The first episode of Almost Family, the Fox drama that premiered last week, follows three women who learn that they are sisters, a collateral connection revealed after a renowned fertility doctor is found to have been secretly using his own sperm to inseminate more than 100 patients without their consent or knowledge.
From the show’s marketing—Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” is used in the trailers—to the intent behind it—creator Jason Katims called it a “beautiful, unconventional family story”—the series puts a heartwarming, endearing spin on the story. Think of it as This Is Us set against the backdrop of fertility fraud.
At one point in the premiere episode, Emily Osment’s Roxie, who is ecstatic over this new development in her life, cheers, “Finding a new family is kind of the best thing that’s happened to me in years.” In Wednesday night’s second episode, she giddily bonds with Dr. Leon Bechley (Timothy Hutton), the man whose fraud and deception turned so many lives upside down, including hers. She affectionately calls him dad.
“This is the best thing? No, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened,” Eve Wiley tells me, connecting on the phone the week of Almost Family’s premiere episode, after a summer spent seething as the show’s trailer blanketed the airwaves. “She wants to give him a hug? I wanted to punch him in the face.”
Wiley is one of an unknown number of adults, a population that likely tallies well into the hundreds and maybe more, who learned after a lifetime of believing they were conceived through a sperm donor that their mother’s fertility doctor had used his own sperm without the patient’s knowledge, just as in the plot of Almost Family.
Her biological father is Dr. Kim McMorries, her mother’s fertility doctor and the “him” Wiley wanted to punch in the face.
Until two years ago, she believed her father was a sperm donor her parents had chosen named Steve Scholl. About 15 years ago, Wiley tracked down and found Scholl, eventually developing a close relationship with him. She called him dad. He officiated her wedding. Her children call him Poppa. Then two years ago, she took DNA tests from 23andMe and Ancestry.com to learn more about her family’s health. The results changed everything.
Discovering that Dr. McMorries was actually her biological father tore her world apart, and that of her family’s. She has since become a passionate activist, crusading for legislation that would criminalize the unethical misconduct of fertility specialists like McMorries, attempting to finally bringing accountability into the largely unregulated fertility industry. Thanks in large part to her efforts, Wiley’s home state of Texas now considers the malpractice to be sexual assault.
Recent years have seen over 20 doctors all over the world make headlines after it came to light that they had, decades earlier, secretly used their own sperm to inseminate patients, usually arguing it was to increase the odds of success. Among the most famous cases, and the one that seems to be drawing the most parallels to Almost Family, is that of Dr. Donald Cline, a fertility specialist in Indianapolis who, based on DNA testing, has fathered at least 61 children.
In the week since Almost Family premiered, we talked to several of the now-grown children whose parents were defrauded by Dr. Cline and Dr. McMorries. They all admit to being triggered and, in almost every case, “horrified” by the Fox series, specifically the heartwarming, uplifting, tone it takes in dramatizing the most traumatic event of their own lives.
They had known of and many had seen the Australian series, Sisters, which Almost Family is based on. But they report being shocked by how more light-heartedly the Fox series seemed to approach the subject. They are disappointed in how the series glosses over the darkness of what they experienced, saying that it “glorifies” what they think should be considered “medical rape,” a term that some have used to describe this kind of fraud and sexual assault.
More, they feel marginalized and dismissed by the show’s repetition of a criticism they face nearly every time they speak out—that they should feel lucky to be alive, no matter what it took to bring them here—to the point that they feel the show could do actual harm to their cause of passing legislation that criminalizes these acts.
“I thought it was disgusting,” Julie Manes, one of the children secretly fathered by Dr. Cline, says about the show. “I think they minimized fertility fraud. It is medical rape and sexual assault. They made a comedy out of it. It was awful.”
Jacoba Ballard is one of the more than 60 children conceived with Dr. Cline’s own sperm in the brick office building on 86th Street in Indianapolis.
She first screened the premiere of Almost Family with some of her half siblings, a group that’s become known collectively as the “Cline Children.” (The show one-ups reality with its own reductive moniker, referring to the characters by the hashtag #BechleyBabies.)
In the aftermath of the revelation of Dr. Cline’s actions, Ballard has connected with many of her half siblings, a community bonded by unusual circumstances who talk online, by text, and occasionally in-person to support each other as they grapple with their new realities.
But despite the relationships she’s forged with these siblings, she does not recognize her experience in that of the women in Almost Family, who seem to fast-forward directly through trauma to acceptance and, in some cases, even enjoyment of their new realities.
“They bypass the whole thing of every time we find a new sibling, it’s torture all over again,” Ballard says. “It’s like the movie Groundhog Day. You have to explain to them all over again what happened, and you have to deal with your emotions all over again and you take on the responsibility of this new sibling.”
