GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR, the "Mystery Man" episode. My name is Glynn Washington, and today mystery is afoot. For our next story, it seems ripped from the pages of science fiction, it's not. SNAP's Ana Adlerstein travels deep into the suburbs to figure out what one young man is actually made of.
DAVID PLOTZ: I first heard about the Repository for Germinal Choice when I was a 10-year-old.
ANA ADLERSTEIN, BYLINE: This is David Plotz. He's a journalist and author. And our story begins when David was a kid sitting at the kitchen table.
PLOTZ: My father, who is a scientist, was reading the newspaper and he suddenly burst out with anger that it was the kind of project that Hitler would do - trying to create super children.
ADLERSTEIN: At the time, David didn't really know what his dad was talking about. But 20 years later when David was working for Slate magazine, an article came across his desk that mentioned the repository.
PLOTZ: The repository was founded by Robert Graham, who you haven't heard of, but you probably are the beneficiary of his work. He had invented shatterproof plastic eyeglasses and he became obsessed with the idea that too many stupid people were having children. He was going to create a sperm bank for geniuses. And I thought, well, what ever happened with that? I remembered my father's rage. I decided to dig into this sperm bank, which was commonly called - it was called the Nobel Prize sperm bank, but its official name was The repository for Germinal Choice. About a month after I started reporting on the repository, I got an email from a kid. And he wanted my help.
TOM: Growing up, I was always suspicious that there was something being kept hidden from me and that it had to do with my dad.
ADLERSTEIN: Here's Tom. He's asked us to use a different name to protect his identity. And when Tom was a teenager growing up in the suburbs in the '90s, he and his father had a very turbulent relationship.
TOM: He basically just told me I was going to fail at everything that I tried. I feared becoming my dad when I grew up. I didn't want to turn into the abusive monster that he was. I didn't want to follow the same path as him.
ADLERSTEIN: But all the paths he was considering pretty unrealistic.
TOM: Oh, I wanted to be a professional rapper, a wrestler...
ADLERSTEIN: Especially to his mom. She would tell him...
TOM: I know you're capable of better than this. You have more potential. And the I'd say, well, why? Why do you know I have more potential than that? And she would back up a little bit, but she wouldn't tell me the real reason why she knew.
ADLERSTEIN: Then one day when he was 15, he, his mom and his sister were on a family vacation. He pulled his mom aside and he finally got the secret out of her.
TOM: She told me that my father that I grew up with could not have kids and that she really wanted them. Yeah, and then she told me - you hit the genetic lottery, you know? It doesn't get any better.
ADLERSTEIN: As his mom talked, everything he knew about himself was coming into focus. So this is why he couldn't relate to his dad and how he coasted through school without trying.
TOM: It's insane how far your mind can run away from you. I knew my mom was intelligent, so if my dad was some crazy inventor ,Nobel prize-winning genius, then I assumed I was going to be, too.
ADLERSTEIN: Tom was so excited to figure out who his dad was. He asked his mom which sperm donor she'd picked. She said there might be some paperwork back home but that, right then and there, she couldn't remember.
TOM: I walked out of her on breakfast, and I immediately went to a computer because I was trying to get answers that she didn't have.
ADLERSTEIN: Tom learned all about the Genius Sperm Bank. He was one of only 200 babies conceived from the repository. And he found out that a few of the nation's greatest inventors were associated with it. He almost couldn't believe his luck.
TOM: Yeah, he's either Jonas Salk or he invented the transistor. Either way, he's somebody who's important, who's a genius, who's in history books.
ADLERSTEIN: Once he got home, he obsessed over finding the original donor paperwork. He ripped through his mom's desk, and he tore apart the attic.
