On discovering that I was sperm-donor conceived...
Part One: The Oxford-educated half-sister
Written by Matthew Archer.
Yes, love is a real magician. One has only to love, and what one loves becomes beautiful.
— Leo Tolstoy
On a Sunday evening in mid October last year, I received an email from 23&Me stating that a user wished to contact me. My first thought was that it was probably a distant cousin asking a boring question for their family tree. But the email contained a message from someone called Emily (not her real name) that changed my life forever. It read:
Hey, this app seems to think we might be half-siblings. Care to chat?
When the message came through I was relaxing on the sofa, recovering from an arduous trip across the country. My partner and I had been due to fly to Madrid the day before. We’d travelled five hours across the country only to wait another two hours in line at airport security, knowing the odds of flying were dwindling by the minute but powerless to do anything about it. The absurdly long queue, a kindly worker would later explain, was due to Covid. Many security staff had been furloughed or let go and even though the rehiring had begun months ago, each employee required a three-month-long security check. Having made it through security we then wasted a few more hours attempting to get another flight. Finally, at around 9pm, we resigned ourselves to the long coach ride into London and an impromptu stay in an AirBnB—a sketchy former council flat in trendy Battersea. Returning to bucolic, wintery Somerset the following day brought relief. Utterly exhausted, I opened my laptop to catch up on email. This wasn’t, shall we say, an optimal prelude to receiving the identity-shattering message above.
At first, I didn’t believe the message of course. But when I clicked through the maze of links to see the percentage of shared DNA (approximately 23%), almost instantly I felt it was true, yet also far too surreal to actually be the case. It was then that I started to break down. I called out for my girlfriend who was cooking dinner. All I could do was show her the laptop meekly. I must have mumbled something like, “I just got this email”. She started crying. And everything is a little bit hazy after that. I know that I wanted to be sure I wasn’t going insane and Googled “what is a half-sibling?”. Reassured, I then looked for the DNA percentage range for half-siblings and sent Emily the following message through 23&Me about 20 minutes after seeing her message, which itself had only come through a couple of hours prior:
Hey Emily, just saw your message. Did a quick google. Seems like around 25% gives a good chance of being half-siblings and we're around 23%...
So how do we figure this out?
Luckily for me, Emily had uploaded a photo to her profile. She was an attractive blonde presumably in her mid-twenties. I didn’t see any instant resemblance, but the photo was enough to find her LinkedIn and Instagram. What I saw on LinkedIn made my heart race. I quickly typed another message:
Okay, so I just stalked you and we have an odd amount of things in common. If you want to call me (and please do, I'm now dying inside), you can on: [number redacted]
I wouldn’t have to wait long for her call. What had I seen that excited me so much? Well it was clear that Emily was very clever: she’d studied physics, chemistry, and Latin at A Level, had gotten an A for each (this was before A*s existed), and had gone to Oxford to study classics, a four-year degree where Ancient Greek and Latin were taught throughout, unlike at Cambridge. I instantly remembered Charles Spearman’s 1904 analysis of English school children. He’d found classics to be the most g-loaded performance measure:
But why did knowing Emily was clever matter? After telling this story to many people, I’ve received one question several times: did you ever sense anything or feel different as a child? The answer to this latter question substantially overlaps with my answer to the former. I’m not sure I ever truly suspected anything, though I might have hoped at some point, perhaps I played around with the idea that I was adopted. However, there was one rather grand disparity that I have never really come to terms with: the gulf in intelligence between myself and my parents. Before I elaborate, I must—as an English gentleman—emphasise that I do not consider myself to be intellectually gifted. And seeing as I’m writing a book on giftedness, I think I have a fairly fine handle on the admittedly contested adjective. With that caveat aside, however, it had always been rather obvious to many (including my parents) that the intellectual distance was, in a word, inexplicable. Until Emily’s message.
When people find out that I write about and research intelligence, another question they ask is “what’s your IQ?”. Several further caveats are important here. First, I love IQ research, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near perfect as a measure of intelligence, especially for oddballs. Second, someone once said that talking about your IQ is akin to talking about the size of your dick. Finally, I’ve never had my IQ formally measured and this is absolutely crucial for an accurate score. However, it is certainly possible to get an accurate estimate of the likely range by using a number of different reputable tests. As per my second point, I will only say that I think there’s approximately a 3-sigma gap between myself and my mother. The average gap between parents and children is usually cited to be around 13 points. So a distance over three times that would be incredibly rare. It would barely be explicable if a traumatic brain injury were involved. But population averages are population averages. Intelligence might be 80-85% heritable, but an individual could have their cognitive ability predominantly set by the environment.
I didn’t know any of this at the time of course. Instead, I just felt like we spoke different languages and that it was impossible for her to learn very basic things. All of which is difficult to write, let alone say, without people thinking you’re a weird asshole for calling your own mother stupid. Note that I never used that word. And here is where the wokerati have a point: language matters. Which is why I prefer a detached, scientific descriptor, such as ‘general cognitive ability’, at least in this context.
Anyway, this canyon between myself and my parents probably played a considerable role in producing a very distant relationship. We were simply too different. I never had anything to talk to them about and as an only child living in a working-class area going to a working-class school, there were few chances elsewhere. Stir in some child neglect and maternal depression, and you have a recipe for a very odd life. I’ve never thought of myself as a victim and find that doing so is almost never useful to anybody, but again it’s hard to write descriptively without thinking that you the reader will find it hard not to project a victim mindset. So as for the neglect, I will simply say that as far back as my memory goes, I never ate breakfast or lunch (other than a chocolate bar). I would come back from school and eat a plate of grated cheddar cheese and a chocolate muffin every day at 4pm. Eventually, this would cause me to develop crippling migraines. It’s no wonder I couldn’t concentrate in class and was perpetually tired. We almost never ate fresh food for dinner, usually it was something frozen and lacking nutrition. At the age of 17 and 18, I would often eat an entire bag of Haribo sweets after school (somehow I have good teeth, according to a British dentist at least). In short, my parents were a good example of why a parenting license should have to be obtained. It will not surprise you to learn that this lifestyle led me to fail school. I received three-four GCSEs at grade C (you have to be quite thick to do that) and, unlike Emily, I never even took A Levels (the British prerequisite qualification for university). Somehow I would later make it to Cambridge (genes eventually win out I now realise), but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
In short, when I saw that Emily must be clever, everything just kind of clicked into place. The first wave of emotion was a mix of immense gratitude and a deep, deep desire for it to be true—as well as the near instantaneous unmooring of my entire reality. I spoke to a friend on the phone and he urged me to do my due diligence, not to get carried away. And then the phone rang and it was a number I didn’t recognise.
Read part two here.
Matthew Archer is the Editor-in-Chief of Aporia.