Tag Archives: father

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.

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2010 Doctor Who Christmas Special: Moffat keeps us on our toes


If you’re a “regular reader”, if I have such a thing, then you think I’ve just gone mad. Christmas was over a month ago. And I’m only just getting round to recording my thoughts on last year’s festive offering from our favourite Timelord. But such is the magic of iplayer that I downloaded the fantastic episode immediately afterwards, with the intention of reviewing it, only to let it wither away. Now, with it about to die, I had to re-watch it before embarking on a trip abroad and sing its praises.

Because what Steven Moffat managed to do with this seasonal special is capture the sentimental essence of Christmas and cast a magical spell over Doctor Who again. Peppered with slick, funny, genius dialogue, A Christmas Carol was a marvellous reinvention of a classic, and an expression of a truly unique imagination. Fish that swim in the fog; how wonderfully original and unexpected and inexplicably Christmassy.

The problem in the end, with Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who, was that no matter how spectacular, the stories became predictable. In many ways Moffat’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol had expected elements, features expected at Christmas time. But the all important sci-fi, Whovian additions to the tale were quirky, creative and inventive. There was fantastic time-hopping which had gone missing from the Tardis until Moffat’s ascension to the throne. With all of time and space to choose from, one thing Doctor Who should never, ever be, is predictable.

This story had emotional heart as well as more laugh out loud lines, delivered by a superb Matt Smith who’s well and truly at home in the role now, than I can remember. They included though, the brilliant: “What’s it called when you have no feet and you’re taking a run-up?” and the Doctor’s advice for Kazran’s first kiss; “Try and be a bit rubbish and nervy and shaky…Because you’re gonna be like that anyway.”

Michael Gambon was excellent as the old miser transformed. Katherine Jenkins made an impressive acting debut, doing all that was required of her, including delivering some enchanting singing fit for the occasion. The music in general was wonderful. There were some impressive child performances. The script wasn’t always spot-on, with there being some cheesy, ordinary lines, mainly during the sections with Amy Pond. The episode opened with the necessarily dramatic, but disappointing, “Christmas is cancelled!” The sublime moments more than make up for this though, including the Doctor in a white tux, fretting by a swimming pool about his impending engagement to Marilyn Monroe. Talk about conveying the glamour of time travel successfully on a budget.

This story is a showcase for so much. A lot of it very Christmassy stuff. The power of carols, the warming bitterness of thwarted love and memorable quotes; “halfway out of the dark”, “Time can be written, people can’t”, “Never met anyone who isn’t important before”. Wonderful plot twists like when the Doctor shows the young Kazran his older self. Most of all it’s an example of just how amazing Doctor Who can be on so many levels. All the superlatives I’m wheeling out don’t come close to expressing how good this episode was and how much I liked it, how much I loved it. The new series this year will be split into two and the opportunities for cliff-hangers and twists for Moffat will be unprecedented. I can’t wait to see what he does.

Daily Telegraph Ghost Story Writing Competition


In my idle hours today I stumbled across The Daily Telegraph’s ghost story writing competition. I decided to while away my time contributing an entry, but had little idea what I wanted to do, other than something different. The result of my endeavours I entered into the competition, but I suspect it is nowhere near as cleverly composed and close to the original genre as required. I wanted to challenge the idea in the article by the Head Judge that comedy kills a ghost story, but my efforts may prove her right. I think the tension builds a bit too slowly and in the wrong places and the finale is rushed. But I like some of it and will post it here as evidence of my development and boredom

Link to competition here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/8093081/Telegraph-ghost-story-writing-competition.html

“May I sit here?”
“…”
“Excuse me, may I sit down?”
“Oh yes…ah, sorry. Of course.”

He was reading, wading through the thickets of what looked like a cross between an ageing government dossier and an academic paper. Thumbing down the page, he let the bulky scroll slap onto the table and hoisted his bag, a rustic looking holdall bursting at the seams, with a solitary wire peering out from within like a periscope or antennae, onto the seat next to him. I shuffled gratefully into the vacated space. I commenced a brief wriggling and squirming search for comfort. Ritual complete, I fixed my new companion of circumstance with my widest polite grin. His eyebrows flicked briefly in acknowledgement before darting back down to the task at hand. I remember thinking that he resembled Father Christmas on a business trip, a tedious contractual quest for toys that sucked the joy out of his life’s passion. Or Dickie Attenborough in Jurassic Park. Funny that even then his kindly, disinterested face had monstrous associations.

