Author: Cynthia Weil
Publication: March 13, 2018
Hardcover: 232 pages
Digital ARC received through NetGalley.
I hemmed and hawed about how to describe this book, because it left me with extremely conflicting opinions between the “read for enjoyment” and ethically-oriented portions of my brain. Before I go into specifics, my distilled opinion is this:
a. “806” is a fun, lighthearted read, but
b. it shouldn’t be.
“806” is the story of three teens who, through various circumstances, discover they were conceived from the same donor sperm. They find each other through an online message board and, after meeting in person, decide to track down their biological father. Thus begins a madcap cross-country journey full of over-the-top (and occasionally illegal) escapades that would be entertaining if they weren’t overshadowed by one undeniable truth: this book completely fails to meaningfully acknowledge the psychological, emotional and physical realities of families affected by sperm donation.
It’s fantasy masquerading as contemporary fiction.
I typically avoid spoilers in my reviews, but this is going to be an exception, since I consider the glamorization of an extremely relevant bioethics issue to be something worth discussing without tiptoeing around details. It also sets a new high for my snark-o-meter. Consider yourself warned.
This narrative completely glosses over the real-life implications of sperm donation, using it as nothing more than a vehicle to deliver a predictable message about celebrating different kinds of families, with some interplay between family of choice vs family of blood. Nothing about it is remotely close to realistic, and it’s extremely telling that the LEAST of the offenders is the fact that the three main characters are the same age, go to the same school, and knew each other prior to the revelation of their shared parentage.
If you know anything about sperm donation (and if you don’t, never fear, more on that in a bit), you understand that children can spend years searching before they uncover even the tiniest detail about their biological father. Aside from the use of an online forum, “806” ignored all the ways a child might actually go about uncovering this information, and instead has its heroes jump through the following circus-worthy hoops:
- coming to the conclusion (with exactly supporting zero evidence) that the donor number – believed to be 806 – was accidentally mislabeled as 908
- stealing records for an anonymous sperm donor
- TAKING ADVICE FROM A PSYCHIC (I can’t make this stuff up!)
- And oh their biological dad got a tattoo of the number 806 because it was such a gosh darn meaningful experience for him. And he tells the story and shows off the tattoo on TV. Because he’s a famous rock star. And the kids happen to be watching at that exact moment. Which was predicted by the psychic.
- This is NOT. EVEN. ALL OF IT.
Unfortunately, while all this makes for excellent escapist reading, it ignores the very real hurdles faced by actual children of sperm donors, which can include:
- Only knowing a donor number, but not having a psychic at hand, or a penchant for theft
- Complete ignorance of half their medical history, including knowledge of genetic predisposition for life-threatening conditions
- Sense of loss and abandonment
- An identity problem/inner conflict known as genealogical bewilderment
There are some attempts at conveying the emotional turmoil Katie and her half-brothers feel, but it never elicited an emotional reaction on my part, and it always disappeared within a page before going back to their grand adventure. And speaking of grand adventures, when they finally do locate their bio-dad, whoa boy do we take a trip to fantasyland! He is:
- thrilled to learn they exist, and immediately introduces them as his kids to anyone within earshot after picking up the tab for blood typing and DNA testing,
- invites them to his house (BTW we have traveled from St. Louis to California by this point) and attempts to make up for lost time by spoiling the heck out of them, BUT
- of course he’s adorably blundering because teenagers are apparently completely alien to him – after a day filled with merry-go-rounds and pony rides, he overcompensates by taking them to THE PLAYBOY MANSION?!?
- ONCE AGAIN, THIS ISN’T EVEN ALL OF IT.
If I detailed all the things wrong with this book, I would’ve transcribed the entire novel. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop as they moved further from reality into fantasy, but that moment never came. Everything skates seamlessly into a happily ever after that is mind-blowingly unrealistic even compared to the rest of the book. “806” ends with the sperm donor and all three families coming together for a “family reunion,” (my eyes are getting stuck from all this rolling) with the familial relationships standing as thus:
- One boy lives with his bio-mom and impotent father. His father is 1000% chill, so grateful, just totally easygoing with zero conflicted feelings toward both his son’s manner of conception and his new relationship with his bio dad.
