He clicked and read: “I did not expect to see such a close relation on this site. I apologize if this is uncomfortable with me reaching out to you.”
His office that day in March 2018 was crowded with the family photos of a man happily anchored in his place, a position carved out deliberately over the past decades. There was Cleary, a teenager, with his Corvallis high school football team. There he was as a middle-aged doctor, smiling with orphans in Ghana, and at his wedding to his second wife, his arms wrapped around his three grown sons.
Almost all of Cleary’s life had played out within a short drive of where he now sat. He was 10 minutes away from his childhood home. Seven minutes from the fields where he — and then years later his sons — played high school baseball. Five minutes from the church he attended as a kid, the same church where his mother’s ashes had been scattered. The only significant time he had spent away from Corvallis was during medical school in Portland at Oregon Health & Science University, where at one point he became a sperm donor.
Now, nearly three decades later, as he kept reading, Cleary realized that Ancestry had identified him to one of his donor children. In fact, to two of them.
The message was from a woman in her 20s. She wrote that she and her sister were both Cleary’s. “I thought I might write to say thanks for donating all those years ago,” she wrote, and then asked about his family medical history. “Again, I apologize if reaching out is too much or overstepping any boundaries,” she added.
Cleary had spent little time thinking about his donor children. He said that at the time he donated, he was told there would be at most five and all would be located on the East Coast, and his own role would be hidden behind anonymity. When genealogical websites like Ancestry and 23andMe became popular, he realized he one day might be revealed to the children he helped bring into the world. He had begun wondering if that day would come. He was not prepared, however, to be matched with a donor child within days of his DNA test results hitting the site, or for what would come next.
Technology has given users of genealogical databases the opportunity to know more about themselves, to expose family secrets and explore historical roots with forensic exactitude. The databases now have millions of subscribers, and as their popularity has grown, so too has their influence: When the coronavirus pandemic began, for instance, both Ancestry and 23andMe announced that they had started large-scale studies using their databases to look for genetic clues for patterns of infection.
But what if the information that’s now increasingly available, and increasingly part of the mainstream, becomes overwhelming, as Cleary says has happened to him? In the two years since that first message of gratitude, he has learned that there were not just two donor children but at least 19, that many lived within two hours of his home, and that he may never really know how many donor children exist. The knowledge he’s gained because of expanding technology has hauled the most intimate details of his life into a courtroom as part of a lawsuit he filed and has led him to say, “I wish in retrospect I was ignorant of all this.”
None of that was on Cleary’s mind, though, as he read the first message and began to type out a response.
* * *
It was 1989 when he decided to become a sperm donor, long before the existence of public genetic databases that could link donors to their children. Cleary was in his early days of medical school then and remembered that faculty members would often ask for research volunteers. Sleep deprivation studies. Electrocardiogram tests. One day a woman from the hospital’s fertility clinic arrived looking for sperm donors.
“At that time when you’re a first-year med student, you want to help everybody,” he said. “That was the appeal to me. Why not? You’re doing a great thing for a couple.”
He did have concerns. Cleary had grown up in a large and close family in Corvallis, and his ambition was to return home and start his own version of such a family. When he spoke to the staff at the OHSU fertility clinic about donating, he said, he explained he was worried about donor children in Oregon meeting and mixing with the biological children he hoped to raise.
According to Cleary, he was told that his samples would be shipped to the East Coast, where they would be used for five pregnancies at most. The rest would go to research.
Cleary started making weekly trips to the clinic, earning $40 for each sample. He continued over the course of a year but eventually stopped as the life he envisioned for himself began clicking into place. He married a woman from Corvallis after his first year of medical school. They had their first of three sons. The young family moved back to their hometown in 2000 and later adopted a 7-month-old girl from Russia. Cleary eased into a family medical practice and spent his days caring for patients, many of them people he had known all his life — former teachers, members of his church, his sons’ baseball coaches.
