Donor 150 just happened to be reading a discarded copy of The New York Times that Sunday. He choked on his coffee when he recognized the name of the sperm bank and his donor number on the front page of the paper. Fifteen months later, he contacted JoEllen and Danielle. It was a moment that they had fantasized about for a long time. That week, I wrote about their first phone call with the man who had supplied half of their DNA, now known to them by his actual name, Jeffrey Harrison.
Mr. Harrison, whose donor profile described him as a six-foot-tall actor who liked yoga and animals, lived in an R.V. in Venice, Calif. He had posed for Playgirl during his sperm-donor days, was an unabashed believer in a host of conspiracy theories and supported himself and his small menagerie with odd jobs. There are a growing number of donor-conceived children who are grappling with questions of identity and health risks, are seeking out their donors and lobbying to prohibit anonymity in sperm and egg donation. Yet the case of Donor 150 and his offspring lead one to question the value of transparency. One feels protective of Danielle and JoEllen, who used to look at men who fit their donor’s description in train stations, restaurants — indeed, anywhere — and wonder if that was their biological father. One also feels protective of Mr. Harrison, a gentle and kindhearted man who might be hurt by his unusual decision to reach out.
But the producers of “Donor Unknown,’’ a documentary being shown on “Independent Lens” on PBS, did not shrink from the situation’s complexity. The film, which had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, follows JoEllen, Danielle and three other offspring of Donor 150 as they get to know Mr. Harrison. If it does not provide a pat ending, it does show a range of ways to forge family with a biological parent who is not what you expected. When she finally visits him in Venice, JoEllen is touched by the small presents Mr. Harrison offers. “Him coming forward and wanting to meet all of us and share his life with us means he’s more than just a donor,’’ she says. Danielle, who visited separately, sees her own sense of adventure as coming from her biological father, but also a cautionary tale of what might happen to her if she doesn’t choose a clear life path. Even Fletcher, one of the donor children who seems most adamant about holding Mr. Harrison at arm’s length (“I don’t think I’m going to carry on any sort of dad-son relationship with him,’’ he says) takes solace from the replacement of fantasy with fact about the other half of his genetic identity: “It’s not these crazy ideas that I created in my head anymore,” he says. And Mr. Harrison, who rises to the occasion as his solitary life is suddenly filled during the visits, sprucing up the R.V. and giving beach tours, seems pleased to think of himself as a “fun uncle.’’