him over coffee to sell her his sperm for $2,000. Payments are made in multiple installments of $200 – one after each of 10 sperm deposits, giving Debra a chance to get to know Harrison better on her repeated trips to the cryobank. There is an additional request: to swear that he will not donate to anyone else.

A writer has spent her career digging into her past. Then she did an ancestry DNA test.

To Bilton’s credit, the mythology around Harrison’s X Factor exists primarily in his mother’s account. Of her own sublime design, Bilton writes, Debra “inseminated herself, then they both closed their eyes and sang three Hindu oms.”

When Bilton’s younger sister, Kaitlyn, is similarly conceived a few years later, Harrison begins to cry over the millions of chicken souls crushed every day by factory farming. Over time, Debra realizes that “even if she had been able to convince Jeffrey to play dad, maybe he wasn’t a desirable candidate in the first place”.

Harrison is prone to believing in conspiracy theories, and at one point he thinks he’s the messiah. But he’s not the biggest character in “Normal Family.” Debra, born into privilege but with estranged parents and a hidden family tragedy, bounces from a cult to an ashram to a multi-level marketing scheme and through a series of love houses. She figures like a kind of Forrest Gump, bridging social eras in a changing United States. She spends time meditating with the Beatles, teaches Buddhism to Tina Turner, dates Jeff Bridges and Warren Beatty, hangs out with Angela Davis, and works as “Ross Perot’s lesbian.”

Debra is very likeable as a person trying to do the impossible – to create a stable home for her children as a gay mother in Ronald Reagan’s America. Parental figures come and go as Debra’s love life evolves. Annie, one of Debra’s first partners, disappears too soon for Bilton to remember her, then comes “Mommy Fay”, a divorced friend with her own children, then Sable, Lily Tomlin’s assistant. Bilton scours homes and caring relatives as Debra searches for a sense of love and financial security, in what is often the only gay family on the block.

As Bilton begins to wonder why “Dad” doesn’t live with them, Debra arranges for Harrison to drop by. “A dozen times a year, mom would clean dad, give him a shower, maybe send him to the dentist, and then pop him onto the stage of our lives,” Bilton writes. He is legally required to sign the birth certificate, although his role as a father figure is more of a guest spot. The struggle for Bilton isn’t that she was conceived with donated sperm, but rather that Harrison – sometimes homeless and often drug addicted – is her biological father.

Bilton doesn’t spend much time thinking about the rights of donor children or parents in assisted reproduction (which can discriminate against same-sex parents). And she has little to say about class and racial barriers to accessing reproductive technologies.

The many feminists who cross Debra’s life – such as Jane Fonda, Angela Davis – are verified without their criticisms creeping into the text. Davis, for example, wrote at length about how the patriarchal white family ideal allowed society to blame black families for their poverty. There are utopian moments in which the Amazonian presence of Debra’s friends envelopes Bilton and his sister Kaitlyn in warmth and support, but there’s also the awkwardness of Debra’s belief in “pedigree” and good sperm count. as she struggles to somehow fit the mold. from a “normal” family.

Through the donor sibling registry, Bilton’s half-siblings reunite and go public with their story, which Harrison sees. He begins to meet some of his descendants and tells them about Bilton and Kaitlyn. The sisters receive messages from the Facebook group Donor 150 and later from Ancestry.com. Bilton questions the role of genetics in his biological siblings’ dimples and how many have cats and let their phone batteries drain to bits. But this part of the book is less interesting than the powerful story of Debra who wants her children to be with money and persuasion, doing her best to create a sense of family despite her struggles and addictions. If she “acts out” the idea of ​​a father figure, all parents create a narrative that their children may or may not accept.

Late in the book, Debra finds out about all the children Harrison helped create through his paid donations to the cryobank, and she decides to cut him off. She launches into a panic when she learns that Bilton has planned to arrange a reunion with his half-siblings. And Bilton realizes that Donor 150’s many children are ultimately a testament to his mother’s agency: “Without her, none of these people would be alive, at least in the iteration in which they currently existed.”

Janet Manley is an Australian critic and writer.

On Truth, Love, and How I Met My 35 Siblings

Little, Brown and Co. 288 pages. $29

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