“As you might imagine, over the years, many people heard stories about my family. And they said, Hey, why don’t you write a memoir? I really wasn’t very interested in writing a memoir as I perceived a memoir to be, so the idea of spending years working on a book about the issues in my immediate […]
“Memoir gold: a profound and exquisitely rendered exploration of identity and the true meaning of family.” —People
In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had casually submitted her DNA for analysis, Dani Shapiro received the stunning news that her beloved deceased father was not her biological father. Over the course of a single day, her entire history—the life she had lived—crumbled beneath her.
Inheritance is a book about secrets. It is the story of a woman's urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that had been scrupulously hidden from her for more than fifty years. It is a book about the extraordinary moment we live in, a moment in which science and technology have outpaced not only medical ethics but also the capacities of the human heart to contend with the consequences of what we discover. Dani Shapiro’s memoir unfolds at a breakneck pace—part mystery, part real-time investigation, part rumination on the ineffable combination of memory, history, biology, and experience that makes us who we are. Inheritance is a devastating and haunting interrogation of the meaning of kinship and identity, written with stunning intensity and precision.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:April 10, 1962
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1987, M.F.A., 1989
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from Inheritance
When I was a girl I would sneak down the hall late at night once my parents were asleep. I would lock myself in the bathroom, climb onto the Formica counter, and get as close as possible to the mirror until I was nose to nose with my own reflection. This wasn’t an exercise in the simple self-absorption of childhood. The stakes felt high. Who knows how long I kneeled there, staring into my own eyes. I was looking for something I couldn’t possibly have articulated—but I always knew it when I saw it. If I waited long enough, my face would begin to morph. I was eight, ten, thirteen. Cheeks, eyes, chin, and forehead—my features softened and shape-shifted until finally I was able to see another face, a different face, what seemed to me a truer face just beneath my own.
Now it is early morning and I’m in a small hotel bathroom three thousand miles from home. I’m fifty-four years old, and it’s a long time since I was that girl. But here I am again, staring and staring at my reflection. A stranger stares back at me.
The coordinates: I’m in San Francisco—Japantown, to be precise—just off a long flight. The facts: I’m a woman, a wife, a mother, a writer, a teacher. I’m a daughter. I blink. The stranger in the mirror blinks too. A daughter. Over the course of a single day and night, the familiar has vanished. Familiar: belonging to a family. On the other side of the thin wall I hear my husband crack open a newspaper. The floor seems to sway. Or perhaps it’s my body trembling. I don’t know what a nervous breakdown would feel like, but I wonder if I’m having one. I trace my fingers across the planes of my cheekbones, down my neck, across my clavicle, as if to be certain I still exist. I’m hit by a wave of dizziness and grip the bathroom counter. In the weeks and months to come, I will become well acquainted with this sensation. It will come over me on street corners and curbs, in airports, train stations. I’ll take it as a sign to slow down. Take a breath. Feel the fact of my own body. You’re still you, I tell myself, again and again and again.
Twenty-four hours earlier, I was in my home office trying to get organized for a trip to the West Coast when I heard Michael’s feet pounding up the stairs. It was ten-thirty in the evening, and we had to leave before dawn to get to the Hartford airport for an early flight. I had made a packing list. I’m a list maker, and there were a million things to do. Bras. Panties. Jeans skirt. Striped top. Sweater/jacket? (Check weather in SF.) I was good at reading the sound of my husband’s footsteps. These sounded urgent, though I couldn’t tell whether they were good urgent or bad urgent. Whatever it was, we didn’t have time for it. Skin stuff. Brush/comb. Headphones. He burst through my office door, open laptop in hand.
“Susie sent her results,” he said.
Susie was my much-older half sister, my father’s daughter from an early marriage. We weren’t close, and hadn’t spoken in a couple of years, but I had recently written to ask if she had ever done genetic testing. It was the kind of thing I had never even considered, but I had recalled Susie once mentioning that she wanted to know if she was at risk for any hereditary diseases. A New York City psychoanalyst, she had always been on the cutting edge of all things medical. My email had reached her at the TED conference in Banff. She had written back right away that she had indeed done genetic testing and would look to see if she had her results with her on her computer.
Our father had died in a car accident many years earlier, when I was twenty-three, and Susie thirty-eight. Through him, we were part of a large Orthodox Jewish clan. It was a family history I was proud of and I loved. Our grandfather had been a founder of Lincoln Square Synagogue, one of the country’s most respected Orthodox institutions. Our uncle had been president of the Orthodox Union. Our grandparents had been pillars of the observant Jewish community both in America and in Israel. Though as a grown woman I was not remotely religious, I had a powerful, nearly romantic sense of my family and its past.
