Donor Unknown... a film about identity, genetic inheritance and the family of the future
JoEllen Marsh's life began 22 years ago in a pornography-lined, "collection" cubicle at the Los Angeles headquarters of California Cryobank, a private semen cryopreservation organisation. From there, the sample produced by her biological father, donor 150, was sent to Pennsylvania, where nine months later JoEllen was born to her biological mother, Lucinda Marsh.
Twenty years later, a remarkably accepting JoEllen is calmly recounting the story of how her innate desire to connect with her extended donor family has evolved into the subject of an absorbing documentary. Donor Unknown: Adventures in the Sperm Trade, is a compelling film that raises intriguing questions about nature versus nurture, modern medicine's evolving ethics and the shifting composition of contemporary families.
"Even when I was very young," says JoEllen, "I realised that my family wasn't like other families."
Informed by her lesbian mothers from an early age that "a kind man they didn't know" had helped her to be born, the concept of a traditional father – or rather the lack of one – simply never arose.
"My upbringing seemed completely normal to me, as it was all I knew," says JoEllen, who grew up with a younger sister, Mollie, 16, born to the same mother but conceived from a different sperm donor.
But JoEllen had a lot of questions that couldn't be answered. "The way I moved was not like the rest of my family. And if you don't know who your father is, you wonder about the strangest things – what are his ears like? What is his forehead like? Why do I have these interests when no one else in my family does?"
When JoEllen was seven, she was shown her donor's profile and for the first time had tangible evidence of the paternal genetics of her own physiology and psychology. The profile makes illuminating reading and it's easy to see why donor 150 caught her prospective parents' attention: "Caucasian, aged 28, 6ft, blue eyes, light brown hair, guitar player, dancer and philosophy major."
The clincher, though, was the mission statement, donor 150's parting shot so to speak. "My deepest aspiration in life is spiritual," his declaration concludes. "This earthly life is transitory and the joys of this world are ephemeral. So keep your moment and, if sincere, great fortune will come."
"Reading the profile was incredibly exciting," remembers JoEllen. "To see what my donor had written about himself was really important and allowed me to begin creating a picture of what kind of person this man might be." The compulsion to track him down came later though. "I did wrestle with my identity a little when I was younger," admits JoEllen, "but my parents did a great job raising me and I don't think I would have turned out too differently if I'd had a father figure. "My solid foundation comes from having such a big, extended family, having very supportive parents and because I've never been made to feel embarrassed about my upbringing.
"If my mum had been embarrassed about it or had been shy in talking about it then I might have felt like it was something I should hide. But everyone has always been very comfortable talking about it and that made a big difference in me growing up and being comfortable and stable."
Being home-schooled until she was 12 and consequently side-stepping any potentially damaging playground jibes, reinforced JoEllen's self-assurance, enabling her to take the next step of her labyrinthine voyage of personal discovery in her stride.
When she was 12, her mother showed her an article about a website, donorsiblingregistry.com (DSR), that was created to help donor siblings and parents find each other.
"I had no intention of doing anything concrete about finding my donor father until I turned 18," says JoEllen, "but I signed up anyway, entered my donor number, and just waited. I dreamed that he'd make contact, but I never expected it to happen."
For two years, progress stalled. But then Danielle Pagano, 14, visited the DSR website after learning from her married heterosexual parents that she, too, was a donor child.
Seething with resentment that her parents had kept the facts of her conception from her, and armed with her donor profile number , which was 150, Danielle entered her details on to the site and instantly discovered that she had at least one half-sister, JoEllen Marsh.
Following a flurry of awkward emails and phone calls, the girls first met in New York when JoEllen was 16 and Danielle 15.
"That first meeting was surreal," recalls JoEllen. "We spent the first 15 minutes just saying how weird the whole thing was but somehow we could feel a connection."
Around the same time, the girls were contacted by a New York Times journalist writing an article about donor siblings, and the subsequent story of their collective quest to find their donor father made front-page news.
On the other side of America in California, in a Venice Beach cafe, 52-year-old retired sperm donor Jeffrey Harrison was enjoying a morning coffee when the New York Times story caught his eye. "What jumped off the page," he says, "was Danielle's anger and the fact that she was pissed off that her parents had lied to her. I had been lied to as a kid by my parents, and that tore me up."
Jeffrey recognised himself as the donor in the story because he remembered his donor number from when he signed up with the California Cryobank.
Initially, he assumed it must be from another clinic, but then he read on and saw that it was from the California branch and … the rest is very peculiar family history. "At that very moment I knew I had to let them have closure. Whether they approved or disapproved of me; it was their right."
Soon after, JoEllen, already buoyed by the discovery of a further three half-siblings – Rochelle Longest, Fletcher Norris and Ryann McQuilton – received a call from DSR co-founder Wendy Kramer informing her that donor 150 had decided to come forward.
