The acclaimed and beloved author of Hourglass now gives us a new memoir about identity, paternity, and family secrets—a real-time exploration of the staggering discovery she recently made about her father, and her struggle to piece together the hidden story of her own life.
What makes us who we are? What combination of memory, history, biology, experience, and that ineffable thing called the soul defines us?
In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had whimsically submitted her DNA for analysis, Dani Shapiro received the stunning news that her father was not her biological father. She woke up one morning and her entire history—the life she had lived—crumbled beneath her.
Inheritance is a book about secrets—secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love. It is the story of a woman’s urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been scrupulously hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history. 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.
Timely and unforgettable, Dani Shapiro’s memoir is a gripping, gut-wrenching exploration of genealogy, paternity, and love.
I picked up Inheritance on a whim, after a book group friend mentioned plans to attend a talk by the author at an upcoming event. The little bit I heard sounded interesting enough to make me want to know more: The author, raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, discovers through DNA testing that the man who raised her wasn’t actually her biological father.
With the proliferation of inexpensive testing resources like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, anyone can learn a little bit about their genetic background. Author Dani Shapiro’s half-sister had done DNA testing, and Dani decided to do it as well. But when she got her results back, she was startled: According to the data, she was only 52% Ashkenazi Jewish, not the 100% she was certain was her correct heritage. She’d been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, and her father’s lineage in particular was practically a who’s who of important people in the Orthodox world. She and her half-sister shared a father, but when she compared their results, it turns out that the two women were not actually biologically related at all.
The author was in her mid-50’s at this point, and both her parents were already deceased. She began to follow the scanty available clues, among them memories of her mother stating that she’d been conceived thanks to a medical institute in Philadelphia, and within days, made the discovery that her parents had turned to a fertility center that relied on donor sperm to help infertile couples have children. With only the most preliminary attempts at sleuthing, the author was able to trace connections and find her biological father, a man who was a sperm donor for a period of time as a medical student in Philadelphia in the 1960s.
The book focuses on Dani Shapiro’s search for both the facts of her heritage and conception, and the bigger truth about her identity. Much of Inheritance is spend on understanding the essential question: Who am I? The author, in discovering that the facts of her entire life were false, found herself unmoored and in desperate need of answers. Did her parents truly understand the treatment they sought? Did they know that donor sperm would be used? If they truly knew, how could they hide the truth from her for her entire life? Does this truth change her history, her understanding of her parents’ marriage, her place in the family history?
The author narrates the audiobook, which lends it greater immediacy and emotion. When she describes her soul-searching and her moments of pain and shock, it feels genuine — as though the author was allowing us a peek inside herself, letting us see the turmoil she experienced.
I must admit that there were sections that made me feel very impatient. The degree of shock and dislocation experienced by the author was hard for me to fully understand. I mean, I get being shocked by learning in midlife that there’s a big family secret that was hidden all this time — but the extreme questioning about whether she was still herself and whether she still belonged to her family struck me as over the top. What about people who’ve been adopted? What about all the other people out there whose parents used assisted reproductive technologies involving donor sperm or donor eggs? Why should the use of donor sperm in conception mean that the father who raised her wasn’t really her father?
As a whole, Inheritance spends a great deal of time on introspection and the search for meaning. Which I guess is the point of a memoir, so maybe I’m just not a particularly good memoir reader? In any case, I was much more interested in the unraveling of clues, the discussion of the medical ethics, and the research into fertility approaches in the 1960s than in the contemplative sections on identity and belonging.
That being said, I did find Inheritance quite fascinating as a whole. It’s a relatively quick listen, with lots of food for thought, and elements focused on the author’s Jewish upbringing and how that carries through to her current life particularly resonated for me.
Title: Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love
Author: Dani Shapiro
Narrated by: Dani Shapiro
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: January 15, 2019
Length (print): 272 pages
Length (audiobook): 6 hours, 44 minutes