The previous winter, Michael had become curious about his own origins. He knew far less about the generations preceding him than I did about mine. His mother had Alzheimer’s and recently had fallen and broken her hip. The combination of her injury and memory loss had precipitated a steep and rapid decline. His father was frail but mentally sharp. Michael’s sudden interest in genealogy was surprising to me, but I understood it. He was hoping to learn more about his ancestral roots while his dad was still around. Perhaps he’d even enlarge his sense of family by connecting to third or fourth cousins. Do you want to do it too? he might have asked. I’m sending away for a kit. It’s only like a hundred bucks. Though I no longer remember the exact moment, it is in fact the small, the undramatic, the banal—the yeah, sure that could just as easily have been a shrug and a no thanks.
The kits arrived and sat on our kitchen counter for days, perhaps weeks, unopened. They became part of the scenery, like the books and magazines that pile up until we cart them off to our local library. We made coffee in the mornings, poured juice, scrambled eggs. We ate dinner at the kitchen table. We fed the dog, wrote notes and grocery shopping lists on the blackboard. We sorted mail, took out the recycling. All the while the kits remained sealed in their green and white boxes decorated with a whimsical line drawing of a three-leaf clover. ANCESTRY: THE DNA TEST THAT TELLS A MORE COMPLETE STORY OF YOU.
Finally one night, Michael opened the two packages and handed me a small plastic vial.
“Spit,” he said.
I felt vaguely ridiculous and undignified as I bent over the vial. Why was I even doing this? I idly wondered if my results would be affected by the lamb chops I had just eaten, or the glass of wine, or residue from my lipstick. Once I had reached the line demarking the proper amount of saliva, I went back to clearing the dinner dishes. Michael wrapped a label around each of our vials and placed them in the packaging sent by Ancestry.com.
Two months passed, and I gave little thought to my DNA test. I was deep into revisions of my new book. Our son had just begun looking at colleges. Michael was working on a film project. I had all but forgotten about it until one day an email containing my results appeared. We were puzzled by some of the findings. I say puzzled—a gentle word—because this is how it felt to me. According to Ancestry, my DNA was 52 percent Eastern European Ashkenazi. The rest was a smattering of French, Irish, English, and German. Odd, but I had nothing to compare it with. I wasn’t disturbed. I wasn’t confused, even though that percentage seemed very low considering that all my ancestors were Jews from Eastern Europe. I put the results aside and figured there must be a reasonable explanation tied up in migrations and conflicts many generations before me. Such was my certainty that I knew exactly where I came from.
In a cabinet beneath our television, I keep several copies of a documentary about prewar shtetl life in Poland, called Image Before My Eyes. The film includes archival footage taken by my grandfather during a 1931 visit to Horodok, the family village. By then the owner of a successful fabric mill, he brought my great-grandfather with him. The film is all the more powerful for the present-day viewer’s knowledge of what will soon befall the men with their double beards, the women in modest black, the children crowding the American visitors. Someone—my grandfather?—holds the shaky camera as the doomed villagers dance around him in a widening circle. Then we cut to a quieter moment: in grainy black and white, my grandfather and great- grandfather pray at the grave of my great-great grandfather. I can almost make out the cadence of their voices—voices I have never heard but that are the music of my bones—as they recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. My grandfather wipes tears from his eyes.
In the year before my son’s bar mitzvah, I played him that part of the documentary. Do you see? I paused on the image of the rough old stone carved in Hebrew. This is where we come from. That’s the spot where your great-great-great grandfather-is buried. It felt urgently important to me, to make Jacob aware of his ancestral lineage, the patch of earth from which he sprang, the source of a spirit passed down, a connection. Of course, that tombstone would have been plowed under just a few years later. But in that moment—my people captured for all time—I was linking them to my own boy, and him to them. He hadn’t known my father, but at least I was able to give Jacob something formative that I myself had grown up with: a sense of grounding in coming from this family. He is the only child of an only child, but this—this was a vast and abundant part of his heritage that could never be taken away from him. We watched as the men on the screen swayed back and forth in a familiar rhythm, a dance I have known all my life.
