Every family has a secret. But what if that secret makes you question your own place in the family? Mixing equal parts memoir, detective story, and popular-science narrative, this is the emotionally charged account of one man’s quest to find out the truth about his genetic heritage–and confront the agonizing possibility of having to redefine the first fifty years of his life.
Shortly before his father’s death, Lennard Davis received a cryptic call from his uncle Abie, who said he had a secret he wanted to tell him one day. When finally revealed, the secret–that Abie himself was Davis’s father, via donor insemination–seemed too preposterous to be true. Born in 1949, Davis wasn’t even sure that artificial insemination had existed at that time. Moreover, his uncle was mentally unstable, an unreliable witness to the past. Davis tried to erase the whole episode from his mind.
Yet it wouldn’t disappear. As a child, Davis had always felt oddly out of place in his family. Could Abie’s story explain why? Over time Davis’s doubts grew into an obsession, until finally, some twenty years after Abie’s phone call, he launched an investigation–one that took him to DNA labs and online genealogical research sites, and into intense conversations with family members whose connection to him he had begun to doubt.
At once an absorbing personal journey and a fascinating intellectual foray into the little-known history of artificial insemination and our millennia-long attempt to understand the mysteries of sexual reproduction, Davis’s quest challenges us to ask who we are beyond a mere collection of genes. And as the possibility of finding the truth comes tantalizingly within reach, with Davis facing the agonizing possibility of having to reenvision his early years and his relationships with those closest to him, his search turns into a moving meditation on the nature of family bonds, as well as a new understanding of the significance of the swarms of chemicals that are the blueprints for our very human selves.
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Lennard J. Davis is a professor of English, Disability Studies, and Medical Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He divides his time between Chicago and New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A Phone Call and Its Consequences
It was June 2, 1981, and I was in my apartment on Morningside Drive in New York City working on a new book. A professor in the Columbia University Department of English, married, with a one-year-old son, I had a life that seemed pretty steady. At that particular moment, however, I was grieving. My father, Morris Davis, had died a week earlier, just before his eighty-third birthday, after a long, slow decline caused by prostate cancer.
Born in 1949, I was the son of Morris and Eva, and I had grown up in the Bronx with my brother, Gerald. Aside from the fact that my parents were both deaf and we spoke sign language at home, ours was a typical, ordinary family. I felt sure that I understood the basic contours of my life as well as anyone else did.
But this was a difficult time. I was still feeling the strangeness of being an orphan. My mother had died ten years before, having been hit by a truck while crossing the street when I was twenty-two years old. And now my father, too, was dead, a mere two days after slipping into a coma.
The phone rang, taking me away from my work. It was a call from my uncle Abie, my father's younger brother. We began talking about dividing up some of my father's possessions. As we were discussing these details, I remembered that a month or two earlier Abie had taken me aside at my father's hospital bed and said in an unwelcome, confidential tone, "I've got a secret, but I can't say what it is until your father dies."
At the time I had shrugged off Abie's sepulchral whisper in my ear as yet another of the odd and annoying things that had come out of his mouth over the years. Abie was someone my father and mother had held in low esteem. Whenever they talked about him, they presented him as an example of what not to be like: he was always late and always impulsive, and he did things that I was told not to do. These were rather ordinary things that, I learned later in life, many people did—things such as read in bed, read on the toilet, and hang around the house in his pajamas all morning. But there was a particular urgency in the way I was encouraged not to do such things. My father, Morris, was a precise, orderly man of British birth who prided himself on punctuality and control. He was a man who went to sleep when his head hit the pillow, emptied his bowels on schedule and without the aid of printed matter, arrived on time, and got up in the morning dressed for action. Abie was his opposite, his less superego-driven counterpart. In addition, having lost one wife when he was younger and divorced another in later years, Abie had dated a constantly changing stream of women even into his seventies—in sharp contrast to my father's lifelong history of steady and devoted monogamy. In our family, Abie was what one should not be. Not exactly a rebel, but someone without a cause.
Now, as I talked to Abie on the telephone, I suddenly remembered his knowing whisper at my father's deathbed.
"By the way, what was that secret you said you'd tell me after my father died?" I asked.
"Oh, nothing. Forget about it." Abie still had traces of a British accent that my father never had because Morris became deaf before he could speak.
