Inheritance by Dani Shapiro, review by Shirley Wells

Testing your DNA is so easy nowadays.  There are several companies to choose from, but they all work about the same way--spit into a tube, send it in, and in four to six weeks, you’ll find out who your blood relatives are...or who they aren’t.  

Dani Shapiro was raised in an observant Jewish family.  She knew the history and ancestry which had shaped her identity.  The walls of her home were lined with portraits and photographs of her Eastern European relatives, especially her paternal ones.  She had written several memoirs and delved deeply into her personal life, religion, and family. None of this, however, prepared her for the shock of discovering that the man she had been raised by and had lost at a young age was not her biological father.  To say this shook the foundation of her life is an understatement.

Shapiro had adored her father; her mother--not so much.  It was confusing to find out that the parent who she felt closest to was not her biological dad.  This sent her on a journey to uncover the fifty-four-year old secret of her parentage. With the help of the Internet and her husband’s sleuthing skills, she was able to identify her biological father fairly quickly--even viewing a YouTube video of him, his face and mannerisms eerily resembling her own.  He had been a young medical student when he donated to a sperm bank. Her parents, struggling with infertility issues, had used this sperm bank in order to conceive a child--her. Now many of the life-long questions she and others had posed concerning her identify resurfaced: Why didn’t she look like her family?  Why did she always feel a longing to belong to a different family? And the question that haunts the author the most and the one that is the most difficult to answer is whether her father had known she was not his biological daughter and had kept it a secret from her. Of course, he would always be the beloved man who had raised her and whose love and kindness had provided consolation for her difficult relationship with her mother.  But did he know? Or suspect? Or was this just her mother’s secret? At the time of her conception, religious leaders of every faith viewed artificial insemination as an abomination and the resulting child as a bastard. Had her family’s secret protected her--or them--from this judgment?

One of the most fascinating aspects of Inheritance concerns the medical ethics of DNA analysis.  In 1961, when the poor young medical student donated his sperm, he was assured of anonymity.  Is it fair that he loses his right to privacy now with the advent of DNA analysis and sharing?  Does he now have any legal--or financial--obligations to this child who shares his DNA? And how many others might be out there?  After all, he had donated several times; he had needed the money back then. And did Shapiro have the right to contact him now after all these years?  Shapiro’s story raises lots of thorny questions, some which prove difficult to resolve.

Six months after her startling discovery, Shapiro told her story to a rabbi who was her friend and colleague.  His quiet response was brilliant: “You can say, ‘This is impossible, terrible.’ Or you can say, ‘This is beautiful, wonderful.’  You can imagine that you’re in exile. Or you can imagine that you have more than one home.”

I am one of the millions who have had their DNA analyzed.  I’ve discovered and reached out to distant cousins, traced two different lines of my ancestry back to 11-12th century Scotland, and have uncovered a few family secrets of my own. If you’re like me and find genealogy fascinating, or if you’ve pondered the question of nature vs nurture and what shapes our personality and identity, or even if you’ve ever watched a tv episode of “Finding Your Roots” or “Long Lost Family,” you’ll want to read Inheritance.  

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love Cover Image
ISBN: 9781524732714
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Knopf - January 15th, 2019