So that 52 percent breakdown was just kind of weird, that’s all, as bland and innocuous as those sealed green and white boxes had been. I thought I’d clear it up by comparing my DNA results with Susie’s. Now, on the eve of our trip to the West Coast, Michael was sitting next to me on the small, tapestry-covered chaise in the corner of my office. I felt his leg pressed against mine as, side by side, we looked down at his laptop screen. Later he will tell me he already knew what I couldn’t allow myself even to begin to consider. On the wall directly behind us hung a black-and-white portrait of my paternal grandmother, her hair parted in the center, pulled back tightly, her gaze direct and serene.
Comparing Kit M440247 and A765211:
Largest segment = 14.9 cM
Total of segments > 7cM = 29.6 cM
Estimated number of generations to MRCA = 4.5
653629 SNP’s used for this comparison
Comparison took 0.04538 seconds.
“What does it mean?” My voice sounded strange to my own ears.
“You’re not sisters.”
“Not half sisters?”
“No kind of sisters.”
“How do you know?”
Michael traced the line estimating the number of generations to our most recent common ancestor.
The numbers, symbols, unfamiliar terms on the screen were a language I didn’t understand. It had taken 0.04538 seconds—a fraction of a second—to upend my life. There would now forever be a before. The innocence of a packing list. The preparation for a simple trip. The portrait of my grandmother in its gilded frame. My mind began to spin with calculations. If Susie was not my half sister—no kind of sister—it could mean only one of two things: either my father was not her father or my father was not my father.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Inheritance, Dani Shapiro’s powerful exploration of what makes her who she is.
1. The title of this book is Inheritance. What does it mean, in the context of the memoir?
2. Shapiro chose two quotes for her epigraph, one from Sylvia Plath and the other from George Orwell. What do they mean individually, and how does each affect your understanding of the other?
3. “You’re still you,” Shapiro reminds herself. What does she mean by this?
4. Much of Shapiro’s understanding of herself comes from what she believes to be her lineage. “These ancestors are the foundation upon which I have built my life,” she says on page 12. Would Shapiro feel so strongly if her father’s ancestors weren’t so illustrious? How does Shapiro’s understanding of lineage change over the course of the book?
5. Judaism is passed on from mother to child—the father’s religion holds no importance. So why does Shapiro’s sense of her own Jewishness rely so much on her father?
6. Chapter 7 opens with a discussion of the nature of identity. “What combination of memory, history, imagination, experience, subjectivity, genetic substance, and that ineffable thing called the soul makes us who we are?” Shapiro writes on page 27. What do you believe makes you, you?
7. Shapiro follows that passage with another provocative question: “Is who we are the same as who we believe ourselves to be?” What’s your opinion?
8. Identity is one major theme of the book. Another is the corrosive power of secrets. On page 35, Shapiro writes, “All my life I had known there was a secret. What I hadn’t known: the secret was me.” What might have changed if Shapiro had known her origins growing up?
9. On page 43, Shapiro quotes a Delmore Schwartz poem: “What am I now that I was then? / May memory restore again and again / The smallest color of the smallest day; / Time is the school in which we learn, / Time is the fire in which we burn.” What does this mean? Why is it significant to Shapiro?
10. Throughout the memoir, Shapiro uses literary extracts to illuminate what she feels or thinks—poems by Schwartz and Jane Kenyon, passages from Moby Dick and a novel by Thomas Mann. How does this help your understanding?
11. All her life, people had been telling Shapiro she didn’t look Jewish. If this hadn’t been part of her life already, how do you think she might have reacted to the news from her DNA test?
12. After Shapiro located her biological father, she emailed him almost immediately—against the advice of her friend, a genealogy expert. What do you imagine you would have done?
13. Why was it so important to Shapiro to believe that her parents hadn’t known the truth about her conception?
14. Her discovery leads Shapiro to reconsider her memories of her parents: “Her unsteady gaze, her wide, practiced smile. Her self-consciousness, the way every word seemed rehearsed. His stooped shoulders, the downward turn of his mouth. The way he was never quite present. Her rage. His sorrow. Her brittleness. His fragility. Their screaming fights.” (page 100)
15. On page 107, when discussing her father’s marriage to Dorothy, Rabbi Lookstein tells Shapiro, “We thought your father was a hero.” Shapiro comes back to her father’s decision to go through with the marriage several times in the book. Why?
16. At her aunt Shirley’s house, Shapiro sees a laminated newspaper clipping about the poem recited in a Chevy ad. (page 133) Why does Shapiro include this detail in the book? What is its significance?
17. On page 188, Shapiro writes, “In time, I will question how it could be possible that Ben—a man of medicine, who specialized in medical ethics—had never considered that he might have biological children.” How do you explain that?
