We did a Q+A with Gaby Dunn about her podcast, Bad With Money, back in April. Fast-forward to earlier this week, when I was able to hop on the phone with her for an updated interview, but this time, the topic of conversation was very different.
She just put out a mini-documentary called 40, which tells what is probably one of the most insane true stories I’ve ever heard – Marc, her dad, reunited with his birth father (Virgil) in 1987 at age 40, after having not seen him since his mom took him (at age 5) away from their then-home of Indiana all the way down to Florida. As an adult, Marc used a private investigator to find Virgil; neither of them knew what had become of the other before that point, because this was all obviously pre-internet. So you can imagine the excitement surrounding the reunion, but that’s far from where the story ends. Jump to 2017, when literally the same thing that happened to Virgil happened to Marc! After he and Gaby took a 23andMe DNA test, they found out that Marc had a son that he never knew about – a son who was ALSO 40 years old and getting in touch with his birth father after all this time. Seriously one of the most bonkers full-circle situations of all time.
The documentary delves into the whole bizarre story, but I wanted to know more, so I ended up talking to Gaby on the phone for (semi-ironically) 40 minutes to get the full scoop. Watch the video, and then internet-eavesdrop on our conversation below:
BYT: So first of all, I loved the mini-doc, and the story is INSANE. How long were you working on the project, and did you feel like you had to get permission from your dad and your brother before you started?
GD: I had the footage of my dad and Virgil for a few years before I knew about Jason, and I have more family videos and footage that I’d love to make more mini-documentaries with. When Jason came around, I immediately knew that this was a film I wanted to make, but you have to give it a second – you can’t just start pitching the idea, you know? I mean, he works in insurance in San Diego. He didn’t ask to be in any sort of spotlight, at all, and that’s partially why I kept it a secret for so long.
When we first started talking, he said “Wow, you have a lot of Instagram followers!” And I was like, “Mmhmm.” You know, if I post a picture of him, you have to expect a flood of stuff your way. So I’m careful about that. I did say, “Dude, you can stay hidden forever. You didn’t ask or consent to this, and I totally get it.” But he said, “No, no, this is okay.” Then he came to my book tour and saw the fan base firsthand. I gave him some time to adjust.
My dad, on the other hand, loves the spotlight. My dad would be the star of everything I ever made for the rest of eternity if I allowed him. I did ask him if I could make something about it, and he said, “Sure, absolutely!” And I lightly pitched it to Jason a few times, like “Hey, would it be so crazy if I made a documentary about this?” He was down, but I did keep checking in along the way; I had filmed him, but sometimes even when people are being filmed, they still don’t fully understand what’s happening. So multiple times I said, “Here’s a cut,” just to see. But I think I started working on it in January, so that was about five months of normalcy before I said, “I’m making a video!” I knew I wasn’t going to release it for a long time, though, and that it wasn’t something I’d put out immediately.
BYT: Right! And I think I saw you posted on Twitter that you had some apprehensions about releasing it – obviously it’s a very personal story, but what was it that worried you the most? Was it the reaction that people would have to it? Or was it more of the stuff you just mentioned, about exposing your family to the spotlight like that?
GD: Well, it’s hard sometimes to remember that people know your whole life. I know I write about it and post about it, but I’ve had some fan interactions where the people have been…let’s say “overly familiar”. Or just know too much about me, which is fine, but it’s also a little disconcerting to have a sixty-year-old man come up to you and know everything about your dog, you know what I mean? And that’s my fault. I put it out there, I get it.
BYT: I mean, I understand that in a way, but it kind of isn’t your fault. I wish more people would be respectful and chill. I know people get these starry-eyed moments, especially with the internet, and people think they really know you as a person, but still.
GD: Yeah, but I know that I’ve said things about my parents and my sister and stuff. My sister’s been recognized at places. It hasn’t been hugely disruptive, but she’s just a regular person. You know, it’s a little weird if a fan is like, “Tell Marc and Karen hi!” Which like, obviously those are my parents, and they’ve been in videos and I’ve talked about them, so it’s completely fine that a fan would know their names. But it’s also like this thing where they think they know me. And I always have this weird thought where I go, “But I don’t know your parents’ names…” Of course I don’t say it, but you know what I mean? So I guess my nervousness was that I hoped Jason would understand what changes about your life. I didn’t want to change his life that much. And also, I don’t know, sometimes it’s just nice to have something that’s a secret? I was going through a thing of wondering, “How much do I actually owe these people?” I have this weird thing about that – it’s almost like being drunk, but you’re not drunk, and every Instagram photo that I’ve posted I go, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that.” [Laughs] Which doesn’t really make a lot of sense.
BYT: Oh, I fully agree. For me it’s like that meme of the guy walking with his girlfriend, and he’s checking out another girl, and his girlfriend is like “What the fuck?” And in a social media presence context, I am all three of those people when it comes to posting and regret.
