Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. By Dani Shapiro. Knopf, 2019

A DNA Fault Line

This is a memoir of the months after Dani Shapiro received the results of her DNA test. She had submitted it on a whim and had no reason to expect surprises. In her 50s, a successful writer, a wife, a mother, an only child of an observant Jewish couple, she “had a powerful, nearly romantic sense” of belonging to her family and its past, to her late father’s well-respected clan, to Judaism – “I led with being Jewish wherever I went in the world.” She “was of that dusty and doomed Polish village” and carried in her heart “the imprint of pogroms, of the difficulties and sorrows of immigrant life.”

The mirror told her that she didn’t belong – at some point she even kept a daily record of how many times she heard she did not look Jewish. Her photograph as a little girl became Kodak’s Christmas poster. Her parents’ friend (Mrs. Kushner, the future grandmother-in-law of the future president’s daughter) who had escaped with her family from  a Jewish ghetto during WWII by digging a tunnel commented at Shapiro’s “Arian” appearance “We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.”  

These observations stuck in the girl’s mind but all that counted was her relationship with her father. He defined her; he, she was convinced, was able to reach her “through time and space because of the thousands of people who connected” them.

The result of the DNA test was: “Fifty-two percent of Eastern European Ashkenazi descent. And the rest: French, Irish, English, German. A schism, a fault line, a split.”

Social Dad vs Bio-Dad

The author brings the reader with her on a single-minded search to learn the secret of her birth, to uncover the secrets that her parents kept from her and from each other, and to keep her world from crumbling, indeed from altering, to remain part of her family. 

As Shapiro discovers that she was donor-conceived she researches the fascinating history of the in vitro fertilization. When the procedure was developed, no thought was given to the issues of ethics or consequences for the biological fathers, social fathers, and the children. In the 1960s, a pioneer in the field expected that the donors would remain unknown, be of excellent character, be men of science or medicine. He concluded that “it isn’t absurd to presume that a child of artificial insemination has an advantage eugenically, mentally and physically. The donors chosen are devoid of hereditary taints; they have the mental capacity to advance to upper classes in schools of medicine; …they are even free of such irritating conditions as hay fever or allergy.”

Father vs Daddy

On her journey, Shapiro grapples with eternal questions: what makes a person a person; what makes a father a father; what makes us who we are; nature or nurture? The happy ending of her emotional detective story is not merely in identifying and meeting the biological father and half-siblings. It is in the understanding her parents as they desperately tried to have a child. More importantly, it is in the realization that she will always be the true daughter of her beloved father with whom she shares a soul. Of her biological father she says, “He was my cloth, my country. But he was not my daddy.”

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love is a detective story that must be read.

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