Cover image for Inheritance : a memoir of genealogy, paternity, and love / Dani Shapiro.
Inheritance : a memoir of genealogy, paternity, and love / Dani Shapiro.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.
Physical Description:
247 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
"This is a Borzoi book"--T.p. Verso.
"The acclaimed and beloved author of Hourglass now gives us a new memoir about identity, paternity, and family secrets--a real-time exploration of the staggering discovery she made last year about her father, and her struggle to piece together the hidden the story of her own life"-- Provided by publisher.
Personal Subject:


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
818.5403 SHA Book Adult Biography

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"A gripping genetic detective story, and a meditation on the meaning of parenthood and family." --Jennifer Egan, author of Manhattan Beach

From the acclaimed, best-selling memoirist and novelist--"a writer of rare talent" (Cheryl Strayed)--a memoir about the staggering family secret uncovered by a genealogy test: an exploration of the urgent ethical questions surrounding fertility treatments and DNA testing, and a profound inquiry of paternity, identity, and love.

What makes us who we are? What combination of memory, history, biology, experience, and that ineffable thing called the soul defines us?
In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had whimsically submitted her DNA for analysis, Dani Shapiro received the stunning news that her father was not her biological father. She woke up one morning and her entire history--the life she had lived--crumbled beneath her.
Inheritance is a book about secrets--secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love. It is the story of a woman's urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been scrupulously hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history. It is a book about the extraordinary moment we live in--a moment in which science and technology have outpaced not only medical ethics but also the capacities of the human heart to contend with the consequences of what we discover.

Author Notes

Dani Shapiro was born on April 10,1962 in New Jersey. She attended Sarah Lawrence College where she studied under Grace Paley. She began writing fo rthe screen and adapted Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince" for HBO. She has also been a professor of creative writing at Wesleyan University and an instructor at Columbia University. She has since written five novels and 3 memoirs. Her novels include: Playing with Fire, Fugitive Blue, Picturing the Wreck, Family History and Black and White. Her memoirs are Hourglass, Slow Motion, Devotion, and Inheritance.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this fascinating memoir, Shapiro (Hourglass) writes of how she questioned her identity when a DNA test revealed that she was not, as she believed she was, 100% Jewish. Shapiro grew up in an Orthodox family in suburban New Jersey; blonde-haired and blue-eyed, she often felt out of place in a family of dark-haired Ashkenazi Jews, yet she had shrugged off the physical differences. But when she got the DNA test results, the then-54-year-old began researching her family history, and within months she unraveled a narrative leading back to the 1960s and the early days of artificial insemination. Her own parents had died, but now, with the support of her husband and son, she discovered her biological father, a doctor from Portland. Shapiro realized that her childhood, her ancestral lineage, and the foundation of her world were based on deception. "What potent combination of lawlessness, secrecy, desire, shame, greed, and confusion had led to my conception?" Shapiro writes. With thoughtful candor, she explores the ethical questions surrounding sperm donation, the consequences of DNA testing, and the emotional impact of having an uprooted religious and ethnic identity. This beautifully written, thought-provoking genealogical mystery will captivate readers from the very first pages. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