I didn’t so much as glance at the man with the white beard sitting across from me, with the mysterious bag and endless reams of type, for the next hour and a half or so. Once or twice I sensed him slowly twirling his neck in my peripheries but for the most part I was absorbed in my marking and he in his mammoth read. I had only bothered the poor guy, for that’s all he was to me then, a stranger I had briefly inconvenienced, so I could use the table to mark my lower sixth’s Crimea essays. I should have done them days ago but had got caught up in her company, as usual. It was typical of me lately to have left things for a last minute slog on the train, but at that moment I didn’t much care. I scrawled my half-thoughts in the margin, racing to finish and bathe fully in recollections of the weekend. I was oblivious to the gradually darkening sky outside and the black clouds amassing in the distance. I didn’t watch as the night was born prematurely of a congealed, thickening, all consuming blob that would quickly engulf the train galloping towards its jaws. I was blissfully unaware of the twitching forks of lightning flashing electric blue warning signals on the horizon. I did not then regard him or his eccentric belongings as suspicious. I did not regard him at all.

The next thing I knew the carriage’s sickening sway had jerked me awake. Shamefully my head was lolling lifeless on my shoulder, oozing an indulgent drool. The last essay lay untouched on the table in front of me. I wiped the slobber on the back of my hand and scrunched the sleep from my eyes. He was hastily stuffing wires back into his bag, snatching glances at me from the corners of his eyes. I observed him groggily in the black sheet that used to be the window. Total, absolute night had fallen during my slumber. The never-ending blackness was only interrupted by the occasional shaft of sinister blue, winking at me, warning me again. Again I was ignorant; choosing instead to gaze dreamily at the distant amber twinkle of streetlights, rendered a blur by the patchwork of water droplets. He was reading again, deep in thought. A frown furrowed his forehead as I watched his reflection in the mirror of night.

The wobble of the carriage really was unusually vigorous. So I was relieved when the automated squawk of an announcement about suspicious bags was interrupted by the neutral, but alive, voice of the on duty guard. He said something about stopping at the next station for maintenance in a barely audible mutter, laced with boredom and tiredness. I looked briefly about the carriage to find empty seats everywhere. The poor guy must know how few passengers he was addressing and how few were left awake to care what he was saying. I briefly considered hopping across the aisle to the now completely vacant table opposite. But my unintended sleep made this more awkward than staying put, I thought.  The wind howled.

The promised pit stop seemed to stretch on and on. At first I was curious, then concerned, about a series of loud bangs and jolts that didn’t normally accompany such maintenance in my experience. Dickie too, was bothered; even pushing aside his report or whatever it was, going all alert like a Meerkat.  Still though no words were spoken. Eventually sleep crept up on me again, tempting me to embrace the boredom and the rhythmic, soundless splashing of water visible through the gloom on the platform.

This time I woke up dying for a piss. We were no longer stopped. In fact we seemed to be hurtling through the blackness, the whole carriage snaking to the sounds of a gale. I think he was reading as I staggered past him to the WC, but now I’m not so sure. He might have already started. On reaching the toilet I find a makeshift “OUT OF ORDER” notice plastered across it. For some reason I decide it would be embarrassing to retreat past Dickie to the other end of the carriage and the other WC, so I head onward to the next carriage and salvation on the horizon. I considered simply going back to my seat, but I literally felt as if I was about to burst. I jabbed a finger impatiently at the button for the door to the next carriage. The doors didn’t open and the darkness beyond yawned at me through the glass as I hopped and jigged on the spot, frantically pushing the button and then scrambling ineffectively at the join in the door. I wheeled around in a complete circle; no one around to help, no one official. Suddenly the intensity of the blackness in the empty, unreachable next carriage struck me as odd. I peered through the glass at the rows of red seats shrouded in gloom, all the while shaking stupidly. Was there something wrong? Something going on here?

