“Unearthing my family’s secrets was a world-warping shock,” says T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. She was glad that her first memoir was published the same year as Dani Shapiro’s fifth, Inheritance: “it was comforting to read Dani’s story.”
It’s easy to see why. While the specifics of the two authors’ lives differ — among other things, Shapiro was raised in an Orthodox household in New Jersey; Madden grew up in Florida, with a mixture of Buddhist, Hawaiian, and Jewish beliefs — they share what Shapiro calls “an emotional geography.” Both writers navigated difficult relationships with their parents, and felt out of place in their childhood communities. Both lost their fathers while still in their early twenties. And for both, a DNA test led to life-changing revelations.
In the following conversation, Madden and Shapiro discuss how their personal experiences led them to probe larger questions about identity, family, and the art of memoir writing itself.
Becca Kantor: How did it feel to read each other’s memoirs? Were there certain parts that were especially resonant — or illuminating because they were so different?
Dani Shapiro: Though the details of T Kira’s childhood were very different from mine, there was an immediate sense of recognition, an emotional geography that we shared. But I would say that the discoveries she made through DNA testing, and the randomness and improbability of ever having discovered what she did — or what I did — was what struck me hardest. That each of us, both writers and seekers, might never have known something so fundamental to our own selves.
T Kira Madden: I’ve been a devoted fan of Dani’s writing for years. When I was a self-destructive twenty-something-year-old girl, I found solace and forgiveness in Slow Motion. When I was grieving, when I was questioning, when I was falling in and out of love, I found both connection and catharsis through her books. I even sent her fan mail, years ago, to express my gratitude for feeling seen. This is all to say that the timing of my first book — which grapples with family, DNA, and shame — and her newest felt serendipitous. Unearthing my family’s secrets was a world-warping shock, an experience to which the people in my life couldn’t relate — so it was comforting to read Dani’s story. Less lonely.
I was particularly moved by Dani’s thoughtful exploration of what makes a father a father. The nuances, complexities, and painful pleasures of that relationship. She knows what it’s like to grieve a father and to discover not only who that person was as a parent, but also as a person — a person with their own flaws, shames, and triumphs.
BK: For me, one of the striking differences between your memoirs is structural. Dani, Inheritance opens when you’re already established in your career and have a settled family life with your husband and teenage son. The DNA test is introduced almost immediately, and the memoir is focused on the consequences of opening that Pandora’s box. Your previous memoirs have also been centered around a particular event or theme — such as writing, your marriage, and your search for faith — rather than a timespan. Did they develop this way organically, or has this been a conscious choice?
DS: I’ve become increasingly interested, over the years, in playing with time. Literature can use time structurally in a way no other art form can, and so I challenge myself to collapse time, or extend it, in order to get at truths that go beyond the temporal. It isn’t so much a conscious choice as it is a drive. As a young writer, a novelist, I wrote in a fairly straightforward chronological way. In my last couple of books before Inheritance (Devotion and Hourglass are the ones I’m particularly thinking of), I began to feel that I had moved away from using chronological time and was instead assembling the stories I wanted to tell as mosaics or puzzles. But then Inheritance demanded more straightforward storytelling, because it was a story. I think the stories we tell dictate the way they’re told.
BK: T Kira, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, on the other hand, does chronicle a timespan: it begins when you’re a young child being raised by a single mother, follows you through a rocky adolescence and turbulent romantic relationships, and ends when you’re in a happier, more stable place, engaged to your supportive fiancée. You introduce the DNA test late in your memoir, and you wait until that point to delve into your mother’s early years (instead of describing them near the beginning of the book). What were your thoughts behind this choice?
TKM: I think my memoir is unusual in that so much of it unfurled in real time — I continued to make discoveries related to its content as I wrote. I could have restructured the story after my discoveries, but I quite liked the organic progression of truth and the shredding of those “truths” — the implicit revisionist quality of writing from and about memory. All the recursive threats of nonfiction narrative. The memoir feels like a breathing thing because of that messiness. Nothing is finished in it. Likewise, nothing feels finished, or complete, in my life.
