continued Yes, right. My own father was of that mold. But he was repulsed I think by [the Repository for Germinal Choice] because the science of it was no good. You have an optometrist and a physicist trying to do genetics that they don't really understand. And also he thought it was an unseemly way to use science. Aesthetically, he was repulsed by it.
Did your father's Jewish background contribute to his repulsion?
A couple of people have asked me that. I don't actually think it does. In my conversations with my father about it, that would never come up.
In the book you say, "We live in William Shockley's world." You're referring to his invention of the transistor, which made possible the computers we all use. And you mention how, as a man with no naval experience, he figured out a logarithm, which was very successful, to predict where German U-boats would be found. I could see how a man with that kind of success identifying and solving problems would buy into the idea that human problems could be solved similarly through eugenics.
That is exactly it. And both of them were like that. Shockley was truly a gigantic figure in American science invention, but Graham was no slouch. Graham's invention of shatterproof plastic eyeglasses was an incredibly important invention. It saved literally thousands of people from blindness every year. He also was one of the pioneers of contact lenses. He made lots of important advances in contact lens technology. He was a great inventor. They were both men who made such incredible contributions to American life, to improving the way we live. Yet they had these odd side interests which stain their legacies.
Do you think the Southern California setting is no accident?
I absolutely think that is no accident. It might not be a picture of Southern California today, but the whole venture seemed to be an example of Southern California libertarianism, in a sense of here is a place where anything is possible, where you are allowed to try anything. It's where the great new American businesses were being built and where the greatest liberty of ideas was occurring...the sense that here is America and possibility and that we can try.
And I think that Graham at once represents the sense of possibility, that you can try anything, and that this is a place where there are no rules and anything is allowed to be done as long as it doesn't raise property taxes. And yet also at the same time represents a kind of conservatism in the sense of social control, that he's got this idea of a kind of libertarianism, but libertarianism that will ultimately fuel this intensive control over these sort of idiotic masses. And I think geographically -- in the book I probably make more of this than there is to be made -- but that Escondido is right in between the [conservative] Central Valley and the [more liberal] Southern California coast...
I remember that part of the book, and I have to challenge you on your geography. Escondido is a half hour from San Diego and three and a half hours from the Central Valley.
No, really? Wait, I'm looking at a map.... Okay, you're right. It is a long way from the Valley.
Did you visit Graham's ranch in Escondido?
Yes, I went out and met Mrs. Graham. She is still there.
What were your impressions of the area? Did your visit enlighten you at all on the culture surrounding Graham's sperm bank?
Yes, coming from the East Coast, one thing I sensed was a combined existence of great natural beauty and incredible development -- possibility and nature mixed up together. And there's a sense that it's a place where you're allowed to do whatever the hell you want. Here's this land that is extraordinarily beautiful, but you know that it was your right as an American to take it and try something. So it was enlightening to me in that sense.
My feelings toward the sperm donor you call Donor White, whom you helped unite with one of his 19 sperm-bank babies, vacillated. At times, I was touched by the paternal feelings he showed toward his biological offspring, especially in contrast to the reckless seed spreaders you also met. But other times he struck me as a silly old man who should have adopted children instead of donating sperm.
I am totally on the first side of that. I think he is in fact a wonderful man. The one thing that I wanted to make very clear as I was writing about him was how completely lovable he is.
The scrapbook of information he kept on his sperm-bank kids, that didn't strike you as creepy?
Yes, that was the particular statement where I really wanted people not to think that it was creepy. It was incredibly neat and sweet. There was nothing creepy about it. And frankly, as a father myself, as a new father, I found it so moving. He wasn't doing this in a freakish way at all. He was doing it in a way that you want someone who has some sense of paternal obligation to do it. Like it killed him that he couldn't know who these children were, that he couldn't be there for them, and so this was the closest that he could get. And it was purely an act of love.