"YOU MAY DISCOVER things about yourself and/or your family members that may be upsetting," warns the boilerplate legal language at, the website of a company that analyzes samples from DNA testing kits. Spitting into one of those test tubes a few years ago, I felt as if I were perched on the edge of a void: Here was a moment when all the veils had the potential to fall. At the time, my greatest fear was that I might be genetically predisposed to Alzheimer's disease or breast cancer. But we've all heard stories of people who discover, quite by accident, that their family history isn't quite what they thought. The chance that such a thing might happen at all seems remote - but that it might happen to Dani Shapiro, a novelist and memoirist who has devoted her life to telling stories about families and their secrets, is even more incredible. Shapiro's 2010 memoir, "Devotion," is the story of her search for a new spirituality after becoming disillusioned with the Orthodox Judaism of her childhood; she grew up steeped in the history of her Eastern European ancestors and taught to take pride in the accomplishments of her grandfather, a pillar of modern Orthodoxy. But, as she recounts in her latest memoir, "Inheritance," a few years ago, with both her parents long dead, she took a DNA test and discovered that she was only half Jewish - and unrelated to the woman she had always thought was her half sister. Shapiro had long known that she was conceived in Philadelphia, at a clinic for couples with fertility problems: "Not a pretty story," in her mother's words. The clinic was run by Edmond Farris, a doctor who had developed a new method for pinpointing when a woman ovulated. When the time was right, Shapiro's mother had told her, her father would rush down from New York, where he worked on the stock exchange, and provide sperm for artificial insemination. Shapiro had heard rumors that such clinics used to "mix sperm" - that is, the semen of men with low sperm count would be combined with donor sperm to increase the chances of pregnancy - but she didn't give it more thought. Now she learns that in those days, many sperm donors were medical students. A Twitter acquaintance who calls herself a "genealogy geek" needs only a family tree on showing a first cousin previously unknown to Shapiro and a few web searches to locate the man who turns out to be Shapiro's biological father - a decidedly non-Jewish doctor in Oregon who went to medical school at Penn. All this takes place within the first third of the book, so I'm not giving much away. At any rate, the true drama of "Inheritance" is not Shapiro's discovery of her father's identity but the meaning she makes of it. In many ways, the knowledge comes as a relief. Her parents' relationship was fraught; her mother suffered from borderline personality disorder, and her father was depressive. She always felt out of place in her birth family, as if on some level she knew she didn't belong. Relatives, friends and strangers commented that she didn't look Jewish; once, when she was a child, a family friend (who will eventually be Jared Kushner's grandmother) ran a hand through her platinum hair and remarked, chillingly: "We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis." When Shapiro comes upon a Youllibe video of her biological father - a man with her features and coloring, who even gesticulates the same way she does - the resemblance is more than astonishing; it's consoling. "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," she writes. The discovery that Shapiro carries a stranger's genes has profound implications for every aspect of her life, from the photographs of supposed relatives that line the walls of her house to the need to revise her medical history. ("How could I explain that my father was no longer deceased?" she wonders at the doctor's office.) It also leads her to investigate the early days of artificial insemination, in which she finds more than a tinge of eugenics. Farris is quoted in an interview as saying that he saw "nothing wrong in trying to bring children of fine quality into the world"; his donors were the "best material that Philadelphia medical schools can offer." Couples who used donor sperm were advised to have sex before and after the insemination, to intentionally introduce an element of ambiguity. It was simply assumed that their children would never be told. No one seems to have worried about those children growing up with inaccurate medical histories, much less a pervasive sense of unease in their own skin. Shapiro's account is beautifully written and deeply moving - it brought me to tears more than once. I couldn't help feeling unnerved, though, by the strength of her conviction that blood will out, which leads her uncomfortably close to genetic determinism. "Our lifetime of disconnection, finally explained," she writes of her lack of kinship with the woman she believed to be her half sister. Donating sperm, she believes, is "the passing along of an essence that was inseparable from personhood itself"; on a visit to the California Cryobank, the nation's largest donor sperm repository, she wonders about the "millions of souls" within its vials. But by all accounts, many children of sperm (and egg) donors grow up fulfilled and content, nurtured by the love of the parents who raise them and uninterested in seeking out their biological relatives - who, when found, often turn out to be a disappointment. And for many children of unhappy families, genetic bonds aren't sufficient to maintain connection to parents who are abusive or neglectful. "Neither of my two fathers could ever be entirely mine," Shapiro comes to realize. Indeed, no one's parents can ever be entirely one's own; they have histories and secrets of which we know nothing. And among the mysteries of adulthood is the way parents and children, once apparently inseparable, can part like amicable lovers: still fond, but no longer close. As the song goes, it's love - not genes - that will keep us together. RUTH FRANKLIN is the author of "Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography.