Nothing is finished in my memoir. Likewise, nothing feels finished, or complete, in my life.
BK: Your memoir also covers many different themes — writing, sexuality, substance abuse, parent/child dynamics, and reconnecting with lost siblings. Did you ever consider addressing these topics in different books, in the way Dani has?
TKM: I never set out to write a book of nonfiction, and certainly not a book of nonfiction orbiting all of the topics and years my book covers. I went from writing a novel about grief to writing a nonfiction essay about my father; after losing him, my novel bandwidth felt pau hana, so with what called to me. One essay about my father became a few essays about my father, and then those became essays about my mother, and, eventually, about me. It’s an unwieldy, unfocused book. But I feel proud of the choice to step away from it without adding false varnish.
BK: For both of you, discovering unknown relatives seems to have been all the more meaningful because you had difficult relationships with at least one parent growing up. Could you tell me about how the results of the test changed your perceptions of heritage and family more broadly? Did reading each other’s memoirs also change these perceptions?
TKM: I think writers are — or should be — always after empathy, with whatever capacity we have to hold that empathy. My book is about the great mystery of both my parents, and why they lived (and are living, in my mother’s case) with the secrets and choices they’ve made. When I learned about their “secret” children, it certainly made me understand and feel for them more deeply. I now have a better, if still imperfect, sense of what shaped them, for better and for worse.
DS: I spoke with Rabbi David Wolpe while I was writing Inheritance, and he suggested to me that we all feel “other” — and that, by virtue of my discovery, I had gone to the forefront of otherness and returned with something to teach. I gave that a great deal of thought. What am I learning? I wondered again and again. I’m in the midst of such a profound, powerful discovery — what is it teaching me about family, nature, nurture, otherness, secrecy? One of the ideas I’ve come around to is that the people who raise us — whether we love them or grapple with them or both — are our family. And so the dad who raised me is still my dad.
I do, however, have a different perception of my ancestry, because ancestors are genetic, biological connections, not emotional ones. I’d felt tied to my Shapiro ancestors as a result of the stories I had always been told about them, and because of this, they will psychologically always be a part of me. In actuality, however, I have a whole other set of ancestors.
I’d never fully understood myself until my discovery. The pieces didn’t add up, and I didn’t know why. And now I do. Half of me is descended from Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, and the other half is descended from Western Europeans who came over on the Mayflower. I’m a mongrel — and I always felt like one.
I’d never fully understood myself until my discovery. The pieces didn’t add up, and I didn’t know why. And now I do.
BK: In practice, you were raised as only children, although you both knew that your fathers also had children from previous marriages: T Kira, you have two half brothers whom you weren’t allowed to talk about, much less talk to. Dani, you had a strained relationship with Susie, whom you believed to be your older half sister.
When you take the DNA tests, you both discover half sisters with whom you feel an almost immediate connection. In fact, T Kira, when you were a child, you saw your half sister on TV in a beauty pageant. Not suspecting that she was related to you, you nevertheless thought she looked exactly like one of your cousins. Dani, you also discover that you have two half brothers and a half sister — and you learn that you and Susie are not in fact related at all.
For me, this brings up the nature versus nurture question. Do you think some innate similarities with your newly discovered sisters made it easier for the two of you to bond? Or was it that you were open to and eager for this connection? Do you think you would have formed the same bond with your sister had you grown up together?