TOM: My mom keeps everything. Every scrap of paper that ever floats across her desk, she has it. I finally got angry enough that I took all of the files out of the cabinets and just threw them on the floor. And then it's like, oh, there's a manila folder at the bottom of the drawer. This is it. Now I'm going to take this to my mom, and she's going to pick out the one that's my dad. And I am going to know. I'm going to know which donor's my dad. And then I can start trying to track down who the real person is behind this sheet of paper. She looked through it for a minute. And she said, oh, I'm so sorry. I - I just don't know. This was 1984 when I picked this out. I just don't know. I'm sorry. I'm not sure which one it is. I flipped out on her. I just lost it. And I said, how could you be so irresponsible as to not even keep track of which one my real father is? You didn't - you couldn't even take a highlighter to it? You couldn't write somewhere, this one, and set it aside somewhere different? Like, why is this even in the folder with all the other ones? I flipped out, and I left. At the time, my mom was working from home. I walked into her office. I noticed that her desk was clean, and the only thing on it was the one sheet of paper. And then she told me, I spoke with so-and-so at the repository who used to work there. They looked it up. They've confirmed it. This is your real dad. And she gave me the piece of paper. I did tell her thank you. And I folded it up. I put it in my wallet, and I left.
As soon as I was out of sight from her, I just opened it up, unfolded it and committed it to memory as fast as possible, just in case something happened and I lost it again. The piece - the piece of paper said at the top, Donor Coral 36. It said that he'd written a book. It said he had a genius level IQ tested at a young age and that he was one of the top people in his field. I kept that in my wallet folded it up, and I looked at it every day - every day. At some point, I would pull it out of my wallet, unfold it and just read the whole thing - eyes blue, height six foot. And I'd just try to somehow divine what I had no way of knowing by looking over the same piece of paper I'd read over and over again.
ADLERSTEIN: Tom reached out to David Plotz, the writer researching the repository. David didn't have any answers for him, but he was excited to help look for his dad. In the meantime, Tom had a lot of bragging to do. He began to tell his friends at school.
TOM: Yeah, I wanted them all - I wanted everybody to know. I began to take school more seriously. I began to actually do the homework. Even though I didn't need to do it to grasp the subject matter, I did it anyway just to show the teacher that I had a grasp on it so they'd give me the A that I needed to get into MIT or Harvard or wherever else I was going to go. You know, you're already at the age where you're trying to pick your career and trying to figure out what you're going to do with your life. And it makes it even harder when you think, oh, I might be the genius that cures cancer if I go into medical school, or I might be the genius that creates the next, you know, mass media storage device. It paralyzed me with fear of picking the wrong field to go into. It made it so hard to pick a career; you have no idea.
I imagined scenarios in which my real dad would seek me out and maybe not even tell me he's my real dad, just, you know, check up on me. And if I wasn't doing good enough, he wouldn't tell me. But he'd just come by and see me working at McDonald's or something and just drive on by through the window, whereas if I was a chemist or if I was a lawyer, maybe he might look me up. And he'd come find me, and he'd want to be around me. He'd want to tell me, oh, you're my son. Let's hang out and go fishing. Let's do all the stuff we never did, you know?
Graduation day, it was the brightest, sunniest, best day you could ever imagine. We threw our hats in the air. I graduated a year early. I had one year of college already done towards my associate's degree. It felt like I was on my way to fulfilling some kind of genius prophecy. The day after I graduated, I got a phone call from my girlfriend. She told me, I missed my period; I'm pretty sure I'm pregnant. And I said, you're kidding me. Oh, my God, really? I didn't believe it until I saw the plus sign. I thought that I was completely invincible. I thought that this just was not the sort of thing that happens to the next inventor of the transistor. There is no possible way that I was going to end up, you know, a teen pregnancy statistic.
ADLERSTEIN: But it was happening. Tom and his girlfriend, Lana, found themselves broke with a baby on the way.
TOM: We had to go sign up for Medicaid. One of the forms was the family tree. That was one of the first ones they gave us. And I didn't know what to put for half my tree. Even worse than that, my mom doesn't know who her real father is. My dad that raised me has no idea who his real father is. So between me, my dad, my mom and my sister, we were a family of bastards. Nobody knew who their dad was, and the family tree was a mostly blank piece of paper.
ADLERSTEIN: The idea of Nobel prizes and an Ivy League future now seemed a world away. But just when he thought it couldn't get any worse...