- One boy has two moms (I believe one is his bio-mom) who were preparing to split up but MAGIC they have rekindled the romance by the time their son gets back from dad-land. They’re also 1000% cool with everything.
- The girl lives with her single mom whose story is too convoluted to convey here, but the important point is that her mom is a needy needy woman who has been through a string of failed relationships, and we are left with the implication that she might GET TOGETHER WITH THE SPERM DONOR.
This book is the hottest of hot messes. It does a massive disservice to real people who deal with this issue, both by ineffectively conveying the fallout to both the child and the family at large, and by trivializing life-altering emotional turmoil into something that can be wrapped up into a perfect happily ever after. It also does no favors to people who may accept even the smallest fraction of this dangerously misguided story as an accurate representation of life for those born from and affected by reproductive technologies.
If you’re thinking, “But Hannah, what makes you such an expert on all this?” Well, I’m not. But I know some people who are. The folks at the Center for Bioethics and Culture have presented their view on the ethics of sperm donation (particularly anonymous, paid sperm donation) and the massive need for reform in the industry at the link above, as well as in the documentary “Anonymous Fathers Day.” Any of my statements related to the feelings of the children of sperm donation and its effects are based on the research and interviews conveyed both on the CBC website and in “Anonymous Fathers Day,” which I watched. It’s 43 minutes of gut-wrenching true stories that force you to acknowledge the dark underbelly of reproductive technology and how it contributes to the commercialization of life while simultaneously planting landmine secrets within families and deliberately denying people basic personal information.
If you get the end of this review and think, “Wow, there is now no way I could read this book in blissful ignorance,” to that I say…
That was rather the idea.
Even if you decide to write off all my concerns about how “806” addresses reproductive technology, it is far from the only problem with this book. The other massive red flag is showcased in Dylan’s character. He’s not one of the three half-siblings (Katie, Jesse and Gabe), so we don’t see as much of him, but what we do get is extremely alarming once you take a step back and really look at it. He’s in a band with Katie, and has a bad habit of professing his love for her. Repeatedly. Despite the fact that she rejects him. Every time. Shows up outside her bedroom window. FOLLOWS THEM ALL THE WAY TO CALIFORNIA. Excuse me, that is not cute puppy dog love, that is stalking. But instead of slapping him across the face (or perhaps with a restraining order), we get this:
“I had never asked him to fall in love with me…But here he was, in pain on account of me, and I was feeling bad about it. I had never felt guilty about it before. Something inside me seemed to be shifting.”
Well, it “shifts” to the point where they’re kissing by the end and Katie’s “heart is open.” NO NO NO. Dylan is not a sweet romantic, he’s what popular book website BookRiot would deem a Nice Guy™. Their description was written to fit Laurie from “Little Women”, but it nails Dylan exactly:
“He’s the kind of guy who feels entitled to a woman’s affections because, unasked-for, he has given her his. He’s the kind of guy who uses his friendship with a woman as a cover for repeatedly violating her boundaries and ignoring her rejections.”
His persistence goes way beyond the boundaries of propriety, especially considering her repeated, emphatic refusals over an extended period of time. When you add in all the current talk about consent and sexual harassment, Dylan does not deserve his ultimate victory.
My criticisms of this book are truly just the tip of the iceberg. Getting back to the bioethics issues, the “Anonymous Fathers Day” documentary digs into so many facets that “806” completely ignores, including society’s reaction to people born from sperm donation (which can be horrifically negative) and how it compares to other methods of family building, such as adoption.* One interview subject’s family includes an adopted child, a sperm donor child, and a full biological child, all within the context of a divorce and remarriage. Her revealing perspective, as well as the others’, should not be ignored. This book, conversely, can definitely be ignored, or at least read with the intent to analyze. It’s short and fast if that’s of interest to you, but under no circumstances should this been viewed as pure escapism. There is too much at stake to let this happy-go-lucky tale go unchallenged.
*The editor is an adoptee (described in an editor’s note prior to Chapter 1), and after viewing “Anonymous Fathers Day,” I don’t believe she fully understood the damaging message she was inadvertently condoning when she took this book on. There is a huge difference between the biological separation between adoptees and donor kids – only the latter is deliberately intended for separation from the moment of conception. There is also a stark difference between society’s reaction to these types of parentage.