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Reckoning with family secrets: Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

March 13, 2019

Dani Shapiro's Inheritance is her story of discovering her true paternity and the revelation of a childhood, and life, built on a secret.

 

It's funny the things adults think they can and should say to children. 

 

Blonde, fair-skinned, and blue-eyed, Shapiro was often questioned about her appearance and told she didn't look like a descendant of Orthodox Jews. This question of her outward appearance was something that stuck with Shapiro throughout her life.

 

 

In her memoir, Shapiro recounts the discovery that her Anglo appearance was a sign of her true paternity. She only discovered this through an Ancestry DNA test she decided to take on a whim. Not hoping to find anything other than what she'd been told her whole life: that she was descended from Ashkenazi Jews, she mailed her spit in a plastic tube and went on with her life. She could have just as easily never taken the test at all and never learned that her blond hair and blue eyes were indicative of a mixture of French, Irish, English, and German heritage. She was only half Ashkenazi Jew. After comparing her results to that of her half-sister, Susie, Shapiro discovered that she was not her father's daughter and that she and Susie were not related.

 

 I'm pretty sure my head would've exploded.

 

But Shapiro's memoir does more than recount her journey to discover her true paternity, which led to her eventual meeting of her biological father. It is also about her reckoning with whether the father she was raised by knew that she might not have been his biological daughter.

 

When Shapiro first discovers the truth behind her DNA results, she recalls a conversation with her mother 30 years prior about how she and her father had struggled with fertility and sought assistance at a fertility institute in Philadelphia.

 

 Can you say AMAZING memory!?

 

Shapiro pursues this side of the story and shares what she learns about the history of fertility medicine and donor insemination in the 1950s. In the early days of artificial insemination, male infertility was viewed as shameful and it was common practice for doctor's to mix the sperm of the intended father with that of a donor so that there could be plausible deniability.

 

 Let's just mix it all together and pretend like it never happened!?

 

In other words, it provided relief as to the question of paternity - it could go either way, which made everyone feel better. 

 

 I guess I see the logic in this, but really Y'ALL?! These were medical professionals, btw.

 

This medical practice did not anticipate that in the 21st century children of donor insemination would be mailing their spit in vials to have their DNA mapped out for them.

 Thank you science  for making the stuff of nightmares REAL.

 

Shapiro and her husband, Michael, through great investigative research, quickly determine and find Shapiro's biological father and she is able to meet him. For Shapiro, it was like looking into a mirror. Although she'd been raised by her father, Paul Shapiro, a man who taught her everything she knew, and who she felt had made her into the person she grew into, physically they appeared unrelated. They could have walked down the street together and looked like strangers to passersby. But she always held close to her heart the feeling that she was more his child than her mother's. Shapiro's relationship with her mother was tumultuous. At one point she describes her mother as a "pathological narcissist with a borderline personality disorder." Being able to hold her relationship with her father close to her heart always provided reassurance.

 

This made the discovery of her true paternity a traumatic experience.

 

 

Despite the shock, heartache, and disappointment of discovering such an enormous family secret, Shapiro manages to tell her story in a way that is both sorrowful, introspective, and compelling.

 

If you are interested in a quick, non-fiction read, I recommend this memoir on audio.

 

 

Have you read Inheritance? Will you be adding it to your tbr list? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

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