It actually sounds like a story from a comic book about a super villain: an evil doctor impregnates countless women without their knowledge to breed a vast aryan race of offspring who grow up to form an army. And when we say vast, we’re talking 96 siblings and counting.
Sadly, this is a true story and the subject of Netflix’s latest documentary, Our Father. In Indianapolis fertility doctor Donald Cline used his own sperm as donor material for his patients repeatedly, without their knowledge or consent – sometimes replacing anonymous sperm, and sometimes, horrifically, replacing their partner’s sample. Many of these children – and their mothers – grew up believing the father that raised them was their biological father but it wasn’t until one of the children, now grown, used a home DNA kit to trace her ancestry that she uncovered the truth. A truth that kept on growing.
To say these children grew up and formed an army is a slight exaggeration. That’s the comic book version. But as the documentary shows, the woman at the center, Jacoba Ballard, did become something of a leader for the scores of individuals who gradually discover that they too are one of the Cline children after registering a DNA test. The siblings aren’t an army but many of them did band together to support each other and confront Cline.
‘Every time I find a new sibling, it’s like I’m ruining their life,’ says Ballard (in an interview with The Guardian). Yet every time she finds a new sibling she goes out of her way to contact them, to gently explain and try to help them through what is often a devastating revelation. A revelation that was just as devastating to her and the original seven siblings she discovered which led them to uncovering what Cline did.
It’s a documentary about an unspeakable act, it’s one about women’s rights, women’s bodies and the law. But it’s also one about a woman who selflessly and tirelessly, with maximum empathy fought to expose this anomaly in the law (44 other doctors have since been found to also use their own sperm in fertility treatments) and to support her unwitting siblings.
Many true life documentaries that are popular at the moment focus on gross blokes who either did or did not murder someone (or many someones), cults, miscarriages of justice and glamorous con women. Our Father obviously features a gross bloke who did something unspeakable but the focus is not on him, but Ballard and the growing mass of siblings and mothers affected. Yes, their trauma is explored but this is a hero’s story, not a victim’s. Ballard was repeatedly ignored by news networks until one local reporter finally picked up the story and now with the documentary finally coming to Netflix to tell her story to the widest audience, she has said she is hopeful that anyone who could possibly have been affected will get DNA tested.
Cline isn’t in prison. In fact he was only fined $500 for lying about what he had done and thereby obstructing justice and although he lost his medical license he was still doing fertility work until 2009 so it’s entirely likely other children of his will exist. So what Ballard is doing in telling this story is brave work that comes at a cost to her.
Documentaries have a long history of bringing important stories to the fore. Of exposing injustices, righting wrongs, and in many instances documentaries have resulted in genuine positive change. There can also be an attraction to watching docs to stare into the abyss, to marvel at the worst of humanity, to try to understand why, and how, the worst of us do what they do.
Our Father has both: the incredible story of a man who did something almost unimaginable for reasons we can’t truly understand, where he is not the protagonist and he is given no screen time and where the women and men he wronged control the narrative. And it’s a richer experience for it.
Our Father is available to stream on Netflix now.