At the office of an acupuncturist for treatment for unbearable shoulder pain that neither drugs nor physical therapy could alleviate, Dani Shapiro, author of “Inheritance: A memoir of genealogy, paternity and love,” is asked whether she knows the three great spiritual questions.
Who am I?
Why am I here?
How shall I live?
Shapiro knows the questions.
In the aftermath of shocking DNA test results, Shapiro attempts to answer them.
Reliving life through writing
Like all memoirs, Inheritance is an exploration of a life, not just the bare details but the underlying motivations and reasons that drive one particular life. Shapiro is no stranger to the form, having written four memoirs before being hit with the tsunami of the revelation that threatens to unsettle the whole premise on which she has based her well-examined life.
At the age of fifty four, when she disinterestedly spits into a tube for a genetic test, she has no idea how the results will overturn and overtake her life. Having been raised in an orthodox Jewish family as an only child of parents who had her late in life, Shapiro has no doubts about her ancestry being 100% Jewish, of Eastern European Ashkenazi descent. When the results come back as 52%, the question of her ancestry looms large.
Over the next few days and weeks, her carefully constructed narrative about her family and her place in it and the world at large that she had explored in great depth in her memoirs falls apart when she finds out that the father who had raised her was not her biological father.
The book is organized into fifty short chapters divided into four parts which flow along a chronological narration from the time of the devastating test results. The author takes necessary detours to uncover long-buried memories and events of her childhood to find context to this shocking development. Shapiro acknowledges early on that while growing up in a home environment that was cold and unpleasant, she always suspected that there was a secret, never thinking that ‘she’ was the secret.
Her father, Paul Shapiro, a well-respected member of the orthodox Jewish community, had been her anchor and cheerleader until he died in a car accident when she was twenty three. Although her mother survived that accident, she had died a few years prior to this revelation leaving Shapiro with no direct way to confirm her discovery.
While she obsessively tries to dig up information about her biological father, her curiosity is tempered by the feeling that by doing so she is betraying her father, the one parent whom she loved, and who loved her.
Trying to answer the existential question – who am I
Shapiro recalls peering into the mirror at various ages, trying to see beyond the face that stares back. Her features, blond hair, blue eyes and her coloring are so different from the wealthy and well-regarded Jewish family to which she belongs that throughout her life, first as a young girl, and later as a grown woman, she is repeatedly asked, no, told, that she “couldn’t possibly be Jewish”.
Having always shrugged off such comments, Shapiro now remembers every such instance where strangers pointed out the obvious and her wilful disregard of the clues and flags that should have alerted her to the truth earlier.
Once the paternity question gets resolved, a whole lot of other questions swirl in her mind. From the original question of “If my father was not my father, who was my father?” the inquiry shifts to “If my father was not my father, who was I?”
Writers try to make sense out of life through the act of writing. When her father died, Shapiro claims to have used “writing as a way to give shape to my sorrow.” Now, when she loses him all over again, she turns to writing to capture not just the process of tracking down her still-living biological father (a seventy-eight-year-old retired physician with a wife, children and grandchildren) but also its impact on herself and her family.
As a writer of personal essays and memoir, I fully agree with Shapioro’s observation –
”it is possible to live an entire life – even an examined life, to the degree that I had relentlessly examined mine – and still not know the truth of oneself.”
What constitutes family – nature or nurture
In the most memorable exchange captured in the book, Shapiro’s ninety-three-year-old aunt Shirley, Paul Shapiro’s sister, who had no idea about the truth behind her niece’s conception, says very simply –
“I am not giving you up.”
Having witnessed her brother’s love for his daughter, Shirley puts aside cold scientific facts to state her opinion – “between you and Paul there was paternity, ownership, kinship.”
When Shapiro discloses the DNA results of her paternity with eighty-four-year-old Rabbi Lookstein who had known her father, he asks her what her primary concern was.
“Did my father know?” she asks.
“You’ll never know,” he responds. Seeing Shapiro’s dissatisfaction with his response, he prods
“Which story would ease your heart?”
“The true one,” replies Shapiro.
The quest for truth pulls her in two different directions, geographically and emotionally. One mystery takes her to Philadelphia, to understand the operation of the notorious Farris institute which was responsible for her mother’s successful conception in an era when artificial insemination was not subject to laws and regulations. It turns out that Shapiro is just one of about 40,000 babies born through artificial insemination during those years.
The desire to meet the person whose genetic material is part of her pulls her to the opposite side of the country, to Portland, where her biological father lives. Even as she loses the already tenuous connection to a half-sister from her father’s previous marriage, she learns about other half-siblings who don’t know of her existence.
Making peace with parents
The weakest parts of the book are the sections that deal with Shapiro’s relationship with her mother. There seems to be distance, an unwillingness to look deeper below the older woman’s superficial label of narcissistic personality disorder. Recounting memories from age three (of being photographed for a picture that was later used in a Kodak Christmas commercial), and age six (being called “little blondie” by an older family friend), along with complete details of the events as they occurred seem manufactured and out of place in a memoir that otherwise is a good mix of verifiable data and subjective truth.
After a prolonged correspondence, when she finally meets Ben Walden, the retired doctor who fathered her, in a restaurant, in the presence of her husband and his wife, Shapiro beautifully captures what the moment means to her.
“..Ben Walden felt, to me, like my native country. I had never lived in this country. I had never spoken its language or become steeped in its customs. I had no passport or record of citizenship. Still I had been shaped by my country of origin all my life, suffused with an inchoate longing to know my own land.”
The burden of objective truth that we are unaware of, and of what we believe we know, are both heavy.
Although meeting her biological dad gives her access to valuable medical history information, Shapiro has to let go of the wistful wish for her father to have known her son, to see himself and his genes reflected in his grandson who survives a rare genetic disorder in infancy.
Inheritance is an atypical coming of age story, a self-discovery that goes beyond mere data or process of discovery. Shapiro’s question about whether her parents knew remains unanswered but all quests result in growth. In her own words, “It is a measure of true adulthood that we are able to imagine our parents as the people they may have been before us.”
The book is proof that family, the bedrock of our life, is not always simple to comprehend; like life, it is a constant evolution and fine tuning of our own understanding.
Postscript: Following the success of Inheritance, Shapiro has launched Family Secrets, a podcast series that offers background to her this memoir and a collection of stories from guests who have discovered long-hidden secrets from their families’ past.
My opinion: An interesting read for those curious about family ties, identity and living an examined life,
Have you read other memoirs about unusual family relationships that you would recommend?