'Normal Family' author Chrysta Bilton has a sperm donor dad and 35 siblings : Shots - Health News Chrysta Bilton's mother was a lesbian who asked a man she'd just met to be her sperm donor. It was only much later that Bilton learned the same man had donated sperm to countless other women.

This author's 'Normal Family' includes a sperm donor dad and 35 siblings

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. For many years, Chrysta Bilton's father was known to the many other people he fathered as Sperm Donor 150 from the California Cryobank. It was one of the very early sperm banks founded in 1977. However, Chrysta and her sister Kaitlyn knew him as Jeffrey, their father, although he was seldom around. Chrysta was the first offspring of his donated sperm. Her mother, Debra, is a lesbian who was determined to have children. At that time in the early 1980s, many sperm banks didn't even accept lesbians. She actually chose Jeffrey to father her children after seeing him at a salon. She convinced him to help her through a sperm bank. He reluctantly agreed. When she failed to get pregnant, they tried with a turkey baster at Debra's home and were successful. Debra made Jeffrey promise to never donate sperm to another woman, but donating sperm is how he ended up making a living for almost a decade. He was able to keep that a secret from Chrysta, her sister Kaitlyn, who he also fathered, and their mother, Debra, until 2007, when a New York Times article was headlined "Sperm Donor Father Ends His Anonymity." That anonymous donor who came out was Jeffrey. It's estimated he fathered somewhere between a few dozen and over 100 children.

Chrysta Bilton's new memoir is titled "Normal Family: On Truth, Love, And How I Met My 35 Siblings." The memoir is also about her upbringing and her mother, Debra, who Chrysta describes as a pioneer in many of the New Age religions and a few cults - kind of the opposite direction of Chrysta's maternal great-grandfather, Culbert Olson, who served as the governor of California from 1939 to '43. The memoir is a fascinating story about growing up different and trying to understand the meaning of family when you're biologically related to so many children from the same donor.

Chrysta Bilton, welcome to FRESH AIR. So your mother made your father promise never to donate his sperm to any other woman. She paid him directly for the sperm and to keep that promise. Tell us more about how you found out about your many other siblings.

CHRYSTA BILTON: Oh, yes. Well, thank you so much, Terry, for having me. So, as you mentioned, my mother discovered when this New York Times story came out that my father had secretly been a sperm donor for almost a decade. And she discovered that because he called her on Valentine's Day in 2007 and told her to go get a copy of The New York Times. So she went down to the newsstand - the local Palisades newsstand - and there on the cover was this story about my father with his arm around a child that looked just like me and my sister. And so that led to what she and I would call a total nervous breakdown.

And she determined that, in addition to sending my father several threats about not mentioning us in any of his proceeding media, she decided she was never going to tell my sister and I this big secret, partially because she felt like the way we had been raised was already so different. And she, I think, as a lesbian raising kids in the '80s and '90s, already had a lot of shame about how different our family was. And she felt, I think, that discovering this secret of my father's and that we had all of these biological siblings would - she was worried that that would be incredibly upsetting to us. So she decided that she was never going to tell us this big secret. And, you know, as she proceeded to have this nervous breakdown, she then discovered through a wild series of events, that I get into in the book, that I was potentially dating one of my brothers. And it was this discovery that led her to finally set my sister and I down on the sofa and tell us.

GROSS: That is so crazy to think that you were dating somebody who was also the progeny of your father's sperm. So when did you - how old were you when you found out that your father was basically a sperm donor for your mother, but she stayed in touch with him and convinced him to have a role in your life?

BILTON: Yeah. So this conversation that she had with us on the couch led - you know, I hadn't understood the relationship between my mother and father. I had been told growing up that he and she were good friends who had decided to have a child together. So this moment when she unveiled the story of these donor children - it's really what led me to start investigating the story of my life because it turned out that a lot of the stories my mother had told me about my upbringing were fibs, which was her tender word for bending the truth. And so that's really what this book is about, is me trying to parse through the real story of what happened versus what my mother told me.

GROSS: So when your father, Jeffrey, outed himself as this kind of prominent sperm donor, he also outed your mother's secret, the one that she withheld from you, that your father was basically a sperm donor, that she had talked him into doing this, first through a sperm bank and when that didn't work, through, like, the turkey baster. So how old were you when you found this out?

