Dani Shapiro’s Connecticut home has sepia portraits of her late father as a child and members of his distinguished Orthodox family on the walls, photographs she has known all of her life. These faces have, in silence, supported her, spoken to her, even comforted her. Her identity is stamped by theirs.
Two years ago, after sending her DNA to a website for analysis, she learned news that shocked her, that at first she didn’t think possible: Her beloved father was not her biological father. His line of kinfolks weren’t blood relatives. And after 36 hours of detective work with her husband’s help on the internet, she learned that her biological father wasn’t Jewish.
In “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love” (Knopf) — which debuts on The New York Times Best Sellers list this week — Shapiro unfolds the story of her discovery and its intellectual and emotional impact. She is a writer who has mined her experience and inner landscape in four previous memoirs, “Hourglass,” “Still Writing,” “Devotion” and “Slow Motion,” and she has written five novels that also touch on her history and identity.
“This is the story that makes sense of all the others,” she tells The Jewish Week while in New York City as part of her book tour. “It’s not that those stories weren’t true. They all are true. They’re just not the whole truth.”
My whole writing life has been about trying to understand. I dug until my shovel hit rock.
“On the one hand,” she continues, “I have spent my entire life grappling with identity, trying to piece the puzzle of my father together. I think there’s a reason why in my work, the fiction and memoirs, I kept gravitating to family secrets. I thought I knew why, that there were secrets in my house. I never dreamt that I was the secret.
“My whole writing life has been about trying to understand,” she adds.
She writes in the memoir, “I dug until my shovel hit rock.”
Shapiro’s grandfather, Joseph Shapiro, was a founder of Lincoln Square Synagogue, a philanthropist and leader of several Orthodox organizations. Her father, Paul Shapiro, a Wall Street stockbroker, was killed in a car crash when she was 23; her mother, Irene, was badly injured and survived. Her parents had an uneasy marriage, and Dani, their only child, felt more her father’s daughter than her mother’s, and she was proud of his lineage. Some of her clearest childhood memories involve her father — she would go with him to synagogue, where he seemed most at home, and prayer was a kind of secret language they shared.
Through an older half-sister (her father had been previously married) who also had her DNA tested, she confirmed that the results of her own test were true, for she and her half-sister turned out not to be related, biologically. Shapiro, who is blonde and pale-skinned with an easy elegance about her, has been told repeatedly, throughout her life, by Jews and non-Jews, that she doesn’t look Jewish. “Story of my life,” she would say with a shrug. In fact, as a little girl, Shapiro — who was once selected as the Kodak poster child for Christmas — was pulled aside by a friend of her parents, who, it turns out, is the grandmother of Jared Kushner, and told, “We could have used you in the ghetto, little Blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.” That comment and others stayed with her.
Even during Shapiro extended family occasions, she felt a sense of otherness, which she thought was because she was the daughter of her mother, who was not raised Orthodox and was always distant from the Shapiros. Dani now says there was something she couldn’t quite articulate about all of this.
For the reader, there’s a sense of suspense in Shapiro’s unraveling of details, even as she is thrown by her discovery and plagued by urgent questions about why her parents didn’t tell her — and how much they actually understood or how much they buried the truth in their own ways. Shapiro’s mother had told her about traveling to a fertility clinic in Philadelphia, but not much more than that. Dani learns that a practice in those days was to mix donor sperm with the father’s sperm, to keep alive the possibility that the baby was biologically his. Through dogged research, interviews with older family friends and relatives (most who knew her parents were no longer alive), medical experts and others with some connection to that clinic (closed down long ago) and genealogists, Shapiro recreates events surrounding her birth. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who was a friend of her father’s, has a cameo in the narrative, trying to offer comfort. A cherished aunt and others reassure her about love, and that, no matter what, Paul is still her father.
Suddenly though, she has a different medical history, and her son has a different grandfather. While she doesn’t look at all like her mother or the Shapiros, she discovers that she closely resembles her biological father. She keeps a promise of guarding his privacy. About their relationship going forward, she admits there’s “no playbook.”
A teacher of memoir writing who is cofounder of a writer’s conference in Positano, Italy, Shapiro skillfully creates a narrative that ties together the mysteries and facts she assembles and the deeper levels of her emotional life. While some writers can find a story in a brief encounter, Shapiro can find something revelatory, authentic and lyrical in a moment.
For her, writing is not catharsis, but a way of containing, ordering and understanding the truth. She says that she doesn’t view a memoir as “the sweep of life,” but rather as the telling of what she knew when she wrote it.
Shapiro, who left Orthodoxy long ago, meditates every morning, first thing, and says it is a ritual that grew out of being her father’s daughter, a different take on his daily prayers. These days, after all that she has learned, she says that she feels, paradoxically, less conflicted about her Jewish identity. While she understands that halachically, her Jewish identity is transmitted through her Jewish mother, she always identified her Judaism with her father. In fact, she feels “more Jewish. I understand.”
“So much of this feels like a spiritual journey for me,” she says. “The deepest kind. This book is similar to ‘Devotion.’ I finished the book and the journey is ongoing and always will be.”
Shapiro is also committed to discussing the issues she raises in the book about secrecy; she wrote a recent piece in Time magazine advocating for transparency and regulation concerning donor conception, and the rights of children to know their origins.
“I spent 54 years being wrong about my identity,” she says, noting that she will be thinking about “questions of nature and culture, what makes a parent a parent, what secrets do, how we are formed by what we don’t know and what is unsaid” for a very long time.
On Feb. 14, Shapiro is launching a new podcast, “Family Secrets,” in which she talks to others about family secrets they have discovered, and the power of truth.