GD: Yeah, my friend has a funny Twitter bio that’s like, “I regret every tweet.” And that’s how I feel sometimes. Some people had weird reactions to the film, and I understand, but I was like, “I wish I could just be happy having made the thing, and then I never have to show it.” Even with the Bad With Money book, I feel very much like, “Oh, great! I finished it! It’s done! Does anyone have to read it? I wish they didn’t!” [Laughs] You know what I mean? Like, I like making the thing, and then I don’t want to show it to anybody. But I also know that the second half of my career is “and then you show it to people”. I understand that those things go hand in hand, and I have to do it, but I don’t like the second part. And that’s basically why I was nervous.
BYT: Absolutely. Now, speaking of Twitter, you were off for a while, right? What prompted you to leave?
GD: Well, for starters, every single one of my friends who’s on Twitter is constantly texting me about how bad it is politically. I mean, one of them was talking to me last night having a full breakdown. If you’re a liberal celebrity, all of these people are fucking shit to you. And I kept thinking, “What is the fucking point? We’re not changing any minds, these people don’t care.” Twitter themselves don’t do anything to help. They don’t help with harassment. If anything, they make their platform more conducive to harassment all the time. It’s basically a meeting place for Nazis and transphobes. Like, why would I be there?
And it’s just causing depression. I tell every friend, “This is why you should leave Twitter. This is why you’re upset.” Everything seems so hopeless. But you know what, I’m not on Twitter, and I went to my friend’s wedding and to Disney this weekend. It’s tough, because I obviously don’t want to ignore what’s going on in politics, because we have to care. But I just don’t know how healthy it is for it to be your whole existence right now on social media. If it’s going to be your whole existence, then go out and canvas. Go out and get the word out about voting or specific candidates or whatever. But for it to be…I don’t know, for you to wake up in the morning and consume all that first…I don’t even know what the right answer is, because there’s so much dread, and there’s no answer.
BYT: Absolutely. Every time I scroll through my feed it feels like I’m eating glass. It’s the worst.
GD: Yeah! And for a lot of people…like, for example, disabled people, that might be the only way they can be politically active. So I completely get that, but I can’t even tell anymore. My friend last night was like, “Is it as bad as I think it is, or is it just bad because I’m on Twitter all the time?” And I was like, “I think it’s really bad, but I also think that you might have a more inflated view of how immediate the bad is because you’re on Twitter all the time. But I also don’t know.”
But what truly happened with my experience leaving Twitter was that my girlfriend, who’s like, a civilian, posted something about gender neutral clothing, and then Twitter made it (without asking her, and without warning or anything) one of their moments, fully aware (I mean, you have to be a fucking idiot not to know) that what they were doing was essentially throwing a person with three thousand followers to a million transphobes. In my mind, that’s essentially like saying, “Yeah, let’s feed her to the wolves.” And then of course their response was that, “Well, she shouldn’t have tweeted it if she didn’t want the attention from it.” And I went, “Yeah, you’re right. Goodbye. I won’t tweet anything ever again.” Why are we giving them ammunition to hang us with?
I read this article by Lindy West (she’s not on Twitter) where she’s like, “Yeah, I’m a writer. Somehow I was tricked into giving my writing away for free. You wanna know how I feel about what’s going on right now? You don’t get to go to my Twitter. You get to pay me for an article.” And I was like, “FUCK. YES.” It’s basically 4chan. We don’t need to be there. And I do have a producer that I work with, and she’ll go onto my Twitter and do tweets or retweets for me every so often, and sometimes she’ll tell me if there’s something specific I should reply to that one of my friends has tweeted, but I’m not on there looking at anything.
BYT: Totally, that’s smart. Now, you mentioned in the documentary that you were concerned (before you actually met him) about whether or not Jason would end up being one of these keyboard warrior type people, but you guys really lucked out in that he’s a really nice person. Do you buy into your dad’s sort of hippie outlook now about the universe providing?
GD: I don’t know. I mean, you can hear in the documentary when my dad starts going into it my voice is just like, “Uh-huh. Uh-huh.” But I think it was good for my dad, because Virgil passed away when I was in college, and he [Virgil] was never very outwardly emotional. When I was in college I’d write to him and send him my clips from the newspaper and stuff, and I’d always include “Feel free to write back!” at the bottom. And he never did, but then when my dad went to clean out his place after he died, he found a box where Virgil had been keeping all my newspaper clippings. So he had read all my letters and kept all of it, but he was just the type of person who kept that to himself. It’s that kind of thing of being a very private emotional person. And my dad is not that way, so he felt like he would try to have a relationship with Virgil, and it wasn’t as much as he wanted. So I think now, with him and Jason, he gets to be very emotional and do for Jason what he wanted Virgil to do for him. And my dad has a lot of demons and stuff, so I think this has been very healing for him. People who’d watched the documentary were surprised by this, but he’s seventy-one, about to be seventy-two. He’s older, but he’s still kind of looking for peace or whatever, and I think Jason brings a lot of that.
