Nerve Classics: Father Issues

Confessions of a second-generation sperm donor.

By Justin Clark

Maybe it's the bourbon, but lately, we've been feeling nostalgic. With writing this good, can you blame us? "Father Issues" originally ran in 2005.

My vital statistics seemed to satisfy the bored receptionist who took my call.

"You meet the requirements," she said. Then she gave me an address near my university and told me to enter through a keypad entry door around the back. Under no circumstances was I to enter from the front, the entrance reserved for clients. That was Rule One. Rule Two was that I refrain from ejaculation for seventy-two hours prior to my appointment. I would earn $75 per donation.

At the appointed time, I arrived at the cramped office that overlooked a parking lot. The receptionist pointed to a cardboard box filled with plastic-wrapped specimen cups. She gave me an identification label to stick to the cup. Then she led me down a hallway into a small room. It was a narrow space, and we both had to step aside as another donor exited from the next donation room, trying nonchalantly to hide the clear specimen cup in his hand.

"Don't forget to lock the door," she said, as if that were something I might overlook.

To sum up the next few minutes: I was cool under fire. The receptionist put on a plastic glove to accept my donation without looking impressed. I made a joke about tax deductions. She didn't laugh.

Now came the tricky part. If my sperm count were high enough, I'd be summoned back in a few days to discuss my genetic history and my reasons for becoming a donor. I could say I was entering the program for money, to get paid for doing something I already did for free, or I could claim more altruistic intentions. My motives didn't fall easily into either category, though.

If only I'd talked to a good Freudian, we might have discussed what I'd always told myself was an irrelevant fact, a mere footnote to my existence: I myself am the product of a sperm bank.

My parents told me when I was thirteen, around the time I'd begun to grow into a body completely unlike my father's. When I found out, my feelings were complex: I felt bewildered, I wept for hours, I admitted a certain relief. The news was less of a total revelation than an inevitable coming out, an admission of what strangers had seen for years.

The sperm bank my parents chose had given them few details about my biological father.

My dad was a short, stocky, silent welder who came home from the aircraft plant with shards of metal in his hands. I was a lanky, hypersensitive computer geek obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons. For my small but persistent betrayals — my inability to properly hit a baseball, my body's refusal to obey the even the most basic laws of genetics — I'd always felt guilty. Now I'd been let off the hook, but a new guilt replaced the old. The father I'd never met had usurped the place of the one I had — the loving and proud man who'd never questioned or resented his role, even now that I knew the truth.

Over the next few years, when my parents asked if I wanted to make contact with my biological father, I quickly told them no. I worried that showing any interest would hurt my father. Finding my biological father wasn't really an option anyway. Today, sperm donors and their children can choose to meet. (In fact, the U.K. recently gave those children the right to learn their biological fathers' identities even without permission, sparking a serious decline in donor applicants.)

But in the late 1970s, when I was conceived, clinics didn't ask for such agreements. The sperm bank my parents chose had given them few details about my biological father, revealing only that he was a tall and blue-eyed law student. Because they didn't know his name, they instead chose to name me after the clinic's founder. We left it at that.

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