The best stories sometimes present themselves not in the newsroom but in our personal lives, in the most random of ways. We just have to be paying attention – and thinking like reporters – to notice them.
That’s what Sydney-based enterprise writer Kristen Gelineau was doing when a friend mentioned he’d found out through an Ancestry.com DNA test that his biological father was a sperm donor. The friend then told Gelineau about a new law in the Australian state of Victoria, which gave offspring of long-anonymous sperm and egg donors the right to know who the donors were. Gelineau had missed the news of the law, but immediately started researching it and thought “Wow. Now THIS is a story!!”
She was right – and her multi-format account of one such unique reunion, told in ways both comic and moving, wins Beat of the Week for Gelineau, enterprise team photographer Maye-E Wong, NY-based digital storytelling producer Natalie Castañeda and New Delhi-based videojournalist Shonal Ganguly.
The first step for Gelineau was to contact various donor groups and VARTA, the agency that handles donor and offspring matches. The agency put her in contact with donor Peter Peacock and biological daughter Gypsy Diamond. This was last August – a full year ago. At that stage, Pete and Gypsy both insisted they would talk only if they could stay anonymous. They had only just started emailing each other.
Hoping they would change their minds, Gelineau started talking to both of them off the record, and when she learned their backstories, they became her first choice of main characters for the story. But anonymity was still an issue. Gypsy, who had reached out to Pete, hadn’t told her own father anything about him, and Pete’s daughters “were still freaked out by Gypsy,” Gelineau says. So she kept talking to other donors and donor kids, but also continued speaking with Peter and Gypsy, hoping they’d eventually come around. Peter warmed up to going on the record after a few months of talking, she says. “I basically explained that it was important to have his real name in the story because in the era of ‘fake news,’ people wouldn’t believe the story otherwise.”
Then Gypsy found out that in addition to her, there were 15 other kids from Peter’s donation (including her own brother). She went silent for a while. Gelineau kept in contact with Peter, and kept trying, politely, to stay in contact with Gypsy. “I had to toe a very delicate line between staying in touch and reminding them that I wanted their story, without pressuring them so much that they got spooked and shut down,” she says. “It was really tricky and I agonized over every message and phone call.”
Given how intensely personal their tale was, and the potential for it to cause major upset within their families, Gelineau felt it would have been unethical to push them into it. “It was crucial to let them come around to doing the story on their own terms,” she says.
“It was crucial to let [Peter and Gypsy] come around to doing the story on their own terms.”
Kristen Gelineau, Sydney-based enterprise reporter
In March, Gelineau was losing hope and about to go with another donor-conceived woman as her main subject. She sent one more email to Peter, and coincidentally, it was a few days before his first meeting with Gypsy. She asked if she could join; they declined, but Gelineau asked him to give her a detailed rundown of what happened. The meeting went beautifully, and when Gelineau spoke to Peter, he indicated Gypsy might be warming to the idea of going on the record. Gelineau emailed Gypsy, telling her how she “thought her and Pete’s story was so emblematic of how these new donor laws can bring about positive change and about the importance of knowing your identity and where you came from. I told her that I felt a lot of people could really relate to her journey.”
No response. She left a voicemail. No response. She sent another email, asking if she could potentially write the story just with her first name. And then Gypsy responded, saying she had decided she was comfortable enough to do the story, on the record, with her full name. “I actually screamed out loud in the bureau when I got her email,” Gelineau says. It had taken seven months to convince Gypsy to go on the record.
“I actually screamed out loud in the bureau when I got her email,” Gelineau says. It had taken seven months to convince Gypsy to go on the record.
Gelineau calls it “one of the most excruciatingly long processes I’ve ever gone through to get an interview.” But it was worth it. “I really don’t think the story would have been half as strong with any of the other donor kids I interviewed,” she says. “Besides, how can you possibly beat the names Gypsy Diamond and Peter Peacock?” Indeed, one of the funniest lines in the piece is about the moment when Peter, on email, asked Gypsy if Gypsy Diamond was really her actual name. “If I was going to make one up to contact my donor,” she wrote back, “I probably wouldn’t choose one that sounded like a porn star.”
The metrics were impressive: The story averaged two minutes of engagement on Thursday, and was up to more than three minutes on Friday. The Australian (Australia’s biggest newspaper) splashed it across the top of their website. Readers engaged in thoughtful debate on whose rights should reign supreme in such situations. One reader said: “Thank you so much for telling this story with such compassion. As an offspring currently going through this, you captured the emotions of donor conceived agency so eloquently in ways a lot of other reporting on the issue so often disregards.”
Photos by Maye-E Wong beautifully captured the relationship between the two characters. The package also featured a long audio piece brilliantly produced and edited by Natalie Castañeda that told the story of Peter and Gypsy in their own voices.
Peter and Gypsy loved the story. Gypsy wrote: “You’ve all done such a great job and have been so respectful.” Peter said: “You have done us both proud.”
For their dogged pursuit and sensitive execution of such a delicate story, and for striking just the right tone, Gelineau, Wong, Castañeda and Ganguly win this week’s Beat of the Week award.