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Audio Transcript from “Secrecy vs. Openness

Gary Gilbert, a dentist, had testicular cancer as a young man, which left him infertile. He and his wife later had twins with the help of a sperm donor. Doctors advised them at the time never to tell the children about their origins, but keeping the secret eventually became too much for Gary to bear. He revealed the truth to his children Andrew and Emily when they turned 21.

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EMILY GILBERT: When I was younger, I swore there was this secret. There was this tension between my mom and my dad. It felt like there was something to cover, like something I was almost at that she was getting upset about. I used to ask her…I was like, Mom, what is the secret? There is a secret. I know there's a secret.

I was 21, and I was back from school. It was my senior year at UC Santa Barbara. I was back for winter break. And my brother and I were hanging out downstairs watching TV. And I remember, like, my dad—he just came walking down the stairs kind of sheepishly, like…I don't know. He was really quiet. And he was like "Andrew, Emily I want to talk to you whenever you guys get a chance." And I just knew that it was something serious.

It was weird. I was like, what? Why is he acting so serious. It was just weird. I didn't know what to expect. And so we went upstairs into the family kitchen and I sat across from my dad at the table. And my brother was sitting next to me. And I think my mom was standing up behind us…because my mom didn't want to have any part in this. It's from my understanding that my mom never wanted us to know, because she thought that we would take it and just feel isolated and not feel…. It's just different because my parents, they both have very different backgrounds. My mom comes from a blue-collar family in the country. My dad comes from a white-collar family close to the city. They're very worldly. They're educated. My mom's family—they have great hearts, but they're not as educated, and therefore it's just like…lack of worldliness.

My mom was against us knowing the truth because she thought we would never feel like we have these Gilbert genes. Because it was like a big deal to us to be Gilbert—to be Gilbert-like, because it was more appealing. I mean, I hate saying that. It really was.

And so my mom was standing behind us and my dad started out—he said, "When I was younger, I had testicular cancer and we weren't able to use my sperm." And I was just like, what! It didn't make sense to me. I was like, wait a minute! You had testicular cancer! Did it come back?

I didn't even think about that I wasn't genetically related to my dad. He had to go into detail. I was, like, wait a minute! So we're not genetically related to you. This is weird. Like, I just started to cry because I felt bad. It was like, "Oh my goodness, this is huge!"

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GARY GILBERT: (sigh) I felt I was relieving myself of the biggest load I had carried my entire life. I felt that because I wanted them to know—and I wanted them to know before I wasn't here to tell them myself. And that I didn't want them to find out afterwards if they had questions about it or if they wanted to deal with it in some way. I just didn't want that to happen.

Now, when I told them—I'm crying, Emily's crying, Andrew put his head down on the table and cried. And Emily got on my lap and said, "Dad it must have been so hard for you to carry this all those years."

I would have told them when they were three or four years old—as soon as they could make some sense out of anything. I would have said, "Daddy didn't have enough seeds to make mommy pregnant, so we went to the hospital and we borrowed some seeds." As they grew up and had questions about it, I would have addressed it absolutely honestly.

Lily Johnson, 14, and her brother Chase, 10, always knew they’d been carried by a surrogate mother, using the surrogate’s egg and their father’s sperm. Their mother, Fay, began telling them the story of their births from the time they were very young. As you’ll hear, their experiences were quite different from those of the Gilberts.

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FAY JOHNSON: I am a DES baby. My late 30s came along and I was trying to have children. It turned out that I couldn't because the uterine lining could not sustain the implantation of the embryo. My late husband and I tried very unsuccessfully to have doctors resolve the issue through IVF.

Lily and Chase were created through what is known as traditional surrogacy where it was the surrogate as the egg donor and the pregnant person…and my late husband's sperm. And each of the children had a different surrogate, so they are genetically connected—only half-siblings. But at our house it's, you know, same family.

When I first became involved in surrogacy, I really asked myself what was I going to stand for in this? I was one of the first people, and I'd never met another person who had done it. All the way through Lily's birth, I had not met another person who had done it. There is power in truth. So taking that position, I realized I needed to start it when they were infants.

And so I started telling Lily and Chase when they were literally like maybe six weeks old. I had developed a story called "The Night Before Lily" that was really based on a little girl across the street whose mother gave birth to her prematurely one night after she and I had been out to dinner. And so I just took the same script, and it was about a three-minute story. And for me it got all the nuts and bolts in, as far as laying the foundation. But one of the things I didn't put into the story intentionally was whose egg it was, because I didn't think that that had any relevancy to a young child. But I did want them to understand the basic outline of what had been done.

I really viewed it as I was weaving the threads of the tapestry of their life. And I wanted the early threads to be very strong threads.

