‘I discovered I have dozens, probably hundreds, of siblings’: Chrysta Bilton’s extraordinary family story

One afternoon in Los Angeles, Chrysta Bilton had a party; a family reunion, of sorts. Her mother, Debra, arriving in tears, told her the party was a terrible idea. Her sister, Kaitlyn, was worried a guest might steal something. It was 2019, Bilton was 34, a decade into her new understanding of what a family might look like. “Kait,” said Bilton, “if the worst thing that comes from this weekend is that one of our siblings, who we have never met, steals something from my house, I will consider it a rousing success.” And so, in they came, one by one, dozens of new brothers and sisters, all of whom shared (they learned that day in the backyard) the same big toes, the same dimple, the same inability to keep their phones charged – and all the same father. But it was more complicated than that.

Bilton arrives early to our Zoom, her large dog roaming by her feet, her small sons asleep in the room next door. She’s excited, a little nervous, to discuss the story she’s been trying to write since she was 17 – . It’s a memoir called A Normal Family, and it’s a book about anything but. “On the one hand I’ve written a story about” – she takes a deep breath – “discovering in my 20s that I had dozens, and most likely hundreds, of biological siblings growing up all over the US. And that the man I knew only as my dad, who has struggled with homelessness and drug addiction, was secretly one of the most prolific sperm donors of the California Cryobank.”

In 2005, the New York Times ran an article about two teenagers who had met on the newly launched Donor Sibling Registry, which allowed parents and offspring to search for others by sperm bank and donor number – both were the product of Donor 150. In Venice, Los Angeles, Bilton’s father, Jeffrey, saw a copy of the paper on a café table. He was living out of his car then, working on the boardwalk, cracking tourists’ necks for $10 a go; soon after reading the story, he realised he needed to make two calls. One was to the paper, which ran an interview –: Jeffrey, “Donor 150”, was the first anonymous sperm donor in history to publicly give up his anonymity. The second was to Bilton’s mother, Debra, to admit she was not the only recipient of his sperm donations; that as their daughters grew up, throughout the 1980s, he’d made at least two deposits a week.

Daddy cool: baby Chrysta with her donor father, Jeffrey, 1985.
Daddy cool: baby Chrysta with her sperm donor father, Jeffrey, 1985

“So the book, in one sense, is about all the truly wild ramifications of that discovery,” Bilton continues. “But then, in discovering that, I realised a lot of what I had been told about my parents and my upbringing were what my mum would call ‘white lies’.” She had not realised, for example, that Jeffrey (whose name is on her birth certificate) was paid not only to father her but to come and play guitar for her, or bring his dog round for the girls to ride around on its back on the afternoons they asked for Daddy. “And so the book was me trying to understand what had really happened. A portrait of what it was like to grow up with my larger-than-life, gay mother, in LA in the 80s, and 90s.” Debra had a grand and hedonistic life, meditating with the Beatles, dating Eva Gabor, breaking hearts across LA. If she wanted something, she found a way to get it. So, in the early 80s when she realised she wanted children, she approached Jeffrey in a hair salon in Beverly Hills. She paid him $2,000 to father her child, with the proviso that he never donated sperm again.

He was a strip-o-gram at the time; the month Bilton was born he was the centrefold of Playgirl magazine. Over the years, he drifted in and out of their lives, as did Debra’s partners – the family moved from mansions full of exotic pets to an empty room in an office block. “My mother was incredibly loving and magical, but also incredibly complex. She struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction, and cycled through several [spiritual] cults in her own life. Through my upbringing she often paid the bills through wild get-rich-quick schemes. So the book is also about what it’s like for a child to grow up in that kind of instability.”

Family affair: Chrysta as a baby with her mother Debra and Jeffrey.
Family affair: Chrysta as a baby with her mother Debra and Jeffrey

Bilton’s earliest memory is standing among thousands of naked women in Yosemite National Park “amid the birthing of the feminist revolution”. As a teenager, when her mother was in rehab, she was responsible for bringing up her sister while her abusive boyfriend crawled in and out of their lives. “The things my mother took issue with in the book, though, were not the things you might expect, says Bilton. “She had no problem with me writing about all her drug use, for example, but she had a real problem with me saying her dog was ‘pudgy’. And when I say a real problem, I mean, you know, several sessions of therapy.” At times the life she describes, with a semi-closeted lesbian mother winning and losing millions against the backdrop of a city that was shifting, spiritually, politically, seems exciting; at other times a kind of violent chaos.