DS: This is such thorny, interesting territory. When I met my new half sister, she did feel familiar to me. I liked her. We have quite a lot in common. Is that because we share a biological father? Or just coincidence? If I’d met a new half sister and hadn’t liked her, would I have dismissed the biological connection as irrelevant? I think so many of us have close relatives with whom we don’t feel a commonality, and conversely, we have friends who feel like family. So it’s very hard to parse this. I just feel grateful to have forged this new and lovely connection. My half sister and I had very different upbringings culturally, geographically, even in terms of family unity and happiness — hers was a much happier family than mine. I can’t imagine having grown up with her because it feels so impossible. As for Susie, the half sister with whom I thought I shared a father, she will always feel like my half sister because we shared a chunk of life together, strained or not.
TKM: There is something wildly profound about encountering shared features — my teeth, my big toes, my hair, my mother’s voice — on someone else for the first time. There’s a pull there, a connection. But I also know — especially as a gay woman who can’t conceive children with my partner in the heteronormative, “traditional” way — that biology only goes so far. My sister belongs to her family, and my brother belongs to his, because they were raised and nurtured within their families’ value systems. When my partner and I have or adopt or foster children, they will be ourchildren because of our commitment to them. Yes, there are striking similarities between me and my siblings — physicality aside — but who knows how much of that is a self-fulfilling prophecy? The truth is, we were raised very, very differently, and we’re all very different people — though perhaps there’s something to be said for the fact that we are all mixed-race people who were raised in white spaces. We were all raised with questions of identity. I think we share the same relationship to privilege and structures of power, and those structures have certainly shaped us.
BK: On that topic, both of you describe the challenges of being of mixed heritage, and the fact that you were also often perceived as non-Jewish based on your appearance. In her memoir, Dani asks, “What did it mean, to not ‘look’ Jewish?” What are your reactions to this question?
TKM: Look at Dani and look at me; we’re both Jewish. People find comfort in trying to identify the right containers for a person, an ideology, a belief.
DS: We now understand that telling a person that she doesn’t “look” like who she believes herself to be is politically incorrect. But people certainly did not know this when I was younger, and it was very confusing to be told that I didn’t “look” Jewish. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I tended to stand up to this by reciting my Jewish “cred” and being almost aggressive in my response. It made me angry, because it was such an ill-informed and boundary-less thing to say.
But it also all operated on me on a deeper level, by making me feel that I didn’t belong. That somehow, I was other. And this came into play when I would try to join a shul, or be part of a Jewish organization — this feeling of not belonging always came up.
We now understand that telling a person that she doesn’t “look” like who she believes herself to be is politically incorrect.
BTK: Did your sense of Jewish identity change when you received the results of your DNA test? If so, how?
DS: Paradoxically, knowing the truth of my genetic identity has allowed me to put all my questions to rest. I don’t “look” Jewish because I look like my biological father, who is of French-English-Swedish-Irish descent. End of story. It therefore allows me much more play and freedom with my own powerful sense of Jewishness, which has always been a huge part of me. Now, when I’m at a Jewish institution, or speaking at a primarily Jewish gathering, I feel I belong more than I ever have, because those missing puzzle pieces have snapped into place. I know the truth of me, and that knowledge is very powerful.
BK: T Kira, in your book, you mention celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas, and Chinese New Year. You also imply that you went to school with a lot of Jewish kids. What was your relationship to Judaism and Jewish identity growing up, and has it changed over time?
TKM: Something I’m so grateful for is that my parents taught me about different belief systems and never made me identify as one thing. I learned Hebrew prayers when I learned how to talk, and at the same time I learned the names of every Hawaiian god and goddess. Later, I was taught the central ideas of Buddhism. I went to church after school, prayed over my food, and lit candles for my dead ancestors and also greeted them as reincarnated insects. Knowing my mother, she probably made half of it up. I love that about her — her myriad imagined realities.
I think the pressure to choose one defining thing was all pressure I put on myself, because that’s what I saw in my peers; I worried I couldn’t be truly Jewish if I believed in Pelé, the volcano goddess, or because I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. I even made fake bat mitzvah T‑shirts for myself at summer camp, because I wanted to feel more “legitimate” with my friends.
