On Discovering a Stranger is My Biological Sister
Sitting in an air conditioned library one July morning, I opened an email from someone claiming to be my half sibling. She’d found me on 23andme, an online platform designed to support people in learning more about their DNA, and inadvertently connecting thousands of family members who were previously unknown to one another.
The question of “What makes a family?” occupied a lot of my mind space in those days. Was it fair to call a stranger with whom I shared 25% of my DNA my sister? Technically, yes. But I believe family is created, not borne solely of biological ties or common ancestry.
The person I’d grown up thinking was my biological father, it turned out, was someone I didn’t have a biological relationship with. While this didn’t negate that he was my father, it meant that I did not know my biological father. Prior to my conception my parents made a pact to conceal that they were using a donor sperm. The charade ensued until I was in my early twenties, when my mom told me the truth.
They had successfully convinced everyone around them that there was nothing to be suspicious of. In the years following my discovery of the truth, I often wondered how this extreme level of hiding had damaged them; why they had listened to the advice their doctor had given them in the mid ’80s; why that was the advice given in the first place. Did male infertility pose such a gargantuan threat to masculinity that the best solution was to live in a world of secrecy and denial?
On top of learning that my dad wasn’t my biological dad, there was another discovery that instantly surfaced when I learned I was donor-conceived. My sister Melissa, who I’d grown up with and assumed was a full sibling, was biologically my half sibling. This explained a lot. Melissa and I looked so different that as children she had gone so far as to make fun of me for being adopted. When I raced to my mom crying, as was the intended effect, she was quick to reassure me that it wasn’t true. Even still, I had felt like an alien in my family, someone who didn’t belong. Physical attributes aside, I was different from my sister in umpteen other ways. The truth provided some relief and validated what part of me had always known to be true.
I was grateful that my mom had told me the truth but was resentful that she demanded I maintain the facade they’d scrupulously constructed for nearly three decades. I didn’t want to be complicit in their web of lies. As someone who appears ethnically ambiguous, people sometimes ask me about my last name as a sideways attempt to find out my ethnicity. Now I was in a bind. When I met someone who asked me about the origin of my last name, was I to tell them the truth about the last name (which had nothing to do with my ethnicity) or the truth about my ethnicity (which had nothing to do with my last name)? It was a strange, dark closet to be in. I’d had friends who had come out of the closet by courageously sharing that they were gay, trans, or queer with their family and with the world. As far as I knew, there was no “closet” for being donor-conceived… except that I found myself inside one. There were no cultural narratives to help me make sense of this identity, no parades where I could publicly and proudly announce myself.
Sophia, a stranger on the internet who appeared to be my half sister, tells me over email that she has known she was donor-conceived her whole life; she grew up with two moms. You could argue her parents didn’t have the luxury, the privilege, of staying closeted about their daughter’s conception. Sophia recounts that in middle school she was more self-conscious about people finding out she had two moms than about people finding out she was conceived with the help of a sperm donor. Clearly these two facts about her were tied together, but one evoked shame for Sophia, and one did not. Given her parents had found the strength to be out about their sexuality, it didn’t surprise me that they were also open about the way their daughter was conceived. Not that they really had a choice.
I’d spent the first six months after finding out I was donor-conceived in a state of shock. Once I was ready, I purchased a kit on 23andme, desperately hoping to find my sperm donor. I thought that finding him would help me solve multiple mysteries about myself. While it seemed like a pipe dream that tracking him down could be as easy as spitting into a tube and putting it in the mail, there was no other obvious course of action. However remote the possibility, I couldn’t help but feel expectant that a relative would pop up once I received my results. Instead, I matched with no one. My hope was deflated. I plunged deeper into feelings of isolation. Statistically speaking, I knew it was likely I had half siblings, but any relatives I did have were not on the site, and I became convinced that this website was a dead end.
