Dani Shapiro grew up in an observant Jewish family. She was yeshiva-educated and a fluent speaker of Hebrew by the time she was in high school. Her father, Paul Shapiro, was the scion of a prominent New York Orthodox family. He’d married and divorced when young, then married a second time—to the love of his life, a young woman who would quickly succumb to cancer. Dani’s mother, Irene, a divorced advertising executive, became his third wife. Their union was not a harmonious one. Paul was “melancholy [and] passive”, a man who had lived his life “as though ‘no’ had been shouted at him since the day he was born.” Irene, on the other hand, “was someone who would never have taken no for an answer.” She was difficult, eventually “becoming a miserable, alien creature, a woman who radiated rage.” Susie (Paul’s New York psychoanalyst daughter from his first marriage) loathed her stepmother and opined that Irene suffered from narcissistic or borderline personality disorder. It is understandable that Dani was closer to her father.
In 2016, when Dani was 54, she took an Ancestry.com DNA test. Her husband compared her results with Susie’s and declared that Dani and Susie were certainly not half sisters. In fact, they would have to go back four-and-a-half generations to find their most-recent common ancestor. Using the Ancestry.com website and helped by a genealogy-sleuthing acquaintance, Dani and her husband were able to discover the name of Dani’s (paternal) first cousin (the nephew of her biological father). Soon they would determine the identity of her biological father himself. When Dani was 25, Irene had made a surprising statement: Dani had been conceived in Philadelphia. It wasn’t “a pretty story,” she said. Artificial insemination was involved—a procedure which, in the fifties and sixties, was almost universally disapproved of by theologians, lawyers, ethicists, and even some physicians. Although her mother’s communication on the matter had been limited, it provided Dani with valuable clues. They would lead her to a rather shady fertility institute not far from the University of Pennsylvania, from whose medical school fine young men, future doctors, were recruited to be sperm donors. Dani would discover her “social” father Paul Shapiro’s “slow” sperm had been mixed with the more viable sperm of a vital young donor—as was customary at the Farris Institute.
As donor stories go, Shapiro’s is unusual in the sense that it wasn’t very hard for her to find her biological father. Her account of making tentative e-mail contact with him and the tension over whether or not he, now a 78-year-old father and grandfather living on the other side of the country, would actually agree to meet her makes for compelling reading.
Shapiro’s book includes some consideration of the world of sperm donation and the fertility industry. The author makes clear that anonymous donations of reproductive material have consequences: humans who will inevitably later wonder about their origins. Shapiro also briefly discusses her own experience with fertility treatments. In their early forties, she and her husband were unable to conceive a second child and had sought medical assistance. A fair amount of the memoir is given over to reflections on identity, family secrets, and the importance of family history. The author writes that very early in her life she had been aware that she didn’t quite fit. With her blond hair, blue eyes, and fair complexion, Dani didn’t look like her family members. People often remarked she didn’t “look Jewish” at all. Irene, whose genes she inherited, was of Ashkenazic heritage, but the genes provided by her biological father were those of his French, Irish, English, and German ancestors.
Shapiro initially feels a sense of loss and betrayal when she learns of her actual parentage and some of the circumstances associated with her conception. Her memoir shows her coming to grips with her new identity. She finally understands why she felt so different, so “other”, within her extended family . While I appreciate that getting this kind of information in middle age would shake a person up (especially when the people one would most like to speak to—one’s parents—are dead), I found Shapiro’s labelling the experience “traumatic” a bit over the top. Dramatic? Yes. Traumatic? No. Bessel Van der Kolk, a Dutch psychiatrist and expert on traumatic stress, defines trauma “as an inescapably stressful event that overwhelms people's existing coping mechanisms.” Shapiro’s coping mechanisms were not overwhelmed. She certainly felt conflicted and disoriented, but as a person of some privilege she had no lack of resources to help her cope—psychological, social, educational, professional, and financial (you name it, she had it). Her characterization of the situation as a “crisis of the soul” seems almost histrionic. To give Shapiro her due, she is sometimes aware of this. For example, at one point she writes “it seemed . . . as if I had been swept into someone’s novel—someone’s melodramatic novel—and I was playing a character rather than living my life.” Yes, that’s about right.
I believe Shapiros’s material would have made a better magazine feature article than a full-length memoir. The page and word-count limits would have reined in some of the excess, forced her to excise the padding. Some of the material that appears near the end of her memoir seemed particularly self-indulgent, betraying an unbecoming sense of “specialness”. Writing about her new-found, biological half sister, Emily, for example, Shapiro notes: “Both of us [were] shy, strong, quiet, loyal . . . serious about our work, fierce about our kids, devoted to long-lasting female friendships.” She then adds: “I’d recently taken an online Myers-Briggs personality test and discovered that I am an INFJ—introverted, intuitive, feeling, judging—a category that makes up less than one percent of the population.” [Emphasis mine] Shapiro is generous enough to include her new sister in this special cohort, however: “I had a feeling that Emily might also fall into that one percent.”
I mostly enjoyed Inheritance and found Shapiro’s writing to be competent and engaging, but I do have some reservations about her work. I’m not sure that her kind of memoir writing is for me.