Authors: David Plotz
THE CURIOUS HISTORY OF THE
NOBEL PRIZE SPERM BANK
any of the names in this book are pseudonyms. I have changed the names of all the sperm donors except William Shockley, who publicly (and proudly) admitted his contribution to the Nobel bank. I have changed the names of all the Nobel sperm bank children (as well as those of their parents) except two, Victoria Kowalski and Doron Blake. Their names have been public for more than twenty years. Victoria Kowalski was the first Nobel sperm bank baby, and her parents sold the story of her birth to the
Doron Blake was the second child. He and his mother, Afton, have been giving interviews since he was two weeks old. I have also changed identifying details about some donors and children, notably their hometowns and professions.
hat moment, the moment he learned the truth, Tom Legare thought:
This is when my old life stops and I have to start over. I am a new me. I have a new future.
It happened in February 2001. Tom was fifteen years old. He was spending a long weekend in Springfield, Illinois, with his mom and his younger sister. His dad, Alvin, was on the road. He was a salesman, always traveling. Even if Alvin hadn’t been working, he wouldn’t have come with them. He didn’t go on family vacations. That was the kind of father Tom felt he had always had: indifferent, gloomy, detached. He still “lived at home”—if that’s what you call sleeping in the house a few days a month—but he had left his wife and kids. Or maybe they had left him.
Tom and his mother, Mary Legare, were eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant, at a table by the window. They were waiting for his sister, Jessica, who was upstairs sleeping. Tom and Mary were spoiling for a fight. What teenager and his mom aren’t?
Mary said, “Thomas, I need to talk to you.”
Only she called him Thomas.
“Thomas, you’re at the point where you have to make decisions about what you’re going to do with your life.” She paused. “And, Thomas, I don’t like the direction you’re heading in.”
He said nothing and scowled at her.
“I’m proud you’re going to graduate a year early from high school. But I heard you talking about going to pro wrestling school, whatever that is. Thomas, that is
going to happen.”
Tom sighed. It was 8
He was on vacation. He wanted to finish his Pop-Tarts. He wanted to play video games in the hotel game room. Besides, the wrestling school plan was a joke, something to talk smack about with his friends when they were practicing moves in his backyard ring. But Tom didn’t say that. He didn’t want to give his mom the slightest satisfaction. He knew that his silence would just annoy her more.
She kept going. “You can’t go to wrestling school. You can’t waste your life on that.
“Thomas, you can do better than that. I
you can do better.”
When he heard her say that, Tom wondered if his mom’s secret was going to come out. This wasn’t the first time she had dropped that same hint, with the same emphatic certainty in that word “know”: “I
you can do better.” From the way she said it, he knew, just knew, she was keeping something from him.
Irritated by her hinting, Tom broke his silence.
“Why do you
I can do better, Mom? Why? If there is something you want to tell me, just tell me.”
She thought for a moment, then asked, “Thomas, have you ever heard of the Repository for Germinal Choice?”
“No,” he said.
“You know how I always told you that you didn’t have to be like your dad? I don’t want you to look at your father and say, ‘This is what I have to look forward to.’ You
to know that you have better potential than your dad, because you don’t have your dad’s genes.”
Suddenly Tom wanted her to stop. Somehow he knew that if she kept talking his life would never be the same, that his childhood would be over. But he couldn’t think of anything to say, and she continued.
“When we were first married, we wanted a baby and I couldn’t get pregnant. We went to a doctor and he said that because of a Vietnam injury your dad couldn’t have kids. Then the doctor told us about an amazing sperm bank in California—the Repository for Germinal Choice. All the donors were Nobel Prize winners. I thought that was really special.”
“And that’s where you come from, Thomas. Your dad was a Nobel Prize winner.”
Tom didn’t want his mom to think she had won the wrestling school argument, so he snapped, “This doesn’t change a damn thing.” But he knew he was lying. He knew it changed everything. Tom turned it over in his head: a sperm bank. A
sperm bank. Tom felt surprised and not at all surprised. It explained everything, he thought:
That’s why me and Dad don’t look alike. That’s why we don’t get along. That’s why Dad treats me that way, keeps me at a distance.
“Do you know who my—what do I call him?—my ‘real dad’ is?” Tom asked.
“They didn’t tell us his name, just a code name. I know he was a brilliant scientist.”
“Is Jessica my sister?”
