Slate's"Seed" project is chronicling the history of the Repository for Germinal Choice, the "Nobel Prize sperm bank" founded by millionaire inventor Robert Graham. We have been searching for the 240-plus children conceived through the bank, their parents, and the men who donated the sperm for them. The left-hand column on this page displays links to the eight articles in the Seed series, including the introduction that explains the project.
As a newborn, Doron Blake could mark time to classical music with his hands. By age 2, he was using a computer. By kindergarten, he was reading Hamlet and learning algebra. At age 6, his IQ measured 180—"or something like that. That's what the guy hypothesized. I wouldn't finish the test. I was so bored with it."
"I was [Robert Graham's] emblem. I was the boy with the high IQ who was not screwed up. I was his ideal result."
Blake recounts all this matter-of-factly, without egotism. His voice is filled with the boredom of 1,000 repetitions—to 60 Minutes, to Japanese TV, to British tabloids. Now 18 years old, Doron is the Nobel sperm bank quote machine, the
Till recently, the Blakes' sperm-and-pony show for reporters essentially consisted of chronicling Doron's accomplishments. The obvious theme: "Look, the superbaby from the super sperm bank is really super!" Doron seemed to vindicate Graham's grand promises about his sperm bank. A 180 IQ shuts up the skeptics.
But now Doron has reached adulthood, and he is giving the story a new ending. He bears the scars of having been expected to perform since he was in diapers. He resents the endless examination and probing he has endured. The Doron Blake Story, as told by Doron Blake, does not conclude with genetics triumphant nor does it sing glory to the Repository for Germinal Choice.
"I was his ideal result," Doron says, but then he goes on: "It was a screwed-up idea, making genius people. The fact that I have a huge IQ does not make me a person who is good or happy. People come expecting me to have all these achievements under my belt, and I don't. I have not done anything that special. I don't think being intelligent is what makes a person. What makes a person is being raised in a loving family with loving parents who don't pressure them. If I was born with an IQ of 100 and not 180, I could do just as much in my life. The thing I like best about myself is not that I'm smart but that I care about people and try to make other people's lives better. I don't think you can breed for good people."
Doron Blake is a puzzle. On the one hand, he is the very model of the patchouli college student—that irksome guy in your freshman dorm who burned incense at all hours and sang the most godawful folk songs. He's a vegetarian. He wears a wispy mustache and a soul patch. He is majoring in comparative religion and describes his own spiritual beliefs as a hodgepodge of Wicca, Taoism, and Buddhism. He plays piano, guitar, and sitar. For fun, he is reading the Harry Potter books and the Narnia series.
He's shy. He's been at Reed College for six months and hasn't made any friends. His six friends—including the woman he considers his soul mate—are all back East, and he misses them terribly. He stutters. He insists he is uncomfortable talking to strangers (though he seems perfectly comfortable talking to me for hours about every aspect of his life).
Doron suffers from the sense he is being judged, all the time (and here I am, judging again). Since he was a baby—a superbaby—reporters have been expecting him to shine. When I ask him what movies and books he likes, I can hear the hesitation in his voice: Any answer—too highbrow, too lowbrow, too middlebrow—could backfire. ("What, the Einstein kid reads children's books?" or "So, the little genius baby likes Derrida. What a pretentious snotnose!")
"Most of being a prodigy was negative. People have always been saying 'prodigy sperm child' all my life. But I am not that wonderful at anything. You feel a lot of pressure because you don't want to let people down, or you don't really feel free to be what you want to be.
"I don't feel safe with people I don't know, and I don't feel very confident with others. That may be the effect of having things expected of me."
Perhaps because he's afraid of being judged, he relentlessly emphasizes his own lack of achievement. Again and again he tells me, "I have never done anything special."
Yet it would be a mistake to take Doron at his word. His self-deprecating sermons are rhetorical masterpieces. He attempts to turn himself off, to reduce himself, yet the very effort he makes to do it is extraordinary. He is quick as a whip. He burns with eloquence and a brutal honesty. He is astonishingly perceptive. Is he an unremarkable kid who is expected to be remarkable? Or a remarkable one who is trying to be unremarkable? Or both, perhaps?
The Repository for Germinal Choice was supposed to prove the importance of nature over nurture. Doron's life proves the opposite. The best way to understand him is to understand nurture—in the form of a loving, too-loving, mother and a public, too-public, childhood.
