Tag Archives: economical

Donor Unknown: Adventures in the Sperm Trade


Sperm donation is an ethical and emotional minefield. It’s one of those sensitive issues with equally passionate and valid views on both sides of the debate. Even bystanders not directly involved or affected will have a strong opinion on its morality. The consequences and motivations of such anonymous, industrial giving of life can be dissected and analysed again and again, for positives and negatives. Endless reams could be written on the subject without resolving the issue one way or another.

It’s also one of those topics that often only interests people when looked at from monstrous and extreme angles. For example a few years ago a documentary called “The Sperminator” about a man running a clinic who provided all the samples himself, when he told prospective parents that there was an extensive bank to meet their specific requests and requirements, caused a lot of controversy and generated a lot of interest. People enjoy being shocked by grotesque scandals such as this, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the potential for ignorant incest. The human side of this relatively new phenomenon is usually overlooked.

Donor Unknown is almost exclusively about the very human effects of sperm donation. It’s an extremely admirable and accomplished piece of filmmaking. Over the course of its engaging and economical 78 minute runtime, this film gradually and thoroughly explores the sperm trade by maintaining a tight human focus. Hollywood blockbusters lack both the heart and surprising plot twists of Donor Unknown and it deserves a grander home than TV screens. With its editing and pacing and diverse locations across America, this is a film that shows off the art of documentary storytelling at its best.

Much of the film is seen through the lens of JoEllen, a girl on the cusp of pretty womanhood, who has come to terms with her lack of a father throughout childhood. Her mother has always been honest about the way in which she was conceived, with a little help from “donor 150”. But although she’s grown up with the affection of a loving family and lived a privileged, seemingly happy existence, there is always something missing. A great big “what if” is constantly nagging at JoEllen’s wellbeing and sense of identity. 

Meanwhile on Venice Beach in LA, Jeffrey lives with his four dogs and the occasional pigeon. He’s quite clearly a hippy, living a simple life in a RV, loving his dogs and being kind to those he meets. With his long hair and tanned, excess wearied face, it’s difficult to imagine he was once a muscular model in Playgirl who once made a living from stripping. He explains that he was asked by a woman he met at the hairdresser’s during those years of his prime, whether or not he’d like to donate sperm so she could have a baby. Obviously he was taken aback but after speaking to a close friend who was a loving mother, he decided to give this relative stranger the opportunity of motherhood and hope that fate rewarded him for his good deed.

Donor Unknown also talks to the staff at the Californian Cryogenic Centre, that aims to have the largest collection of sperm donors in the world. We see the specimens stored in huge vats and we have numbers like 200 billion fired at us. We’re assured that this centre alone could repopulate the world in the event of some disaster making such measures necessary. We’re shown the “masturbatory emporiums” with walls colourfully adorned to aid the donation process, with the more sample provided the better. The chambers increase in eroticism along the corridor, we’re told.

And so we are eased gently into sperm donation, with a balance of real human effects and the technology involved. JoEllen’s hole in her existence is contrasted with the motivation of mothers to turn to donors like Jeffrey, along with his reasons for helping out.

Then we’re hit with the bombshell of JoEllen finding a sibling. Her half sister lives in New York and they meet after discovering each other via an online register, where you simply register your donor number. Her identity issues are even deeper than JoEllen’s because she has been lied to until the age of about 14. She resents her parents for the deception and feels immensely confused and hurt. As a teenager it’s a lot to take onboard and extremely destabilising. Desperate for a link to a missing 50% of her, she finds JoEllen and then gets a story onto the front of the New York Times, without her parents’ knowledge.

At this point Donor Unknown becomes extremely uplifting, as more and more siblings come forward who were fathered by “donor 150”. Via the internet an unconventional patchwork family forms across America’s very different states, bringing absent intimacy, connection and love into the lives of more than a dozen children. JoEllen methodically keeps track of all her lost brothers and sisters, meeting most of them and forming attachments, filling in the missing side of her family tree slightly. The genetic quirks and likenesses are touching and fascinating to behold, as the screen flits rapidly through the faces and mannerisms of all the “150” siblings.

But then Donor Unknown changes gear to look at yet another aspect of the trade. After gently gaining your attention and emotional investment, we finally come to the really dark side of sperm donation. One of the siblings, Rachelle, expresses her constant doubts and worries about dating. She has specifically stuck to foreign guys or people that for other reasons definitely could not be related. An interview with the founder of the online register, a mother of a donor child herself, reveals that there are no limits on the number of children a donor can father, despite the claims of clinics.

The Californian Cryogenic Centre is also at pains to point out their range of choice and the extensive information they offer. But the answers of donor questions can be as misleading as they are informative. Jeffrey for example, said he was a dancer when he was a stripper and said he studied philosophy when he spent little time in college. His spiritual waffle won over scores of prospective parents but he is in reality something of a waster, an idealistic hippy and eccentric weirdo. He believes in worrying conspiracy theories and has an unnatural attachment to animals after a troubled childhood.

Beneath it all though he is a kind man and the ending to Donor Unknown is unquestionably back in the uplifting zone. Whatever the dangers and wrongs of the sperm industry, it has the power to create the amazing gift of life. Without the fakery of actors to bring it down, Donor Unknown soars to interesting and touching heights, telling the modern, interconnecting tales of real people.

The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.