Marc, Virgil and Norma (Marc’s aunt/Virgil’s sister)
BYT: Do you feel that, retrospectively, you’d still recommend a service like 23andMe? My dad passed away a few years ago, and he had his wilder moments (he was in a biker gang for a while), so I feel like there’s a lot of stuff we might never know about him, and I don’t know if I’d want to know if my sister and I could be in a similar boat, you know?
GD: Well, it’s happened to more people than I think talk about it, because I’ve had people, friends, come to me in private and say, “This happened to me.” And it doesn’t always end up that you have a relationship with the people. It really is such a toss-up. Jason could’ve been anybody, you know? Especially for me, as a person who has some notoriety, it could’ve been a real fucking mess. So I don’t know. I was going to say if you feel like you’re ready for it you should still consider using a service like 23andMe, but I don’t know if you ever could be ready for it. [Laughs] I mean, my dad and I did it very naively. And I told him at the time, “This is such a bad idea for you.” And he was like, “You’re being so crazy.” And I say it in the documentary, but I really don’t think Jason is the only one.
So it really depends on the type of person you are, I guess. I think for some people, they’ve thought of their parents a certain way, and it could be a cheating situation, they could learn that their grandfather that they thought was so straight-laced actually wasn’t…it could potentially ruin your perception of your family. My perception of my family was already like, “This is a goddamn clown car. I don’t understand how any of us are here.” [Laughs]
BYT: So let’ say someone DOES make this discovery that they’ve got a secret sibling or whatever. Do you have any advice?
GD: I don’t think you’re ever obligated to someone just because you’re blood related. I think that causes a lot of abuse and stress. I think people go, “Well, but they’re my blood relative, so I have to…” but you don’t have to do shit if it’s not healthy for you. And I don’t like when people say things like, “Well, give her another chance. She’s your mom.” Like, no! If she fucking abuses you, you don’t have to give her another chance. You can have a chosen family, too. Don’t go into it thinking you have to get along with or have any sort of relationship with people just because you share blood.
It’s interesting, and it’s super nice that Jason ended up being cool, but if he wasn’t…I think it’s fine to just keep good people around you, and he happens to (thank fucking god or whoever) be a good soul. I literally texted him (because he was emotional about the documentary premiering) “Honestly, just thank you for not being a serial killer.” And he was like, “Oh, you’re welcome. I think you’d know by now.” [Laughs] I guess the main thing I’d say is – don’t feel obligated to make it work.
BYT: And do you have any ideal road map moving forward in terms of how you’ll continue to grow this relationship and interact with Jason? I mean, any plans to do holidays together or anything like that?
GD: Well, he’s adopted, so he’s got his own family. He grew up with a mom and a dad and a sister. But I don’t know, because I’m curious to meet his adopted family. It’s a little fractured, you know? It’s like, “This is my brother’s sister, but not my sister.” Obviously he still has to go to his family’s for Thanksgiving and things like that, but my parents are coming into town soon, and he’s going to come up and hang out with my dad. Our grandmother passed away in June, and he’d only met her once. So he didn’t come to the funeral, because we told him he didn’t have to, you know? It’s a weird thing, because it’s his grandmother, but he didn’t know her! I think he’s sort of a sibling who’s somehow escaped all the dumb obligations that me and my brother and sister have to do. He just gets the fun stuff, I guess, and we have to do all the other shit. [Laughs]
BYT: [Laughs] Alright, and so you mentioned that you maybe got a couple of non-ideal responses to the film, but what about the good ones? What’s been the best thing to come out of those?
GD: Just people sharing their own stories. It’s so cool – I want to do a video of some of the best stories that people commented, because I think those stories are so awesome, too. I feel like there’s definitely a lot of depictions of certain types of families, like I don’t know a lot of other YouTubers or public figures that really talk about, I don’t know, dysfunction and stuff? Like I always think about how people were flipping out when it came out that Leighton Meester’s mom had her in jail, but like, that happens all the time, you just only have heard about this one story. So the reactions were really nice from people being like, “My family is all shaken up and twisted around and weird, too!” Shit’s just weird, I don’t know. I mean, in the documentary we fully brush over my dad being kidnapped. We mention it, and then we don’t go into it at all. To me, that’s very indicative of the fifties – people didn’t talk about stuff, and there were all these weird secrets, and shit just…I don’t know, it was a thing that my dad didn’t know about for a long time, and there are just parts of the story that I’d love to expand into a feature. We literally just brush over a quick 1952 kidnapping, NBD. Like, WHAT?! People’s secrets are all coming out now. It’s definitely not gonna be like the Cleavers anymore.