"I was amazed," says JoEllen. "The fact that he just voluntarily turned up and said, 'Hey, I'm open to contact,' took a lot of courage, and I was just so excited to find out what he looked like and what sort of a man he was. "As a young child, I'd fantasised that he would be some sort of celebrity or a successful businessman or someone glamorous who travelled the world so I couldn't wait to finally find out."
What JoEllen hadn't visualised was a former Playgirl centrefold and erotic dancer with a history of depression and a penchant for wild conspiracy theories, who lived in a battered RV in a California car park with his dogs and a rescue pigeon.
Born in Delaware to upper middle-class parents who divorced when he was six, and clearly unsettled by his father's military-style parenting (morning "inspections" were commonplace for Jeffrey and his sibling "troops"), he suffered from severe depression as a teenager, and from an early age sought solace in the less-threatening companionship of animals.
More comfortable on society's margins, and flitting between part-time jobs as a model, waiter and a masseur after he moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s, he'd gradually downgraded from apartment to mobile home, and his current status as a tie-dyed, bong-smoking "fringe monkey" whose closest relationships remain canine not human.
"But," says Jeffrey, who could surely have made a comfortable living had he pursued a career as an Iggy Pop look-alike, "I am a big family man. It's just that most of my children have four legs."
Yet when he began to donate sperm at the California Cryobank in the early 1980s – in total he donated over an eight-year period and was paid up to $80 a contribution – he did so with his very own, very particular intentions.
"I donated about 500 times, and they're all tiny little souls," he says from the makeshift, debris-strewn lounge in his bohemian beachside mobile home.
"When I did the donation I always felt there was a miracle attached to it – this divine miracle – and that somehow I was karmically being asked to be a soul caller. There's not one I did where I did not go completely deep."
JoEllen Marsh's first sight of her biological father took 15 minutes to download on the screen of her home computer. "Wendy from the DSR had emailed a photo of Jeffrey, but my dial-up modem was so slow the image appeared pixel by pixel.
"It was a very emotional moment. After all those years imagining what he would look like; first his hair, then his forehead and then those blue, blue eyes gradually revealed themselves. I'd already talked with the other half-siblings about which of our physical similarities might have come from our donor so to be able to confirm, "yes, that's where our eyebrows come from," and, "that's our face shape," was surreal."
A year of phone and email communication followed until, shortly after JoEllen's 18th birthday, under the sensitively watchful eye of director Jerry Rothwell's cameras, she finally came face to face with her biological father for the first time, and despite his eccentricities the connection was immediate.
"I don't really know why, but I think there is something genetic that makes you feel like there is a bond with another person. And I think it was really helpful to meet the donor siblings first because that prepared me for what it would be like to meet Jeffrey. So by that point I kind of knew what to expect because some of the others had already met and talked to him.
"It was a big moment and there were a lot of emotions going through my mind that took a while to process, but I never considered a negative outcome. I knew what to expect by the time we met and I'm cool with how Jeffrey is.
"I'm not expecting him to be some sort of father figure for me. I'm already grown up, and that's not what he signed up for. Accepting Jeffrey for who he is and actually getting to meet him was the most important part.
"And I think that he really did think about the children he was creating. Obviously he did it for money, but he did have the thought in his mind that he was making children when he was donating."
When filming ended, JoEllen's donor family had grown to 14 half-siblings. "The whole process has really opened my mind about the concept of family," she says, "and made me realise that you don't have to grow up with someone to consider them in some way part of your family.
"So much of my family is non-biological but it's different with Jeffrey and the other siblings. I feel this very strong connection with them all and yet I haven't known them my entire life. But I do consider Jeffrey and my siblings to be very much part of my crazy 21st-century family.
"As for the future, who knows? I know we'll always be friendly and I'll try to keep in touch. I'll try to visit Jeffrey when I can and if I have kids in the future I'll tell them the whole story, and I hope that I can introduce them to Jeffrey and their aunts and uncles.
"It's really cool that they'll have all that extended family in addition to the family that I grew up with, and although it's been kind of scary to be among the first donor siblings to find each other through the DSR I hope that other donor children will read my story and feel inspired to go out and create their own stories.
"But the most important thing for donors and donor children and the parents of donor children is that they just need to remember that they are the ones who define the relationship, and it can move at whatever pace they are comfortable with. If they only want to share a picture, that's fine. If they want to meet, that's fine too. There are some amazing experiences to be had, so just be a little open about it and see where life takes you."
Donor Unknown: Adventures in the Sperm Trade opens in cinemas on 3 June and will be shown on television on More4 on 28 June The DVD will be released on 4 July, donorunknown.com
Article: 21st May 2010 www.guardian.co.uk
Read more about finding a known sperm donor and gay parenting at www.prideangel.com