Dani Shapiro had been questioned her whole life about her ethnicity. With blond hair and blue eyes, even though her parents were Orthodox Jews, people had told her from the time she was a baby that she couldn’t be Jewish. And then in her mid-50s she received the shock of her life after taking a DNA test. This is the story told in her memoir Inheritance.
Shapiro took the over-the-counter DNA test on a whim at the request of her husband. When the tests come back, she compares it with a test her half-sister and discovers that her father is not her biological father. Shapiro is quickly able to figure out who her biological father is through the test results, the Internet, and some help from an acquaintance who is active in genealogy.
The mystery of how she was conceived continues to come into focus as she remembers a conversation with her mother many years before. This opens up the world of infertility treatment of the 1960s and it is here that much of the book remains. Though she is able to figure out how she was likely conceived, she is left to understand the implications of this knowledge.
Shapiro taps into the few people that are still alive who may have had knowledge of what happened when she was conceived, including doctors, family, and others who knew her parents who are both dead. She longs to know if her beloved father knew and what this means to the relationship they had.
She is able to connect with her newly found biological father and some of his family. In the end she is able to come to an understanding of who she was, who she now is, and what that means for her identity.
The book provides some interesting background on the beginnings of fertility treatments in the U.S., where we are now, and the ethics of such things as donating sperm, eggs and the long-term effects that DNA testing with have on babies born this way.
The Process of Memoir
Shapiro has been telling stories of her life for years. This is her fifth memoir. Previous memoirs included Hourglass, Devotion, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, and Slow Motion which discussed topics such as her marriage, spirituality, her son’s rare seizure disorder, and her parent’s car accident and father’s death.
I found the passages where she talked about memoir writing particularly interesting. She talked about how she felt as if she felt as if she was capturing and finally coming to understand her life and the life of her family through writing her memoirs:
“There. that’s it. Now I understand. I dug until my shovel hit rock.”
Dani Shapiro, Inheritance
She says that contrary to what people think, she does not have a great memory. It is just that she continues to write until she is able to unearth the story.
“I am also the diver who has discovered the black box. What’s this? I had been looking for it my whole life without knowing it existed. Now I hold it in my hands. It may or may not contain clues. It is a witness to a history it recorded but did not see.”
Dani Shapiro, Inheritance
I found this explanation especially interesting because as a memoir writer you often have the facts, but the truth of the story is often harder to discover. Once Shapiro had the facts of her genetics, the meaning was hers to decipher.
Originally published at https://catherinelanser.com on August 7, 2019.