That was three years earlier. Having made no progress towards finding my sperm donor, I’d begun to give up hope of ever finding him. Until now. Sophia, my first match, sparked excitement and joy. We continued emailing throughout July and exchanged photographs of ourselves. We also noted uncanny similarities: our first names began with the same letter. We’d grown up in the same city. In fact, she was still living in that city, and I was planning a visit home in late August. We made plans to meet.
To say the experience of meeting a complete stranger who is my biological half sister was bizarre would be an understatement.
I wait for her at Columbus Circle, sitting on a marble bench, aware that my legs are starting to sweat. I hold my cell phone to ground me. I watch dads jogging while pushing strollers and pugs eating scraps of food off the grimy ground. I wonder what she’ll be like. Finally I see her, wearing a blue summer dress and blue sneakers, carrying a backpack and walking towards me, smiling. Her gait is slow for a New Yorker. I smile back.
“Hi, are you Susannah?”
“Yes! Hug?” I’m beaming. As we hug I feel my eyes well with tears. It’s a peculiar and meaningful moment.
“Look, we’re matching.” She points to my left arm where I have a small mole, and then my eyes meet hers, and she looks at her left arm that she is holding up, elbow pointed to the ground. Instinctually I squeal at this blatant signal of commonality.
We stroll into the park, past toddlers taking their first few hundred steps, seeking balance, then into a wooded area where a group of teenagers are laughing and smoking. Remarkably, things don’t feel awkward.
“What’s your summer been like?”
“So good. I love summer. Also, this is strange.”
“Here, with you, now. I’m trying to construct an image of our biological father based on our similarities.”
Sophia has the same olive skin I have; the same dark hair. We are exactly the same height. Our manner of speaking is alike. While we had different upbringings, hers in a more religiously Jewish household and mine a more secular one, we have strangely similar political views, values, and ways of seeing the world. We have only just met and already I’m in awe of how alike we are. This contrasts with how dissimilar Melissa and I are, even though we grew up together.
Over the next two hours we discover more commonalities, some benign, some astonishing: We both love poetry. She went to high school with one of my friends. One of her mothers has the same name as my sister. We revel at the synchronicities. I casually wonder if we would have become friends if we’d met through mutual friends or at a party. She tells me her favorite line from her favorite poem: “The dead can mother nothing”.
I physically feel an enormous relief at being able to finally expose what I’ve been hiding. I’m so paranoid I whisper the truth to her: that I only learned this about myself a few years prior; that I haven’t told anyone else; that I feel hurt by how long my parents lied to me. I tell her that the act of hiding has heightened the importance of this issue in my life. Gracefully, she empathizes and tries to understand my perspective. Together we wonder if we will ever find our sperm donor. She does not care. This is our first point of divergence.
Sophia fills in gaps in my knowledge. Her parents had told her things about her — our — sperm donor that intrigued me: he had written on his profile that two of his interests were meditation and unicycling. I held onto these crumbs of information in a way that satisfied me for months. But the morsels also led to more questions: had he been to India? Who had taught him to ride a unicycle? I had always been a curious person, and there was no shortage of questions now. Sophia and I bond over our lack of knowledge.
Meeting Sophia was helping me differentiate between the fact of being a donor-conceived person and the fact of being deceived by my parents. I was leading a double life in a way she was not. The disconnect between my interior world and the exterior spanned a great chasm. The problem — one problem — with having a big secret was the intense insecurity and fear of exposure. Back in the park, we wander past a hot dog stand. We’re both vegetarian.
“Want to go get a burrito?” she asks with a grin on her face.
On our way out of the park, we meander past a cluster of people seated together. I try to understand how I can tell they are a family.
For a period of two years when it first came out, my favorite movie was the Lindsay Lohan version of The Parent Trap. In case you haven’t seen it, a brief overview: twin sisters separated at birth go to the same summer camp when they’re 11 years old and uncover the truth — that they have a twin sister — a fact that had been kept from them their whole lives. While it had been more than ten years since I’d last seen it, I have a visceral memory of how I felt watching that movie. It had resonated so deeply. This was one of many experiences I now saw in a new light.