"Come on! You said there was a secret. Since you mentioned it, you really have to tell me."
"No, it's not important."
He demurred; I insisted.
Finally he took a breath and said: "You know, there are ten years between you and your brother, and that was because your parents had trouble having another child. Well, when they finally realized they couldn't, they asked me for help."
I didn't get it. Then he added, "Well, I don't know how to say this, but I am your father."
There was a long pause. The last four words hung in the air like a sword of Damocles. My father's body was barely settled in its grave; my grief was still fresh.
"You . . ." I trailed off.
"It's not what you think."
I had immediately conjured up the distasteful image of my uncle and my mother locked in a forbidden embrace. That thought, given all I knew of my uncle, wasn't impossible, but from what I knew of my mother, it appeared highly unlikely.
"It was . . ." He hesitated for the words. "What do you call it? Artificial insemination."
This story was sounding fishier every minute. Did they even have artificial insemination in January 1949, the month and year I was conceived?
"Your father came to my store on Fourteenth Street, where I was making leather novelties, and he had a jar."
"A jar? What kind of a jar?"
"I don't remember. Just a jar, a tube. He asked me to, you know, put some semen in it. I went to the men's room and did."
I had an even more distasteful image of my uncle masturbating in the smelly bathroom of his grimy workshop.
"Nine months later you were born." Abie said this in his high, nasal, lower-class British accent, which had become somewhat Americanized. It was an unpleasant voice, metallic, whiny, and insinuating. So was that how I was conceived? No candles or flowers, no romance, no glint in the eye—just a quick jerk-off in a rank toilet?
I couldn't say anything. The whole idea seemed so far-fetched and impossible. My parents had repeatedly told me how they "tried" to have me. How long it took. How difficult it was. It always struck me as an embarrassing but also funny tale. How hard could it have been to "try"? Sex is fun and enjoyable, isn't it? Why had they looked so tormented when they told that story? After all, I was born. Here I was. I had always imagined some vast and chronic investment of sexual energy that ultimately produced me. And even though they had told me of the difficulty, the story always had a happy ending, with my triumphant birth and their collective bliss and tears of joy. My brother had always told me how pleased he was, at ten years old, to have a little brother. It was a family romance culminating in happiness and success. Wasn't it?
If Abie's story was true, why had they never spoken or signed a word to me about this strangely dark tale that was now unfolding?
Abie continued in an insinuating tone that was becoming more and more disconcerting to me: "You know, you are very bright. I always followed your achievements. Your father was, you know, intelligent, but he was deaf. How well you did at school, I always knew that was because of me. I was proud of you. When you got into Columbia University, got your Ph.D., I knew that was because I was your father. Now you are a professor at Columbia. I'm proud of that." Was he insulting my father, who had just died? Was Abie crowing over his sexual and intellectual superiority to his deaf brother?
The whole thing seemed so ludicrous and so much like the nineteenth-century novels I wrote about in my work as an English professor that I began to feel like a character in an elaborate plot. There was a scene in a George Eliot novel, Felix Holt, that came instantly to mind. Harold Transome's argument with an older man named Jermyn, who is his enemy, is becoming more physical and violent.
By this time every body's attention had been called to this end of the room, but both Jermyn and Harold were beyond being arrested by any consciousness of spectators.
"Let me go, you scoundrel!" said Harold, fiercely, "or I'll be the death of you."
"Do," said Jermyn, in a grating voice; "I am your father."
In the thrust by which Harold had been made to stagger backward a little, the two men had got very near the long mirror. They were both white; both had anger and hatred in their faces; the hands of both were upraised. As Harold heard the last terrible words he started at the leaping throb that went through him, and in the start turned away from Jermyn. He turned it on the same face in the glass with his own beside it, and saw the hated fatherhood reasserted.
I, like Harold, felt the "leaping throb that went through," but I couldn't respond. Here was the man my parents least respected; the one I had been cautioned from youth not to be like; the one who, practically waltzing on my father's grave, was telling me that of all the people in the world, he was my father.
As if all this was not confusing enough, Abie now tossed a new bombshell. "I wouldn't be too disturbed. Because I may not be your father after all."
"No? Why not?"
"Well, Morris said that when he brought my semen to the office, the doctor mixed my semen with Morris's. So, who knows, you might actually still be Morris's son."
