Saturday, December 12, 2020

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro: on a Whim


When Dani Shapiro appeared on a panel at the 2019 Southern Festival of Books, the novelist/memoirist had a unique story to share that may be playing itself out in other people's lives now too.

My own experience with Ancestry has given me specifics on my own forebears but no big surprises like the one that shook up Shapiro's world. She did the "spit in a cup" test on a whim without giving much thought, but when her results showed that she was not related to who she had thought to be her half sister, she and her husband started scouring the internet. The appearance of a first cousin on her Ancestry page, identified only my initials, was a clue that opened the way for more discoveries.

A fair-haired, blue-eyed blond, Shapiro had always felt something wasn't right about her place in her family, the daughter of observant Jewish parents. She says she grew up always having to convince people of her parentage. She was in her fifties before making the discovery that her the father who raised her wasn't her biological father at all. While the news didn't surprise her, it had a profound effect on her. 

The story she tells in Inheritance, her memoir that unfolds traces her attempts--frustrating at first--to contact her biological father, who had been a medical student and sperm donor when her parents traveled to Philadelphia for what was new infertility treatment. She was able not only to find the identity of the man but to see pictures and even video clips of him, showing remarkable resemblance and even familiar gestures and speech patterns.

While tentatively establishing a connection to him, she also reached out to anyone--rabbis, family friends and relatives--trying to discover just how much her parents actually knew about the truth of her conception. She also learned of networks of children seeking their sperm donor fathers, many finding dozens of half-siblings.

Shapiro's story is her own. With in vitro fertility treatment common now, many families feel less compelled to keep the details secret from their offspring. She candidly deals with her own set of questions as she seeks to answer that essential question: Who am I?


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