I walked briskly back into our carriage, Dickie now the solitary occupant. He had definitely stopped reading by this point and he had his wires out. This time there was no attempt to hide the contraption he cradled on his lap. The luminous green digits on the carriage clock had faded out to almost nothing, with the exception of a “1” and a “7”, which flashed on and off every few seconds, broadcasting the message “17”. Despite my still swelling bladder, I can’t help but stand rooted to the spot, transfixed by this. I hadn’t been following the time, but I’m sure it must have been approaching midnight when I got up for the toilet. I still needed the toilet. This basic urge and the spectacle of the clock meant I didn’t hear Dickie speaking.

“Spooky isn’t it.”

At first I ignore him and make to head off down the carriage towards the other toilet, but something held me back. I didn’t want to be alone. So I flopped, no for fear of an embarrassing mishap I eased myself back into my seat, and indicated his pages and pages of text.

“Quite the mountain you’re climbing.”
“Oh this? It’s alright really; I’ve read it all before but needed to recap some things. I might have missed something important…”
His voice trailed off. I was about to ask what exactly he was reading when he spoke again, raising his eyes from the device he was fiddling with for the first time.
“You went to the toilet and it was out of order.”
“Yes…” full marks Dickie, I thought.
“Would you like to know why it was out of order? Why so many things have been malfunctioning, why they’ve discretely cordoned off these three carriages, why it feels so cold, why the power fluctuations? Why the number seventeen?”
He reeled off these enticing questions not with any air of mystery or power, but with one of indifference, whilst he went back to manoeuvring wires and turning a large dial at the centre of his gadget, his toy, his gizmo. 
“How can you…? Do you work for the train company? Did I miss an announcement? The number is just a coincidence…”
“Oh no it’s all connected. And I work for humanity.”
“…”
“That is to say for the good of mankind. For its protection.”
“…”
I stared at him blankly. I still needed to pee and didn’t have time for this old guy’s games. Just my luck, Dickie was insane. Bad choice for a partner in a power cut. I started to get up with the intention of finally relieving myself in the other toilet. I told myself to man up and get over my stupid irrational fear of the lonely rattling murk.
“A paedophile slashed his wrists in that toilet almost six months ago and this train has been plagued with problems ever since. It’s riddled with faults. They refuse to admit that the issue is supernatural. I’ve told them again and again they would need my help. The number just confirms it.”
“What!? What are you…?”
Dickie wasn’t finished.
“His case notes show that the deceased consistently claimed that the girl he raped and later murdered, claimed she was seventeen years of age. She was eleven.”
I had frozen in the aisle. Dickie was sick, I thought. Could Dickie, I wondered, also be dangerous? At that moment the dial on his blob of wires clicked loudly into place. My whole frame shuddered involuntarily. Dickie twisted the dial and a high pitched beeping began.
“Yep. He’s here.”
The remaining lights went out.

*

I’m pretty sure a lot of what happened after that is still suppressed somewhere in my mind. She keeps telling me I should get some therapy to sort it out. But why inflict that on a therapist? They’d either label me insane or join me in the madhouse if they truly understood. I don’t understand what happened, neither could they. Why spread the misery? I do remember Dickie telling me not to move. For quite a while I remember him urging me, in a low, gentle voice, how imperative it was not to move, not to disturb his “zone”, not to anger him. Then the monologue began.

It was definitely Dickie’s voice doing all that ranting and raving, and yet it was not Dickie’s voice. Every now and then what sounded like the real Dickie would break through and manage to say something to interrupt the flow in a choking, rasping croak. Distressingly though whenever it did really sound like him, he simply reiterated the same unhelpful advice; do not move. I wanted to run and keep running. I remember staring at the only source of light left; that blinking 17, trying to block out the tortured tale emanating from Dickie’s body, which I could feel writhing in its possessed state over my shoulder. My natural defences have done a reasonably good job of deleting that twisted monologue, but certain phrases still come to me at night in dreams, vivid and alive like he were whispering in my ear. Then I wake up, sticky and warm all over with sweat. And in my half-awake, half-asleep state, I imagine I am covered in blood, his hot, dirty, vile blood in that clattering WC. Then I vomit and an attendant comes in with a mop.

I really wish I could remember how Dickie came to be on top of me, covered in blood, a cold corpse. How the window came to be smashed, how his beeping gizmo had vanished. How the howling tube, speeding through the storm, came to be serenely waiting at the platform, undamaged, unblemished. How the knife got into my pocket, covered in my DNA, my fingerprints, Dickie’s blood. But I don’t need counselling, therapy doesn’t work and I don’t believe in ghosts.