Afton Blake is an odd duck. She is a "transpersonal psychologist" with a small Los Angeles practice. She's a hippie. She breeds Salukis. (Dog-breeding is a habit shared by several folks connected to the repository, which I find curious. But Afton insists her quest to breed better dogs has no connection at all to her quest to have a better baby.)
She is socially awkward, a self-proclaimed recluse. This presents a defining paradox of her character, a paradox that she shares with her son: She is misanthropic and private. Yet she discusses with a stranger (me) the most intimate details of her own life and Doron's.
In the early '80s, when she was nearing 40 and unmarried, Afton decided she wanted a child. After rejecting a couple of Southern California sperm banks because they told her almost nothing about their donors, she settled on the Repository for Germinal Choice, which detailed donors' professions, achievements, health, interests, looks. The repository rejected all unmarried women as a matter of policy, but Blake somehow snuck past its checks. She tried a Nobel Prize winner's sperm at first, but she didn't get pregnant.
Then she opted for Red No. 28. His donor bio said he taught hard science at a major university, won prizes performing classical music, had a narrow, very handsome face, liked swimming, and suffered slightly from hemorrhoids.
She got pregnant, and in August 1982, her son was born, the repository's second child. She named him Doron, Greek for "gift," and she has worshipped him since like a divinity. Doron is her universe: She says he is the only person she ever wants to spend time with. "She made me the center of everything and obliterated everything else in the process," says Doron with characteristic directness.
Afton indulged him. She breastfed him till he was 6. She never restricted him in the matter of manners. For years, he would not sit down and eat dinner with her, she says, a bit regretfully. They were the closest of friends till he hit adolescence. She encouraged any interest he had, never judged him, never criticized him. There were no rules—not that he ever would have heeded them anyway: "I was pigheaded," Doron says.
Afton was not the kind of parent you'd expect from the Nobel Sperm bank. She wasn't forcing little Doron to study ancient Greek then take harp lessons on weekends. Quite the opposite. Doron learned because he loved it. Afton enrolled him in "anti-intellectual" preschool, but he demanded more rigor. He soon revealed himself to be a math prodigy and a talented musician. (Is this DNA at work? These were Donor Red's skills, but not Afton's.) Doron qualified for a Los Angeles school for the gifted then won a full scholarship to Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire, one of the nation's best high schools. Repository founder Graham delighted in every evidence of Doron's brightness. He huzzahed Doron as his pride and joy, sending the boy books and treating the Blakes to dinner.
How do we know all this? Because Afton turned her son's life into the Truman Show—brainiac version. She did Good Morning America when he was a newborn and posed him for the cover of Mother Jones in a sailor suit when he was 1. California magazine rode the school bus with him a few years later. Prime Time Live followed him to Exeter, so did 60 Minutes. Foreign TV crews visited the house. British tabloid journalists stopped by his dorm. Doron estimates he has done 100 interviews in his 18 years. His love life has been discussed in print. So have his difficulty making friends, his stammer, his tendency (as a lad) to brag about his IQ.
So, why did the reclusive Afton permit her child such a public life? Afton is both a psychologist and a child of the '60s: She believes emphatically in openness. She never thought she had anything to hide (which is why Doron has always known he was a sperm-bank baby). She also believes it is her obligation to tell the world that using a sperm bank is great. Plus, she was often strapped for cash, and the media bucks helped.
It doesn't seem to have occurred to Afton that this media frenzy might stunt her son. It has occurred to Doron. "It would have been much better if Mom had not had me microprobed. It was not the best thing for me to grow up in the spotlight. This is something I realized recently. I never enjoyed the media appearances, and I did not really understand the effects on me till now," he says.
"I have always been a shy, spend-time-alone kind of person, and being in the public has made me very uncomfortable. It is one reason why now I feel that people are not going to like me. I always feel like people are examining me and probing me. It is much better for kids to grow up in a safe environment."
Indeed, the other repository families who have contacted me about Seed are horrified by what has happened to Doron. All cite Doron's exposure as the reason they crave anonymity.
(So, why does Doron still talk to reporters? He needs the cash, and I think he figures the damage has been done—the story is out there. He also thinks he has a duty to educate the public about sperm-bank kids, to show they are like everyone else.)