Now, as an adult, I can appreciate elements of different faith and belief systems. I also recognize Judaism as a cultural reality, a familial reality, rather than something determined strictly by blood lineage. Yes, my mother is Chinese — raised in a Mormon household on the island of Oahu — but I was raised in Boca Raton, Florida with the most Jewish grandmother and a dreidel tablecloth collection. I’m Jewish. And Chinese Hawaiian. And gay. I’m all of these things.
BK: Dani, you’ve pointed out that DNA tests are often marketed as “recreation” — fun and harmless. T Kira, you were actually given your DNA testing kit as a Christmas present. But, as both of your books show, taking a DNA test can have repercussions that are far from inconsequential.
What are your thoughts about the larger ramifications and ethics of DNA testing? Do you have concerns about how easily accessible the results can be to others online?
TKM: My job as a writer is to deeply consider perspectives and desires outside my own — to spend time with other peoples’ feelings. That said, when I first received my DNA test results, I thought, of course this is my business. This should have always been my business. Secrets like this should have never existed in the first place. But, then there’s the writer in me. I felt for my mother when her secrets were blown up because of a website. And I felt for my grandparents. And my dead father. And my sister and brother, and their parents and families. The ripple effect, all because of this spit-tube technology. I can’t possibly understand the pain that resulted in my mother’s choice to give her children up for adoption. Those children being kept a secret feels darkly unfair. But my unearthing those secrets in the way that I did feels unfair, too. I guess I’m trying to say: I don’t know.
DS: In the months since the publication of Inheritance, I’ve traveled to more than thirty cities, and have spoken at hundreds of events where I’ve met people who have made recent discoveries about their parentage/lineage; parents who kept aspects of their children’s identities hidden from them; sperm donors; doctors who believed they were doing the right thing by promoting secrecy. One thing that’s clear is that we’re in a complex moment — a time when science has outpaced our ability to contend with what we discover. How are we meant to metabolize what we’re learning? Who are we to each other once we learn of previously unknown biological connections? What is our responsibility to each other now that we’re facing the unintended consequences of recreational DNA testing? I have been speaking in bioethics departments at universities, where there’s a great deal of focus on all the possible ramifications of DNA tests, including those involving privacy and identity. Much good can be done with the power of these tests — and also much that is terrifying.
BK: Turning to the process of writing itself, what were the difficulties you faced in committing your most personal experiences to paper? And returning to the idea of secrets: how did you deal with the challenge of writing about relatives and others in a way that’s honest yet also respectful of their privacy?
TKM: I’m still trying to understand and navigate the ethics of nonfiction. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care, that questions like these don’t keep me up at night. But I can say that I’m writing from my greatest attempt at honesty, of wanting to give every person full light and shadow, of wanting the people I love to feel I’ve done right by them. We writers will always fail at fully capturing another person because no two people experience the same version of reality. But I do my best to disguise people when I need to disguise them, and show them my work when that feels like the right thing to do, and to own the shortcomings of having a single lens and consciousness. Is writing about another person ever fully consensual or fair? No, I’m not convinced. But my intentions are always to communicate, to listen, to heal.
DS: I’ve written multiple memoirs, so I’ve been grappling with these issues for a long time. I think the key is in the grappling. I doubt very much that I would have written Inheritance if my parents, particularly my father, had still been alive. Even so, I struggled with revealing something that he had so clearly wanted to remain secret. The many childhood photographs of my dad and me that have appeared alongside reviews and interviews always give me a pang. I look at that handsome young father who harbored a secret in his heart, and imagine him seeing a flash of the future in which his secret would be plastered all over newspapers and magazines.
And yet, this is my story too — perhaps my story most of all. It is literally the story of my life. So ultimately, I felt I had permission, the right.
BK: You both also teach writing. How does your own memoir writing inform how you teach?
DS: My writing life and my teaching life are very connected. I learn from doing, and I bring to my students lessons involving both practice and craft that I have struggled with myself.
