‘Normal Family’ author Chrysta Bilton has a sperm donor father and 35 siblings : Shots

Chrysta Bilton’s mother is a lesbian and her father was a sperm donor. She writes about her unusual upbringing in Normal family.

Elizabeth Lippman/Little, Brown

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Elizabeth Lippman/Little, Brown


Chrysta Bilton’s mother is a lesbian and her father was a sperm donor. She writes about her unusual upbringing in Normal family.

Elizabeth Lippman/Little, Brown

Chrysta Bilton grew up in the 80s and 90s and knew no other families like hers. Her mother, Debra, struggled with alcoholism and cycled through various cults. She was also a lesbian, longing to be a mother, but there weren’t many options for her. One day, Debra met a handsome stranger named Jeffrey Harrison at a hair salon in Beverly Hills and decided to have a child with him.

“So she asked him out for lunch and offered him $2,000 to father her child,” Bilton says, and Harrison reluctantly agreed. “I don’t think he realized what he was signing up for. I think my mom had a plan for him that went way beyond that first transaction,” notes Bilton.

As the years passed, Harrison was in and out of Bilton’s life. Debra told Bilton and her sister that she and Harrison were close friends who had decided to have a child together.

Bilton learned much later that the day Harrison took her mother to the sperm bank was the start of a long career for him in sperm donation. The two went to the California Cryobank, a sperm bank founded in 1977. Harrison saw other men queuing up to donate sperm for money, and got the idea that he could too. Although Debra made Harrison promise never to donate sperm to another woman, that’s how he ended up making a living for nearly a decade.

It wasn’t until 2007 when Harrison shared his experiences as Cryobank’s “donor 150” with the New York Timesthat Bilton’s mother told her the truth about her origin story – and Bilton learned about all her siblings.

“It turned out that a lot of the stories my mom told me about my upbringing were lies, which was her tender word to twist the truth,” Bilton says. “This moment when she revealed the story of these donor children really got me to explore the story of my life.”

Bilton found that Harrison’s good looks and artistic character had made him a popular sperm donor. She even says she has heard stories that “the head of the California Cryobank himself promoted my father’s sperm when parents called … He went so far as to say that my father was the only donor to come to the second sperm bank. Big office opened .”

Bilton’s Memoirs, Normal family: about truth, love and how I met my 35 brothers and sisters, is about growing up differently and trying to understand the meaning of family when you are biologically related to so many children from the same donor.

“In many ways, this book is a coming-of-age story about accepting where we come from and unpacking our parents’ childhood stories and their own secret traumas and struggles,” she says. “I think sharing these stories, while parts of them are hard, I think it can just open conversations about what that’s like and that people can get help.”

Highlights of the interview

normal family, Christa Bilton

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normal family, Christa Bilton

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About growing up with a ‘more than life size’ mother

My mother is a magical and incredibly loving woman, but she is also incredibly complex and quirky. In many ways, this book is about growing up with her. …She’s someone who, during my childhood, often paid the bills through wild pyramid schemes that led us one minute to living in million-dollar mansions, and the next minute we were on the brink of being homeless. [My book is] about this biological family, but it is also a portrait of growing up with my mother.

After waiting almost 10 years to connect with her siblings

When I first discovered the siblings, I wanted nothing to do with them for almost 10 years. … They had started a Facebook group for the children of donor 150 which was growing by the day. And shortly after my mom told me about this biological family, one of those siblings contacted me via Facebook. And I had a panic attack because growing up I had such a complex family unit.

My mom had a hard time staying in relationships, so in addition to my dad in and out of my life, I also had a lot of second moms who would sometimes come in with their own kids. So I would develop these relationships with these step siblings. And if they broke up, those would end. And so I think the idea of ​​having more potential family members was so overwhelming to me that I couldn’t handle it at the time.

About how her view of her siblings has changed over time

I had an absolutely wild experience with a sister who, it turned out, had gone to the same little art school across the country that I had gone to. …She had such an enthusiastic take on this whole thing, it changed my attitude and it made me realize that the way I looked at this larger biological family was largely a choice, and I could be excited about it any moment and see the beauty in it. …

I am very close to some of them. For a long time we had a Facebook group that was hard to follow back then. So we moved to WhatsApp and then that was too overwhelming because I would open my phone and have hundreds of messages. So then it moved to Discord, where we are now, and topics are organized by theme. … It’s been a really positive thing.

About the Similarities Between Her Siblings

The vast majority of us have the same big toe. We have the same dimple on our left cheek. Many of us share ADD as something we struggle with. We all have the same smile. So the similarities were really wild. I think also the emotional experience of this discovery, many share a similar journey with it. …

I felt very connected to them and in a strange way. I grew up in a very small family. I had no cousins, but some of those who had larger families compared it to the experience of cousins. There’s definitely a biological connection that I don’t think you can deny, and most of them feel that way.

About regulating sperm donation (and the lack thereof)

In the late 1970s, early 1980s, this was really the birth of this company. It really was the Wild West back then, and a man could donate as many times a week as he could produce enough sperm for the donation—and my dad did that for nearly a decade. So what’s especially wild to consider is that there’s still no regulation in the United States. In the UK, a donor sperm can be used to create up to 10 families. But in the US it is different. And there are no legal limits to the number of children a donor can produce. …

I think there should be more regulation for the industry. They have taken away anonymity in the UK with sperm donors and I think by the time children turn 18 they will be allowed to know the identity of their sperm donor as studies have shown that when children know if they are adopted or they have been conceived by a donor , knowing that the father’s identity has serious health benefits.

I strongly believe that children should have the right to know where they come from. But all these beautiful young men and women came from my father who lived a wonderful, wonderful life. And if my father didn’t donate like that, they wouldn’t exist. If my father wasn’t as headstrong as he was, I don’t know if he would have donated and given all these parents all their beautiful children.

About her father hiding his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia

My father doesn’t believe he has a mental illness, I must say, and he disagreed with that diagnosis. So he felt there was no need to mention it in his donor profile because he thought it was ridiculous. And since then, we know a lot more about mental illness. We know a lot more about its biology. And growing up, I didn’t know that could be something that was in my genetic legacy. I just thought my father was a headstrong, eccentric man. And much of my upbringing, I loved him and enjoyed being around him.

About interviewing her father for the book

I interviewed my father extensively for the book. I was trying to present his point of view when it differed from mine or my mother’s. What was interesting is that while my father has a lot of conspiracy theories about the world today, he is incredibly clear about the past. And when we talked about the story of my conception, for example, his and my mother’s stories aligned exactly. So that was great. And I also discovered a lot of things about my father’s childhood that I didn’t know and that gave me a lot of compassion for him. So that was a great experience.

About what it’s like to have your own stable family now

It’s magical. It’s fantastic. I wouldn’t trade anything for it. Just the idea that tomorrow I won’t run the risk of being evicted from my house. It’s not a huge life stressor when we have a doctor’s bill that pops up unexpectedly. One of the silver linings, I think, of coming out of an unpredictable childhood is that if you can get out of that, you’re just so thankful for everything.

Sam Briger and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Carmel Wroth adapted it for the web.