Clif Hostetler's Reviews > Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
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Dani Shapiro is a novelist and memoirist who has written previous books that involved family secrets and feelings of not belonging. Having previously written three memoirs, one would think that she has exhausted any new material for another memoir. How many memoirs can be written about one life? Yet unbelievably, in 2016 she discovered a family secret that provided unexpected material for yet another memoir, this book.

Shapiro took a genetic test that showed she had no biological relationship to her half-sister (her father's daughter from an earlier marriage). This meant that her father—who was no longer living—was not her biological father. Her mother was also deceased at the time of this discovery. A bit of on-line sleuthing together with a list of probable relatives from the genetic testing company enabled her to quickly determine the identity of her biological father.

Shapiro's parents had used the services of a fertility clinic in Philadelphia that had used the technique of mixing sperm from donors together with that of the wife's husband. It increased chances of pregnancy, and it was assumed nobody would ever know whose sperm actually caused the pregnancy. Things have changed with today's DNA testing which can make parentage determinable with certainty.

So at this point we're one-third way into the book, and the author knows the identity of her biological father. What should she do with this information? Should she try to contact him? Would he be willing to talk to her? She's also bothered by the question of how much her parents knew. Did they know about the mixed sperm? Did they have any suspicion of Dani being not biologically related to her father?

Shapiro had been told by many people during her childhood that she didn't look Jewish, but she had never seriously doubted her blood tie to her father. Emotionally she had felt closer to her father than to her mother. If she could have chosen a parent to not be related to she would have probably preferred that it be her mother.

I approached this book with a bit of skepticism that the author was making too big of an issue over blood relationships over those formed from a lifetime of nurture. But the author was able to draw me in as a reader to the drama of wondering about love, family, and belonging. When she told her aunt (her father's sister) about the DNA results her aunt replied that she was NOT letting her go (i.e. she was still a member of the family).

Shapiro is in her fifties and the person identified as the biological father (sperm donor) is a retired doctor in his seventies with children and grandchildren. Most men in this situation would wish to not deal with the potential complications from contact with a previously unknown biological child. It helped that Dani Shapiro was a successful writer with a visible on-line presence that could be examined and determined to be an unlikely seeker of an inheritance. Conversely, the author was able to find YouTube videos of her biological father prior to contacting him. She noted numerous characteristics that she shared with him, hand gesticulations in particular.

The story is beautifully written with enough suspense about their pending meeting to keep the reader's focused attention. The meeting does take place and is portrayed as a pleasant and emotional experience for all involved.

The following excerpt is the author's internal thoughts following her meeting with her biological father for the first time. I think it provides an example of the author's emotional attribution of mystical determinism to blood relationships.
Later, it will occur to me that Ben Walden [her biological father] 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.
I found it ironic that the author focused much of this book on the physical similarities between herself and her newly found half-sister and biological father while expressing virtually no connection or similarity to her mother with whom there's no doubt of biological relationship. But it's also clear that her relationship with her mother was fraught. It's a reminder that blood ties are no guarantee of love.
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Reading Progress

April 20, 2020 – Started Reading
April 22, 2020 – Shelved
April 24, 2020 – Finished Reading

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