BILTON: When my mother decided to have children, she was the - she didn't know a single lesbian in her circle who had had a kid. So in a way, she was really embarking on - in this whole new world. And she had no role models who had gone before her to look to in how to do this. And she, after a wild and crazy journey that involved her asking Warren Beatty if he wanted to father her child - they were good friends. There was an organization called The Repository of Germinal Choice in the early '80s that was going around selling the sperm of Nobel laureates to try and have genius children. And, I mean, it sounds wild in retrospect. And after she decided not to use that sperm of this Nobel laureate she had purchased, she decided that she really wanted to know the father of her children, so she went on a manhunt. And my father walked into a hair salon in Beverly Hills. And she looked at him, and he was this handsome, put-together stranger that she said she saw - she looked at him and she just knew this was the one. This was the one she wanted to father her children. So she asked him out to lunch and offered him $2,000 to father her child. And she took him to the California Cryobank to have him tested for STDs and to make sure that he had a high sperm count. And it's when he saw some men lining up to donate sperm that he got the idea he could do this professionally.

GROSS: So you first found out about some of your siblings that were also fathered by Jeffrey through the sperm bank. And at first, you didn't want to have any contact with them. But then about 10 years later, you decided to invite many of them over to your home so that you could meet them. And your mother and your sister were dead set against this. Why were they so opposed to it? And why did you actually want to go through with it?

BILTON: As you said, when I first discovered the siblings, I wanted nothing to do with them for almost 10 years. You know, soon after, my mother sat me down on the couch to tell me about this, one of the siblings, you know, they had started a Facebook group for the children of Donor 150 that was growing by the day. And soon after, my mother told me about this biological family, one of those siblings reached out to me on Facebook. And I had a panic attack because growing up, I had had such a complex family unit with so many - my mother, you know, had a hard time staying in relationships. So in addition to having my father in and out of my life, I also had many second moms who would come in, sometimes with their own children. And so I would develop these relationships with these stepsiblings, and then when they broke up, those would end.

And so I think the idea of having more family members, more potential family members, was just so overwhelming for me that I couldn't deal with it at that moment. And then I had - and I had an absolutely wild experience with one sister who, it turned out, had gone to the same tiny art school across the country that I had gone to. And when she and I connected through an absolutely wild series of events and she had such an enthusiastic view of this entire thing, it changed my attitude. And it made me realize that the way I viewed this larger biological family was largely a choice, and at any moment I could be enthusiastic about it and see the beauty in it. And I became curious. So I sort of let her take the lead. And she suggested that I meet some of the siblings. And so that's why I invited them to my house.

GROSS: When you gathered some of your siblings together at your home, what did you feel you had in common with them both, like, biologically, physically, but also emotionally?

BILTON: The genetic similarities between me and the siblings are truly wild. I mean, of course, there's a lot we don't share in common, but the vast majority of us have the same big toe. We have the same dimple on our left cheek. We have the same - many of us share ADD as something we struggle with. We all have the same laugh. So the similarities were truly wild. I think also the emotional experience of this discovery - many share a similar journey with it.

GROSS: And of all of them, you were the only one who grew up knowing your father.

BILTON: That's right.

GROSS: So did they feel like family, or did they just feel like people who shared some traits and shared the same father although they didn't know it until many years later? I mean, how connected did you feel to them?

BILTON: You know, it's bizarre that I felt very connected to them in a strange way. I've heard - you know, I grew up in a very tiny family. I didn't have cousins. But several of them who had larger families compared it to the experience of having cousins. There's definitely a biological connection that I don't think you can deny, and most of them feel that way.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Chrysta Bilton, author of the new memoir "Normal Family: On Truth, Love, And How I Met My 35 Siblings." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNBITE OF THE AMERICAN ANALOG SET SONG, "WEATHER REPORT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Chrysta Bilton, author of the new memoir, "Normal Family." It's about growing up the daughter of a lesbian who became pregnant in the early 1980s through a sperm donor who kept secret that he went on to make a living donating sperm for about a decade and fathered dozens, maybe even over a hundred children.

Let's talk a little bit about your mother's predicament. In the early 1980s, as a lesbian who wanted to have children when being gay wasn't as accepted as it is today, although today it is definitely, totally not accepted in many circles and in many states - but in many places, things have changed since the early '80s. But she didn't have a lot of options in terms of how to, you know, how to have a baby, how to become pregnant. So can you talk a little bit about the position that she was in and what she told you about that?

