Is there anything original left to say about persevering through a dysfunctional upbringing? Normal Family: On Truth, Love, and How I Met My 35 Siblings by Chrysta Bilton takes this question almost as a dare and shows readers that the answer is yes.
Bilton is one of at least 35 children conceived by her father, Jeffrey. He became an incredibly popular sperm donor for many families—a fact that may have been lost to history if not for the wonders of at-home DNA testing, Ancestry.com and Facebook. Yet that bizarre tale is only one small piece of Bilton’s extraordinary life; in fact, contrary to what the subtitle implies, the memoir is mostly about experiences that have nothing to do with her prodigiously fertile father.
Bilton’s mother, Debra, was full of chutzpah and sparkle. She was a lesbian, a local LGBTQ icon in Los Angeles, an activist in progressive politics and a friend and paramour to countless celebrities. (The actor Warren Beatty was temporarily in the running as a sperm donor candidate.) But Debra kept some devastating family secrets to herself: She was addicted to drugs, a profligate overspender and an enthusiastic supporter of pyramid schemes.
The narrative heart of this memoir is Bilton’s bond with Debra, as well with her younger sister. The tight threesome navigated LA’s wealthiest environs as one of the few openly queer families in the late 1980s and early ’90s. This particular struggle may resonate with readers whose family structures are marginalized in today’s society. And the author’s complicated relationship with her mom—exasperation mixed with admiration—will also be familiar to many.
Normal Family is about one of the most atypical families one can imagine, and in that way, it’s certainly a page-turner. For most of the book, readers will simply have no idea where this wild tale is headed. But it also demonstrates that the most normal thing in the world is for a family to have—and overcome—its secrets.