When Donor White Met Joy
Slatehelped the Nobel Prize sperm bank's "Donor White" and his biological daughter find each other. Here's what happened when they met.
In February 2001, Slate launched "Seed," a series about the Repository for Germinal Choice, the "Nobel Prize" sperm bank that was started by California industrialist Robert Graham in 1980 and closed in 1999. Slate searched for the 200-odd children conceived through the "genius sperm bank," their parents, and the men who donated the sperm for them. (At the bottom of the page, you'll find links to the 14 other articles in the Seed series, including the introduction explaining the project.)
The article that generated by far the most reader response described the hunt for Donor White. The piece, which you can read here, recounted the story of "Beth" and her now 12-year-old daughter, "Joy." Beth, whose husband had had a vasectomy, conceived Joy using sperm from the repository donor identified as "White No. 6." According to the description in the repository catalog, Donor White was an accomplished scientist born in the 1930s who liked running and gardening. Employees at the repository told Beth that other mothers who used Donor White had "happy babies." That's what Beth got: a happy, blond infant, who has grown up into a happy, blond, ballet-dancing, Harry Potter-loving, horseback-riding girl.
Beth always felt grateful to Donor White. Donor White, a family man who had never been able to have children of his own, always yearned to know his sperm bank offspring. (There are 19 of them, by his count.) When Joy was 7 months old, Beth arranged to leave her for a few hours at the repository office so that Donor White and his wife could stop by and see his daughter. It was an unforgettable visit for Donor White. Later, the repository allowed Beth and Donor White to send warm letters and holiday cards. (The repository erased all identifying details.) But in 1997, the sperm bank stopped the correspondence, saying it threatened confidentiality. Beth and Donor White were disappointed. Each tried to find the other by piecing together clues from their correspondence. Each failed.
In early 2001, Beth saw the first Seed articles and wrote Slate asking for help. "A Mother Searches for Donor White" appeared on Feb. 27, 2001, inviting Donor White to contact me confidentially. For 15 months, we heard nothing. Then, on June 12, an e-mail from Donor White arrived in my in-box (firstname.lastname@example.org, for anyone else connected to the repository who wants to reach me. I will treat all contacts as confidential). Donor White longed to meet Beth and Joy. A few days later, after verifying Donor White was who he claimed, I introduced them by e-mail. In the most recent Seed installment, I chronicled Donor White's discovery and the loving, intimate correspondence that sprang up between him and Beth and Joy. I promised to report back after they all met in person.
A few weeks after that article appeared in August, Beth and Joy traveled to California to see Donor White. Both Beth and Donor White wrote me long e-mails about the four days they spent together. This was a small family reunion, but a historic one. It was one of the first times that an anonymous sperm donor and his child have met. And Donor White's e-mail below is the first time a sperm donor has described what it's like to meet his genetic child—a child that is both his and not his.
Here is what Donor White and Beth wrote.
From Donor White:
Ever since meeting my baby daughter Joy at the Repository, I have felt that one day I would have the opportunity to see her again, no matter how improbable that seemed. Now, some 11 years later, that has happened in a wonderful visit.
I will give you my best attempt to describe the four-day visit that my wife and I had with Joy and her mom, Beth, but I start out doubting that words will be adequate to describe my true feelings. My mind is so flooded with pleasant memories that I hardly know where to start, so I will simply try to recall certain things in the order in which they occurred. After a simultaneous neck hug and introduction, Joy presented me with one of her proudest possessions, her first trophy from an athletic contest. I knew what this meant to her and asked if maybe she would swap her trophy for some of my too-large T-shirts from running events that might serve as night gowns for her. We were both happy with the trade. She had also selected a group of photographs that she wished me to have, and by the next day I was able to find some that I hoped she might like to have.
We played a videotape of her most recent youth ballet performance, as she gave us advanced warnings as to when to expect a leap of surprising height, which gave me some hint as to the gymnastics that would come the next couple of days on visits to the beach.