Despite Doron's annoyance at being overexposed, he's not at all mopey or depressed. He is fiercely independent. Though he says he fears being judged, he actually seems wonderfully indifferent to what's expected of him. He's a cheerful contrarian. He has struck out entirely on his own, and he seems very happy with himself.
His mother wants to preserve the tight bonds of his childhood, but he fights her off. ("She has been a great mother up until now, but she does not know how to let go," he grumps.) He was supposed to be a math-science whiz, but he has shucked those subjects for ones closer to his heart, music and religion. (Though he concedes that "if I had not been a math-science genius as a kid, maybe I would have been drawn to math and science now.") He rejected the usual-suspect colleges for Exeter grads—Harvard, Yale, etc. Reed was the only school he even applied to.
And now that he has got to Reed, he won't conform to its culture. Doron exudes a sweet, old-time idealism. He says his image of Reed was a "dream of loving hippiesque people." Instead, he says, it's more "punk than hippie. It's full of people who, rather than wanting to change the world in a positive way, say the world sucks." There is too much drinking, too much smoking, too many drugs. He is thinking of transferring, maybe to Bates in Maine, or Evergreen in Washington state—somewhere where there are more people "filled with love."
Doron possesses a disconcerting uncuriosity about his origins. He certainly doesn't resent the repository. He is happy to be a sperm-bank baby, and he is emphatic that parents who use banks must tell their kids where they come from. "It was never a big deal for me. But if I had been sat down when I was 12 and told, 'Doron, the man you think is your father is not your father,' told that I had been lied to my entire life, that would have been awful."
He also doesn't mind that he never had a father, except insofar as a father would have helped him understand men. "I am not a masculine, macho guy. Maybe it would have been good to have more experience relating to men."
But he really doesn't want to know about his genetic father. His father's DNA may help him think quickly, he says, but what he is, fundamentally, comes from how his mother raised him.
I find his lack of inquisitiveness amazing. A couple of years ago the BBC proposed a family reunion to the Blakes. They had found the DNA dad—Afton Blake knows who he is, and I suspect she tipped them off. A camera crew visited Doron at Exeter and showed him an article about his father. They asked Doron if he wanted to meet the man. Doron says he told them that he would, but didn't care one way or another. How little did it register? Doron swears, and I think I believe him, that he doesn't even remember the man's name. "I think it was John, and he was a computer scientist of some sort." The reunion never happened.
"He is not part of my life. He has no place in my life whatsoever. He is no more than a stranger. Genes have never been important to me. Family is the people you love."
Robert Graham died when Doron was in high school. It is hard to know what the repository's creator would have made of his former darling. Doron is smart and well-spoken and direct, qualities Graham would admire. Yet Graham prized rationality and scorned emotion. He said he hoped his sperm-bank kids would make great scientific discoveries. Doron has disavowed the hard sciences for spirituality. Graham was uninterested in art; Doron lives through his music. Graham recruited athletic donors; Doron dislikes competitive sports. Graham believed his sperm-bank kids should change the world; Doron's ambition is to return to Exeter, the place he was happiest, and teach there. (That would be a noble career, but not a Nobel one.)
Doron is using his great brain in the most subversive way possible: His wonderful neurons deny all that Graham preached about genetics and intelligence. The power of Doron's mind vindicates Graham. The thoughts in Doron's mind reject him.
His genes, I suppose, have made Doron smart. His mother's love has made him an enthusiast of music and books and religion. But his public life—in the form of TV cameras and articles like this one, in the form of expectations that he be brilliant and scientific and scintillating—have made Doron resistant. He resists being a prodigy, resists being a scientist, resists being an apologist for the repository. He resists his great expectations, and it's hard not to admire him for it. It is not simply growing up with a high IQ and a devoted mother that has made Doron what he is. It is growing up in public.
If you have a connection to the Repository for Germinal Choice—whether as a donor, client, child, or employee—and you would like to share your story anonymously, please contact me by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org by phone at (202) 862-4889.
The Seed Series
Part 3: The first responses
Part 5: An update and a preview
Part 7: An update on the donor list
Part 9: The Nobel sperm bank celebrity
Part 10: The donors
Part 11: A look at the parents
Part 12: The rise of the smart sperm shopper
Part 13: The genius babies grow up
Click here for Michael Kinsley's explanatory introduction to Seed.
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