New episode! BioHacked: Family Secrets host T.J. Raphael
Brooklyn moms, "monogamish," T9 texting, and four of T.J. Raphael's favorite accounts to follow online.
Welcome to the Follow Friday newsletter! I’m your host, Eric Johnson.
Every week, I’ll share full transcripts of each segment from the newest episode of the Follow Friday podcast. This week’s guest is T.J. Raphael, the host of the wonderful new podcast BioHacked: Family Secrets.
Before we get to T.J., though, here’s something else that’s been on my mind: Defining what this podcast stands for. After a lot of thought, I came up with a list of five values that we strive to practice on Follow Friday:
The internet is not perfect, but we can make it better
Creativity should be celebrated in all its forms
You are reflected in the people you follow
Inclusion of and respect for diverse voices is everyone’s responsibility
We should say nice things behind people’s backs
T.J. Raphael (BioHacked: Family Secrets): Brooklyn moms, "monogamish," T9 texting
When her college friend Amber invited her to the beach five years ago, T.J. Raphael had no idea that saying "yes" would change the course of her career. On the beach, Amber told T.J. about discovering — thanks to an at-home DNA kit — that her biological father was not the man who helped raised her. Instead, her "bio-dad" was a formerly anonymous sperm donor, and Amber was not his only child finding out about him.
Reporting out the story of Amber's parentage opened the door to all kinds of stories about the "baby business," which T.J. explores in her acclaimed new podcast BioHacked: Family Secrets.
Today on Follow Friday, T.J. talks about the reporting process for BioHacked as well as four of her favorite people she follows online:
ERIC: T.J., welcome to Follow Friday.
TJ: Great to be here, thanks for having me.
ERIC: Thanks so much for being here. I was curious about this podcast when I first saw it announced, but I have to say it's one of those shows that I started listening to it, and I was hooked from the first episode. So to start off, why don't you tell folks where the idea for BioHacked started? How did you start reporting on the baby business?
TJ: Yeah, so the story really fell into my lap, I was at the beach with my friend Amber and her husband. Amber and I went to college together, we were never super close. We were in the same journalism classes and would see each other after class, things like that.
We graduated from school, we went our separate ways. I really hadn't seen her in almost a decade. Then I bumped into her in New York where we both were living at the time. I'm still here, she's now relocated to upstate New York. But I bumped into her and she said "We should hang out, I'm going to the beach this weekend with my husband." She had a car, and if you know anything about New York, getting to the beach without a car is a pain, so I said sure, I'll go.
It was a little awkward because we weren't super close friends, but we were catching up and she said to me, "I have this crazy story to tell you." And she told me that she had done a 23andMe kit for fun and found out that her father was not her biological father and that she was actually conceived through an anonymous sperm donor. And at this time, she still hadn't tracked down her donor father — as she calls him her "bio-dad" — and being a nosy journalist, I said "This is wild, can I record you? I'd love to tell this story."
And so as I got out into Amber's personal story, I started asking questions to help me suss out her story. I said "Well what about the clinic where you were conceived, have you tried to get records there?" It turns out the clinic no longer exists and there's no law in the United States that says those records need to be maintained in any way for donor-conceived people to access in the future. Or, if you're a parent with a donor-conceived child and, say, your kid is 15 or 20 and they wanna get health information, and the clinic you conceive them at 20 years ago closes, there's no way for you to potentially reach out to the clinic and ask them to talk to the donor to get more health information, or things like that.
I was like, well that seems kind of alarming. And so essentially, as I kept reporting on Amber's story and fact-checking the things that she was up against in her own sort of journey to track down her bio-dad, I started realizing how vastly unregulated the fertility industry in the United States really is.
A Harvard business professor, Debora Spar, she wrote a book called The Baby Business, which I read and she told the New York Times "there are more rules that go into buying a used car than there are with donor sperm." Which was completely shocking to me. I'm like wait, aren't we creating people?
So that's really how my interest developed with this story, it just felt too bizarre to be true. And as I continued to kind of dive deep, I found more stories of donor-conceived people. Some people who had been conceived through selective breeding experiments, and I found more shocking tales that were wrapped up in the baby business. And I thought, well this is definitely a podcast.
So I had been, for the last five years, doing reporting, I had pitched it all over, I'd pitched it at WNYC, I had pitched it at Slate, I pitched it a couple times here, even at Sony. And the timing has finally kind of been right now for us to make this show. So yeah, that's how I kind of got interested in this.
ERIC: Yeah, I mean, it really goes to some shocking places. I'm not the sort of person who listens to a lot of what I would call shocking podcasts, like I'm not a true crime person, but this has really gone to some places that are just truly jaw-dropping, so I highly recommend it.
After Amber — the first two episodes are about her and her family ... after that, how did you find other people who were the subjects of later episodes? Were you going online, in these Facebook groups where people are the children of sperm donors? Were you just hanging out there and saying like "hey, anyone want to talk?" What was your process there?
TJ: So Amber was really helpful in connecting me with other people. So once she made this discovery about herself, she joined a Facebook community called We Are Donor Conceived. I think three-quarters of the people in that group, there are almost 3000 of them now, and three-quarters of them, according to a group survey that the moderator did, are just like Amber, who found out accidentally because of an at-home DNA kit. Others have known their entire lives, and others sort of learned in their teen years.
It's also a private group and as a journalist, I was not allowed access to it because it's this private community, and so I would ask Amber, I'm looking for more people to talk to, can you post up a request? And she did, and the emails I got from people just started flowing in. Then I would start doing initial interviews with them to suss out their stories, and that's kind of how I was able to build my source list. Some other folks in the series were names that I found through academic journals, law journals.
In a recent episode we did on a woman named Brittany Johnson, her family wound up having to sue the California Cryobank, which is still one of the largest sperm banks in the world today. And through that trial, it was discovered that the Cryobank knowingly sold Brittany's parents genetic material that was tainted with a rare genetic condition.
So I spent two or three months trying to track down Brittany Johnson. I didn't know if she was still alive, given the seriousness of the genetic condition she had inherited. There's a very high chance that at some point she will need a kidney transplant in order to survive, so I didn't even know if she was out there. And the name Brittany Johnson is a pretty common one, I didn't know where she lived.
So in my reporting process, I've used a lot of different avenues of searching public records, searching through Facebook to find people. The same goes with one of our episodes, we spoke with Dr. Jerome Sherman, who literally invented the technique for cell-cryopreservation. So the ability to freeze sperm, to freeze eggs, and to freeze other kinds of genetic material that may be used in medical settings or in scientific context for experimentation.
And Jerome Sherman is 96 years old, so I figured there's no way this guy's still alive, so I called up his son and said "Do you have any memories of your dad you could share with me about his pioneering research." And he's like, "Well dad's actually still alive, and he does water aerobics a couple times a week and likes to go fishing." I said "no way, he's still alive, would he talk to me?" And so that's how I found him.
But yeah, it was kind of a multitude of different ways in terms of building my source list through Amber, connecting with other donor-conceived people that she knew were willing to talk. Then just going through the literature in academic journals. And academic journals are boring, for the most part, they're really dry, and so finding the real human story at the center of these writings, to tell the story.
ERIC: Yeah, and so you've been reporting this for five years, is that what you said?
TJ: Yeah, I've been working on it on and off for the last five years. It's actually really interesting, when our final episode publishes in May, it will be almost five years to the day that Amber got that message from Caitlin, her half-sister, on 23andMe, that wound up revealing the truth. So it's kind of coming full circle, when our last episode published, it was just a few days off from when she first made that discovery five years ago.