[Paleopsych] David Plotz: The Genius Factory: My short, scary career as a sperm donor.
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Wed Jun 15 01:17:26 UTC 2005
David Plotz: The Genius Factory: My short, scary career as a sperm donor.
In February 1980, an eccentric California tycoon named Robert Graham
announced the opening of the Repository for Germinal Choice--a sperm
bank where Nobel Prize winners were the only donors. Graham intended
to reverse what he saw as America's genetic decline by breeding a
cadre of brilliant scientists and leaders. Nineteen years and 215
children later, the repository shut down. It left a mystery: Graham
was dead, the bank's records were sealed, and no one knew what had
become of the kids. Had Graham's dream of breeding outstanding
children come true?
In 2001, Slate's David Plotz set out to unlock the history of the
Nobel Prize sperm bank, inviting readers to contact him if they had
been involved in the bank or knew anything about it. Soon he was
hearing from donors to the bank, mothers who had used it, former
employees, and the children themselves. In 14 articles over two
years, Plotz described the remarkable lives of the families and
donors, connected kids with their genetic fathers and half-siblings,
and explored the strange world of modern eugenics. (If you were
involved with the repository and wish to share your story anonymously,
or if you are searching for children, siblings, or a donor from the
repository, please e-mail David Plotz.)
This week marks the publication of Plotz's The Genius Factory: The
Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, a book based on the
Slate project. In this excerpt, Plotz recounts his own awkward attempt
to become a sperm donor:
After talking to donors from the Nobel sperm bank, I remained puzzled
about why they had bothered with such a peculiar and burdensome
enterprise. That's when I realized that I needed to donate sperm, too.
Not because I wanted to, quite the contrary. I already had two
children, which seemed more than enough on most days. My lack of
desire to donate is why I felt obliged to do it. No matter how often
donors explained their rationale to me, sperm donation befuddled me.
Why had the repository donors subjected themselves to such
inconvenience and embarrassment? Why had they been willing to father
children--dozens in some cases--that they could never know? What was
donating like? I had to find out for myself.
I dutifully informed my wife about my plan. "No way," Hanna said. I
argued that it was all in the name of research. She was unimpressed. I
promised that I would stop the sperm bank before it could sell my
sperm. She didn't believe the bank would make such a deal. I swore
that there was no chance they would use my sperm. I begged, which was
not a pretty sight. She relented.
These days, sperm banks recruit customers and donors through the
Internet, so I cruised the Web and found an application for Fairfax
Cryobank, located in Washington, D.C.'s, Virginia suburbs. Fairfax
Cryobank is to sperm banking what Citigroup is to real banking. It has
branches in four states and Canada. The sperm bank itself is only one
small division of a full-service fertility business, the Genetics &
I completed Fairfax's online application in a couple of minutes--it
asked for little more than my name and address. A week later, the
mailman delivered a discreet brown envelope with no name on the return
address. Sperm banks, like pornographers, keep everything on the
down-low. Bank staffers dislike leaving phone messages, but if they
must, the message is almost incomprehensibly vague: "This is Mary,
from Fairfax. We'd like to talk to you about your recent inquiry.
Please call us at ...")
The brown package from Fairfax contained an 18-page application. I
trudged through the physical data: age, hair color, height, weight,
blood type. I dragged my way through the biographical section:
educational history, profession, musical talent ("None," I wrote
proudly), athletic abilities, hobbies. Then I bored through the
medical questionnaire: alcohol use, tobacco use, drug use, tattooing
history, how well I sleep, how well I eat, what medicines I take and
why, what bones I have broken, whether I exchange sex for money,
whether I had used intranasal cocaine in the preceding 12 months. I
listed three generations of familial mental illness and felt my own
ticker skip a beat when I wrote that all my male ancestors on both
sides of the family had died young of heart disease. I declared that I
wasn't a carrier of Gaucher disease, Fanconi anemia, Niemann-Pick
disease, Canavan disease, or thalassemia, although I had not the
faintest idea what those illnesses were. I checked off whether I
suffered from any of an endless roster of symptoms--hoarseness, warts,
blood in stool, goiter, tingling, dizziness, fainting, convulsions,
seizures, fits, shaking, tremor, numbness. By the time I was done, I
was suffering from several of them. I was asked 16 ways to Sunday if I
inject drugs or have sex with other men. I agreed to submit to an HIV
test. Finally, I reached Page 18, which was the scariest of all: "I
agree that I release all rights, privileges, and disposition of my
semen specimens to Fairfax Cryobank." Hanna is going to kill me, I
thought, and then I signed it.
According to the application, if my written application made the cut,
I would be invited for an interview, where I would "produce" a semen
sample for analysis. If that were satisfactory, I would return for
more semen analyses and a physical. Only if I passed those would I
qualify as a donor.
I mailed my application to Fairfax and waited. And waited. And waited.