Library Journal Review

Memoirist (Hourglass) and novelist (Family History) Shapiro was told her entire life that she was an Orthodox Jew and had no reason to think otherwise. Except the author didn't look like anyone else in her family and also felt that she didn't exactly belong. So when she takes a DNA test on a whim and learns that her father is not her biological father, it makes sense but also turns her world upside down. It's revealed that her parents sought help conceiving at a less-than-reputable fertility clinic in the 1960s, when little was known about artificial insemination. Shapiro meets with relatives, rabbis, her biological father, and anyone else who might help her understand this. But what she really wants to know is how her parents could let this happen and if they realized how it would impact her life. Shapiro has written several memoirs on family (Still Writing, Devotion), and this latest is fast-paced, easy to read, and ultimately seeks answers to the questions of, who am I, why am I here, and how shall I live? All have something to do with love. VERDICT A fascinating read for memoir fans and anyone curious about how DNA tests could impact one's life.-Kristin Joy Anderson, Lewis Univ. Lib., Romeoville, IL © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Excerpted from Inheritance Chapter 1 When I was a girl I would sneak down the hall late at night once my parents were asleep. I would lock myself in the bathroom, climb onto the Formica counter, and get as close as possible to the mirror until I was nose to nose with my own reflection. This wasn't an exercise in the simple self-absorption of child­hood. The stakes felt high. Who knows how long I kneeled there, staring into my own eyes. I was looking for something I couldn't possibly have articulated--but I always knew it when I saw it. If I waited long enough, my face would begin to morph. I was eight, ten, thirteen. Cheeks, eyes, chin, and forehead--my features softened and shape-shifted until finally I was able to see another face, a different face, what seemed to me a truer face just beneath my own. Now it is early morning and I'm in a small hotel bathroom three thousand miles from home. I'm fifty-four years old, and it's a long time since I was that girl. But here I am again, staring and staring at my reflection. A stranger stares back at me. The coordinates: I'm in San Francisco--Japantown, to be precise--just off a long flight. The facts: I'm a woman, a wife, a mother, a writer, a teacher. I'm a daughter. I blink. The stranger in the mirror blinks too. A daughter. Over the course of a single day and night, the familiar has vanished. Familiar: belonging to a family. On the other side of the thin wall I hear my husband crack open a newspaper. The floor seems to sway. Or perhaps it's my body trembling. I don't know what a nervous break­down would feel like, but I wonder if I'm having one. I trace my fingers across the planes of my cheekbones, down my neck, across my clavicle, as if to be certain I still exist. I'm hit by a wave of dizziness and grip the bathroom counter. In the weeks and months to come, I will become well acquainted with this sensation. It will come over me on street corners and curbs, in airports, train stations. I'll take it as a sign to slow down. Take a breath. Feel the fact of my own body. You're still you, I tell myself, again and again and again. Chapter 2 Twenty-four hours earlier, I was in my home office trying to get organized for a trip to the West Coast when I heard Michael's feet pounding up the stairs. It was ten-thirty in the evening, and we had to leave before dawn to get to the Hartford airport for an early flight. I had made a packing list. I'm a list maker, and there were a million things to do. Bras. Panties. Jeans skirt. Striped top. Sweater/jacket? (Check weather in SF.) I was good at reading the sound of my husband's footsteps. These sounded urgent, though I couldn't tell whether they were good urgent or bad urgent. Whatever it was, we didn't have time for it. Skin stuff. Brush/comb. Headphones. He burst through my office door, open laptop in hand. "Susie sent her results," he said. Susie was my much-older half sister, my father's daughter from an early marriage. We weren't close, and hadn't spoken in a couple of years, but I had recently written to ask if she had ever done genetic testing. It was the kind of thing I had never even considered, but I had recalled Susie once mentioning that she wanted to know if she was at risk for any hereditary dis­eases. A New York City psychoanalyst, she had always been on the cutting edge of all things medical. My email had reached her at the TED conference in Banff. She had written back right away that she had indeed done genetic testing and would look to see if she had her results with her on her computer. Our father had died in a car accident many years earlier, when I was twenty-three, and Susie thirty-eight. Through him, we were part of a large Orthodox Jewish clan. It was a family history I was proud of and I loved. Our grandfather had been a founder of Lincoln Square Synagogue, one of the country's most respected Orthodox institutions. Our uncle had been president of the Orthodox Union. Our grandparents had been pillars of the observant Jewish community both in America and in Israel. Though as a grown woman I was not remotely religious, I had a powerful, nearly romantic sense of my family and its past. The previous winter, Michael had become curious about his own origins. He knew far less about the generations preceding him than I did about mine. His mother had Alzheimer's and recently had fallen and broken her hip. The combination of her injury and memory loss had precipitated a steep and rapid decline. His father was frail but mentally sharp. Michael's sudden interest in genealogy was surprising to me, but I understood it. He was hoping to learn more about his ancestral roots while his dad was still around. Perhaps he'd even enlarge his sense of family by connecting to third or fourth cousins. Do you want to do it too? he