“I realised that the question I was asking, was: ‘What is family?’ My mum had a lot of different relationships – sometimes that meant other kids who would become my half-siblings for a while. Then when I found out about the biological siblings, it led me to think about what it means to be in someone’s family. What responsibilities do you have to those people? I hadn’t been told that there was a financial arrangement between my parents for him to play the role of Dad and that he was effectively a sperm donor to me in many ways as well. So flipping between seeing him as my father versus a donor, what did that label mean?” She apologises, it’s too much; I’m meant to be asking the questions – what would I like to know?

In Britain today, donor children born since 2005 have the right to find out the identity of their biological parents when they reach 18. This “removal of anonymity” law came about after studies found that adopted and sperm donor-conceived children benefited emotionally from knowing who their biological parents were, regardless of whether or not they had any contact with them. In the UK, a donor’s sperm can be used to create a maximum of 10 families. In the United States, it’s different. “It’s still the wild west here; it’s a ‘self-regulated’ industry,” says Bilton. There are no legal limits to how many children a donor can produce, or anything to stop donors visiting multiple banks. Donations organised online have resulted in a number of cases like Bilton’s, where men have fathered dozens of children who are beginning to discover, through social media and direct-to-consumer genetic testing, that they have half-siblings scattered across the country, or even their own city.

Anonymity is a flimsy thing in 2022. “I’ve heard of a lesbian couple who are having a baby,” Bilton says, “and one of them is a well-known personality. They were absolutely gung ho on this one donor; they just thought he was Mr Perfect. They made a pact that they would not research who the man was because they wanted it to be anonymous, but one woman just couldn’t help herself. And through a bit of sleuthing, she found him on Twitter. Which is when she realised that he absolutely hated her wife.” A hundred sitcoms are writing themselves, daily.

Sibling reunion: some of Chrysta’s brothers and sisters, who number at least 35.
Sibling reunion: some of Chrysta’s brothers and sisters, who number at least 35

There were many reasons Donor 150 was such a popular choice. In his file, Jeffrey said his parents had gone to prestigious colleges. One lesbian couple in the Midwest added their name to his six-month waiting list when they read about his spirituality. Some liked that he “tanned easily”. Nurses told prospective parents he was “Very good looking.” “My thoughts on regulation are complex,” says Bilton, “because if there had been regulation, then a lot of these sweet kids that I know and love wouldn’t exist. But, you know, having potentially dated my brother…” OK.

In the book, she writes sensitively, tentatively, about discovering Jeffrey was the father of her then-boyfriend’s twin sisters. She and her boyfriend had been mistaken for brother and sister in the past, but she didn’t feel it was her place to tell him he might not be his father’s biological son. She broke up with him over the phone. “It’s something to keep in mind when choosing sperm, all these factors – but then, you don’t always know people in real life either.”

After her turbulent adolescence, Bilton got sober and married “a guy who has no addiction issues – I didn’t want my kids to experience a parent with alcoholism. We have a very traditional family. But my mother’s an active grandma and the kids call the biological siblings their aunts and uncles.” At first, the biological siblings started to assemble on Facebook, in a group called Donor 150. As numbers increased they moved to WhatsApp, but soon the hundreds of messages became overwhelming. Now they have a group on Discord, organised by topic. There’s an animals thread (most have multiple pets), a thread about their kids, there’s a DNA and Jeffrey thread, there’s politics (one sibling left when another, with far right-wing views, joined), “life updates”, memes, reunion planning, there’s financial advice, and a thread where they organise the Secret Santa.

When Bilton first found out about Jeffrey’s past, she was overwhelmed: she stopped calling him her father, instead reverting to “Donor”. It took meeting a half-sister 10 years later, who was excited about the promise of an extended family, for her to see it as, rather than “heavy and dark”, simply an “adventure”. There are currently 35 in the group, and a handful of siblings who don’t want anything to do with them. “Some have not responded to us; some have said, ‘I’m just not ready to deal with this.’ But most of the siblings that we find out about now, usually one every couple of months (more around the holidays, when is pushing specials) are excited.”

While the original siblings tended to be, like Bilton and her sister, children with a gay parent, the majority grew up in heterosexual homes, where the father was infertile. “And these children were often not told that they had a donor. So for them, it’s a shock when they take a DNA test. They look in the mirror and see a different person.” The “journey” is usually shock, then validation, as they come to understand parts of themselves that they didn’t before. “Then there’s a period of idealisation of Jeffrey before a… coming down to earth. Many come to meet him, hoping for a deep child-parent bond, but usually they settle for bonding with the siblings as a way to connect with that side of themselves.”

