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Fifth Street

December 10, 2020

In this issue: The Doctor With a Thousand Kids | Lost (and Found) at Double Negative | Media Sommelier

[Editor's note: Credit to George Knapp and the KLAS I-Team for breaking the Fortier story. Find their coverage here and here.]

IN THE HBO documentary Baby God, filmmaker Hannah Olson explores the legacy of Dr. Quincy Fortier, a Las Vegas-based fertility specialist who spent decades impregnating his patients with his own sperm, without their knowledge or consent. Fortier died in 2006 with his medical license still intact, after facing a couple of lawsuits that were settled out of court, but no criminal charges. Baby God follows retired Oregon police detective Wendi Babst as she seeks out her half-siblings (such as Brad Gulko, above), following her discovery that Fortier, not the man who raised her, was her biological father.

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Thanks to the prevalence of easy DNA testing and genealogy services like 23andMe and Ancestry, a once-secretive practice has increasingly come to light, and Fortier is just one of a number of fertility doctors whose fraud has been exposed. Baby God, which is now streaming on HBO and HBO Max, takes a sensitive approach to the story, giving Fortier’s unwitting offspring space to process their conflicted feelings about inheritance and identity. Olson uses a recurring visual motif of neon lights to connect the story back to Las Vegas, although Fortier’s children reside throughout the country. Olson spoke to Fifth Street about the two-year process of making the documentary.

How did you come across the story of Dr. Quincy Fortier?
I worked for many years on a PBS show called Finding Your Roots. It’s a show where we uncover the genealogies of prominent Americans. And in my time on that show, I watched as the advent of commercial DNA databases totally changed how we construct our family trees. I saw some scattered headlines of fertility doctors who had done this, who had secretly inseminated patients with their own sperm. And I thought, Oh, it must just be a one-off. And when I started looking, I quickly realized that it was a phenomenon. I was interested in Dr. Fortier as someone to look into because he died in good standing and had such accolades in his career. He was the [Nevada State Medical Association] doctor of the year.

Were you ever in the position of revealing the truth about their parentage to anyone?
No. I decided early on in the process that I really didn’t want to be in the business of breaking this news to people. So instead I relied on Wendi to let me know of people who had already found this out.

How do you approach such a sensitive subject with your interviewees?
I think with empathy. I think that learning that the man who raised you is not your biological father sounds like a very alien experience, but I think it actually sheds light on what so many of us go through in trying to understand our parents, and how we’re like them and different from them, and how much DNA matters, and if that biology matters. I approached it by trying to ask some of the more universal questions and trying to relate to what they might be going through.

What makes this a uniquely Las Vegas story?
Well, I think that Vegas is a place to try things. It’s the Wild West in a lot of ways. It’s a place where you can take chances. I also think that there’s a certain ... I like the imagery of gambling and casinos with the kind of randomness that comes with our existence.

With an ongoing story like this, how do you decide when the film is finished?
It’s tricky, because this is a film that could go on forever. Since I finished filming, five more biological half-siblings of Wendi’s have emerged. And I imagine that, as the film comes out, more will emerge, because, as I hope is made clear in the film, everyone who I spoke with who has found this out, they found out by accident. No one had any reason to look. And now I imagine that people will have reason to look, and there might be another wave of revelations.

As a filmmaker, how do you balance artistry with delivering facts to the audience?
I think you look at the areas in which those two things connect. I was interested in the questions the film raised. What can you actually learn about someone by investigating them? Wendi wanted so badly, after learning that Dr. Fortier was her biological father, to find something good in him, and to understand his motivations. And I think what we learn by the end of the film is that after someone passes away, they leave a shadow, and in so many ways those questions still linger. 

Can this movie provide a sense of justice for Dr. Fortier’s victims that they didn’t get when he was alive?
Wendi said that the reason she wanted to make this film was because this was the only justice that she could find. He’s passed away. He died in good standing. There was no justice in that sense. I think allowing people to tell their truth was an attempt at finding some justice for the victims.

Why do you think Dr. Fortier was never pursued further in the legal system?
Because of the confidentiality agreements that were in place with his settlements. And I think that Dr. Fortier was a powerful and politically connected person. Which is problematic, in a lot of ways, when he was doing something that was deceitful.

Do you think the popularity and proliferation of easy at-home DNA testing is a good thing?
I think that in general more information is good. Science is good. Learning the truth is good. But I think the idea that you can learn who you are as a whole person, or that you could discover your whole identity through spitting in a tube and sending it to a lab is problematic.

Have you done any of that DNA testing yourself?
I have not, and I will not.

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OUR DAY TRIP was not going as planned. Oh, it had been planned, all right, in the sense of me vacantly plugging “Double Negative” into Google Maps and pointing the car north on I-15. So much for that. We’d ditched the car miles back. It was a vanishing glint on the horizon. Now we were walking along a rock-toothed dirt road in Moapa Valley, skirting a broad mesa that blurred off into taunting edgelessness. We were trying to find Double Negative, the 1969 land art project by Michael Heizer. But between an impassable road and a flickering cell signal, this was turning into some fateful quest-level shit.

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The plan had been, you know, a breezy Saturday jaunt to check out the crazy legendary land art, ooh and aww in bemusement and reflection, bust out some selfies and be home in time for a late lunch. I mean, it certainly looked doable on a digital map. Everything is doable on a digital map. Everything is an amenity at the end of a squiggly blue line. It’s a devious enchantment of privileged modernity that we’re cursed to learn and forget over and over again. (STFU, I said to my fake deep thoughts I had thought too late.) We continued walking, deeper into the desert, venturing nervous questions. How much farther, you think? How much longer, you think? It had been so long since I had been truly lost that I also forgot the whole idea of lostness was that you’re in a state impervious to human measure. Lol @ cellphone saying four miles to go then a second later just 200 feet!