might have asked. I'm sending away for a kit. It's only like a hundred bucks. Though I no longer remember the exact moment, it is in fact the small, the undramatic, the banal--the yeah, sure that could just as easily have been a shrug and a no thanks. The kits arrived and sat on our kitchen counter for days, perhaps weeks, unopened. They became part of the scenery, like the books and magazines that pile up until we cart them off to our local library. We made coffee in the mornings, poured juice, scrambled eggs. We ate dinner at the kitchen table. We fed the dog, wrote notes and grocery shopping lists on the blackboard. We sorted mail, took out the recycling. All the while the kits remained sealed in their green and white boxes decorated with a whimsical line drawing of a three-leaf clo­ver. ANCESTRY: THE DNA TEST THAT TELLS A MORE COMPLETE STORY OF YOU. Finally one night, Michael opened the two packages and handed me a small plastic vial. "Spit," he said. I felt vaguely ridiculous and undignified as I bent over the vial. Why was I even doing this? I idly wondered if my results would be affected by the lamb chops I had just eaten, or the glass of wine, or residue from my lipstick. Once I had reached the line demarking the proper amount of saliva, I went back to clearing the dinner dishes. Michael wrapped a label around each of our vials and placed them in the packaging sent by Two months passed, and I gave little thought to my DNA test. I was deep into revisions of my new book. Our son had just begun looking at colleges. Michael was working on a film project. I had all but forgotten about it until one day an email containing my results appeared. We were puzzled by some of the findings. I say puzzled --a gentle word--because this is how it felt to me. According to Ancestry, my DNA was 52 percent Eastern European Ashkenazi. The rest was a smattering of French, Irish, English, and German. Odd, but I had nothing to compare it with. I wasn't disturbed. I wasn't confused, even though that percentage seemed very low considering that all my ancestors were Jews from Eastern Europe. I put the results aside and figured there must be a reasonable explanation tied up in migrations and conflicts many generations before me. Such was my certainty that I knew exactly where I came from. In a cabinet beneath our television, I keep several copies of a documentary about prewar shtetl life in Poland, called Image Before My Eyes . The film includes archival footage taken by my grandfather during a 1931 visit to Horodok, the family village. By then the owner of a successful fabric mill, he brought my great-grandfather with him. The film is all the more powerful for the present-day viewer's knowledge of what will soon befall the men with their double beards, the women in modest black, the children crowding the American visitors. Someone--my grandfather?--holds the shaky camera as the doomed villagers dance around him in a widening circle. Then we cut to a quieter moment: in grainy black and white, my grandfather and great- grandfather pray at the grave of my great-great grandfather. I can almost make out the cadence of their voices--voices I have never heard but that are the music of my bones--as they recite the Mourner's Kaddish. My grandfather wipes tears from his eyes. In the year before my son's bar mitzvah, I played him that part of the documentary. Do you see? I paused on the image of the rough old stone carved in Hebrew. This is where we come from. That's the spot where your great-great-great grandfather-is buried. It felt urgently important to me, to make Jacob aware of his ancestral lineage, the patch of earth from which he sprang, the source of a spirit passed down, a connection. Of course, that tombstone would have been plowed under just a few years later. But in that moment--my people captured for all time--I was linking them to my own boy, and him to them. He hadn't known my father, but at least I was able to give Jacob some­thing formative that I myself had grown up with: a sense of grounding in coming from this family. He is the only child of an only child, but this--this was a vast and abundant part of his heritage that could never be taken away from him. We watched as the men on the screen swayed back and forth in a familiar rhythm, a dance I have known all my life. So that 52 percent breakdown was just kind of weird, that's all, as bland and innocuous as those sealed green and white boxes had been. I thought I'd clear it up by comparing my DNA results with Susie's. Now, on the eve of our trip to the West Coast, Michael was sitting next to me on the small, tapestry-covered chaise in the corner of my office. I felt his leg pressed against mine as, side by side, we looked down at his laptop screen. Later he will tell me he already knew what I couldn't allow myself even to begin to consider. On the wall directly behind us hung a black-and-white portrait of my paternal grandmother, her hair parted in the center, pulled back tightly, her gaze direct and serene. Comparing Kit M440247 and A765211:   Largest segment = 14.9 cM Total of segments > 7cM = 29.6 cM Estimated number of generations to MRCA = 4.5 653629 SNP's used for this comparison Comparison took 0.04538 seconds. "What does it mean?" My voice sounded strange to my own ears. "You're not sisters." "Not half sisters?" "No kind of sisters." "How do you know?" Michael traced the line estimating the number of generations to our most recent common ancestor. "Here." The numbers, symbols, unfamiliar terms on the screen were a language I didn't understand. It had taken 0.04538 seconds--a fraction of a second--to upend my life. There would now forever be a before. The innocence of a packing list. The preparation for a simple trip. The portrait of my grandmother in its gilded frame. My mind began to spin with calculations. If Susie was not my half sister-- no kind of sister --it could mean only one of two things: either my father was not her father or my father was not my father. Excerpted from Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.