After two months, I was miffed. How dare they ignore my semen? That
semen had produced two healthy children! That semen had run a
marathon! Then my irritation turned to worry: Did Fairfax know
something I didn't about my health? Was my future that bleak? Was all
that heart disease really so bad? Suddenly I found myself desperate to
I had just applied to a bank in New York when I received an e-mail
from "Amanda," who identified herself as Fairfax's laboratories
coordinator. She invited me for an interview. She noted, oh so
casually, that I would have to furnish a sample on the premises.
The following Monday, I made my way to the Fairfax Cryobank office,
situated beyond the Washington Beltway in The Land of Wretched Office
Parks, in the dreariest of all office developments. The building's
blandness may be intentional: A sperm bank doesn't want to draw
attention to itself or its visitors.
Inside, I hunted through the first-floor corridors, past the
mysterious "microsort" room and "egg donor" facility, searching for
the sperm-bank office. I saw an open door, peeked in, and discovered
that I had stumbled on the vault--the room that housed Fairfax's
liquid-nitrogen storage tanks. I ducked inside and found myself alone
with the tanks. There were four of them. They were head-high and
looked like fat silver men. Each tank, I knew, held tens of thousands
of vials, and each vial was filled with millions of spermatozoa. My
skin got clammy: It felt like the scene in the science fiction movie
when the hero accidentally discovers the warehouse where the
"friendly" aliens are freezing the millions of humans they have
secretly kidnapped for their terrible experiments.
Finally I located the door marked "Cryobank" and walked into an
uncomfortably cramped waiting room. A couple--not a young couple--was
sitting there. They looked up, startled, when I entered. We
half-smiled at each other. All of us instantly recognized the awkward
situation. They were there to buy sperm; I was there to sell it. We
had each accidentally looked through a window into a world we did not
want to see. I was sure the couple was thinking, "That guy is a donor?
The hell with this place, let's go to Sperm World instead."
I flagged down the receptionist, who assumed I was a customer, too.
When I explained I was there to see Amanda about donating, she was
chagrined. I wasn't supposed to be there. I had apparently come in the
wrong door. Amanda was summoned from her office and hustled me into
the back, out of sight of the couple.
Amanda led me to her office, a cozy room lined with wedding pictures
and prints of sailing ships. She checked my driver's license then
pulled out my application and began reviewing it with me, line by
line. In tone, it felt like a job interview with human resources. In
subject, it was rather different. "OK, so you live in Washington,
great. And your blood is B-positive. You sure of that? No? That's OK,
we'll check it. Hmm, so your family is from eastern Europe. Do you
know exactly where? Can you check?" She noticed I was married and
asked if my wife knew that I was there. I answered, "Of course. Don't
all wives know?"
Amanda acted as though this was very funny and said, "A lot of donors
are married and don't tell their wives."
She asked me where I had gone to college. I said "Harvard." She was
delighted. She continued, "And have you done some graduate work?" I
said no. She looked disappointed. "But surely you are planning to do
some graduate work?" Again I said no. She was deflated and told me
why. Fairfax has something it calls--I'm not kidding--its "doctorate
program." For a premium, mothers can buy sperm from donors who have
doctoral degrees or are pursuing them. What counts as a doctor? I
asked. Medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, optometry, law, and
chiropractic. Don't say you weren't warned: Your premium "doctorate"
sperm may have come from a law student.
As we discussed the application, I gazed distractedly at Amanda's
screen saver, a soothing blue-and-white pattern. After a few seconds,
I noticed that the white pattern was a school of tiny sperm, tails
waving jauntily as they motored across the screen. I took a second
look at the mouse paperweight on Amanda's desk. It wasn't a mouse. It
was a cute little sperm.
Such goofiness was, I came to discover, a hallmark of modern sperm
banks. Fairfax hands out pens on college campuses that ask, "Why not
get paid for it?" When I visited California Cryobank, the director of
public relations gave me a T-shirt depicting swimming sperm. Around
the sperm ran a circle of text that read "Future People" in a dozen
different languages. California Cryobank distributes floaty pens, with
a little plastic sperm swimming up and down, up and down.
Anyway, back to Amanda. At this point I am obliged to point out that
Amanda was cute. In fact, she was distractingly cute. She was thirty,
I'd guess, and looked Latina. She smiled all the time, a sexy,
gleaming smile, and laughed when I made even the lamest stab at a
joke. She leaned across her desk toward me as we talked. Rule number
one of sperm banking: The people who recruit donors are invariably
women, and they are invariably good-looking. I suspect--no, I am
sure--that this is deliberate, to get donors excited to join the
Yet Amanda's sexiness presented a kind of paradox. The chief activity
of the sperm bank--its entire purpose--is masturbation. But my
interview with Amanda was actually designed to desexualize what I
would be doing. It eliminated the embarrassment that men feel about
masturbation by replacing it with tedium. After the review of my
application, Amanda walked me, step by countless step, through the
qualification process--if my sperm count were above such-and-such a
number, I would make the next round. There would be blood tests for
gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis, and scary diseases I had never heard
of. They would give me a renal ultrasound. My sperm would again be
counted, frozen, thawed, and recounted. Its motility--how well it
swims--would be tested and retested. Only then would I finally be
admitted as a donor--and even that was contingent on passing regular
blood tests. Amanda listed what I would be required to supply to the
bank if I qualified: baby photos, an audio CD about myself, essays on
such topics as "What is your most memorable childhood experience?" and
"What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you?"