BILTON: Yeah. It was really interesting because growing up, my mother was very much in and out of the closet. And I think that I - you know, I think she had a complex relationship to her sexuality, having grown up in a very conservative family, you know, in the '50s and '60s at a time when - you know, she would later tell me that when she realized she was a lesbian, she thought she was the only one in the world. And she didn't even know that the word lesbian existed. And that's just such a different time period. We've come so far from then that I can't even fathom what that psychological experience would have been like. You know, in the year she was born, the, you know, psychology manual still called homosexuality a mental disorder. So my mother had a lot of shame about her sexuality. And I think she carried that shame into - she wanted so desperately to have a family, but it was - that was something that she struggled with for a lot of my life. And in many ways, the book, while it's about finding this larger family, it's also a portrait of growing up with my larger-than-life gay mother and also what that was like in the '80s and '90s.

GROSS: When she met your father at a salon, when she saw him at a salon and introduced herself - this was in Beverly Hills - she not only found him physically attractive. When she asked him about his life, she was very taken with what she found out about him. What did she learn about him at that first meeting that made her so impressed, that reaffirmed, yes, he should be the father of my children?

BILTON: Yeah, it's a great question. She - both of his parents had gone to Ivy League colleges. His - he had - and yet he had dropped out of college to study transcendental meditation. And as my mother was someone who had pioneered many New Age cults in the '70s and '80s, I think that she and my father shared a very spiritual outlook on life. But she also liked the prestigious background of his parents. And she also...

GROSS: They were wealthy. I think they were Harvard-educated.

BILTON: They were wealthy, Harvard-educated. Her - his mother had gone to Wellesley. He had - he told her that his great-uncle had been a Supreme Court justice. That turned out to be a fib. But, yeah, she liked many aspects of his background. He seemed highly intelligent, which he was, artistic. He played the guitar and was musical. So I think he checked off a lot of her boxes. But then, of course, he also agreed to do it, which was, you know, pretty shocking, I think.

GROSS: He agreed reluctantly. How did your mother convince him?

BILTON: She gave him $2,000.

GROSS: (Laughter). That's very - an offer he couldn't refuse (laughter).

BILTON: Yes. And I don't think he realized what he was signing up for. I think my mother had a plan for him that was well beyond that initial transaction.

GROSS: Well, it's not what he signed up for. He signed up for, OK, I'll do it, but I want no responsibility for the child. But after giving birth, when she was asked to sign the birth certificate and that she needed to put the father's name on it and she needed his signature, I think, she convinced him, just, like, please come and do this. And so he officially became your father as opposed to, like, an anonymous, like, sperm donor. And then, she kept kind of reeling him in more and more by paying him to visit you, something you didn't learn about till many years later.

BILTON: That's right. That's right. My mother is a magical and incredibly loving woman, but she's also incredibly complex and willful. And I think - yeah, in many ways, this book is, as I said, about growing up with her. She's a woman who struggled with alcoholism, like I said, someone who had cycled through several cults. And she's someone who, throughout my childhood, often paid the bills through wild pyramid schemes that led us to living in multimillion dollar mansions one minute to being on the verge of homelessness the next. So, yeah, it's about this biological family, but it's also a portrait of growing up with my mother.

GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about what it was like then for your father, Jeffrey, to donate sperm. I mean, after - your mother paid him to do it out of her own savings, and then he ended up, you know, doing it professionally, so to speak, at the sperm bank. So how did it work at the sperm bank? What were the payments like? How often was he allowed to donate?

BILTON: Well, you know, a wild thing about this story is this larger conversation about the ethics around sperm donation. I mean, one thing that's wild is that, you know, back in the late '70s, early '80s, that was really the birth of this business. And back then, it was really the Wild West, and a man could donate as many times a week as he was able to produce enough sperm for the donation. And my father did do that for almost a decade. And so what's especially wild to consider is that there's still no regulation in the United States. In the U.K., a donor sperm can be used to create a maximum of 10 families. But in the U.S., it's different, and there's no legal limits on how many children a donor can produce.

GROSS: He became the most popular donor at the sperm bank, the California Cryobank. There was a waiting list for his sperm. What did he do to describe himself that made him so appealing?

BILTON: There were a few things. One was that the nurses recommended my father to many families partially because they saw how physically good-looking he was. He was - you know, the year after - or sorry - the month after I was born, my father appeared as the centerfold in Playgirl magazine. So he was a very physically handsome person. And so - and he had this pedigree of these parents that had gone to these big schools.

