As Dani Shapiro’s new memoir opens, she stares into a mirror confronting a rankling feeling she’s had her whole life: that her face is that of a stranger; she doesn’t resemble either of the Orthodox Jewish parents who raised her.And she’s just received confirmation that she’s been right all along. After taking a DNA test through Ancestry.com — something she and her husband both did as a lark — the results came back with unanticipated news: Shapiro’s DNA was only 52% Ashkenazic. But both of her parents are deceased; she can’t ask them any questions.
Through some investigative journalism and genetic sleuthing, Shapiro discovers the identity of her biological father. He is a doctor and medical ethicist from Oregon. As Shapiro writes, watching him give a talk on YouTube is like seeing an alternate version of herself, one that feels immediately and viscerally connected to her own identity. And yet, when she musters the courage to contact him, he is reluctant to form a relationship with her. He is in his seventies and retired, and he wants to spend more time with his grandchildren. How does Shapiro fit in to the narrative of his life?
Equally important, how does this stranger fit in to Shapiro’s own narrative? Finding answers requires digging into dusty boxes of old records and into the minds of people with scraps of memories of Shapiro’s origin. The search brings to light questionable ethical behavior regarding the mixing of sperm during fertility treatments, procedures that had long remained in the shadows. And it forces Shapiro to come to terms with the difficult decisions made by her mother, desperate for a child, and her father, an extremely religious man, that resulted in her very existence.
Each member of the family must adjust to the new genetic information in their own way. And while her biological father is reticent, her newly discovered half-sister is curious about Shapiro. They form a tentative relationship through which they discover their similarities — they both read the same writers — as well as their differences.The power of this memoir is in Shapiro’s mastery of the form, and her striking ability to bring the reader into her thoughts and struggles with brutal honesty and beautiful prose.
While this particular story is uniquely Shapiro’s, the themes with which she grapples are universal. Each of us, in our own way, wonder who we really are, where we came from, and how our ancestry informs our lives. In Inheritance, Shapiro not only discovers where she came from; she also creates a legacy that enriches all of us.
Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a science writer living in Austin, Texas and the author of Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. Her book on the future of coral will be published in 2021.