I really felt if I became comfortable telling the story to her, then when she was old enough to ask questions about it, I would probably be comfortable enough to be able to answer them and completely convince her that I was completely sure of myself.

My story basically dealt with their father and me—our union. How much we wanted children together. How hard we tried, which I feel is very important—that we acknowledge the losses, but the effort. But how after it doesn't work, we move to another solution. And so the nuts and bolts of that story did not include the emotional and psychological aspects of the surrogacy experience, both for me and for the surrogate.

And I think the questions that Lily asked when she was very young were much more about what was she like. But not until Lily was 9 years old did she pipe up one day with, "Mom, I have figured out I am not from your egg." Children only do this when you are driving over a cliff.

And I think the way it came up was my late husband had been diagnosed with cancer. I think she was a little girl facing a very frightening issue. And I think honestly she was probably saying, knowing that I was not her birth mother—I think there may have been some confusion in her mind that if her dad died, what became of her? Did she go back to that other person? What exactly was that?

LILY JOHNSON: My dad just got cancer, and he was very sick. And he had to be hooked up through feeding tubes and stuff that was really hard to watch. I thought, well, if he died would my biological mother come back for me and take me away. I didn't want her to come back and take me away because I'd been with my mom all my life. So I got kind of scared.

FAY JOHNSON: When we got home that day I went to the filing cabinet and said, "Would you like to see your birth certificate again?" And she said, "Yes." And I showed it to her and I said, "See the line where it says mother? That's me. And I am your mother forever. No matter what happens to dad, no one can ever take you from me. I am your mother forever." And I think that is what she needed to hear.

LILY JOHNSON: I think it was really good that she told us right off the bat. Because if she hadn't told us, if she were to just tell us when we were 10 or 11 or something, it'd be like, "So, who is my real mother?" I don't think I'd ever forgive her if she didn't tell me right off the bat. That's just like lying to you for your whole life.

FAY JOHNSON: If there is one thing I would say to parents, it's don't be afraid that they aren't going to love you enough. If you tell them the truth, then that issue isn't there. And I think I was just trying to tell them the truth so that we wouldn't have a problem.

The Ballantine-Himberg family was profiled in the documentary film Daddy & Papa. They faced a different set of challenges. Fanny was 13 years old when we spoke with them.

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PHILIP HIMBERG: When she was three or four in preschool, parents came to us and said, "Are you aware that having this child in the school is creating a situation where we have to come out to our children about your relationship?" Because a little kid comes home from school and says, "Why does Fanny have two dads?" And, the kid's three. And they said, "We never expected to have a conversation with our child about an unusual family." But how do you respond to a three-year-old who wants to know why Fanny had two dads? You have to say there are all kinds of families. And some men love women, and some women love men, and some men love men, and they have a family. And we were unaware of that—the kind of ripple effect that just having this child, and us showing up and other kids just asking questions.

And I found that very interesting. We've always been "out" about who we are. But in a way, having a child made us more out because you never wanted her to feel like you were hiding anything. So you'd be in the grocery store and someone would say, "Where's her mom?" or something, and we'd say—as opposed to saying, "She lives back east" or "She's not here," you'd say, "Actually, she has two dads." So that she would learn at a young age that it was really important to be who we are, and it made me be more out than I ever was in my life; and I think Jim, too.

JIM BALLANTINE: And when you asked the question, "What were we looking for?" I think it was exactly that: that she would feel no hint of shame or that there was something wrong with it. That is was perfectly normal, and it is what her response is today. When they made the movie Daddy & Papa, and she was featured as this kid of gay parents, that was special to her. But her approach is that she's very normal and like every other kid.

PHILIP HIMBERG: The more you just treat it as, "We're just like every family," as opposed to, "There's something different," especially in this day and age where there are so many varieties of family, not just families conceived in different ways, but blended families and single-parent families. She said in the documentary that really what made her feel more uncomfortable, I think, was the fact that we were separated.

FANNY BALLANTINE-HIMBERG: I think my parents' being divorced is something of greater importance to my daily life. I have two houses so I have to remember all of the different books and things that I need for school, which is often a problem. I always forget stuff. So that's probably the biggest issue of my daily life.

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ELAINE GORDON, PH.D.: A lot of parents don't want to tell or are afraid to tell because there's a shame factor involved, that they couldn't do it the way they were supposed to do it. And then they hide behind "they're protecting the child." But it really is a projection for the most part. That they're afraid, that they're ashamed. They weren't like everybody else.

My biggest concern is the child that learns late or when he or she is a little bit older, you really run the risk of a betrayal. And I think that's a big risk. It's not that the child won't love the parents, but they won't trust the parents, because if they kept this big secret, what else did you not tell me? What else don't I know? I think honesty is really key. The earlier, the better. It's just easier.


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