Dani Shapiro has a seemingly boundless capacity for self-reflection: She’s written five memoirs in less than 10 years. But her latest, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, proves that it’s possible to live what she describes as a “relentlessly examined” life and still discover something utterly unexpected about yourself. After doing DNA testing as a lark, Shapiro, at age 54, learned that her late, beloved father was not in fact her biological parent. “Inheritance” chronicles the aftermath of what was for her a profoundly traumatic revelation.
Artificial insemination was in its infancy in the 1960s, and the process was cloaked in secrecy and shame. Those who participated, from doctors to patients to donors, could scarcely imagine a world decades hence when the children born of the process might, simply by spitting into a vial, ascertain the truth of their origins. Nor could they conceive of the ease with which the internet would obliterate privacy; once Shapiro received her shocking test results, she and her husband were able, with ingenuity and determination, to identify her biological father with startling speed. That man, a retired doctor who had donated sperm as a medical student, was blindsided when the author contacted him. Despite the fact that his specialty was medical ethics, he had, amazingly, given no thought to the possibility that offspring resulting from his long-ago donations would one day appear in his inbox.
The book’s brief chapters alternate between the compelling story of Shapiro’s discovery – and her cautiously unfolding relationship with her biological father – and a moving reconsideration of a childhood in which she often felt she “was different, an outsider.” Shapiro’s father, who was killed in a car accident when the author was 23, hailed from a prominent Orthodox Jewish family, and Shapiro was raised a religious Jew. But pale, blond, and blue-eyed, she was told so often that she didn’t look Jewish that not “[looking] the part ... became a defining aspect of my identity,” she writes. She vividly recalls a Shabbat lunch with family friends the Kushners – grandparents of President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared – who escaped the Nazis in Poland. “We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie,” Mrs. Kushner says to the young Dani, eyeing her appraisingly. “You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.”
Learning that her paternal ancestors were not the “small, wiry, dark-eyed people of the shtetl” for whom she felt such affinity but instead had landed on Nantucket in the 1600s “made no sense, and all kinds of sense,” Shapiro muses. She finds the truth of her paternity particularly painful because her relationship with her kind but sad father was more loving than her fraught connection to her difficult mother. Before the test results were known, Shapiro had been comforted that her father lived on, genetically, through Shapiro’s only son. She describes feeling bereft that the genetic chain she had taken wholly for granted has now been broken.
With both her parents dead, Shapiro is left only to speculate as to how much they knew – or allowed themselves to know – of her paternity. (In the early days of artificial insemination, when it was generally the domain of married heterosexual couples, donor sperm was often mixed with the husband’s sperm to preserve the possibility that he might be the biological father.) At first, she writes, “I clung to the only story I could tolerate,” which was that neither of her parents had been aware of the truth. She was conceived at an institute in Philadelphia run by a doctor who Shapiro learns was practicing without a license, a “back-alley rogue scientist who threw out the rulebook” to help desperate couples have children. Perhaps, she tells herself, the doctor had never even told her parents about the donor sperm.
Eventually Shapiro arrives at the belief that her mother and father had known but had buried the truth and settled on deep, shared denial. These days, of course, assisted reproductive technologies are out in the open. Still, as sites like Ancestry and 23andMe gain popularity, more people will receive results that shock them to the core.
As she acclimates herself to the knowledge that “changed both everything and nothing,” Shapiro constructs an elegant metaphor likening her biological father to her native country. “I had never lived in this country,” she writes. “I had never spoken its language or become steeped in its customs. I had no passport or record of citizenship. Still, I had been shaped by my country of origin all my life, suffused with an inchoate longing to know my own land.” Five memoirs and one vial of saliva later, she does.
Barbara Spindel regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.