They mixed the semen? This seemed like a preposterous detail. Abie was surely making the whole thing up. He was delusional. This wasn't happening to me.
"But why didn't you tell me this before? Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"Morris made me swear never to say anything about this. I probably shouldn't even be telling you now. But you made me tell you."
"I made you? You told me you had a secret."
"Well, I shouldn't have told you."
This was degenerating into a squabble. I don't recall what I finally said. I just hung up the phone in a state of utter confusion.
I moved from the phone to the dining room table and collapsed into a chair, my head in my hands, sinking down to the table. As my eyes focused on the New York Times in front of me, I saw a headline: "New Use of Blood Test Is Decisive in Paternity Suits." The article talked about DNA paternity tests and how they could tell with 95 percent accuracy who your father really was. The coincidence made the information I had just received seem even more bizarre. Whose movie was I in?
In the days that followed, I had a virtual identity crisis, conjuring up how I would feel about my life if Abie was indeed my father. I would have to reenvision my whole childhood with this single but central fact in mind. I ran through many different scenarios, trying to imagine how my parents must have felt about me. Whenever my mother held me, kissed me, or just looked at me, was she thinking of me as Abie's son? Whenever my father reprimanded me or punished me, was he punishing the son of his problematic brother? All the times my parents told me not to be like Abie suddenly came to my mind. Why had I always had a sense of not belonging to my family? Although many kids have that feeling, now it seemed that my own perceptions had a special resonance. I didn't belong! I also, like many people, had a pervasive feeling of guilt, not for what I had done but simply for who I was. That began to make sense as well. Children are perceptive, and they pick up on emotions and situations without knowing exactly what they are. They get the feelings, if not the explanations for the feelings.
And then there was the constant and recurring dream I had been having for years. When the dream begins, I have committed a murder. I have disposed of the body by burying it in the dirt floor of the basement. No matter what I do or think in the dream, I can't escape the fact that I've buried a body in my cellar. When I wake up, it takes me several minutes to realize that, no, I haven't killed anyone. And no, I haven't buried anyone. But even after that I'm not really certain that this hasn't happened in the deep, dark past. Only after the sun comes up and rationality reasserts itself can I fully believe that I'm not a murderer. Whatever that dream means, it suggests some deep guilt buried in my past, some crime I've done that can't be undone and that I'm barely aware of having committed. Perhaps this buried secret of Abie's could account for the corpse that had somehow managed to find its way into my dream life.
After a few days, I began to feel a strange sense that my body wasn't my own but belonged to Abie. Like the character in the George Eliot novel, I began looking into the mirror and seeing Abie staring back at me. Abie was square, boxy, and heavy and had a visible dent in his skull where a childhood injury had caused harm—possibly brain damage. My brother and I had been told the injury had been caused by a hammer or some other blunt instrument to the head. My sense of my physical being had long been mentally linked with my father's body. Morris was thin and athletic with leg muscles that were long and stringy, as mine were. But when I looked at family photos, I saw that pictures of Abie as a young boy looked a lot like me. And photos of him at my age showed not a heavy, bulbous man but a thin, attractive one.
Torn between skepticism and belief, with Abie's unwelcome revelation never far from my mind, I felt as if the living uncle and the dead father were tugging my body in two directions. Since I had been taught to revile and be repulsed by my uncle from the earliest days of my childhood, I began to feel that way toward my own self. I'd look at my body in the mirror, see Abie in it, and feel a sense of disgust—it was like looking at a blurry photocopy of someone else, someone I didn't like.
As an academic, I reacted to this crisis by heading to the library. This was in the days before the Internet was a household word. I took the subway up to the Columbia University Medical Library on 168th Street. There I looked up "artificial insemination" to find out if the details that Abie provided could possibly be accurate. I discovered that artificial insemination with humans was just beginning to be written about in medical journals in the 1940s. I learned about the distinction between artificial insemination, which is the general description of the act of mechanically placing semen into a woman's vagina or uterus, and donor insemination, in which the semen comes from a man who is not the husband. An early article on donor insemination appeared in a British medical journal in 1945. I was born in 1949. The British article noted that "the husband's brother might be regarded as the first choice because of genotypical resemblance." So Abie might well have been the logical choice. The article was even more prescient when it noted that the problem with choosing a brother was that the choice was "usually incompatible with secrecy." My case surely proved this to be true.
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