Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

by Dani Shapiro


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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, novelist—“a writer of rare talent” (Cheryl Strayed)— and  host of the hit podcast Family Secrets, comes 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524732714
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/15/2019
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,456
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

DANI SHAPIRO is the author of the memoirs Hourglass, Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Also an essayist and a journalist, Shapiro's short fiction, essays, and journalistic pieces have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, Vogue, O, The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, the op-ed pages of the New York Times, and many other publications. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, the New School, and Wesleyan University; she is cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. Shapiro is the host of the hit podcast, Family Secrets. She lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.


Bethlehem, Connecticut

Date of Birth:

April 10, 1962

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1987, M.F.A., 1989

Read an Excerpt

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.


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.

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Inheritance, Dani Shapiro’s powerful exploration of what makes her who she is.

1. The title of this book is Inheritance. What does it mean, in the context of the memoir?

2. Shapiro chose two quotes for her epigraph, one from Sylvia Plath and the other from George Orwell. What do they mean individually, and how does each affect your understanding of the other?

3. “You’re still you,” Shapiro reminds herself. What does she mean by this?

4. Much of Shapiro’s understanding of herself comes from what she believes to be her lineage. “These ancestors are the foundation upon which I have built my life,” she says on page 12. Would Shapiro feel so strongly if her father’s ancestors weren’t so illustrious? How does Shapiro’s understanding of lineage change over the course of the book?

5. Judaism is passed on from mother to child—the father’s religion holds no importance. So why does Shapiro’s sense of her own Jewishness rely so much on her father?

6. Chapter 7 opens with a discussion of the nature of identity. “What combination of memory, history, imagination, experience, subjectivity, genetic substance, and that ineffable thing called the soul makes us who we are?” Shapiro writes on page 27. What do you believe makes you, you?

7. Shapiro follows that passage with another provocative question: “Is who we are the same as who we believe ourselves to be?” What’s your opinion?

8. Identity is one major theme of the book. Another is the corrosive power of secrets. On page 35, Shapiro writes, “All my life I had known there was a secret. What I hadn’t known: the secret was me.” What might have changed if Shapiro had known her origins growing up?

9. On page 43, Shapiro quotes a Delmore Schwartz poem: “What am I now that I was then? / May memory restore again and again / The smallest color of the smallest day; / Time is the school in which we learn, / Time is the fire in which we burn.” What does this mean? Why is it significant to Shapiro?

10. Throughout the memoir, Shapiro uses literary extracts to illuminate what she feels or thinks—poems by Schwartz and Jane Kenyon, passages from Moby Dick and a novel by Thomas Mann. How does this help your understanding?

11. All her life, people had been telling Shapiro she didn’t look Jewish. If this hadn’t been part of her life already, how do you think she might have reacted to the news from her DNA test?

12. After Shapiro located her biological father, she emailed him almost immediately—against the advice of her friend, a genealogy expert. What do you imagine you would have done?

13. Why was it so important to Shapiro to believe that her parents hadn’t known the truth about her conception?

14. Her discovery leads Shapiro to reconsider her memories of her parents: “Her unsteady gaze, her wide, practiced smile. Her self-consciousness, the way every word seemed rehearsed. His stooped shoulders, the downward turn of his mouth. The way he was never quite present. Her rage. His sorrow. Her brittleness. His fragility. Their screaming fights.” (page 100)

15. On page 107, when discussing her father’s marriage to Dorothy, Rabbi Lookstein tells Shapiro, “We thought your father was a hero.” Shapiro comes back to her father’s decision to go through with the marriage several times in the book. Why?

16. At her aunt Shirley’s house, Shapiro sees a laminated newspaper clipping about the poem recited in a Chevy ad. (page 133) Why does Shapiro include this detail in the book? What is its significance?

17. On page 188, Shapiro writes, “In time, I will question how it could be possible that Ben—a man of medicine, who specialized in medical ethics—had never considered that he might have biological children.” How do you explain that?

18. How does Shapiro’s experience with contemporary reproductive medicine affect the way she judges her parents? What do you imagine future generations will say about our current approach to artificial insemination?

19. What do you make of the similarities between Shapiro and her half sister Emily?

20. On page 226, Shapiro brings up a psychoanalytic phrase, “unthought known.” How does this apply to her story?

21. What prompts Shapiro to legally change her first name?

22. Shapiro ends her book with a meditation on the Hebrew word hineni, “Here I am.” Why is this phrase so powerful?

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Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A riveting tale of the impact of discovered "family secrets."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written. The author share her journey of self discovery, learning not only who she is, but also who she wants to be. The reader cannot help asking similar questions about themselves. I read the book in a single evening and do not regret the sore neck I received from craning it over the pages. Ms. Shapiro isn't an author I would typically select from a shelf (personal preferences, nothing to do with her abilities), but I am glad that a friend suggested this book to me.
NFD More than 1 year ago
I first purchased this book on Audible. I love it so much, I want the hard copy as well. The phrase 'I couldn’t put it down' applies. In this case, my headphones never left my ears! Her story, and the way she wrote, was compelling and vulnerable. It was intelligent without confirmation bias. There were situations so familiar, I felt as though she was reading my diary. As she mentioned in the book – Maybe we subconsciously know. Maybe donor conceived unknowingly operate our lives in a similar way. Or maybe Dani just knows how to speak from a place where we all feel connected. Whatever the case, it was devastatingly relatable. Some of the metaphors she used pierced me like a knife. There were moments I had to stop what I was doing, pause the audiobook, and catch my breath or cry; that is how good it was. She’s a beautiful writer and I feel blessed to have found this book. And it couldn’t have come at a more ideal time in my life.
Laeljeanne 8 days ago
A simple DNA test taken just for fun rips bestselling author Dani Shapiro’s life apart, leaving her wondering who she is after discovering that her dad is not her biological father. She shares her journey to find her origins, understand her parents’ decisions, and come to terms with it all, delving deeply into the implications of the discovery for her faith, marriage, and son. It seems that almost every family has a secret. Learning that secret hits like a hammer, damaging relationships and rending familial bonds, especially when the parents who held that secret have passed and cannot explain why. Dear Reader follows Dani through heart-wrenching emotions, feeling unmoored by the inability to ask her parents why, while remaining hopeful in finding answers through her biological father. As riveting as the writing is, it’s hard to watch her struggle with the sense of betrayal and crisis of identity as she searches for a path to healing. Read this memoir if you’re a Dani Shapiro fan, are working through a family secret of your own, or just love learning how the process of life works. It’s worth your time. I was fortunate to receive a copy from the publisher for an honest review.
Anonymous 20 days ago
Inheritance is beautifully written, thought provoking and emotionally resonant.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Riveting and lyrical!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As I read this ,I thought of my family and secrets ...things not said but an undercurrent of my past.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
GreenReader2 More than 1 year ago
A beautiful, emotionally raw book that cuts to the core of the meaning of family. Shapiro takes the reader on her journey of discovery from her initial shock to a deeper understanding of nature and nurture. There are deeply emotional moments that brought me to tears. I've heard this described as a detective story. It is, but the mystery is what it really means to be human. (Plus there's a lot of interesting history about the fertility industry in the 1960s.)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it