Monday, June 22, 2009

Who's Your Daddy?

What makes a person a parent? Is it a genetic link? A choice? Or a combination of the two?

This is a central question in The Last Bridge and an idea I continue to explore in my second novel. To what degree does it matter if the people who raised us are related to us by blood?

Last Thursday, author Lennard J. Davis appeared on the Diane Rehm show to discuss his new book, Go Ask Your Father, a memoir describing his journey to discover the truth about who his father was. Davis discovered shortly after his father's death that he was not his biological father.

In the interview Davis details the events that lead him to the conclusion that his "crazy" Uncle Abe (his father's brother) was his biological father. He had been a donor for his mother after they had trouble conceiving in the late 40s. Davis talked about the evolution of artificial insemination and how, in the beginning, it was considered pretty "out there" and quite often the woman's OB/GYN would be the donor. He recounted a story he had heard about a town in Ohio that had a lot of red headed children (the OB/GYN was a red head.) Quite often the mother did not know who the donor was.

For a while, Davis wondered if his mother's OB/GYN was his biological match but after researching it he was finally able to determine that his Uncle was the match.

During the show listeners called in and told their stories, many of which were similar to Davis' when they said that they had always felt different or separate from their families. One woman said she had discovered in her late twenties that the man who raised her was not her biological father and although it took her years to make contact with her natural father when she did she said, "it was like looking in the mirror."

Listening to these stories made me think more about the nature of self and how we are formed from our understanding of some basic facts, who are parents are, where we came from, etc. Imagine what happens when that foundation shifts and what we thought was the truth turns out to be something completely different.

I used to believe that nurture was more important that nature but as I have gotten older I have started to wonder how much of who I am is based on my genetics or on choice. I know I am allergic to the same things my father was, and that I react to medications the way he did. I also know I have his sense of humor but was that learned or inherited? And what about my creative abilities? Did I learn them from my mother or inherit them?

What are the basic concepts you have formed your sense of self on? Is it your heritage (Irish? Italian?) Religion (Jewish? Catholic?) If that information changed would you still be you?

And what is a parent exactly? Is it the person who gave you your DNA or bandaged your knees or paid for college? Is it two people? One? A grandma? An aunt? Can it be all of the above?

I think it can.

At the end of the day it is hard to distinguish all the ways we are shaped by our ancestors, loved ones and peers but it isn't hard to know how we are affected by a lie. In the end what matters most is the truth.

After all, what we do with that is entirely up to us.

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