INHERITANCE: A Memoir of Geneaology, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro. Alfred A. Knopf, 247 pp., $24.95.
Late last year, scores of people received DNA testing kits as holiday gifts; ancestry.com sold 1.5 million of them between Black Friday and Cyber Monday alone. Each instructs its user to spit into a vial, send that vial off to lab for testing and await your genealogical results.
The process is designed to illuminate your ethnic background, as well as connect you with other DNA matches — ostensibly, close and extended family. While it sounds warm and fuzzy, the jagged edge of DNA testing has been the unearthing of long-buried family secrets — usually along the lines of “wow, my dad is not my real dad.” In genealogy, this is called an “npe,” or nonpaternity event.
One evening after dinner, author Dani Shapiro, who has written about her family and marriage in four memoirs (and five sometimes autobiographical novels), spit into a tube her husband had purchased. Shapiro, 54 at the time, had little reason to doubt her background, she writes in her new memoir “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love.” “I had been raised Orthodox. I mean, I was very Jewish. I spoke fluent Hebrew until I was in high school.” She was especially proud to be part of her father’s lineage, an esteemed Orthodox clan, “conscious of its own legacy.”
After the spit test, months pass. Shapiro had “all but forgotten about it,” until the results dropped a grenade into her life: Shapiro was only 52 percent Eastern European Ashkenazi Jew — the rest, a mashup of Irish, German, English and French DNA.
At first, Shapiro writes it off as “just kind of weird.” Until she queries her half-sister, her father’s child from an earlier marriage, and learns they share scant DNA. The truth is laid bare: The man Shapiro revered as her father, who died decades prior, was not her biological dad. “By the time I went to bed that night, my entire history — the life I had lived — had crumbled beneath me, like the buried ruins of an ancient forgotten city,” Shapiro writes.
We travel this seismic terrain in the first 20 pages of “Inheritance,” a swift moving narrative of profound personal disorientation. Just as you think you’ve crested the big reveal, Shapiro builds more tension, chapter by short chapter; she keeps you close as she feels her way through unfamiliar terrain.
Shapiro soon recalls a long-ago conversation with her mother, a woman she was never close to, about the unromantic story of her conception. “There was a doctor — an institute — in Philadelphia,” her mother tells Shapiro when she is 25, two years after a car accident took her father’s life. Her mom alludes to their fertility problems. "It's not a pretty story.”
That institute, Shapiro’s research-savvy husband (also a writer) later discovers, was the Farris Institute for Parenthood in Philadelphia, a place intended to “treat” married women having trouble conceiving. It was overseen by a rogue doctor who mingled husbands’ sperm with that of donors — often medical students at the University of Pennsylvania — for insemination.
With the help of a genealogy researcher, her husband and a mysterious DNA match, Shapiro quickly zeros in on the identity of her sperm donor, aka her biological dad, a retired doctor. While in bed in a San Francisco hotel room, she glimpses him for the first time via a YouTube clip. “I saw my jaw, my nose, my forehead and eyes,” she writes. “I knew in a place beyond thought that I was seeing the truth — the answer to the unanswerable questions I had been exploring all my life.”
Despite her luck at quickly finding him — many children of sperm donors never do, Shapiro discovers — she is heartbroken for her beloved father, and agonizes over whether he knew the truth or not, a theme that becomes repetitive at times. She plumbs the particulars of sperm donation and secrecy in an era when being childless was taboo, especially for Jewish families bound by the mitzvah to “be fruitful and multiply.” She queries rabbis for answers to profound spiritual questions.
The real emotional ballast of “Inheritance,” though, is the journey Shapiro takes within her own family. Anyone who has dealt with an “npe” may despair at Shapiro’s disappointments and exult in her victories. In the book’s most moving chapter, a 93-year-old aunt proves herself to be a true superhero during a visit, steadying her niece with "the purest manifestation of love I had ever experienced," Shapiro writes.
“I had spent all my life writing my way through darkness like a miner in a cave until I spit into plastic vial and the lights blinked on,” Shapiro writes. Those lights, and this deft writer, have yielded a memoir that feels necessary for those who "might have always been haunted by a feeling of otherness," , and engrossing for those who have not.