While reading the gripping new memoir Normal Family: Truth, Love and How I Met My 35 Siblings by Chrysta Bilton, I challenge you not to feel every emotion course through your body. At one especially astonishing plot twist, I gasped so loudly on a bus that the other passengers turn to stare.
Normal Family begins as Chrysta’s mother, a openly gay single woman, struggles to find a path to motherhood. Feeling out of options, she approaches a handsome stranger at a hair salon and asks if he might be up for, you know, giving her some sperm.
Nine months later, Chrysta is born. Her dad lives nearby in Los Angeles and regularly visits their family, which grows to include another daughter. He shares advice and brings birthday presents, while coping with mental illness, drugs and homelessness. But, decades later, the family discovers a secret: he’s been earning a small income by secretly donating sperm for years and years. As a result, Chrysta and her sister have dozens, even hundreds, of half-siblings.
I was lucky enough to speak with Chrysta on the phone, and here’s what she told me…
Chrysta with her mom and dad
Chrysta and her mom
I read your book in one huge gulp. First, tell us about your mother.
My mom was a trailblazer in so many ways — deciding to have children on her own as a single lesbian in the early ’80s. She didn’t know a single gay person who had done that. She lives in this outrageous way where anything is possible.
Your mom also struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, and you lived in many different places — including a half-empty office building at one point. Is there anything you wish you could tell your childhood self?
Growing up, I tried very hard to hide that I came from a background that felt so different from my classmates’. Shame is such a powerful emotion; I judged myself harshly and had low self esteem. Thankfully, I’ve worked through that and realized that people actually love you more when you are honest about yourself and your life. I have deep beautiful relationships now that I’m able to bring my authentic self.
Before you were born, your mom approached a stranger for a sperm donation. That man – who became your dad — had never donated sperm before that. But when you got older, you found out that he secretly continued to donate sperm for years afterward and that you had many, many half-siblings. How did that feel?
At first, I had a really negative reaction. It felt weird and different, and I was like, I can’t handle one new family member, let alone a dozen or five dozen. So, I just pretended that part of my family didn’t exist. I remained that way for almost 10 years. It was only this wild experience with one of my half-sisters that I get into in the book that changed my attitude about the whole thing.
How did you figure out who your half-siblings were?
Many of our ‘dibs’ — short for ‘donor siblings’ — grew up with two heterosexual parents and thought that their father was their biological parent, but then they discovered that that wasn’t the case, after taking a DNA test like 23andMe. These days, a new sibling contacts us every couple months.
What was it like to meet your dibs in real life?
The similarities were MIND-BOGGLING. These bio-sibs grew up all over the United States, in big cities and tiny towns; in red states and blue states; with poor parents and rich parents; with a gay mom, single mom, two heterosexual parents, every type of nurture environment you can imagine. And, still, there were so many through lines.
Most of us are artistic and struggle with mental health issues and can’t follow driving directions. Many share the same high-pitched laugh, large big toe, and dimple on the right cheek. Almost all have cats.
Now that you’re connected, how does it feel to have so many half-siblings?
The funny thing is, I grew up in a tiny family unit, but this is probably what it’s like to have a bunch of cousins.
Has the experience changed how you think of yourself?
Realizing how much nature is part of a person has led me to be easier on myself. I’m an obsessive person, I have major ADD, I’ve dealt with addiction, I still struggle with anxiety and depression. And now I see how much of that is biology, not my personality or a character flaw.
Yes! I often think about how my children were born who they are.
I also have two boys, and they came out completely differently. They were different in the womb — they kicked differently! Children are who they inherently are. You can guide and nurture them, of course, but there are so many parents who think everything is their fault, and it’s just not.
Is your parenting style similar to your mom’s, or have you charted a different course?
I did a lot of therapy before having kids because I deliberately wanted to break patterns, like stopping drinking and trying to get into a healthy relationship. It’s always progress, not perfection — I can be neurotic in trying to make things different from what I perceived as the dysfunctional parts of my upbringing. My husband, Nick, helps me loosen up, too. For example, if one of my kids has a hard day at school, I’ll come home and talk to Nick about how we are going to talk about drugs and alcohol when they’re teenagers. And he’ll say, they’re five and seven, these are not issues we need to worry about right now.
That’s funny and true.
I also want to embrace the wonderful traits of my parents. You can see your childhood as ALL great or ALL terrible. Or, instead, you can look for the good things and try to repeat some of those. My mother is adorable, she’s a great grandma, she’ll take the kids out to the balcony to do ‘om’s, I let her run with that.
When reading memoirs like Educated and your book, I’m often amazed by the compassion that the writer brings to the story, even after so much has happened to them. That must take a lot of strength and perspective.
AA’s Twelve Steps was a big part of my growth. People have different views of AA, but the steps themselves are wonderful. I also did a lot of therapy and spent more hours than I’d like to admit in the self-help section of the bookstore.
What other memoirs have you liked?
I LOVED Beautiful Boy by David Scheff, which is the story of a father whose son became addicted to drugs. It’s written in present tense, and he really captures what it’s like to love an addict. For lovers of audiobooks, Maya Angelou narrates I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and I can’t recommend it enough. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls also had a profound effect on me. My sister studied the book in college, and she came to visit me and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, her life was just like ours.’ Of course, our life was different in many ways, but she had the same shame; she, too, felt she was living a fraudulent existence with her private home life.
Your childhood was a wild ride. Does your pace of life feel very different now?
Yes, and I actually realized I was addicted to that excitement. I was used to chaos all the time. For a while, I was like, Should we have a third kid? Maybe we should get a puppy? And then I was like, wait! Things are good, why would we throw something into the mix? I’m living my best life right now, I’m amazed by what I have, and one of the silver linings of having a challenging upbringing is that I never take anything for granted. Every time I realize that a doctor’s bill won’t throw us over the edge, or I don’t have to hide under tables from evictors, I feel so grateful for the life I have.
Thank you, Chrysta! I loved loved loved Normal Family.
P.S. Three great books, and an anxiety trick.
(Childhood photos courtesy of Chrysta Bilton.)