Most folks are curious by nature—selectively, of course, not about everything at once. When documentary filmmaker Sara Lamm learned as an adult that she was conceived via sperm donor, she became obsessed with finding this man, her “scientific” father. She records her research in a new film, Thank You for Coming, which recently received its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Billions of people find at least a part of their sense of personal identity intricately linked to family history and genetics. Rare indeed are those individuals who have no such interest. When you know nothing about the biological background of one of your parents, it’s easy to see how that search could become addictively all-consuming—and a suitable subject for a film.
When documentary filmmaker Sara Lamm learned as an adult that she was conceived via sperm donor, she became obsessed with finding this man, her “scientific” father.
Sara’s story is a little more complicated because her parents divorced when she was only two years old, and her mom, with a new boyfriend, died eight years later, at 41. Dad remarried, divorced, moved numerous times. He supports Sara’s quest for biological answers if that’s what she wants, but “I’m just here,” he says, “I’m not back there.”
In what might be called a genealogical detective story spanning an 11-year time frame, with 12 DNA tests, five ancestry databases, one potential half sister who becomes an intimate friend and aide, and multiple excursions to ancestral homelands (mostly North Carolina), to Northern California, where Dad lives, to Maui, where her potential half-sister lives, and to the fertility clinic her mom used. In the end, Sara achieves her desired dénouement of the genetic puzzle.
Similar stories are played out every day by many “Saras,” including adoptees with no biological connection to the people who become their parents. It’s a chancy affair (recently explored in the play The Lord of the Underworld’s Home for Unwed Mothers). You may find information and people you could have done without, or you may find yourself blocked at the brick wall of those parents, children or siblings who have left their past behind them and welcome no contact with nosy questioners. In an interview with the boyfriend, Colin says quite plainly that Sara’s mom would not be happy that this secret fact in the family history is being unearthed.
Yet a consensus has emerged in recent years that such knowledge can be helpful. As it is said in the film, “People go to great lengths to learn what came before.” Children in the U.S. adopted from abroad frequently visit their birthplaces to clarify their sense of identity.
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For a filmmaker, Sara is lucky to have found early home movie footage of her family, which she interrogates for every nuance of meaning that can be squeezed out of it. Along the journey she is forced to come to terms with personal loss, the meaning of family and love, the old bugaboo debate about nature or nurture, and “enlightenment” in whatever form that appears.
Viewers may learn quite a bit about DNA and the many resources available now to track biological relationships going back many centuries. We also learn something about the history of artificial insemination, which goes back only to 1884.
Watching the film, I felt drawn to Sara’s personal story in human interest terms, and wished her success. At the same time I also felt somewhat repelled by her self-absorbed attachment to concepts involving blood and biology. It seemed gratuitous on her part to have to point out to her Dad that with her mom’s death, and Sara’s move to live with Dad and his new partner, she was an “orphan” no longer related biologically to anyone in her household. “What do we have in common?” she asks him.
“We share a life together,” he answers.
In a world riven by race, ethnicity, religion, nationality and other factors, such focus on DNA for any other than scientific knowledge and advancement seems divisive. More charitably, of course, people often find that the human family truly is one if you look deeply enough—though plenty of folks arrived at that conclusion long before DNA was ever discovered.
The film premieres on June 18.
Eric A. Gordon