Mystery surrounding a character’s true biological origins is one of the great plot engines of literature. From the wanderings of Oedipus to the cliff-hangers of Dickens, any number of foundlings, orphans, adoptees, and bastards have been propelled through life by ignorance of their parentage, a situation that puts them at the mercy of unknown benefactors, evil workhouse operators, and hostile competitors for inheritance. (Not to mention sex with people they are related to.) The final revelation can result in tragedy—as when Oedipus’ mother, Jocasta, hangs herself upon learning she has married her son—or happy reunion.
When you go looking for self-knowledge, you never know what you are going to get.
Thanks to reproductive technology, we have a new iteration of this ancient drama: The sperm-donor offspring seeking the anonymous donor. This was the premise of The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko’s 2010 film in which two California siblings track down their donor. He emerges as a charismatic but wildly disruptive force, imposing his biological privilege on the meticulously constructed household of an upper-middle-class lesbian couple. Newly discovered kinship—in fiction as in fact—carries a potentially torrential power, throwing settled relationships into disarray, threatening to bring down civilization as we know it, testing which has primacy: the tidy laws and contracts we use to build the families we want, or the primal genetic material we need to achieve them.
The newest iteration of this is an MTV show that debuts on Monday, Nov. 25. Generation Cryo is an engaging docu-series about real-life millennials who are using Internet savvy, Skype-enabled friendships, and social networking to track down their common donor and define family for the 21st century. They are led by Bree, a plucky young woman whose moms conceived her using the standard turkey baster method. Bree, at 17, knows only that her progenitor is Donor 1096, an unknown man who might be described as a kind of modern Genghis Khan. In the little-regulated field that is the U.S. fertility industry, there is no formal limit on the times a donor’s sperm may be sold, and thanks to the SAT scores and athleticism evidenced by his donor profile—not to mention the efficacy of his thawed sperm—1096 has at least 15 offspring.
We know this thanks to the Donor Sibling Registry, an online resource founded by a woman named Wendy Kramer and her son, Ryan, who is donor-conceived. (Wendy Kramer, whose work I admire and whose new book I have blurbed, helped produce the series.) Children and parents can post their donor number and/or clinic information, and make contact with half-siblings and even donors. In some cases, so many have matched that offshoot family websites have been formed. Bree, a typical Gladwellian “connector,” decides not only to get to know her half-sibs but to enlist them in her efforts to unmask 1096.
The result is a quest narrative in which Bree visits half-siblings in Atlanta, Boston, California. They live in a predictable mix of households: single mothers, lesbian partners, heterosexual couples, married and split. (That there are no poor families reminds that this is a commercialized and costly form of family-making.) But in another way this is an outlier group of parents, in that they are open about having used donation—many still are not, especially in families conceiving with egg donation—and willing to give their blessing to the search. The kids may be more conflicted. As they irresistibly compare noses and lower lips—trying to glean who inherited what traits—they demonstrate a rich, confused set of attitudes. Some are as eager to meet 1096 as Bree; some are uncertain; some are disturbed and even repulsed by the prospect. Many worry, deeply, how this will impact their parents.
The most moving encounters in the first two episodes are between sons and the fathers who love and raised them. There is a scene in which one son is at the driving range with his dad, talking about the unkind things friends sometimes say when you are a sperm donor kid, and the father shares the unkind things that friends sometimes say when you are a man who cannot father a biological child. The love expressed by this father is unconditional and profound. The underlying message, so far, in this episodic drama, is that nurture trumps nature—but nature matters, in ways that are still to be fully defined.