Inher­i­tance: A Mem­oir of Geneal­o­gy, Pater­ni­ty, and Love

By – March 20, 2019

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 Ances​try​.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.

Discussion Questions

How do you make sense of your iden­ti­ty after a DNA test reveals that the man who raised you is not your bio­log­i­cal father? Dani Shapiro did not resem­ble any­one in her fam­i­ly and was often met with skep­ti­cism when she told peo­ple she was Jew­ish, but she nev­er expect­ed a genet­ic test that she took whim­si­cal­ly would reveal that the father she adored was not relat­ed to her. What secrets — buried fifty years ear­li­er — could explain such life-alter­ing facts?

Inher­i­tance is a mem­oir that reads like a psy­cho­log­i­cal sus­pense nov­el with a cen­tral char­ac­ter who faces epic chal­lenges and moral dilem­mas which are all the more grip­ping because they are not fic­tion­al. There is also a mean­ing­ful explo­ration of genet­ics, pater­ni­ty, and the world of infer­til­i­ty. And there is irony in Inher­i­tance: this gift­ed author of numer­ous nov­els and mem­oirs who has writ­ten bril­liant­ly and com­pul­sive­ly for three decades about iden­ti­ty and fam­i­ly his­to­ry has acci­den­tal­ly dis­cov­ered the sem­i­nal secret in the seed of her very existence.

I have used my life — rather than my life using me,” Dani Shapiro recent­ly told the New York Times. Inher­i­tance may be her finest work yet.