I worried I couldn’t be truly Jewish if I believed in Pelé, the volcano goddess, or because I didn’t have a bat mitzvah.
TKM: I think the most important role I play as a teacher is giving my students permission. They don’t need my permission for anything, but sometimes they just want someone to say it’s okay to chase one question for the rest of your life, and it’s okay to write into your corners of shame, and it’s okay to be weird, and gross, and boring if you’d like. And it’s wonderful to fail. I’ve written many unpublished books and one published one, and I read every day — and the only thing I know is that what fails and what succeeds on the page looks different for every person. So why not try everything, marvel at the mistakes, and fuck the traditional “rules” that were only ever meant for one kind of writer?
BK: Dani, looking back at your previous memoirs, one can see that they hint at unresolved issues that you weren’t even aware of at the time. For example, you refer to Susie as your “half sister,” which in retrospect we know isn’t accurate. Have you ever wanted to revise previous memoirs to reflect knowledge you acquired later?
DS: When I first made my discovery about my dad, I did have that feeling — that all my other memoirs were somehow “wrong” and would need to be annotated or revised. But ultimately I think this belies what memoir really is, which is the relationship between the self and the story at a particular moment in time. Memoir captures life between the covers of a book — the life the writer remembers and understands as she writes. So in fact, I end up feeling that my body of work is like a trail of breadcrumbs, and anyone interested in the role of the unconscious in the creative life might want to explore those earlier books to see just how much that I didn’t know was embedded in the work. I now find it quite exciting. I write in Inheritance about “the unthought known,” and when I revisit my earlier work, I see the unthought known everywhere.
BK: T Kira, your memoir also leaves certain topics unresolved. By the end of the book, you’ve connected with your half sister. But you’ve also learned that you have a full brother, who was given up for adoption when you were two — and the reader is left uncertain as to whether you ever have any contact with him. Can you ever imagine wanting to revise your memoir in the future?
TKM: I can’t, no. I’m thinking right now of Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” in which Didion suggests that it’s not the content in the notebook that matters — it’s the version of the girl, or woman, who wrote that content down. What I wrote in my book, and in all of my previous writings, felt true to me at that moment in time. It reflects what I knew then and the writing muscles I had then. I cherish that documentation, flawed and all. How do we really touch that which we once believed, without present-day wisdom clouding over? Art’s the only way.
BK: How did you decide where to end your book — how do you decide where one “chapter” of your life ends? Do you envision continuing the story in subsequent memoirs?
TKM: I stopped because it was time to print the book. I wrote the final words on the Friday before our Monday print deadline. That’s unusual, but my publishers knew I was in a unique situation (with the ending constantly changing in real time). I’d written a tidy and beautiful and joyful ending months before, about finding my sister and living happily ever after, but my mentor, Rick Moody, said, “I know you, and this isn’t true to you.” He was right. The reality was that I’d recently found out about my brother. And that was unresolved, and scary, and the most painful revelation of my life so far. I knew the messier ending — the sudden mystery of my brother — was the less pretty, less satisfying, but correct choice for me.
As for the future, I hope I’m able to write books for as long as I’m alive. I’ll certainly try. So far, I’ve never once been at a loss as to what to write about; I’ve always had a topic or person or memory calling out to me.
DS: For me, Inheritance feels like the end of a particular body of work. I had always been digging for secrets, creating narratives that explained myself and my parents, and then finally I came to the stunning realization that I was the secret — the secret was me. So I don’t know what will come next, but I don’t imagine it will be a continuation of this story. I end the book with one of my favorite words in the Hebrew language—hineni—and I address it to my dad. And now I think I’m done with that material, at least in the ways I’d been approaching it all my writing life.
Becca Kantor is Jewish Book Council’s editorial director. She received an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. A Philadelphia native, Becca spent a year in Estonia on a Fulbright scholarship, then lived in England and Germany before moving to New York. She is currently working on her first novel.