Life After Uncovering a Mind-Blowing Family Secret

Dani Shapiro talks about her extraordinary new memoir, Inheritance, and what it’s like to “rewrite” your origin story at age 54.

By Lori Leibovich

Author Dani Shapiro

Inheritance, by Dani Shapiro, is the stranger-than-fiction story of the author’s discovery, at age 54, that she was not biologically related to her beloved father. Raised as an only child in an Orthodox Jewish family, Dani had always viewed her father, Paul, who died when she was in her 20s, as a flawed but loving force who offered a respite from her emotionally abusive mother. Then she took a mail order genetic test on a whim and within a few weeks her entire personal history unraveled. In just a few days of internet sleuthing she was able to piece together the story of her parents infertility, the renegade doctor who treated them in the 60s, and remarkably, find a video of her biological father whose face and mannerisms were eerily similar to her own.

At times it’s easy to forget that Inheritance is nonfiction because the story has the richness and pacing of a great novel. The book raises fundamental questions about identity, secrecy, and our quest to discover our place in the world.  The Helm spoke with Dani, who lives in Connecticut with her husband and has a college-age son, about these questions and more.

LL:  If you were introduced to someone for the first time today, and they said, “Tell me about yourself,” how would you answer?

DS: It’s a fascinating conundrum to have your very sense of your own identity and where you come from, shift in the middle of your life. Being donor conceived, and making that discovery at the age of 54, shoots to the top of my list of my ‘what makes me, me’ list. I don’t know whether it will always feel that way to me, but I imagine it will because I spent 54 years of my life believing one thing about myself, and, in a way, it’s the work of the rest of my life to understand that so much of what I based my identity on was incorrect.

“It's a fascinating conundrum to have your very sense of your own identity and where you come from, shift in the middle of your life.”

LL: Can you describe the very short period of time between the moment you received results from your mail order genetic test until the moment you found out for sure that your father was not your father?

DS: It was kind of a hallucinatory blur. It happened shockingly fast. I got back the results of my DNA test in the spring of 2016 and at first I just didn’t know what to make of them. The breakdown of ethnicity didn’t really make sense. It had me at 52% Eastern European, Ashkenazi, and according to what I knew about myself, that should have been closer to 100%. Initially, that left me scratching my head. Then the clues started to build up.

LL:  When you do one of these genetic tests, if there’s someone who shares a genetic relationship with you who has also done the test, they’ll show up on your page, right?

DS: Right. A first cousin, who was a complete stranger to me, showed up on my page. I would say that was really the first moment I thought, something is not right here.  

LL:  What happened next?

DS: I have a half-sister, who was my father’s daughter from an earlier marriage, who’s much older than I am. I knew she had done genetic testing years earlier and asked her to see the results so I could compare them. She sent me her kit number, and I had my kit number, and there’s a site where you can upload two kits side by side. You can see how they connect, or how they don’t, and what the relationship is. It took like 0.538 of a second to see that she and I were not related.

LL: Was that the moment you knew?

DS:  It was a late June evening and I remember sitting next to my husband on the chaise in my office. He had his open laptop, and he had done the comparison. I just said, “What does it mean?” And he said, “You’re not sisters. You’re not related.” That’s when I knew that my father wasn’t my biological father.

LL: You immediately went into full-on reporting mode.

DS:  My husband is a former journalist, I have journalistic skills-I mean this definitely happened to people who had the tools to figure it out.

LL: What was your state of mind?

DS:  I was in a state of what I now recognize as utter traumatic shock and bewilderment. Even while I was researching, I felt sure there would be a logical explanation that was going to restore my life to “before.” I wanted to go back to the land of before, in which my dad was my biological dad and everything made sense.

LL: During this mad search period, which was only about 36 hours, you recalled some clues which helped you find your biological father.

DS: There was a conversation that I had many years earlier with my mother, in which she revealed to me the city of my conception, Philadelphia. She also revealed that I had been conceived via artificial insemination, using my father’s sperm. She told me it was in the early days of artificial insemination, and that they had gone to this cutting edge clinic, and my father would race down from New York where he worked, and they would do the procedure.  Everything I was finding out, though, pointed to the fact that my biological father was a sperm donor.