And he was also strategic, as he describes himself, when he wrote his donor profile, which is that many of the donors that were donating at this early time were men that the sperm bank had recruited from the medical school at UCLA. And my father was this artistic, spiritual man that, in many ways, stood out for families that weren't looking for the med student. So his profile at that time was just so different from most of the men that were in that donor book. I think that that can - is a lot of it.

I also think perhaps it's because a lot of men didn't donate for as long as he did, so they had a big supply of his sperm. I've also heard stories that the head of the California Cryobank was himself promoting my father's sperm when parents would call and ask, which donor should we use? He would say, you should use Donor 150. He even went so far as to have my father be the only donor that came to the sperm bank's second grand office opening.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Chrysta Bilton, author of the new memoir "Normal Family: On Truth, Love, And How I Met My 35 Siblings." We'll talk more after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Chrysta Bilton, author of the new memoir ironically titled "Normal Family." Her mother, Debra, who's a lesbian, had Chrysta and her sister, Kaitlyn, with the help of a man, Jeffrey, who she convinced to become a sperm donor in the early 1980s. She made him promise to never donate sperm to anyone else. But he ended up making a living for several years by donating sperm, fathering dozens of children, maybe even as much as 100 or more. He never told Chrysta or her mother until 2007, after a New York Times article was published in which he ended his anonymity as Sperm Donor 150.

Although your mother was convinced that he would be the perfect donor, she slowly started to discover disturbing things about him. I don't think she was pleased when she learned that he was a Playgirl centerfold a month after you were born. And then it turns out he made his living for a while doing strip-o-grams dressed as a police officer (laughter).

BILTON: That's right.

GROSS: So it was just like happy birthday. You're busted, ha, ha. This is a strip-o-gram. That kind of thing?

BILTON: That's right.

GROSS: Yeah. And then there were medical problems, too. So talk about some of the disturbing things that your mother slowly found out about him.

BILTON: Yeah. So short - you know, sometime after I was born, he started calling her in the middle of the night with visions of Mother Mary coming to him, telling him he was the second coming of Christ. He had some very peculiar spiritual beliefs that weren't shared by her. And he lived a very alternative lifestyle. So he didn't really - you know, he had odd jobs, as you mentioned, as a strip-o-gram, as a Playgirl centerfold. And as she got to know him and as she brought him into my life as this father figure, the way that he lived his life wasn't necessarily the way she had - the projected image of him that she had.

GROSS: And then over time, he started believing in conspiracy theories about 9/11. He became homeless. For a while, he was trying to support himself on the Venice Beach boardwalk, selling massages for $10 a massage. Your mother tried to stay in touch with him and tried to help him, buying him things, giving him money when she could, letting him stay at your home sometimes. Did you sense that there were problems? Did you sense that he was having mental health problems? I should mention here, before your mother met him, when he was around 20, he was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia.

BILTON: Yes. That fact is something I only learned in researching my book, actually, when talking to his brother. So that was a surprise to me as well. And my father doesn't believe that he has mental illness, I should say. So - and he didn't believe with that - he didn't agree with that diagnosis. So he felt that there was no need to mention it in his donor profile because he thought that it was ridiculous. And, you know, since that time, we know a lot more about mental illness. We know a lot more about the biology of it. And I didn't know growing up that that could be something that was in my genetic inheritance. I didn't - I just thought my father was this quirky, eccentric man. And for much of my upbringing, I just - I loved him and enjoyed when he was around.

GROSS: Now that you know more about his mental health, what's your reaction?

BILTON: You know, it's - The discovery of the siblings, some of whom share some mental health issues, has made me change my perspective on nature-nurture. I think, growing up, I always thought nurture was the most important. And I think this experience has made me come to appreciate the nature of it all. And I think it's really powerful to know where you come from. And every family has some heavier things in their genetic inheritance and some lighter things. And I think that it can - you know, you can be easier on yourself when you know the things you struggle with are not something you can control. Maybe there is a biological component. And when you look at it that way, treatment is also something that opens up. Whereas, when you're blaming yourself or think something is originating with you or something that happened to you, you approach it differently.

GROSS: Since you found out about the early diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia while doing your research for your memoir, I'm assuming that your half-siblings did not know about this. Did you feel a responsibility to tell them? Or did you want to withhold that from them, afraid that it might be upsetting to them?