“Yes, but she comes from a different donor, so she’s your half sister. She doesn’t know anything about this yet. She’s not ready to know, so please don’t tell her. Promise you won’t tell her.”
One last question: “Can I find my real dad?”
“No, you can’t. I have a sheet of paper somewhere in the house about him. That’s all I have. The sperm bank is closed, so you won’t be able to find his name or what he does or who he is. I’m sorry.”
Tom left the restaurant and wandered off to check his head. The next three days vanished for him. Even today he can’t remember what he did or what he thought. When they returned home from vacation, to their Kansas City suburb, Tom stopped talking to his mother. He shared his new secret with his three best friends; he trusted them because they
After a few more days, he started to feel better. It was pretty funny, he thought: One day you’re a long-haired, fifteen-year-old slacker pulling Bs at a mediocre high school, dreaming of rapping and wrestling. The next day, you’re Superkid. Every boy fantasizes at some point that his parents aren’t his real parents, that his real dad is a king or a billionaire or a movie star. “Hey,” Tom said to himself, “I really do have a secret dad, and he really is a Nobel Prize winner!”
Tom was an optimist by nature, and he told himself that only good things could come of it. His dad had wasted his life, and his mom had had to work her butt off for all that she had accomplished. But maybe it will be different for me, he thought. Now I have potential. I have genius genes.
Tom started drinking less, and stopped smoking pot. His grades ticked up. He did his homework, for a change. He was happier.
He felt oddly relieved. Over and over, he would say to himself: “I’m not related to Dad. I’m not related to Dad, thank God!” But he didn’t tell his dad he knew the secret. Why bother? It wouldn’t change anything. It certainly wouldn’t make them closer.
It was the
dad that Tom thought about. Tom puzzled over what to call him, even what to call him in his own head. At first, Tom tried “my real dad,” but that felt wrong. “My donor”—too clinical. “Biological father”—too cumbersome. “My other dad”—that sounded as if there were some complicated family dispute.
Tom played genetic “Who am I?” games with himself. What is the great gift
gave me? If
was such a great scientist, why am I so bad at science? I can’t draw at all: Could he draw? I’m pretty good at math and history and English, and especially at music. Did all that come from
But when he realized he couldn’t answer his own questions, Tom’s curiosity soured to frustration. I don’t know half of who I am, Tom thought, and I will never know unless I find him. Tom decided he could find his dad, no matter what his mom said. After all, how many Nobel Prize winners could there be? And how many of them looked like Tom?
Tom ransacked the house and finally discovered a thin manila folder buried in the back of his mom’s file cabinet. It only deepened the mystery. Inside were ten sheets of white paper stapled together. The cover page read “Repository for Germinal Choice, Catalog of Donors.” Each page had a code name at the top—a combination of a color and a number—and a brief description of the donor below. “Donor Turquoise #38” was brown-haired and blue-eyed—like me, Tom thought—“a top science professor at a major university” who was also “a professional musician.” Was that his new dad? Or was it Donor White #6, “a scientist involved in sophisticated research” who enjoyed “reading history”? Or Donor Coral #36, who had an IQ of 160 and “excels in mathematics”? Or Donor Yellow/Brown #22, “one of our very great scientists,” who was fond of mountaineering?
Tom was baffled, but his mom gave no help. The catalog didn’t jog Mary’s memory. She couldn’t recall what donor she had chosen. She shrugged and advised Tom to restrain his curiosity and stop looking. Tom seethed at her: This was the biggest decision of
life, and you can’t remember anything—not a code name, not a profession, nothing?
After festering for a while, Tom cleared his head and thought,
Okay, I can do this.
He studied the folder again. It also contained some of the correspondence between his mom and the Repository for Germinal Choice. The stationery letterhead listed the sperm bank’s trustees and directors. One was Robert Graham. Tom knew from an Internet search that Graham had owned the sperm bank, so he couldn’t be Tom’s father. Two of the other officers were women, so they were out. Then he saw Jonas Salk’s name. Salk was listed as a trustee of the Nobel Prize sperm bank. Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine—Tom had read about him in school. Tom leafed through the donor catalog again and reread the description of Donor Yellow/Brown #22. Yes, Jonas Salk was certainly “one of our very great scientists.” Jonas Salk. Tom let it settle in. Maybe Jonas Salk is my father.
Tom and I were looking for each other, but we didn’t know it yet. As he pored over the donor catalog, I was several months deep into my own Nobel Prize sperm bank obsession.