TOM: My mom's house burned down three days after my son was born. The folder that I had spent so much trouble trying to find and that was so important to me to find was ash. The only real proof that I even had that any of that was even real, that it happened, was that I still had the one folded-up piece of paper in my wallet.
ADLERSTEIN: Tom had just about resigned himself to the fact he was never going to figure out who his father really was. But then he got a call from David Plotz.
TOM: And he tells me, I found him. I found your real father. I know who he is.
ADLERSTEIN: Tom's father is a man we'll call Jeremy. Jeremy was not a Nobel Prize winner. In fact, none of the Nobel laureates associated with the repository were good sperm donors. They were just too old. Instead the founder, Robert Graham, looked to plan B.
TOM: Robert Graham started branching out and going to the colleges and trying to just find people who seemed like they would eventually become Nobel Prize winners and people who were doing well in their field.
ADLERSTEIN: Jeremy went to law school and ended up as an attorney in Florida. Tom took comfort knowing that while his dad might not technically be a Nobel Prize winner, he was still made of the same stuff. He could barely wait to meet him.
TOM: I slept a deeper sleep and a more restful sleep than most people will ever know. I was on cloud nine.
ADLERSTEIN: Tom flew to Florida with Lana and the baby. They rented a car and drove for what felt like forever. Finally, they pulled up to a row of houses.
TOM: When we got to his house, at first we were looking around like, this really isn't the nicest neighborhood. This - I don't know if this is the right place. We finally found the right house - or the right side of the house - and the right entrance. And it's - the place is kind of dirty and not really what I expected for someone who was a lawyer. So we go around. We knock on the door, and he answers.
He came through the door wearing a Hawaiian shirt that was all-the-way unbuttoned and flip-flops - looked a dead ringer for me - obvious that we were related. And I went to shake his hand, and it was covered in watermelon. And I couldn't shake his hand 'cause I didn't want it to get sticky. We ended up just giving hugs instead. And I was giving him a hug, and I was thinking, he's probably putting watermelon on the back of my shirt. After that, it just got worse from there.
His house - I hate to say it, especially, you know, recorded on radio forever - but it was a mess. There's mice and cockroaches and, you know, dirt and old plates that had, you know, food on them. And I'm basically think to myself, how did I get here? It didn't seem like - I didn't even want for my son down on the floor to let him crawl around or anything. I didn't - like, OK, we're going back to the motel now. And I felt bad, too, because he's being so friendly. He's saying, oh, you guys can stay here tonight. It's like, I'm not sleeping here. No (laughter).
ADLERSTEIN: Jeremy was personal injury lawyer, and he would've been doing all right financially if it wasn't for all of the child support.
TOM: He had six ex-wives and over 18 kids through those failed marriages and countless other ones through the repository.
ADLERSTEIN: Jeremy told him that when the lady from the repository had asked for his IQ, he just told her what she wanted to hear. Tom didn't know how to process this. The man whose genes he shared wasn't a genius. He wasn't anything. The idea that he would be just like his father - his biological father - this is what had kept him going.
TOM: There was a short car ride where we got the chance to talk alone. And he turned off the music and got quiet for a second and then told me - he said, I'm sorry about the way your dad was while you were growing up. If that had been me, I would've been different. I told him - I said, you know, I really - I just - I worry about turning into him sometimes because I don't ever want to be like that with my son. He said, you don't ever have to worry about that. You don't have to turn out like your dad that raised you; you don't have to turn out like me. It's entirely within your power. It's in your hands.
I was without words. I felt just an epiphany. This was exactly - everything that he said was what I needed to hear. It's everything that I was looking for, and no one had been able to give that to me up to that point. In this one respect at least, he was a great father.
WASHINGTON: These days, Tom is the proud father of two, runs a successful roofing business and a decade later, he's still married to his high school sweetheart. We're proud of you, Tom. Thanks so much for sharing your story. And thanks as well to David Plotz, the author of the book "The Genius Factory: The Curious History Of The Nobel Prize Sperm Bank." To read more about Tom and to get the full scoop on the Repository for Germinal Choice, we'll have a link to David's book on our website, snapjudgment.org. That story was produced by Ana Adlerstein with sound design by Renzo Gorrio.
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