BILTON: You know, something that the siblings and I all share is this wonderful desire to analyze and look at all of this. And, you know, one of our discord threads is about DNA and genetics and health histories. And so with the siblings I was closest with, I very quickly shared this information with them because I think knowing that you - that there's something that might be a risk factor for you can change your decision-making.

So for example, I - you know, I'm sober. I don't smoke weed because there have been connections between that and schizophrenia. I don't drink alcohol, you know? I think that in the same way that if you find your family has a history of heart disease, you might not eat as many hamburgers. There is a sense, too, when we find out about a new sibling - we've all had discussions about how to present certain information because it can already be very overwhelming for someone to discover that they have a different biological father than they knew of, and then look online and see that there are all these New York Times stories about him and that he lives this alternative lifestyle. Already, that's a lot. So we do just thoughtfully engage with new siblings as they - as they're discovered on Ancestry and 23andMe because there's a lot of information out there about our father. And getting to know these siblings is, in itself, a journey, so...

GROSS: The things that you learned about your father and that your mother learned about him after the fact, after asking him to donate his sperm, and how wild it is to have, like, met so many siblings and know that he fathered so many children, this might sound to some people like you're making an argument against sperm donation. Is that what - the is that the way you want what you're saying to be interpreted?

BILTON: Oh, absolutely not. I think that there should be more regulation on the industry. And I have - I think that anonymity of a sperm donor is something - you know, they've taken away anonymity in the U.K. with sperm donors. And I think by the time children reach 18, they're allowed to know the identity of their sperm donor because studies have been shown that when children know, you know, whether they're adopted or they're donor-conceived, knowing the identity of the father has serious health benefits. So I do strongly believe that children should have the right to know where they come from. But all of these beautiful young men and women came from my father who were living beautiful, wonderful lives. And if it weren't for my father donating the way he did, they wouldn't exist. So absolutely not. And, you know, if my father wasn't quite a bit - if he wasn't as quirky as he was, I don't know that he would have donated and given all these parents all of their beautiful children. So that's absolutely not what I'm saying.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Chrysta Bilton, author of the new memoir "Normal Family: On Truth, Love, And How I Met My 35 Siblings." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE MASON TRIO'S "THE STRANGER IN THE MIRROR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Chrysta Bilton, author of the new memoir "Normal Family." It's about growing up the daughter of a lesbian who became pregnant in the early '80s with the help of a sperm donor who kept secret that he went on to make a living donating sperm and fathered dozens, maybe even over a hundred children.

Did you interview him for the book?

BILTON: I did. I interviewed my dad extensively for the book. I tried to present his point of view when it differed from mine or my mother's. What was interesting is while my father has many philosophies, you know, many conspiracy theories about the world today, he is incredibly lucid about the past. And when talking about the story of my conception, for example, his and my mother's stories lined up exactly. So that was amazing.

And I also discovered a lot of things about my father's childhood that I didn't know that gave me a lot of compassion for him. So that was a wonderful experience. But he did - he reached out to me - I mean, this might be funny to share, but he reached out with a correction this morning. He said I did a fantastic job overall, but he wanted to correct one of the conspiracy theories that he had. He said, I never said that your eggs would be harvested by aliens. I said that eventually, women would be used as baby-makers for the babies to be used as food for the growing clones.

GROSS: Oh, OK (laughter). What was your reaction to that correction?

BILTON: You know, I was grateful that he didn't take issue with some of the other things I - you know, I don't want to hurt my father. I love my father. And I tried to be sensitive to him in the book while being honest. And so I was grateful that that was the issue he had.

GROSS: Let's talk about your childhood. Growing up, you were the only child you knew who was the daughter of a lesbian, and your mother had a complicated relationship with her own sexuality. There were times when she was, like, way out of the closet, and she'd go on TV and talk about that she was a lesbian. She even mentioned that your father was a sperm donor on TV, right?

BILTON: That's right.

GROSS: And in fact, that's what made your father decide, well, I'm not going to keep my pledge anymore to just have her be the only person I donated my sperm to. She broke her promise to me to keep me anonymous. So I'm just going to go, you know, donate a lot more sperm and make some money. But anyway, so she went from being really public and on TV to then, like, losing one of her jobs when people found out that she was gay. And then, that kind of forced her back into the closet to protect her ability to earn a living. So what were some of the difficulties you faced as a child not being sure of what was OK to tell people and when it was okay to tell them?