I learned Sophia was two and a half years younger than me and had grown up an only child. I liked imagining her as my younger sister. I could teach her how to drive, give her dating advice. I had spent my childhood longing to be a big sister. This wasn’t really that; I knew that. But just as she had always wanted a sibling, it seemed we were both gaining something sweet through knowing one another.
Before meeting Sophia, I hadn’t spoken aloud to almost anyone about this part of my life. I’d spent three years bottling up my reality and trying to act as though nothing major had happened in my life. While this felt fraudulent, I wasn’t sure how else to handle the situation I was embroiled in. The bind was whether to risk everything for the possibility of acceptance or keep this part of myself hidden and not disrupt people’s assumptions about me. Aside from my parents, Melissa, and my therapist, no one knew I was donor-conceived. This is part of what made my connection with Sophia so freeing. I felt liberated to be my whole self with her. My willingness to perpetuate the secret was due in part to my parent’s demands, and also borne of my love for them. They had carefully labored for decades to maintain the illusion that we were a “normal” family. There was part of me that resented their hiding, and a part of me that was working to accept it. I continually held the complexity of wanting to protect my parents and wanting to be transparent about my life. Both felt valid, despite the fact that they led to contradictory behaviors. And the truth was, I was scared of how I might be judged by people who had conventional family narratives. I didn’t trust that anyone, even my boyfriend, could be sensitive with my vulnerability.
I was refusing to come out of the closet because it felt safe in the dark.
The only downside of meeting Sophia was that I now had yet another secret to keep. Since I hadn’t shared that I was donor-conceived with anyone, I couldn’t tell anyone I had this new, important relationship with a half sibling in my life. This was an example of how the secret my parents were asking me to keep snowballed. The lies grew exponentially. I hated the way the secrets and lies built on each other; that respecting my parents was now synonymous with lying to my friends and extended family about how I was doing and what was truly going on in my life.
Anais Nin famously said:
“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born”
The world born of meeting Sophia was one of seeing my life through new eyes. She helped me absorb the enormity of the psychological toll this breach of trust had taken on me. She reassured me that none of this was my fault. She encouraged me to tell more people, against my parent’s wishes, as an act of kindness towards myself. She was supportive when I called her in tears, bereft about not knowing my origins, convinced that the world at large didn’t understand my plight. Simply sharing a sperm donor didn’t automatically translate to feeling like family. It was over time, after years of shared experiences and hour long phone calls, that we entered into a familial space.
All of this made sustaining contact with Sophia easy. She was a great communicator, a trait I admire above all else. She was funny, warm, and empathetic. And, perhaps most importantly, we shared a special bond, not just because we shared DNA, but because I had entrusted her with my secret. This most private thing about myself was relinquished in her presence, and that brought a form of closeness. However, because she wasn’t interested in finding our sperm donor, it meant I was on my own in my search. If I was going to find him, it was up to me.
The fact that Sophia wasn’t deeply pulled to find our donor and that I was is indicative of how varied the donor-conceived experience is. Every donor-conceived person has their own relationship with that part of their life. I’m curious about whether people who know they are donor-conceived for their entire lives, for whom it is normalized, tend to be less interested in finding or meeting their donor. From my small sample size, it seems these people have healthily integrated being donor-conceived into their understanding of self in a way that de-centers the donor. I’m similarly curious if it is the case that donor-conceived people who find out they were donor-conceived as adults are more apt to be focused on learning about their donor. It makes sense that a gap in knowledge about oneself, discovered later in life, could produce anxiety and a drive for more information. For me, it has been through meeting more of my half siblings — another story altogether — that I’ve begun to untangle what my desires are and where they come from. Above all, I have Sophia to thank for accompanying me through years of rumination and introspection on what it means to be donor-conceived in today’s world.
Note: Names and some identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.