“I love these people to no end,” she continues. “They are my brothers and sisters and I would do anything for them. At the same time, we do bond over the fact that we are all living this nightmare. I can’t tell you how many times that we call each other and we cry, especially over this show.”
Julie Manes’s parents went into Dr. Cline’s office with the expectation that he would use her father’s sperm to inseminate her mother. She was never supposed to be a donor child at all. She says Dr. Cline discarded her father’s sample and replaced it with his own.
“I believe it’s both medical rape and sexual assault,” she says. “Most people think rape is with actual penetration. He physically took his sperm and his genetic material, his body fluid with purpose. He went into the other room and masturbated while our mothers were laying on the table in stirrups and came back into the room and inserted the sperm in our mothers without consent. That’s rape.”
The first two episodes of Almost Family only include the voice of one of the central characters’ mothers, whose reaction to the news that she was defrauded by Dr. Bechley is indifference. She tells her daughter, “I’m your mother. I carried you. That’s what matters—not what ended up in some test tube.”
Manes questions why the show is “downplaying” the rage and betrayal these very real families feel and are dealing with.
Marenda Tucker grew up thinking her mother had used an anonymous sperm donor to conceive her. After taking a DNA test, she found out that her biological father was actually the doctor himself, Dr. Gary Don Davis.
“Where’s the rage?” Tucker says. “I think we were all furious. Our parents were furious. My mom felt completely violated. She calls it the great bait and switch." Growing up knowing that her mother used a sperm donor, she says she “kind of glamorized” the donor. “Then to find out it’s the doctor is such a different feeling. It’s sickening.”
When asked by reporters earlier this summer how the series justifies its feel-good tone when the women at the center of it are products of “medical rape,” creator Jason Katims was taken aback by the severity of the term.
“It's a story where we’re asking the question, ‘What is family?’ One of the things that I find so charming and beautiful about this story is that these three women, as adults, are discovering that they are sisters,” Katims said. “What really attracted me to this story was that, was telling this beautiful, unconventional family story in a way that we haven't seen before.”
Tucker lets out an exasperated sigh at Katims’ comments. “It’s frustrating to see the story coming out as a TV show, but it’s not like I don’t think about this every single day,” she says. “This isn’t something that fades away into the fabric of my past. This is my reality.”
Even when the show touches on real fears these characters might have, Manes says it misses the mark. In the first episode, for example, the main character of Julia, played by Brittany Snow, has sex with a man she meets online. It’s the next day that the news breaks about her father, Dr. Bechley, secretly inseminating his patients. The man Julia slept with thinks he may be one of the resulting children. Julia is initially horrified, but the event is eventually dismissed as a kooky plot twist, and then forgotten about entirely.
“That is our worst fear,” Manes says. Many of the doctor-donor children grew up in the same small community. Now that they are all in their thirties and have their own children, they have the same concerns for their own offspring, especially as no one knows how many children were actually fathered by Dr. Cline. “The plot is completely brushed over,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it.
What incensed so many of them, too, was how the show deals with Hutton’s character, Dr. Bechley. In last week’s first episode, he is arrested. One of his biological children, in a twist that was patently implausible to everyone we spoke to, agrees to be his defense lawyer. One of her tasks is to get the sexual assault charge against him removed.
Still, the most unbelievable aspect of that plot line, to them, is that Dr. Bechley is arrested at all. After all, the doctors in their cases weren’t.
It’s only in May that Texas made it a crime for a fertility doctor to inseminate a patient without her consent, considering it sexual assault. Texas is one of only three states to criminalize this. That’s why Wiley is so frustrated by the series.
“We're working on legislation and they are actually undoing a lot of our work because they are validating a narrative that we have been trying so desperately to refute,” she says. “It is not okay for a doctor to violate the patient's trust in this capacity. At this point in time there's no accountability. There's no civil cause of action. There's no criminal cause action. So now we're further marginalized, because there's literally nothing in place by the letter of the law to protect people who are using artificial reproductive technologies.”
After we speak, Wiley sends me more examples of Almost Family’s marketing blitz that have enraged her. One is a throw pillow that says, printed in a twee font, “Home is where your 100+ half siblings live.” Another is a video interview posted on the show’s Facebook page with a woman who was conceived through a sperm donor recounting how much fun it’s been connecting with the more than 60 half siblings fathered through the same donor.
It’s heartwarming, sure. But it’s also noteworthy that the woman interviewed was not conceived through a doctor’s fraud, as the characters in the show are and as Wiley, Ballard, Tucker, Hanes, and so many others are.
“Almost Family. ‘Family’ isn’t a word I would use to describe the deceit and disgust I feel about my conception story,” Wiley says. “It doesn’t feel like family every time a new half sibling pops up and I have to be the one to turn their world upside down with the truth, not knowing how they will receive the traumatic turn of events as I expose myself to more hurt and more rejection from my ‘almost family.’ It’s that many more people who have been hurt by a man that will receive no measurable accountability.”