After his divorce from his first wife, Cleary married again in 2011, expanding his family with four grown stepchildren. In December 2017, his second wife presented him with the Ancestry.com kit for Christmas.
Three months later, Cleary sat staring at the message from the young woman whom the website had identified as his daughter. In the decades since medical school, his life had been so crowded with his family duties and career, he had devoted little thought to the possibility of donor children. “For all those years I was so busy with my life, I just thought it was something I had done,” he explained later. Now he realized that was only possible because they had been so abstract. “But it’s so much different when you actually communicate with them.”
He also now found himself wrestling with questions he never imagined confronting, questions about his responsibilities toward children he never expected to meet. “Who am I not to give them information and tell them about my health history?” he explained, and so in his first reply he outlined his family medical background, adding: “Too many cheeseburgers have gotten me fat. But I am working on it.”
Over the next months, he continued to swap messages with the woman and her sister, learning among other things that they had been raised by a single mother. With each exchange, he felt a deepening sense of attachment, and as Cleary spent more time talking with the sisters in 2018, he believed that if any of the other donor children appeared, he could be there for them, as well.
That moment came in January 2019. It was another workday. Cleary was again at his medical practice, sitting at his office computer between patients. The email was from a woman named Robyn Fox. She thanked Cleary for donating all those years ago. He responded with a friendly email, thanking her for getting in touch. He mentioned he understood that he might have as many as five donor children.
When Cleary returned to his office later in the morning, another new message was in his inbox from a different stranger. As he began reading, he saw that the sender’s name was Allysen Allee and that she was also a donor child.
He read: “I recently learned some disturbing information I think you should be aware of.”
He read: “It was brought to my attention that you are under the impression there would be a max of five children born of your donation and that they would be in the East Coast. I was extremely bothered by this because it could not be further from the truth.”
He read: “We know a MINIMUM 14 were born. . . . I can tell you right now that some of us have lived in the same town, or even attended the same schools at some points.”
* * *
While Cleary sat at his computer absorbing the news, Allee, 26, was in an empty classroom an hour and a half north in Vancouver, Wash. A high school teaching assistant, she had interrupted her day to send the message, propelled by a sense of urgency.
Technical innovation had shaped Allee’s life even before she was born, when her mother and father traveled to OHSU for a sperm donor. More recently genetic databases had allowed her to know the identities of her donor siblings and patch together a second family, one that grew with each new genetic match.
Allee had learned that she was a donor child when she was 19. “I was really fine with it. For a lot of people who find that out, it’s shattering,” she said later. “But for me, my mom and dad wanted me so badly that they had me no matter what.”
But she did have questions. A few weeks after finding out, she said, she went to OHSU’s fertility clinic, where she remembered a staff member handing her a single sheet of paper — “Profile for Sperm Donor #8928” — that listed some of his basic characteristics. Hair color: Brown. Eye color: Gray/Blue. Occupation: Professional, science-related. Religion: Baptist.
Allee wasn’t interested in her donor father as much as the identities of potential brothers and sisters. She said the OHSU staff told her there were other children born from the same donor and referred her to a national registry of donor children who had made their birth history and contact information public.
Not much later, Madi McCallum, 28, was coming home from her job in San Francisco when her cellphone buzzed with a text from an unknown number: “This is probably the weirdest text you will ever get, but I’m looking for a Madi who was conceived using donor #8928,” it said.
“Oh my gosh,” McCallum wrote back. “Hi, yes that’s me.”
“Hello, I’m Allysen. And apparently I’m your sister.”
McCallum had been born in Grants Pass, Ore. Like Allee, she had discovered she was a donor child when she was 19, and like Allee, she wanted to find her donor siblings, which was why she had uploaded her phone number to the online registry and waited more than a year before Allee’s message.