LL: So with just a few facts—and an educated guess that the donor must have been a medical student because the clinic was on the campus of a university—plus Google and Facebook you were able to find your biological father in 36 hours.

DS:  Right. The very first thing I found was a video. He’s a retired physician, and a medical ethicist, amazingly enough. There was video of him giving a lecture, and he looked like me, and what I remember was a feeling of every piece of the puzzle of my life falling into place and yet at the same time, being so shocked and destabilized.

“I felt sure there would be a logical explanation that was going to restore my life to 'before.'”

LL: This story is extraordinary on its own. But what I found so interesting as a longtime reader of your work is how in every memoir you’ve written before this one, you’ve wrestled with questions of identity—as a mother, as a wife, as a writer, as a spiritual person. The other thread in your memoirs has been your father and his role in your life as someone who was complicated, but loving and solid.

DS: My father was my much better parent. He was a very kind-hearted, warm, and a loving person. My relationship with him was profound, informative, and he died when I was 23. So much of my adult life as a writer, and also as a human being, has been an effort to put the pieces of him together for myself in some way. To understand him as if I knew that there was something about him that I couldn’t quite grasp.

When I look back at my earlier work now, I think that in some deep way, I knew without knowing what I knew. One of the epigraphs of Inheritance is from Sylvia Plath’s The Colossus: I shall never get you put together entirely, pieced, glued, and properly jointed.” That was so much of what I was always trying to do.

My father died before he ever had a chance to be proud of me. I was a bit of a screw-up as a teenager and young woman. I had dropped out of college, I was in a terribly dysfunctional and destructive relationship with a much older man. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. And that’s how he left me. I think in some ways my books have all been written for him.

"My mother was capable of bending the world to her will."

LL: Do you think your parents knew that your father was not your biological father?

DS: From everything I’ve learned about artificial insemination at that time, there was a lot that was obscured from couples. On the one hand, they knew what they were doing, they were going to an institute that specialized in donor insemination. On the other hand, they would have been told that it was a treatment that would help to boost my father’s chances. I’ve even learned more recently that women who went to the institute where my parents went were often told, once they became pregnant, “Oh the timing is so interesting. You must have already been pregnant when you came to us.” So If a couple didn’t want to know, they absolutely could not know.

LL: From reading your previous memoirs, your mother always struck me as so shrewd and not the kind of person who could get the wool pulled over her eyes.

DS: The further into this discovery, the longer I live with it and the more that I know, the less likely it seems to me that they actually did not know. My mother was capable of bending the world to her will. I believe that from the moment she got pregnant with me, she decided I was my father’s daughter. I believe she could have passed a polygraph. I don’t think my mother could have tolerated the thought that she was pregnant with the genetic material of a stranger. My father was much more of a realist, and also much more mentally healthy than my mother. I believe that my father could have hoped that I was his biological child. But then I came out looking really, really other. That otherness was something that caused perfect strangers to comment about it on a regular basis. That did not go unnoticed by my father.

LL: Thirty years ago when you started publishing books you were a writer, period—you didn’t have to worry about posting to Instagram in order to grow your audience. You also run a writer’s conference and soon you’ll be hosting a podcast. Does it feel odd, as a writer, to basically be running a small business? 

DS: Ten years ago I would have told you that I am a writer and I write. I go into the cave and I write my books, I come out and I talk about them a little bit, and then I go back into the cave and write the next one. That model has undergone such a major shift. For years I felt like, “Well gosh, can I be a novelist and memoirist. Living in this very rarefied literary world and also have a big Instagram following? Is it okay?” But I took to social media, especially Instagram, because I see it as a place where I can really connect with my readers while still being true to myself. And I  don’t feel embarrassed about it at all now. I feel completely empowered by it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You can order Inheritance here and subscribe to Dani’s podcast Family Secrets here.

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