DNA analysis has become common enough to seem casual, but when memoirist Dani Shapiro looked into her own ancestry, she discovered something shocking: Her father was not the man who raised her. She explores what happened next in a new book, "Inheritance."
These days, having your DNA analyzed is almost as common as owning a smartphone, so when Dani Shapiro jumped on the trend, she thought she was just taking a measure of her genetic heritage. She didn’t expect to learn that her father was someone other than the man who raised her. Nor did she anticipate the identity crisis this knowledge would provoke.
Until she reached her mid-50s, explains Shapiro in “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love,” she’d known herself to be the descendant of a distinguished Orthodox Jewish family, someone who spoke Hebrew and came from a New Jersey household that kept kosher.
Technically, the genetic test confirmed that she was still Jewish through her mother. But what of the father she adored, the sad man she’d always tried to please? And how might her birth have contributed to that sadness?
By the time of her discovery, both her parents had died, so Shapiro’s deepest questions could never be answered. The only thing left for her to go on was an offhand comment her mother had made 30 years before. “Your father and I were having trouble conceiving,” she’d told her daughter, so they turned to a “world-famous institute” in Philadelphia for help. “Not a pretty story,” her mother concluded.
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That cryptic revelation led Shapiro, a noted writer and memoirist, to “Inheritance.” The institute to which her mother referred, long defunct, had been among the earliest to experiment with artificial insemination. Its renegade director improved the odds by practicing a form of genetic Russian roulette, using donated sperm to enhance his rate of success.
Or in Shapiro’s words: “An older mother. A subfertile father … A scientist with sharp elbows and a Napoleon complex.”
This is what finally leads her to her biological father, a former medical student, now a retired doctor and card-carrying Presbyterian. Ironically, his career included a side specialty in medical ethics.
“Inheritance” ably juggles two threads: The first involves Shapiro’s need to know her biological father, who, after initial reluctance agrees to meet. Over time, a comfortable acquaintance evolves — although it’s easy to wonder what impact the book might have on their relationship. Shapiro gives him and his family the privacy of pseudonyms, but offers enough detail to make his identity legible.
A more interesting focus involves Shapiro’s struggle to reconcile her newfound genetic legacy with the person she thought she was — blonde and blue-eyed, but never doubting her Jewishness — and to hold onto the love and appreciation for the man who gave her his name. For the latter journey, she turns to a rabbi and friend of her late father, who suggests that what happened may have been no accident, but rather proof of her father’s kindness and generosity. Perhaps, the rabbi says, he performed a good deed, or mitzvah, to a wife who wanted desperately to bear a child. “We thought your father was a hero,” the rabbi says.
Shapiro is hardly the first to encounter the hidden time bomb that DNA testing can ignite, but that’s a larger story. Instead of taking up the wide-reaching subject whole cloth, “Inheritance” zooms in on the blind spots that result when reproductive technology outpaces an understanding of its consequences. In viewing this important and timely topic through a highly personal lens, “Inheritance” succeeds admirably.
“Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love” by Dani Shapiro, Knopf, 272 pp., $24.95