In this day and age, especially during this pandemic, staying connected normally means staying glued to a screen. Yet sometimes, if we let it, the technology that often works to isolate us from our environment can bring people together.
This is the true story of how I met my sister.
One evening in February 1995, that sister, just out of law school, had moved to the Pacific Northwest. She flipped on her television, and, as she told me years later, what she found amazed her:
I had just come home from work, turned on the TV, and was getting dinner ready. For some reason, I turned on Jeopardy! When I tell you I never watch Jeopardy!, I never watch Jeopardy! Anyhow, there you were. Alex [Trebek] was doing introductions and he said, ‘Christopher Jacobs.’ Maybe he said, ‘Chris Jacobs,’ that I can’t recall. What I do remember is that I heard your name and I couldn’t believe it. I started doing the math in my head—okay, he was 11 when I was in college, now he’d be in high school [I was a sophomore], that would be the high school I’d be in if my parents had stayed together. I pulled out a VCR [this was 1995, remember] and taped the whole thing.
As my friends gathered in a church basement on a cold, snowy Pennsylvania night to watch my television debut, I had no inkling of events transpiring a continent away. I knew I had a half-sister from my father’s first marriage. But, like most 15-year-olds, I had focused on being a kid, growing up, and appearing on a certain game show.
My appearance on the “Jeopardy!” Teen Tournament had a greater impact on my life than even I had ever imagined it would. Unbeknownst to me, my sister did some pre-Google digging, calling a reporter for my local newspaper and asking for the article about my appearance. It confirmed her suspicion: we share the same father, and she had “met” her half-brother by watching him on national television.
A Letter to a Sister You’ve Never Met
I had spent plenty of time staring at a computer screen trying to find the right words to express my thoughts and feelings, but never for a letter like this. How do you write a letter to a sister you’ve never met?
It took her nearly a decade, but my sister finally wrote to me in 2004. By that time, I had graduated from high school, spent four years in college, got a master’s in London, and returned to Washington to start a career. From afar, my sister had tried to keep track of my whereabouts, while I knew nothing of her other than her name.
My sister said she had written her letter to me in her head dozens of times before she put pen to paper. I can relate—I spent more than a year figuring out how to reply.
Thankfully, my sister hadn’t written me right after my “Jeopardy!” episodes aired; at that time, I was still processing my parents’ divorce, and an approach from a long-lost sibling probably wouldn’t have gone over well. Even as a 20-something aspiring professional in Washington, I was scared, and didn’t know exactly how to respond. But in time, respond I did—and I’m thankful for it.
We finally met in person, and realized we had a surprising amount in common. When I attended The American University in Washington, my sister had lived outside the city. And while her career took her elsewhere, just as I had lived in London, we both came back to the DC area, and ended up living just a few miles away from each other.
Most importantly, we both realized that we had been given an opportunity to remedy others’ choices. My sister’s mother had remarried, and when my father married my mother, he renounced his custodial rights and allowed my sister’s stepfather to adopt her.
Neither one of us had any say in those choices—at that point, I had not yet been born. And that’s why my sister told me she had reached out in the first place, to correct—if not totally to undo—decisions others had made decades prior.
It makes me smile to think of it, given the way many of us, myself included, spend far too much time staring like zombies at our various screens and monitors: What human beings kept apart, a television show brought together.
Buying a Picture of Myself on Television
If composing a letter to a sister I hadn’t met represented the most surreal experience I ever had staring at a computer screen, buying a photo of myself on television might come a close second.
Several years ago, a former co-worker told me she had seen a picture of me on “Jeopardy!” for sale on eBay. Sure enough, my hometown paper was selling old photos from its archive, and my visage got swept up in the virtual yard sale. The photo: An awkward 15-year-old, visibly exhaling in the middle of the match, trying to make sense of it all.
That photo, with its visible markings made by photo editors a quarter-century ago last month, is the first photo my sister saw of her half-brother. Of course I bought it, the $20 I paid dwarfed by its sentimental value.
So the 40-year-old me looks at the 15-year-old teen, trying to make sense of the unexpected yet marvelous consequences from my experience on that show. Over the years, I sometimes felt I had appeared on “Jeopardy!” too young. As the lone high school sophomore competing against juniors and seniors, I faced an information disadvantage; material and facts I didn’t know at the time of my taping came up during my final two years of high school.
But had I appeared on that quiz show at any other age or any other time, my sister—by her own confession not a regular “Jeopardy!” viewer—may well not have found me. My young age might have cost me a chance at a second “Jeopardy!” victory, but it won me a sister in the process.
I’m proud to say my sister has become someone with whom I have shared special moments. When I was injured in an attempted mugging on my way home from work, she brought over such a huge plate of food that I didn’t have to cook for a week. She went house-shopping with me when I bought my condo, celebrated with me when I won $100,000 (but no siblings!) on another game show, and has provided counsel and a sympathetic ear on topics from relationships to job searches.
She asked me not to identify her for this story, but I can only hope to repay all the generosity and kindnesses she’s shown to me over the years. Because with my sister, there’s one category for which she easily qualifies: “I’ll take Great Siblings for $800, Alex.”
‘Jeopardy’s’ Only Family Reunion?
Over the years, “Jeopardy!” has published stories highlighting couples with an affiliation to the show; in most cases, couples who met as contestants during tapings of the show. I can’t say that I found a love connection through the show (at least not yet). But so far as I’m aware, for family reunions thanks to “Jeopardy!,” my sister and I are the only two for whom, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the medium really was the messenger.
Those couples have more than monetary reasons to be thankful for their appearance, as do I. Five years ago, I flew to Los Angeles, and for the first time watched a “Jeopardy!” broadcast in the same studio where my show taped two decades earlier.
I brought my sister’s first letter with me, and relished the memories—of my appearance, and of meeting my sister through it. During a break in the taping, when Alex asked if anyone in the audience had questions, I raised my hand. I told him I didn’t have a question. I just wanted to thank him, and the show, for bringing me and my sister together.
Over 36 seasons of hosting “Jeopardy!,” Alex Trebek has probably heard all sorts of questions and comments from viewers, but I doubt he had ever heard one quite like this. I explained how we had each lived our separate lives, and how the show had connected us. After I finished, the studio audience applauded. One couple even told me afterwards they felt lucky to attend the same taping, so they could hear the heartwarming tale.
After that taping, “Jeopardy!” published a brief blog post about how my sister and I met through the show. I didn’t know about that post for some years, however, during which time I wrote a draft of what became this article. The 25th anniversary of my national television debut finally prompted me to revise and publish that draft, to provide the full story of how a quiz show brought my sister and me together.
Therein lies the critical human element behind all technology. Writing a sibling one has never met—one who may not even know you exist—requires a leap of faith. Trying out for, and competing, on a nationally televised quiz show as a teenager likewise requires intestinal fortitude (or foolishness, or both).
Our collective courage, that most human of attributes, enabled technology to play its part in bringing two people together. And in so doing, it allowed me to set a unique “Jeopardy!” record.
To wit: Brad Rutter may hold the program’s all-time money record. But I consider myself by far “Jeopardy’s” biggest winner. That’s because, in true “Jeopardy!” fashion, the show provided the answer when I provided the question: “Who is my sister?”
The all-time “Jeopardy!” winner’s name has been corrected.