18. How does Shapiro’s experience with contemporary reproductive medicine affect the way she judges her parents? What do you imagine future generations will say about our current approach to artificial insemination?
19. What do you make of the similarities between Shapiro and her half sister Emily?
20. On page 226, Shapiro brings up a psychoanalytic phrase, “unthought known.” How does this apply to her story?
21. What prompts Shapiro to legally change her first name?
22. Shapiro ends her book with a meditation on the Hebrew word hineni, “Here I am.” Why is this phrase so powerful?
23. On her hardcover tour for Inheritance, Dani Shapiro found that certain questions were asked by almost every audience. We’re sharing these questions along with Shapiro’s answers to deepen your understanding of the book and provide an interesting window into how Shapiro has continued to think about the book and her own story.
Audience Question: You’ve written multiple memoirs. When did you know that you’d have to write the story of Inheritance? How quickly after your discovery did you realize you’d eventually write a book about it?
Dani Shapiro: It wasn’t something I thought about, it was simply something I began to do. Writing is the way I have always made sense of myself and the world around me. It’s the process by which I come to understand what I feel, think, and know. In the aftermath of my discovery about my dad, initially I felt shattered, deconstructed. When I began scribbling on index cards, that was my way of trying to capture the thoughts, images, and feelings in the moment, so that I could later return to them. I was trying to piece myself back together again. There was also a ticking clock. If I was going to find and speak with the people who might know something about the circumstances of my conception, I had to do it quickly, because many of them were very old. I felt a tremendous sense of urgency to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could.
AQ: Did Ben Walden and his family know you were writing about them? How did they feel about it?
DS: I was always honest and transparent with Ben. He and his family knew I was writing a book. But they also knew that I would protect their privacy. I changed their names, and certain identifying details, so that no one reading it – even those who knew them – would be able to point and say, “Oh, this might be Ben Walden.” I took great care with that. There was a lot of trust involved. Once I finished the manuscript, I did something I’ve never done before. I sent a copy to Ben and his wife, Pilar, before turning the final draft in to my publisher. I wanted to be sure Ben felt his privacy was protected. And he did. That was a massive relief. As I’ve toured for Inheritance as well as my podcast Family Secrets, I’ve heard so many stories of other discoveries of family secrets, and I’ve realized that something truly beautiful and miraculous about my story is that everyone tried to do the right thing. Everyone tried to be kind. The trust and respect is entirely mutual. It didn’t happen overnight.
AQ: One of the thorniest issues in your story, at least as it pertained to the Waldens, was the question of whether Ben might have other offspring conceived through sperm donation. What would happen if you were simply the first? In a particularly charged moment, Pilar asks you outright if you’ll protect them. Have there been other half-siblings who have appeared? And if so, what has happened?
DS: I have heard the stories of many people who discover that they were donor-conceived and then discover scores of half-siblings. That has not happened to me. That doesn’t mean there might not be a few out there, but it becomes less likely with each passing year, as DNA testing continues to explode. Honestly, I don’t spend much time thinking about it. Ben and I have discussed how to handle or manage such an occurrence and continue to trust and respect that we’ll be able to navigate it with care. I certainly would feel a moral responsibility to a half-sibling stumbling upon this shocking information. I mean, I was that person myself not so long ago.
AQ: Your book is dedicated to your father. Which father do you mean?
DS: I have only one father: the dad who raised me. Who loved me, cared for me, nurtured me, and formed much of who I am. I loved him then, and I love him now. I very purposely worded the dedication of Inheritance in the way I did. I wanted the reader to think about what makes a father a father, what makes a family a family. I come from Ben, biologically. We share many traits, and it’s fascinating and oddly comforting to see myself in him. But he didn’t raise me. This journey has been a tremendous education for me in understanding what makes up our identities and attachments.
AQ: Is there any part of you that wishes you didn’t know? That you had never found out? What if your husband had never casually mentioned a DNA test to you?
DS: Not for a single solitary second. It was hard; it was shocking, but I’m very grateful that my life took this turn, that I learned something so essential about my identity. All my life, I had felt “other.” I didn’t fit in. Something didn’t make sense, but I had no idea what that might be. I had a good life, a contented life, but I was slightly haunted by the feeling that I didn’t totally add up. On my podcast, Family Secrets, I ask my guests at the end of each episode if they wish they’d never found out their family secret; not a single person has said, yes, it would have been better not to know. Knowledge is power. Knowledge is liberation. When the truth has been hidden in plain sight all one’s life, it’s like the lights blink on.