“Our Father” depicts a unique kind of horror that is all too relevant
The new Netflix documentary follows the story of Dr. Cline, an infertility doctor who artificially inseminated countless women with his own sperm.
If we’re all currently leaning into the pile-on phase against Netflix, the true-crime doc remains perhaps the only untouchable bread and butter for the content giant. While profits are down, it’s still a boom-time for programs that take you down the rabbit hole of serial killers, scammers, scandals, and the like (and that probably won’t change, considering how cheap they likely are for Netflix and how reliably well they do). Most of these series and films are not exceptionally well-made, but the material tends to be juicy, if morally ambivalent, enough. Few, though, have covered the kind of unique horror that is at the center of the new Netflix doc Our Father.
The new film follows the story of Don Cline, a prominent fertility doctor in Indianapolis who, over the course of decades, repeatedly used his own sperm to artificially inseminate dozens upon dozens of women — all of whom were told they were receiving either anonymous donor samples or their own partner’s. The truth comes out much later, and gradually, as the rise of technology like 23andMe allows Cline’s biological children — 91 half-siblings and counting, who are all well into adulthood and united by this new reality — to begin to put the pieces together.
This basic idea is, of course, unsettling enough. But Our Father slowly trickles out the extent of just how disturbing this all is, as well as the vast reach of Cline’s campaign: A ticker counter slowly rises periodically throughout the film, counting the amount of siblings (a.k.a. victims) that came from Cline’s experiment. Director Lucie Jordan shoots the documentary like a horror with recreated scenes that can at times detract and distract, but the overall effect appropriately reflects the aura of creeping unease that grows with the mounting realizations of Cline’s actions.
There is the fact that Cline not only impregnated women looking for anonymous donor sperm, but also did so with women who came in believing they were using their own spouses’s sperm; there’s the fact that Cline did this to countless women who all live within a 25-mile radius of each other, leaving the legitimate possibility of consanguinity; the fact that Cline knowingly served as one of his children’s gynecologist; and the fact that Cline had health issues that would have easily disqualified him as a donor in an above-board process — and that have indeed resulted in serious health issues for many of the siblings he fathered. A brief detour in the film also considers the possibility that Cline, a devout Christian, may have been involved with a eugenics-like cult and wanted to play God (the central question of why exactly he did this is never truly answered) in creating what he believed to be a more perfect Aryan population.
Amid all of this is a profound question of personhood that undergirds the film. The most common refrain from the siblings is about the identity crisis they were thrown into upon realizing what had occurred. Many of them had grown up knowing they were conceived from an anonymous donor sample; the revelation about Cline, in a sense, reinforces that truth — but the violation of it all shatters everything. It is a heartbreakingly human thing we see in each of these cases: You form an idea of yourself from an abstract but fundamental truth about who and what you come from, and when the terms change and are retroactively stolen from you — and from your mother — you’re suddenly no longer that same person to yourself.
As for the families who entrusted Dr. Cline with their own genetic material rather than donor sperm, the entire thing is a more concrete and fracturing revelation: Grown adults suddenly realize their fathers are not biologically theirs, and their elder parents have to come to terms with the same truth. The fact that this came not by accident, but through an assault at the hands of the very person who they thought had helped them achieve child-bearing after infertility makes it an infinitely more destabilizing shock.
Yet, the most viscerally terrifying part of everything is the act itself. “He was the only one that greeted me in his office, which was strange. And now the truth is that, as Cline was closing the door and I’m undressing and putting my feet in the stirrups getting ready for him to bring in the donor’s sperm, he was in some other place in the office ejaculating,” one woman recounts. After discovering what had happened, she recalls, in the most chilling line of the film: “When Matt’s DNA test came back, my first words were, ‘I was raped 15 times and didn’t even know it.’”
As the siblings band together, they attempt to get the word out and find justice, but ultimately find little of it. It is perhaps too neat to say that a story like this is enhanced by the shadow of the current Roe v. Wade crisis — what occurred here is an elaborate and singular kind of control and assault of women, and a situation that is harrowing independent of the current political climate. But it’s nevertheless hard not to watch some parts of the documentary with the present context hovering back of mind. This is particularly true in moments when the legal system is shown to be frustratingly sympathetic to someone like Cline, an esteemed man of faith, while shrugging its shoulders through legalese at the reality of what many of these women and the siblings have faced.
Cline was ultimately given less than a slap on the wrist, undoubtedly a reflection of an uneven justice system. But even more revealing was the back-and-forth at one point in the film, recalling how the prosecutor who actually represented the siblings initially reacted to the situation. “‘I feel like my mother was raped’ is a valid human emotional statement,” the prosecutor, Tim Delaney, says. “But ‘Dr. Cline committed rape’ is a legal assertion that was not true, and I wasn’t going to put it on paper with my signature. ... They thought I was there to deliver catharsis. I wasn’t.”
While Delaney comes across as cold, Jody Madeira, a law professor, explains soon after: “When I interviewed Tim Delaney, he said that Indiana juries were not willing to buy rape-by-deception theories. The jury is going to say, ‘This woman consented to insemination.’” It may feel like Delaney is despicably dismissive to an extraordinary violation and control over countless women’s bodies, but he’s just an avatar for the plain reality of how an American system and society operates.