My fixation started with my dad. People always say their relationship with their parents is “complicated.” My relationship with my father has never been complicated. It’s purely adoring. My father is a doctor, a rheumatologist who has spent more than thirty years—my whole life—directing the same research lab at the National Institutes of Health. He studies and treats patients with some of the cruelest illnesses there are—baroque muscle diseases that gnarl limbs, steal strength, and cripple kids.
Most people find my father forbidding when they first meet him. He is tall and thin, with a wide, round face and a grand nose. His voice is a commanding rumble. If he says, “David, this must be the best bread in New England”—and he is prone to such preposterous overstatements—he makes it sound as though you’d be a fool to contradict him. But anyone who talks to him for five minutes recognizes that he is sweet, gentle, goofy, humane, and wise. My friends go to him for advice. I go to him for advice. He made growing up easy for me. How could I become a good man? I watched him and followed.
My father is not a religious man. His creed is scientific. He believes in the primacy of rational thought over superstition. He considers science a kind of priesthood, by which he means that scientists have a sacred obligation to seek truth rather than profit or glory, and by which he also means that scientists should never, ever, ever make fools of themselves.
Which is how the Nobel sperm bank entered my life. It was early 1980; I had just turned ten years old. My father and I were sitting in the breakfast room, reading
The Washington Post
over cinnamon toast and orange juice. (I had the comics section.) All of a sudden, my father poked at his newspaper and erupted. “That’s just the silliest idea I have ever heard of! What’s wrong with Shockley?”
“Shockley!” The name jarred my brain.
I asked my father what was wrong. He tried to explain to me that William Shockley was a great physicist who had invented the transistor and won the Nobel Prize and was now involved in some Nobel sperm bank, and that it was a moronic idea, the sort of thing Hitler would have tried. I knew what the Nobel Prize was. But I didn’t know what the transistor was. I didn’t know who William Shockley was. And I certainly didn’t know what a sperm bank was. All I understood was that Shockley and the Nobel sperm bank, whoever and whatever they were, had somehow broken my father’s code of science. My father was revolted, as though he’d seen the rabbi at our synagogue driving a new Mercedes.
The idea of “Shockley” lodged itself in my ten-year-old brain. He became my symbol of Science Gone Wrong. I pictured Shockley as a cartoon villain in a white lab coat, with a cocky grimace and lunatic, Einstein-like white hair exploding from his head. Decades later, I was astonished when I finally saw a photograph of the real William Shockley, with his mild expression, nerdy glasses, and bald, shiny skull. (I had tricked myself with a visual pun: I had given my “Shockley” a “shock” of hair and the air of a man who’d been electric-shocked.)
My father and I never talked about Shockley or the Nobel sperm bank after that. But twenty years later, at the height of the Internet boom, I encountered Shockley’s name again in an article about Silicon Valley. I can barely recall the piece—I think it had something to do with whether Shockley deserved credit as the founder of the Valley. Shockley, the Nobel Prize sperm bank—bells started clanging in my head, in an ominous minor key. I remembered my 1980 conversation with my father. I wondered again what he had been so incensed about. I began reading everything I could find about Shockley and soon learned that he had been one of America’s most brilliant scientists, most influential businessmen, and most perplexing racists. After a scientific career of unmatched accomplishment, Shockley had spent the last twenty-five years of his life trying to stop poor people and black people from having children. Thinking Shockley might make a good subject for a biography, I traveled out to Stanford University to dig through his archives.
As I combed through Shockley’s papers, I realized that the Nobel sperm bank, not Shockley, was the real riddle. Shockley, I discovered, had been the only
donor to the bank—his contribution was one of the last acts of his long and cantankerous career. Shockley’s papers were full of articles about the early days of the Nobel Prize sperm bank—a
interview with Shockley about it, editorials denouncing Shockley and bank founder Robert Graham, letters from Graham to Shockley. But I found almost nothing from later on. The bank had been launched in 1980 with the immodest goal of changing mankind and reversing evolution. Over the next nineteen years, more than two hundred “genius kids”—as reporters liked to call them—were born from its supersperm. Every few months, some newspaper or magazine or TV network had dispatched a reporter to break open the story of the Nobel Prize sperm bank, to ferret out the donors’ identities and learn whether the kids had lived up to their genetic programming. But all the reporters had come back empty-handed.