Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception
Published by Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN-10: 1137297662, ISBN-13: 978-1137297662
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I don't often put my hand up to review books when they pop
through the letterbox. Normally, after the pleasure of opening the parcel and
inhaling the scent of fresh book, I quickly put it on someone else's desk.
This book however was different — it stayed on my desk and
went into my bag. Perhaps it was because I had already heard Professor Carol
Smart, one of the authors, give a presentation about some of the findings
presented in the book. Perhaps it was because we (the Progress Educational
Trust) are working with Professor Smart and Dr Petra Nordqvist on an event to
discuss some of the key themes ('Do Genes Matter? Families and Donor
Conception'). Perhaps it was because it's a slim volume.
I started reading on the train home and began to
scribble notes on the covering letter from the publisher. On reaching page 60
I had to stop my jottings as I was writing down almost every page number with a
comment such as 'good point, near top' and this wasn't too helpful. I even caught myself
muttering approval out loud, which may not have endeared me to my fellow
The title - 'Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception' - describes
the contents well. It centres on the
concerns of donor-conceived children's parents and family, which can be
summarised in this quote:
'The child many feared would be a kind of stranger rather
than a (supposedly) predictable melange of known genes or characteristics and
Having been involved with issues around donor conception for
more than ten years I appreciated the concise yet elegant style. The authors
contrasted the 'pall of failure' that many heterosexual couples experience when
they realise that their best option is gamete donation with the 'wonderfully
fortuitous' opportunity that typified the experience of lesbian couples.
I enjoyed the language and imagery the authors used; describing,
for example, the impact of undergoing gamete donation on wider family as 'tiny
tsunamis' in a small pond. Identity-release donors were described as an 'absent presence' as 'enigmatic' and 'both
tantalising and yet unthinkable'.
The quotations which have been pulled out from the
interviews of families conducted by Dr Norqvist ground the book in the reality
of the day-to-day experience not just of the parents but of grandparents and
other family members.
All parents and grandparents can easily become fixated by
what young children will or won't eat and this grandmother of donor conceived
twins was no exception:
'Sometimes you think, "Good Lord, what on earth is
going on there? That's not Jill or Mike..." Well they both like olives, none
of ours ate olives. These children like olives. And I am thinking, you know, is
that something to do with a Spanish inheritance, a gene or something? I don't
know. I am fine about that I think that's great'.
This book isn't a dry academic tome whose primary purpose is
to be cited and referenced before fading into obscurity. On the contrary, it is
accessible and can be read by anyone with an interest in donor conception. I
would strongly recommend it to parents of donor-conceived children to whom it could
be enormously reassuring - it can be extremely comforting to know that you are
not the only one to have 'niggling worries'.
One of the book's great strengths is that it seems to
champion difference while pulling together some common experiences, feelings
and attitudes to donor conception. After all, as the authors say:
'How donor conception works depends very significantly on
how existing networks of kinship are already working in a given family'.
My copy of the book may be rather dog-eared
from train journey reads and from pulling it out of my bag at various meetings and
urging people to read it, but it now has a permanent home on my desk.
The themes of 'Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception' will be discussed at the free public event 'Do Genes Matter?' in central London on the evening of Thursday 22 May. Book your place now by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
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