|Image of JoEllen Marsh and Jeffrey Harrison |
courtesy of Redbird Media and Met Film
Donor Unknown begins with the story of JoEllen Marsh, a 20 year old from Pennsylvania who was raised by two mothers. JoEllen was conceived in the 1980s via donor sperm from the Californian Cryobank.
Having always been curious about her donor, she signs up to an online registry that connects donor-conceived children using the code she has for her donor, Donor 150. After some time, a half sister from New York, Danielle Pagano, makes contact with JoEllen and they begin communication and arrange to meet. At some point (it is not explained how) the New York Times picks up on this meeting and, in 2005, publishes a front page piece about donor siblings featuring the meeting of JoEllen and Danielle: Hello, I am your sister. Our father is donor 150.
The film then cuts to a man living a quiet, hippy-ish existence with his four dogs and a pigeon in a broken-down trailer at the shores of Venice Beach, California. Meet Donor 150. Jeffrey Harrison relates the story of having come across the New York Times article and being stunned to realise he was the donor for these girls. The chances that this man had several donor children out there were high: he had been a near professional sperm donor for several years in the 1980s, donating up to three or four times a week. Every week!
We then discover that, following the New York Times article, many more siblings emerged to make contact with JoEllen and Danielle. We meet six of these young people in the film, but it is explained that there are several others, some of whom JoEllen meets, some who they know about but have not yet spoken to.
In 2007, Jeffrey made the decision to come forward and offers to meet with the siblings. The film then follows his first meeting with JoEllen and other siblings.
What is lovely about this documentary is that is resists sensationalising this story. Donor 150 was a prolific donor. I suspect there are tighter limits in place these days regarding the number of families to which a single donor can provide sperm. The fact that this man donated to so many families could in itself have been a point of some salacious intrigue. But the film makers clearly weren’t interested in this. Ultimately this story is about a group of people who embrace their unusual extended family.
There is a point in the film where JoEllen shows a genogram she has constructed of her family, which includes her own family (of separated lesbian mothers and a younger sister), and all her donor siblings with their parents. She explains that people in her life often have trouble understanding her family and that a visual map can be helpful. But she talks of this with a fair degree of humour and affection. JoEllen doesn’t find her family complicated. She isn’t disturbed by being a donor child or part of an atypical family. In fact, it is the opposite. For JoEllen, the discovery of Donor 150 and all his donor-children seems to have enriched her life. She has developed close relationships with her donor-siblings, all of whom have lived diverse lives in different parts of the country. And she considers them all family – confidants, friends, supporters.
The film doesn’t gloss over the potential for donor-conceived children to have some difficult experiences. Danielle, who grew up with heterosexual parents, was not told she was donor-conceived until she was a teenager. She recalls feeling immensely angry and deceived by her parents about this. Another young woman speaks about only dating men from Latino or other non-White cultures because she worries about the chance that people might be related to her. Equally, some of the mothers in this film, while being supportive of their children, convey nerves about Donor 150’s transformation from a profile on a piece of paper to an actual person.
But interestingly, for a few of these young people who were only children, you get the sense that the thing they felt was missing in their lives was siblings. They weren’t necessarily concerned about meeting their donor until the opportunity presented itself. But connecting with donor-siblings provided them with a layer of family connection they had yearned for.
There is a lot in the media and public debate about the ‘cruelty’ of anonymous sperm donation. We hear that it is cruel to deny children access to their genetic history, or to raise them without a father, or that donor children will grow up with an intolerable void in their life due to the absence of this relationship with their genetic father.Without wanting to dismiss or diminish the experiences of some donor-children who feel distress about not knowing their genetic parent, I think this film offers a really important perspective on the experiences of donor kids that is a positive alternative to this negative view.
JoEllen’s story is of a young woman who has grown up with a curiosity about her donor. She wants to know whether some of her interests and mannerisms came from her donor’s side of the family. She fantasises about what he is like. And this curiosity is strong enough to drive her to seek him out. It is clear that this is an important aspect to her life and her identity.
But also, it is clear that this is not her entire life or identity. JoEllen presents in this documentary as confident and happy. She was just beginning college when the film was made, and she speaks about meeting new people, pursing new studies. We see her living a happy life. Even though JoEllen holds a burning fascinating with her donor, this is certainly not depicted as something she is deeply troubled about, or something that could ultimately prevent her from finding contentment.
And this is the case with all of the siblings we meet in the film. They speak of their shared love for animals, their interest in politics and philosophy, their outspokenness, their desire to travel, the way they brush their hair behind their ear and they wonder if these traits come from Donor 150. But these traits are still their own. Their traits define who they are, irrespective of their origin. These aren’t young people in search of an identity.
The story of this documentary is not one of loss or longing. It is really a story of adventure. For these young people, meeting each other and their donor has been a process of exciting discovery. As far as we learn in the film, it has been a positive, if not surreal at times, experience and something that has deepened their perceptions about family and who their family is. It’s a fascinating ride.
Just as a side note, The Age (Melbourne) is today running a piece about a Victorian Parliamentary Committee recommendation that came down yesterday in favour of all donor children being allowed to access information about their donor, even those conceived before 1988 when the laws initially changed to allow for this.