'At 22, I Discovered I Had Dozens of Siblings'

There was a knock on the front door.

"It's for you, Chrysta!" my husband yelled from the kitchen without having to look. It had 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.

As another sibling walked through the front door, a bit shy, I was struck by a familiar, loud braying sound from the back of the house. It was my own laugh, complete with the guttural gasps for air.

I wandered back to find out which of them was making that sound—my sound!— and saw the dozen siblings who had already arrived standing in a circle, arranging their toes in a lineup for a photo because, according to another sibling, we all shared the same feet. I slipped off my sandals and added my right foot to the circle. Sure enough, my big toe had found its doppelgänger—a dozen of them.

This was the first time I had met my siblings, although I still haven't met all of them as we don't know how many of us there are—it's anywhere between three dozen and a few hundred. I had known about them for eight years, since the shocking day the story appeared on the front page of the New York Times.

Chrysta Bilton
Chrysta Bilton at home. Bilton was 22 when she discovered she had dozens, if not hundreds, of siblings. Patrick Strattner/eyevine/Redux

Back then, in 2007, Mom had been at home in the Palisades when my father, Jeffrey, called to deliver the news in the absolute worst way possible. It was Valentine's Day.

"I want you to go get a copy of the New York Times," he'd told her.

At that time, my father was living in a van in Venice, California. We all rarely spoke except for random check-ins to see if he was okay, or visits to give him clothes around Christmas. But recently, my mother had been doing better financially and she and my father had been getting along better than they had in years. There was even talk of trying to get a place with a guest house where Dad might be able to live so we could get him off the street.

Chrysta Bilton With Her Father, Jeffrey
Chrysta Bilton as a young girl, with her father Jeffrey. Bilton discovered her father was a sperm donor, meaning she had dozens of half-siblings.

My mom drove to the local Pacific Palisades newsstand, where she got out of the car and started scanning the shelves for the Times.

That's when she saw it.

On the cover of the paper was a photograph of my father, Jeffrey, sitting on a park bench on Venice Beach, with his arm around a young woman who looked strikingly similar to me and my sister Kaitlyn.

In big letters stretched over the photo was the headline: "SPERM DONOR FATHER ENDS ANONYMITY."

My mother nearly collapsed. The front-page article told the story of a man—the father of her children—who had made a modest living for almost a decade anonymously donating sperm to the California Cryobank and was once one of its "most requested donors." He was now taking the unusual step of being the first anonymous sperm donor in history to publicly give up his anonymity, inviting all his biological children—every child of "Donor 150"—to come get to know their biological father in sunny California.

As my mom held the paper, a deep sense of betrayal washed over her.

My mother had been the first gay woman she knew to start a family. She'd met my handsome father in a hair salon back in 1983, and had taken him to lunch and offered him $2,000 for his sperm. She made him promise he would never donate sperm to anyone else.

While she and my father hadn't been lovers, they had become close friends over the years. She had loved him platonically but also as a member of our small family. Indeed, next to me, Kaitlyn and her parents, my father was likely the only other person she had ever loved consistently through the years.

Chrysta Bilton With Her Parents
Chrysta Bilton as a baby, with her parents. Bilton's parents were not romantically involved, but were good friends.

My mother had worked hard to give us a strong feeling of belonging to a family, even if it hadn't been a "normal" family. Now she realized it had all been a fantasy. There was nothing normal about this family. About her. About Jeffrey.

She swore to herself that she'd never tell us about our father's prolific life as a sperm donor, or about the siblings—of which there were many.

But several months after the New York Times story ran, my mother was faced with another troubling fact. It turned out that the guy I had been dating at that time, for over a year, was most likely my half-brother. Now she had to tell us.

She sat Kaitlyn and me down on our living room sofa to explain what had happened. We were both in shock. Now, not only did I have dozens, and potentially hundreds, of younger brothers and sisters, but I was faced with the horrifying realization that I had slept with one of them. Needless to say, I broke up with him, although I pretended it was because I had met someone else.

A few days after my mother broke the news, one of our biological sisters, a 20-year-old named Rachelle, sent me a friend request and message on Facebook.

"I hate to break this to you," Rachelle wrote, "but your dad was an anonymous sperm donor, and I am one of your half-siblings."

Along with the note came an invitation to join the Donor 150 Facebook group. As I clicked through photos in the Facebook group, I felt this was all too much for me. My hands started to shake. I was experiencing a full-blown panic attack. I could not handle one new family member, let alone a dozen of them.

I deleted the message, blocked Rachelle's account, and slammed my laptop shut. My coping strategy was to pretend the whole thing had never happened. My sister Kaitlin and I made a pact to never talk to or about the siblings again. My mother was thrilled to hear that we could just forget the whole thing had ever happened and move on with our lives.

But nearly a decade later, in 2015, a chance meeting with another of my biological sisters transformed my entire attitude from one of shame and heaviness to curiosity and excitement. Sadly, Mom and Kaitlyn have not yet joined me in this change of heart.

Chrysa Bilton's Family Reunion
The "family reunion", hosted at Chrysta Bilton's house. Bilton (seven from the left) was initially reluctant to meet her siblings.

At the reunion at my house, I learnt that most of my siblings 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 the fact our phone batteries are always lingering at 1 percent.

I believe my decision to host this "family reunion"—to meet and embrace these biological siblings—was a dose of reality so vivid it threatened to upend all the illusions Mom had ever harbored about our family.

Yet in the end, she still decided to attend. She made her way out of her car, her face red from crying. "This is a bad idea, Chrysta," she warned, walking right past me and into the house. "A really bad idea."

There was only one way to find out.

The above is an adapted extract from Chrysta Bilton's new memoir, A Normal Family, which is available to order now.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.