They brought a whole suitcase filled with photograph albums and scrapbooks to fill us in on Joy from her birth up to the present time. I also had photos to show them, including baby pictures of 10 of Joy's half-siblings [which were sent to Donor White by the Repository, no names attached], so we spent a good deal of time at home looking at photos and becoming better acquainted.
In looking through a scrapbook, I saw where Joy had written her name in neat and uniform printing at age 4. She had also composed a song then that had made such an impression on her kindergarten teacher that she had her repeat it so that it could be copied and given to her mom. The song dealt with the care and feeding of a favorite stuffed animal and I would love to quote it exactly, but if any of this should ever appear on the Internet it is certain that her teacher would remember such a unique song. Joy now plays a difficult musical instrument, but rather than her own playing (with which she is not yet satisfied) she brought me a CD of professional performances of the same numbers on which she is practicing. She said that she thought that I might like to use this as background music on my computer while I sent e-mail and visited Web sites. I had no idea that music could be played at the same time that one did other tasks on the computer, so Joy showed me how this was done.
There were many things about Joy that made me realize what a sharp and quick mind that she had, but I will take time here to tell of only a few of these. I told her about how much she reminded me of my much younger sister, who spoke in complete sentences well before she was 2 years of age. Joy said: "Yes, but she was mostly around you and other adults and never heard much baby talk." I also spoke of having earned two master's degrees in technical subjects by going to school part-time at night while working but never having been financially situated to take a year or two off to be able to earn a Ph.D. She said: "When you have the knowledge, a Ph.D. is only a piece of paper." This is not true in the real world, of course, as a piece of paper can mean a great deal, but it was a surprising thing to hear from one so young, and it would be rather nice if it were true.
I have enjoyed genealogy as a hobby for many years and have been able to identify 28 of the 32 great-great-great-great-grandparents that Joy has from my side of the family, with knowledge on some of these family lines going back 11 generations to 1635. I had summarized all of this in a fold-out diagram and had no idea that she would be interested in this at present, but thought that she might like to have the information later on. By the end of her visit here, much to my surprise, she had figured out how many of these ancestors had received their given names from earlier ancestors, and how surnames of others had become part of the given names of their descendants. These are just a few of the many examples that made me realize how well she could process information to reach conclusions that were well beyond what should be expected for one her age.
When speaking with Joy, it is easy to forget that she is only 12 years old, as conversations with her are much more like those with an adult. About all that gives her away and brings one back to the reality that she has not yet entered her teenage years is the youthful enthusiasm that shines forth from her sparkling blue eyes when she speaks of things of special interest to her. There was also no question about her age and love of life when she visited the beach, as she loved to catch big waves and body surf onto the wet sandy beach, where she turned cartwheels one after the other, before racing to leap high over a collection of kelp that had washed ashore.
I had the opportunity to see Joy under about as many situations as could be squeezed into portions of four days. Still, I was not able to find one thing about her that I would wish to change, even down to the smallest of details. Let me attempt to list what I liked best about Joy, in order of importance: 1) she is healthy, happy, well-mannered, modest, unspoiled, and is considerate of others; 2) she has obvious talent in dance and music; 3) she is athletic and does well in several sports; 4) she has a sharp and quick mind that allows her to take new facts and rapidly use them to make interpretations that are truly surprising for one only 12 years of age; and 5) her appearance is very pleasing. Indeed, I believe that most people would agree with me that she is beautiful, but Joy herself says that appearances are unimportant and that it is the quality of the person within that really matters. Needless to say, she has captured our hearts forever, and my wife is just as impressed with her as is her proud biological father.
I believe that she has the potential to be and to do almost anything that she wishes, but she has so many interests that it is impossible to know in what direction she might go. I do not mean to imply from this most favorable of impressions that Joy serves to demonstrate the validity of Dr. Graham's ideas regarding outcomes that could be achieved by his sperm bank through the careful selection of donors and recipients, because Joy has received the best of opportunities that could be provided by a family of moderate income living in a small town without the resources of large cities. Whatever the relative importance of the various factors were that have given Joy so much potential, there is no question that she is a fine example of what Dr. Graham had hoped to achieve through his sperm bank, but certainly the major credit for this must go to the influence of her mom and the man whom she considers to be her real father.
