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David Plotz on That Seminal Fluid

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

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Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank
David Plotz
Random House

Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini

In 1980, a California eyeglass tycoon named Robert Graham envisioned the creation of a sperm bank that would offer the deposits of Nobel Prize-winners to women who were members of Mensa, the international organization whose members' IQs represent the top 2 percent of the populations of their countries. Such half-baked idealism was, of course, doomed from the start; it wasn't long before you just had to be pretty smart, kind of athletic, or moderately good-looking to donate sperm ? and to make use of a specimen, you just had to be female. In The Genius Factory, David Plotz traces the rise and fall ? and the unexpected consequences ? of Graham's project to improve the human race.

Plotz sets the scene with a strangely endearing portrait of Graham. Handsome, vain, and wildly optimistic, Graham was a self-made businessman with a mild racist streak, a blind worship of science, and a knack for envisioning Utopias ? he once tried to purchase an island in order to start his own country. Plotz does an excellent job of keeping the light side of the story in view with such details, without glossing over the unsettling tinges of Eugenics and racism that underlie Graham's endeavor. He also provides much-needed context for the more disturbing of Graham's ideologies: it is easy to forget that Eugenics enjoyed widespread acceptance until the late '60s.

Plotz, who originally wrote about the genius sperm bank in his day-job capacity as a journalist for the online magazine Slate, is skilled at keeping the human side of the story in focus. He reports the stories of several of the donors, donor recipients, or ?genius sperm offspring? who contact him as a result of his online writings about the bank. These stories fill in the framework provided by the bare facts of the sperm bank's history.

The creepiest of these tales is also, in some ways, the most revealing. The son of a Nobel laureate who donated to the bank contacts Plotz. During their interview, it becomes clear that the man ? to whom he gives the pseudonym ?Michael? ? is more or less obsessed with donating sperm:

?He leaned in, his voice urgent, his skeletal fingers pointing at me. 'I have studied evolutionary biology, and this is what evolution is all about. Winning is passing on your genes, and losing is failing to do so? [T]he main game of the universe, the only game that matters, is the game of evolution, and you win by passing on genes. And I wanted to win!' He spoke this last sentence with a smug grin. It was just about the creepiest thing I had ever heard anyone say. Sitting in his depressing condo, I looked at Michael and thought, You are genetic victory??

Other interviews present more uplifting facets of the sperm bank game: happy families; frustrated couples able to conceive; donors who find unexpected meaning in helping single mothers. There are also stories of donor offspring searching for their unknown parents and siblings - and sometimes finding them, usually with results very different than what any of the players involved ? or the reader, for that matter ? could have anticipated. One young man ? Plotz calls him ?Tom? ? finds out about his genius-sperm origins after his mother, dissatisfied with Tom's post-high-school plans to attend a pro-wrestling school, informs him that she expects more of him, and that she ?knows? he can do better. Why? he asks. Because, she answers, he's not related to his loser-ish dad; she used donor sperm to conceive him - the sperm of a Nobel prize-winner, whose genes, and exalted destiny, he shares.

Digging through his mother's files, Tom finds a thin folder about the ?Repository for Germinal Choice? ? the genius sperm bank's official name ? and discovers just enough to tantalize him. Inside is a color-coded catalog of the bank's donors, identified only with brief descriptions and bios. Unable to establish any real identities from the catalog, and under the impression that all the donors are Nobel prize-winners, he turns to the Internet, does a Google search on ?Nobel prize winners,? and studies the results. Feeling full of new potential, he becomes fixated on the idea that Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, must be his genetic father.

It takes several years of plot twists before Tom finds out the truth (through Plotz's interview with a sperm bank employee). Tom's real father, Jeremy, turns out to be an average guy who inflated his IQ to meet the bank's requirements, and who is just as obsessed with passing on his average genes ? through sperm donations as well as through the more traditional method of impregnating wives and girlfriends, of which he has had many ? as the bizarre Michael. Nevertheless, Tom's search for answers about his identity compels him to visit this character in the grimy Florida suburb where he lives. Plotz tags along:

?We followed Jeremy's directions to a quiet street of grim little ranch houses. We parked in front of the grimmest and littlest of all. That was Jeremy's. It was white, now smudged to gray. A chain-link fence surrounded the yard. A ruined car lay in the driveway? It occurred to me that this was not a place Jonas Salk would ever have lived. Jonas Salk would have been afraid to even drive through here.?

The story has a satisfying, if not fairy-tale-happy, ending. Tom, while disconcerted to meet this Hawaiian-shirt-sporting, fast-talking underachiever instead of the genetically superior Superdad he had once envisioned, is at once open-hearted and realistic about the anti-climactic end of his quest. ?I am afraid I may end up without a good relationship with either Jeremy or my own dad,? he tells Plotz. He had hoped for a father-son relationship with Jeremy, he says, ?but that's not what he signed up for, is it?? But the awkward encounter with his ?real dad? allows Tom to let go of the illusion that the question of his own identity ? or his own destiny ? is a mystery that can be solved simply by finding the man who fathered him.

The book has one tedious flaw: Plotz's glee at the mildly naughty, sperm-centric subject matter. He invites us to snicker with him at the image of Nobel laureates with cups in their hands, uses the term ?jacking off? whenever possible, and so on. The jokes are funny at first, but they soon wear thin, and often seem inappropriate as the human dimension of the donors' stories comes into focus.

But Plotz's strengths more than compensate for this weakness. He succeeds in presenting a fascinating and revealing story of a bizarre business venture born of the human desire to better ourselves.


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