Amanda held forth enthusiastically and at great length about money.
"You will get paid $50 per usable specimen, for starters. Then you
will get $5 for every vial from the specimen. The average is 10 to 14
vials per specimen. When a vial is released from quarantine after six
months, you will get another $5. So the average payment is $209 per
deposit." She paused. "Now, this is ordinary income, but we don't do
withholding. We send checks twice a month, but later we will just give
you a check every six months. We will send you a 1099 form at the end
of the year."
Amanda had managed to take a mysterious and sexual and profound
process and make it sound exactly like ... a job. I considered asking
her about the 401(k) and dental benefits.
Finally, it was time for the money shot. She led me next door to the
lab, where three women in lab coats were chatting about their weekends
while studying sperm samples under microscopes. They ignored me. When
I became a regular donor, Amanda said, I would come straight to the
lab to collect a sterile cup and a labeling sticker. She handed me a
cup. Amanda pointed to a small incubator--a warm metal box--where I
would put the "specimen" when I was done. Next to the incubator was a
pile of plastic sachets; they looked like the mustard packets you get
with a deli sandwich. "That's KY jelly," she said. "It's nontoxic for
sperm. Still, just try not to get it, you know, on the sample."
The donor room was really no more than a large closet. Fairfax has two
of them--sometimes known in the trade as "blue rooms" or
"masturbatoriums." A dingy beige love seat was pushed against the far
wall. An erotic print hung above the sofa. It was a painting of a
woman from behind; she was wearing some diaphanous lingerie. It was
pretty sexy, to be honest. On another wall were a clock, a sink, and a
cabinet. Amanda handed me a pen and told me to write the time of
ejaculation on the cup when I was done. She turned on the taps and
instructed, "Wash your hands now with this antibacterial soap, and dry
them well. Water is toxic for semen."
"Here's the exhaust fan." She flipped a switch by the door, and a
buzzing noise covered the room. She opened the cabinet. "And here are
the magazines." She handed me a stack of High Societys, Gallerys, and
Playboys, all well-thumbed. "Fairfax Cryobank" was scrawled on the
cover of each. Amanda seemed unfazed. I pretended I was unfazed, too.
Who's your daddy?
She gave me the phone number for the chief lab technician and told me
to call the next day to find out whether I had a high enough sperm
count and whether my guys had survived freezing and thawing. "Now, of
100 men who apply," she said reassuringly, "we only interview 20 or
30. And the vast majority of those--even men who have their own
children already--end up being disqualified by sperm count. So don't
feel bad if you don't make it." She thanked me for coming in. She
flashed me one more gleaming, sexy smile, closed the door, and locked
it from the outside.
The next few minutes passed as you would expect and are none of your
When I was done, I walked my cup down the hall to the incubator. I
tried to catch the eye of one of the technicians, to ask if I could
take a sperm paperweight as a souvenir. None of them looked at me.
The next morning, I called the chief lab technician. "I was about to
call you," she said. "I have some good news. You passed the freezing
and thawing. We want to make arrangements for your second trial
specimen--that is, if you are still interested."
I flushed. I couldn't resist asking, "So what were my numbers? What
was the count?"
"Your count was about 105 million per milliliter. The usual is around
50 to 60 million. So you are well above average."
I grinned--105 million! I was "well above average." I started to make
an appointment for my second deposit, then thought better of it. Hanna
was right: Who knew what they were doing with my sperm? The longer I
kept up the charade, the greater the possibility that my sperm would
end up in the wrong hands (or wrong uterus). I told the tech I needed
to check my schedule and would call back. I didn't call back.
I was not much closer to wanting to be a donor than I had been before
I started, but I was closer to understanding why someone else might
want to do it. In the abstract, donating sperm had seemed
fundamentally silly. But actually doing it was seductive. I had been
accepted by the ultraexclusive Fairfax Cryobank! My sperm was "well
above average"! My count was 105 million! What's yours, George
Clooney? Amanda, lovely Amanda, had asked for my help. The women of
America demanded my B-positive, brown-eyed, six-foot-one-inch,
HIV-negative, drug-free, heart-attack-prone sperm. How could I deny it
David Plotz is Slate's deputy editor. He is the author of The
Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. You
can e-mail him at .
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