Joy and Beth have been gone only a short time, but they are greatly missed in our home, which seems more empty and lonely now. We will be forever grateful to Beth for being willing to share Joy with us, and the beautiful background music to which I am listening as I type this message (thanks to Joy's instructions) will keep her and her visit fresh in my mind until we are again able to meet. A very slow recovery from extensive surgery presented difficulties in my travel and made it better for them to visit us for our first meeting. However, our meeting has now motivated me to be well enough by next summer to visit them in their hometown.
In the meantime, despite a very busy schedule after the start of school, Joy and I plan to stay in touch by e-mail. My meeting with her has given me much more reason to wish to get better and stay around long enough to see her reach more of the potential that I know that she has.
Donor White, proud biological father of Joy
The visit with Donor White and his wife was wonderful. I will always remember it as four perfect days. The visit was so easy, it was like getting together with old friends. I've wondered how it was possible that we were so comfortable and I've come up with a few thoughts. The donor and his wife are nice and down-to-earth people, not pretentious at all, and good company, too.
We had become pretty well-acquainted by e-mail before the visit and we were prepared to like each other. I told Joy before the trip, "I just love these people in advance." She thought that was funny and I explained that they had given me such a gift (her), that I just loved them. I told her that the donor and his wife had wanted children in their marriage, but weren't able to have any and were willing to help me, someone they didn't know, get what I wanted most in life.
When I first entered their home, we hugged and his wife said, "Thank you." I was bringing my daughter to visit as my way of thanking them and she was thanking me!
When she and I got a chance to talk alone, I told her that I was very impressed at how open-minded they both were, and she said simply, "Well, I knew a lot of ladies who were wanting babies, I know what they went through." I would like to remind your readers that the donor did not seek to become involved with the Repository, they sought him, he was never paid. His wife told me that the person who recruited Donor White was very persuasive, and he was not initially interested in becoming involved.
I knew that Donor White would be taken with my daughter—she is easy to love—and I knew that she would enjoy meeting him and getting to know him and his wife: She loves people. I think that meeting her biological father will be more important to her as she gets older and starts having a family of her own. I think it did help her at this time to hear his stories, look at his family albums. The donor has many amazing accomplishments and learning about some of them was inspiring to her. I should add that my daughter is accustomed to meeting family at intervals, connecting and then keeping in touch via phone and e-mail until another visit or vacation. We have no family locally; we are spread out all over the country, so it is really not that odd of a situation.
When we were saying our goodbyes, I heard the emotion in her voice; it was hard for her to say "goodbye," but half an hour later she was playing with her friends and having a great time. I would not have agreed to this meeting if I felt that it would cause her pain. I had prepared her in advance that meeting this other family was a blessing, our daily lives were not going to change, her Dad was still her Dad, but it doesn't hurt to have more people in her life to care about and to have care about her. We plan to stay in touch and have more visits in person.
This relationship is enjoyable for all of us, and it just feels right. We are all sane adults who care about one little girl. I will always be grateful to the Repository, and especially to Donor White and his wife.
Beth and Donor White hope their story will inspire other Donor White families to seek them out. Beth would like to find half-siblings for Joy. Donor White would love to know more about his biological children.
To other parents who conceived children using Donor White's sperm: If you would like to be in touch with Donor White or with your child's half-sister, Joy, and Joy's mom, Beth, please e-mail me at email@example.com or call me at (202) 261-1370. All contacts will be considered confidential.
If you are a parent, child, or donor connected with the Repository for Germinal Choice, and you want to find lost relatives or talk about your experience, Slate wants to hear from you. Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (202) 261-1370. All contacts will be considered confidential.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.