The only solution was to pay close attention to the land. Honestly, I forgot this was a menu option. But, mounting existential fright has a way of jogging your memory. We had stopped talking and fell into solitudes of private calculation, scanning the mesa’s zagging edge for a telltale gigantic notch that announced itself as important art. It was nowhere. Actually, a better way to describe it is that nowhere was suddenly everywhere, all over the place, saturating everything that was formerly sensible. The concept of scale had exploded and we were newly tiny, buggishly crawling on a vast plate of flat scrub desert set in a ring of gauzy blue mountains that looked like torn paper. Mapless, we were in an immensity made of details. The farther we walked, the more we shrunk. We had to recalibrate: We shouldn’t be looking for something big. We should be looking for something small. Double Negative is not small. It is two senselessly infrastructural, rectangular excavations straddling a canyon. I know nothing about land-art theory and criticism, but as we walked further into the desert and its scale continued its conspiracy to shrink us, I felt something like an emanation of a human’s attempt at a cosmic prank. Or maybe it was that being compelled by a convergence of circumstances and design into just this kind of encounter — searching for something purportedly grand in an even grander immensity, forcing us to scrutinize that living immensity for details, signs, and hints — was part of the intended exercise. Maybe we were meant to get a little lost along the way. I was secretly hoping there’d be a congratulatory interpretive placard at the end saying, you got it, you win, now you understand accessibility is part of the difference between an amenity and a meaningful destination. Now you see the difference between tourism and journey.

I’d like to say that, hurray, the expansive desert environs sharpened our dull, disused senses and, newly awakened, we patiently read the land to find — to discover, in the richest and most fundamental sense — Double Negative. Actually, though, we kind of anticlimactically stumbled upon the north notch, a crumbling trench 30 feet wide and 50 feet deep, staring at its twin across the valley. Another side effect of discovering it in such a bumbling, uncertain, nervous manner is that letting your senses (and legs) finally rest induces you to consider Double Negative’s mute, inscrutable factuality as a kind of numinous reward in itself. (There is no interpretive sign.) But I feel oddly grateful for having poured an anxious afternoon into its void, for having to pass through a forced march of confusion and reflection. I still don’t know what it all means, but I wrested one certainty from this strange trip: When it was time to turn around, we definitely knew how to find our way back.

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1. I WOULD LIKE to think I coined the term “big solar,” though some fancy DC reporter probably beat me to it. In any case, I was spot on, judging from the recent Bloomberg feature, “The New Energy Giants are Renewable Companies.” In true business-journal fashion, this story is chock-full of charts and graphs that indicate just how enormous investor-owned solar and wind (mainly) have gotten. How big? The biggest player, based in Florida, owns enough capacity to power all of Belgium and is neck-and-neck with Exxon in market capitalization. What’s not in the story, though, is the scary part. What will the rise of these behemoth developers mean for the water, land, and air (much of it public — oh, hi, Nevada) where all this centrally generated renewable energy will be built? No global-scale industrial expansion comes cost-free; I don’t care if it is in the name of greenhouse gas reduction. But that’s another story. Right?

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2. For something more personal, check out Lynnette Curtis’s short story “Lazarus.” I am biased on this one, because I tricked Curtis and a handful of other talented women into joining a writing group with me a few years back. As this story demonstrates, Curtis is way out of my league, having realized the dream of many former journalists: getting published in High Desert Journal (among other prestigious pubs), which nominated “Lazarus” for this year’s Pushcart Prize collection. But all that literary insider stuff is beside the real point: this is a great story painted with local color that Southern Nevada readers will sink into like a warm blanket.

3. While “Lazarus” brought a tear to my eye, “Coyote Story” had me ugly-sobbing into my pit bull’s fur. The essay, by CMarie Fuhrman, is included in the forthcoming second print edition of Emergence Magazine, whose tagline, “Ecology, Culture, Spirituality,” evokes not only the publication’s mission, but also the breadth of this specific piece. Fuhrman recalls what happened after she found a coyote with one leg caught in a trap on the southern Montana prairie, using the event as a lens through which she interrogates her own duality (duplicity?) as a half-Indigenous, half-European American. Believe it or not, what happens to the coyote isn’t the real gut-punch; Fuhrman’s unique understanding of the crime committed is.

4. Okay, time for something lighter … which is actually about something darker than it appears, the Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. If its rounds on social media bypassed your feeds, you’ll want to circle back to “Don’t Subject Your Kids to Rudolph (The world is bleak enough as it is),” Caitlan Flanagan’s takedown of a slave-driving Santa, homophobic head elf, and shaming papa reindeer, from the December issue of The Atlantic.

5. I’ll bookend my list with environmental picks, wrapping up with OPB’s podcast about logging in the Pacific Northwest, Timber Wars. This series felt so important to me — so educational — that I finished it one day and restarted it the next. In seven episodes, producer and reporter Aaron Scott summarizes the epic personal and legal struggle for control of old-growth forests, covering key players, from the lumberjack to the northern spotted owl, and moments, from environmentalists chaining themselves to trees to Bill Clinton signing the Northwest Forest Plan. Most impressive, though, are how even-handed Scott is (there are no real villains here) and how he uses the story to explain where we are in right-versus-left environmental arguments today. This quote, by a guy from the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, about sums it up: “It divided communities that didn’t need to be divided. … They could’ve made this really painless, but they didn’t want to. They wanted it to hurt.”

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Photos and art: Baby God courtesy HBO; Double Negative by Andrew Kiraly

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