They learned that their lives synced in many ways. They had the same unmanageable hair and thick eyebrows, and such a revulsion to the taste of cilantro that it seemed genetic. Even their dispositions mirrored each other. “We both have been told a lot that we can be intimidating, that we both have really strong personalities, and it didn’t come from our moms,” McCallum said.
Together, they went to Portland to meet with an OHSU official. According to both, when they asked how many brothers and sisters they might have, they were told that there had been 14 births within the Oregon region and that samples had been sent elsewhere as well.
After leaving OHSU, Allee and McCallum decided to find as many siblings as possible. They tapped the online genetic-testing market, uploading their own DNA to multiple websites. Right away they matched with a young man in his 20s from Portland.
“Instantly there was a connection,” Allee said. When the three met for the first time, the physical resemblance was there. Same forehead. Same nose. Same eyes.
The three became close. They used a private Facebook group chat to explore their similarities and differences while they continued to look for other siblings.
They also used the information they had received from OHSU about the donor’s own brother and sisters to search ancestry websites for other family connections. Eventually Allee came to the conclusion that Bryce Cleary, a doctor in Corvallis, was their father. A picture she tracked down online seemed to confirm it. It was all there in his face. Same prominent forehead. Same wide nose. Same deep-set eyes.
But none of them felt the need to let Cleary know they existed.
“In my mind, he didn’t sign up to be a dad,” Allee said. “He signed up at that time to help families.”
In January 2019, Allee got notice of a new match, to Fox. After Allee and the others reached out to her and Fox responded, they passed along information about Cleary, including his email address.
“I rewrote it about 20 times,” Fox said recently about the email she sent. His response, she said, was “phenomenal . . . he sent me an email back with all his information.” The only thing she said she was confused about was when he mentioned having a maximum of five donor children. Allee had told her there were 14.
She shared with the others on Facebook what Cleary had written, and Allee remembered becoming angry. Just that month they had discovered two new siblings, and they expected more connections soon. “He needs to know this,” she thought. Allee started typing.
“I am insanely (maybe overly) disturbed by this and the fact that this is not the information you were given at donation or conception,” she wrote to Cleary. “I feel that it’s something that not only effects our lives as donor children but potentially the lives of your own children that you raised.”
* * *
Allee’s email left Cleary feeling confused. The genealogical websites had given him a window into the lives of his donor children. But what he now saw there was not what he had expected.
Questions started tumbling through his mind, starting with the women two of his sons were married to and his third son’s fiancee. Could any of the women be his donor children? He mentally pictured each, thought about their eye color, their hair, their height and shape, searching the details for any echo of his own features.
He felt relieved when there were no similarities, but then came more questions: How many children could there be? Where exactly are they? Are they alive? Are they healthy? Are they happy? Do they want to meet him? Could they be here?
Everywhere Cleary went, he found himself confronted by the questions. Sunday church. Restaurants. The 7-Eleven where he filled up his Big Gulp mug with Diet Pepsi every morning.
One day he sat across from a new patient, a young man in his 20s. As usual, he asked for a family medical history. The patient said he didn’t know. His mother had used a sperm donor. Cleary excused himself, stepping into the hallway. When the flash of panic finally stopped, he returned to the examination as if nothing were wrong. But that feeling of anxiety wouldn’t lift, especially after he learned from Allee that one of the siblings she matched with was a woman who not only had grown up in Corvallis but once worked in Cleary’s medical building.
A few months after Allee’s email, Cleary opened his front door in Corvallis and greeted the sisters he had first learned about the previous year. After many emails, this was the first time they had met in person, and it was his first face-to-face encounter with a donor child. He wrapped each in a hug and felt a jolt of paternal affection.
“I meet people every day, and there was something different here,” he said later. “It really was a different feeling being in the same room with them.”
Nine months after getting Allee’s email, Cleary filed a lawsuit accusing OHSU of fraud and inflicting emotional distress, and asking for $5.2 million in damages.
