Dani Shapiro is the author of five novels and four previous memoirs. “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love,” her new book, is likely to become her best known as well as be remembered as her most moving.
Memoir is often a rather dicey genre. Shapiro has admitted just that in a short essay entitled “On Memoir” that is readily available from her online newsletter. In that piece she quickly lets us know her thoughts on writing personal narrative: “Memoir is storytelling … Memoirs are stories, hewing as closely to the truth of the writer’s memory as possible — but not letting it all hang out. Part of the art of memoir is seeing, and recognizing the story itself. Life is messy. Art takes, gathers up the chaos, and gives it form.”
What a story Shapiro falls into by way of the seemingly most mundane of acts. Her husband, Michael Maren, a journalist and a filmmaker, convinces his wife to submit to a DNA test to learn more about her ancestry. It’s a procedure that touts itself as “The DNA Test that Tells a More Complete Story of You.”
So, in the spring of 2016, at 54 years of age, Shapiro spits into a small plastic vial and simply drops that vial into the mail. Two months later, she learns from Ancestry.com that her fondly remembered father cannot possibly be her biological father. Then, thanks to the internet, some 36 hours later she locates her actual father.
Ben Waldman is that man, “a retired doctor in Portland.” When
he was a medical student, for a short time Ben had been a favorably vetted sperm donor at a fertility institute in Philadelphia. Dani’s parents employed that institute, whose policy it was to mix donations in order to increase a couple’s chances of success at conceiving a child.
The news of her actual ancestry raises all sorts of questions for Shapiro — questions as disparate as identity and eugenics — even as it uncovers the truth.
Did her parents know, even approve of the fertility institute’s argument that “it would be in the couple’s best interest to add donor sperm to the mix without telling them”? Would her father, an Orthodox Jew, have agreed to donor sperm and been able to think of her as Jewish? Had her mother lied about the process? Had the institute covered it up?
Then there is the question of what it is that Dani Shapiro wants once she uncovers the truth. Is it to know that she isn’t “just the product of some random morning in Philadelphia”? Is it to meet her biological father, “to be in the presence, just once, of this man I came from”? Is it to “locate” herself, to gain the thing she has sensed had always been missing from her life with the man she thought was her father? She calls it “mutual recognition,” adding further: “I did not come from him. I had never once looked into his face and seen my own.”
In cogent and compelling prose, Dani Shapiro faces these hard questions head-on. Yet, for the reader, Shapiro’s year-long journey is never unsettling. In fact, her memoir is so engaging that it certainly invites reading at one sitting.
“Inheritance” is about the enigmas of identity, of family and of the basic human need for “a sense of connection, of tethering, of belonging.” At its heart, the memoir is, most winningly, about “nearly a year of living in a new reality and adjusting to it the way a body acclimates to a new temperature.”
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.