BILTON: Yeah, I think in many ways my pride around my mother's sexuality mirrored hers. So at times when she was sort of out in the public or speaking on talk shows about, you know, our nontraditional family and, you know, leading the charge on gay and lesbian expos, all kinds of things, she - I think I really adopted that pride, and it was something that I was very open with at school. But I think at times, like you said, when she lost her job due to it or went back in the closet, I think - you know, as kids, we so often take our parents' attitudes towards things. And so I also became deeply ashamed of it, and I was bullied at school for it quite a bit.

You know, I went to a lot of different schools growing up because things were up and down with us financially. And, you know, there were schools I went to where it was a secret, where I didn't have a single friend who knew that my mom was gay, for example. And, you know, there was - there's a scene in the book I document when one of the children who knows my secret - and she tells the whole school, and it's awful for me. So I think people forget that so much has - I mean, in so many parts of the world, nothing has changed, and homophobia is still what it is. But it's wild to think that even in Los Angeles, where I grew up, this is what the '80s and '90s were like.

GROSS: Your mother's grandfather was a governor of California. Her father was a judge - whereas your mother, you describe as a pioneer of new age - several new age religions and cults. It sounds like she kind of went in the opposite direction of her family.

BILTON: My mother did have early political ambitions. I think back when she was closeted in the '70s and going to college at UCLA, she studied political science. And then, I think largely to deal with what was happening at home and the complexity of her father's escalating alcoholism, I think what she did is she went in search of another family. And I think - you know, that's usually a recipe for someone who is drawn to cultlike organizations. So first, she became deeply involved with Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, which some people believe was a cult.

GROSS: That's the group that practices the chant, Namu Myoho Renge Kyo.

BILTON: Yes. One of the beliefs of the Namu Myoho Renge Kyo Buddhists is that if you chant this magical chant, good things will happen to you. And if you don't chant, bad things will happen to you and your family. So when my mother - you know, at that time, she was also discouraged from her lesbianism through the group. So they told her that her feelings towards women were part of her negative karma and that she could chant to remove this aspect of herself. And there was a point after becoming a leader in this organization - and, you know, women would come to my mother for advice and counsel, and they would be telling her all kinds of real problems about their life. And at some point, telling them that all they had to do was chant this magic chant and everything would work out didn't ring true to her any longer, so she left the group. And it was shortly after that that her father - her father's tragic death happened. And for a long time, my mother carried around the belief that the reason this happened was because she left the group and didn't chant.

GROSS: You're married now to Nick Bilton, a former New York Times Tech reporter who now writes for Vanity Fair. You have two children. What does it feel like for you to be in a stable family, to be a parent and wife in a stable family?

BILTON: Oh, it's a magical - it's wonderful. I would trade nothing for it. Just the idea that, you know, my home is not at risk of - I'm not at risk of being evicted from my home tomorrow, and it's not a huge life stressor if we have a doctor's bill that comes up that was unexpected. I mean, I - you know, one of the silver linings, I think, from coming from an unpredictable childhood is that if you're able to get out of that, you just feel so grateful for everything.

GROSS: Do you feel like you have a road map for raising children since you were raised in such unusual circumstances?

BILTON: I do. I think - you know, my mother had a lot of beautiful qualities when she wasn't struggling with her addictions. You know, there are many ways that she raised me that I cherish. And she's an amazing grandmother. She's over as much as we're willing to take her help to help with the kids. I think the big thing - and this is something that I share with all my siblings - is that my mother - you know, there are a lot of kids out there who feel unwanted. And I always felt that my mother desperately wanted to be a mother. And that is such a gift just to be wanted and to have someone who cares about you so deeply. I think that I'm very lucky for that.

GROSS: Chrysta Bilton, thank you so much for telling us some of your story, and congratulations on your memoir.

BILTON: Thank you so much, Terry, for having me.

GROSS: Chrysta Bilton's new memoir is called "Normal Family: On Truth, Love, And How I Met My 35 Siblings." After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review the new HBO series "The Rehearsal," in which comedian Nathan Fielder gives advice to people about their personal lives. His previous advice series was on Comedy Central and was called "Nathan For You." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGABLE PLANETS SONG, "REBIRTH OF SLICK (COOL LIKE DAT)")

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