After the suit was filed, the university issued its only public comment to date, saying in a statement that “OHSU supports and adheres to patient privacy laws,” that its “laboratory is rigorously reviewed and . . . in compliance with all state and federal regulations,” and that “OHSU stopped recruiting anonymous donors and collecting anonymous sperm samples in 2011.”
The statement continued: “Today, new patients seeking donor sperm samples are referred to multiple outside sperm bank options to select a suitable donor, and samples are shipped to OHSU laboratories for patient use. A limited supply of OHSU anonymous donor sperm collected prior to 2011 is available to patients.”
Cleary, meanwhile, finally met Allee in person at a news conference held in conjunction with the filing of the lawsuit. He was in a room, trying to figure out what he was going to say, when there was a knock at the door.
“Hi,” she said, and as Cleary stood up and they shook hands, he again felt the emotional pull he had encountered when he met the sisters.
Soon after that, Cleary’s attorneys found additional donor children, bringing the total to 19. And soon after that, Cleary felt his anxiety deepen even more.
For the decades when he knew nothing, the children had been abstract, easy to ignore. Then they were names on emails and polite messages in his inbox. Now they were real people, people whose hands he had shaken, young men and women with their own children and families, lives he could see on Facebook. The case was also public now, and he wondered how much his patients and neighbors and friends knew, and if what they knew had changed their opinions about him. He began seeing a therapist. He logged off Ancestry.com and made his Facebook page private. Then, at least for the time being, he decided to cut off communication with the donor children he had been speaking with.
“The ones who know who I am, they have the option to get in touch,” he explained. “But I also think there’s a bunch running around who have no idea they’re donor kids. As the years go by, they are going to jump on a website and find out. Then they have to make that choice. But I’m stuck sitting waiting for a knock on the door or an email. Emotionally, it’s tough for me to do that. There’s this constant battle between curiosity and dread.”
At times, he acknowledged, curiosity wins, as it did one afternoon when he sat in his empty office and pulled up the Facebook page of a man his attorneys said was the latest to be identified. Once again, his own features — forehead, nose, eyes — were on the screen. Then he began looking at the young man’s Facebook friends.
There was Allee. McCallum. Fox. Another. Another. Another.
* * *
He wasn’t alone in dealing with the implications of this. The faces he was looking at on his computer screen were of people also working through how their lives had been changed.
Fox, 2,300 miles away in Nashville, knew now that the next addition to her donor family might be waiting whenever she sat down at her computer. “Anytime I get a Facebook request, I automatically look at their noses, then I send a screengrab to my siblings to see if anybody else got a hit on any of their genealogical sites to this person,” she said.
McCallum, 600 miles away in San Francisco, thought of her growing family as a gift, but also one in which each new sibling would be changed irrevocably by the knowledge. “Once we’ve gone there, we can’t go back,” she said.
Allee, 90 miles away in Vancouver, Wash., recognized that for the donor children, the knowledge about their biological family tree would keep coming. “I’m thankful this much information is accessible, because if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to find my siblings,” she said. “But it’s frustrating and overwhelming to know that it’s going to always keep happening. There’s never going to be a moment when we’re like, ‘Okay, we found everybody, we’re done.’ There’s always going to be a next one.”
Back in his office, Cleary stared at a small portion of the donor children he now knew about.
“I don’t think morally or ethically I’m responsible to do or provide anything for any of them other than I gave the sperm that conceived them. That’s my logical brain,” he said as he continued to look. “But then my heart and faith and everything else says: ‘Hey, wait. These are human beings running around with your genes.’
“But where’s the line?” he asked. “What’s the right thing to do?”
Two years after receiving the first message, those were the two questions most on his mind, and they followed him everywhere, including into his waiting room, filled now with patients seeking coronavirus tests.
Their question: Do I have covid-19?
His question: Could they be one of mine?
“It’s always in the back of my mind,” he said. “You don’t want to come across like I wish these kids were never born, because that’s not true at all.
“But I certainly wish I didn’t know about this.”