Bilton sees Jeffrey a couple of times a year: “A coffee while I listen to him warn me about Armageddon or, you know, the aliens that are going to come harvest my eggs.” She shrugs. “What was interesting interviewing him for the book was that he’s incredibly lucid about the past. He calls himself the ‘soul caller’.” Every time he donated sperm, he meditated, calling on the spirits to ‘bring into the world a beautiful soul’. “He sees it as his spiritual mission in life, to have given birth to these kids. It’s interesting that his spirituality was one of the things that a lot of parents resonated with, when in reality it’s…” – she gestures in a way that takes in his conspiracy theories, his favouring animals over humans, his choice to live in a van – “tricky.”

Before Bilton discovered the siblings, she was a firm believer in “nurture”. Now, she says: “Discovering one after the next with so many similarities had a profound effect on me, understanding that it’s not all about the way you were raised, but that there might be a biological component – . It means you can be easier on yourself.”

Readers might start off thinking this is a book about Bilton’s father, but quickly come to understand it’s a love letter to her mother. “None of these kids would exist if it weren’t for my mother doing this crazy thing. She willed so many things into existence. It didn’t always work out the way she hoped. But her ability to continue dreaming and willing things in the face of failure was really amazing.” She had “second mothers” (Debra’s partners) who came and went, and a father who was never really a dad, but upon meeting her 35 new siblings she realised “something shared between all of us is that we all had a mother who desperately wanted us to exist.”

Sitting back in her chair as an LA morning opens behind her, she considers her childhood. “All that dysfunction helped me in a lot of ways: it made me scrappy and resilient. It’s something I think about with my kids sometimes, because they have such a different kind of life, blessed and stable.” She wonders, sometimes, about injecting a little chaos into the nurture, dropping a modest bomb into their bathwater. Since writing her story down, with its cliffhangers and peril, and pet pigs and new brothers, and family secrets that take generations to emerge, “I’ve come to think a little bit of difficulty is good for the spirit. You know,” she grins, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Extract from A Normal Family: The Surprising Truth About My Crazy Childhood (And How I Discovered 35 New Siblings, by Chrysta Bilton

There’s a knock on the front door.

“It’s for you, Chrysta!” my husband yells from the kitchen without having to look. It has been this way all morning: one perfect stranger after another, standing on my porch, luggage by their side, arms out-stretched to hug me, their older sister.

I walk down the stairs and open the front door to greet another sibling. The first had been surprisingly warm, kind, and likable. The second, too. What will the next be like? I wonder. Will they be like him? I open the door, smiling as brightly as I can. After an awkward hug, I introduce myself.

“I’m Chrysta,” I say, trying my hardest to put this stranger at ease.

“I’m Grace,” the woman standing in front of me replies. My eyes scan hers as I laugh uncomfortably at the uncanny physical similarities between us.

“The other siblings are in the back,” I say, helping Grace with her bag as I usher her inside. As she walks through the front door, a bit shy, I am struck by a familiar, loud braying sound. It is my own laugh, complete with the guttural gasps for air. As I wander back to find out which of them is making that sound – my sound! – I see the dozen siblings who have already arrived standing in a circle, arranging their toes in a lineup for a photo because, according to another sibling, we all share the same feet. I slip off my sandals and add my right foot to the circle, and sure enough, my big toe has found its doppelganger – a dozen of them.

I am learning that most of us share physical traits – the same dimple on our left cheek, the same prominent eyebrows, the same muscular forearms. There are some distinct personality quirks as well, like the constant spaced-out gaze that makes friends feel like we don’t care what they have to say, when really we do – we just can’t help being lost in the clouds. Or always having the battery of whatever device we’re using linger at 1 %.

Then, again, I hear that roaring, echoing laugh.

Then, again, another knock.

“It’s for you, Chrysta!”

But this time, as I run back into the living room and open the front door, I recognise the person waiting on the other side.

“I still can’t believe you invited them here,” Kaitlyn, the one sibling I grew up with, here in Los Angeles, whispers to me with a scowl as she looks passed me and towards our brothers and sisters. She is less than enthusiastic that I agreed to host this “reunion.”

“Couldn’t you have chosen a neutral spot at least – somewhere that’s not your personal space where you live with your children?” she asks.

“Kait, they are all very sweet,” I say, hoping to ease her concerns.

“Just go outside and meet them.”

“These are strangers, Chrysta,” she says, hardly concealing her panic behind a dissociative gaze. “Just because we share biology with them doesn’t make them our family.” Then, as she looks passed the hallway and out towards my backyard, where she can see one sibling now playing with my toddler, Kaitlyn leans in and wonders aloud, “How do you know someone won’t steal something?”

I look at her irritated expression and can’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation we now find ourselves in. “Kait,” I say, trying to hold a straight face. “If the worst thing that comes from this weekend is that one of our siblings, who we have never met, steals something from my house, I will consider it a rousing success.”

A Normal Family by Chrysta Bilton is published on 14 July by Octopus. Order it for £14.78 at


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