For Dani Shapiro, a DNA test led to thousands of revelations

Her memoir ‘Inheritance,' about what a DNA test showed her about her parentage, has sparked responses from many readers.
Dani Shapiro's latest memoir is "Inheritance."
Dani Shapiro's latest memoir is "Inheritance." [ Michael Maren ]
Published Jan. 10, 2020

When Dani Shapiro discovered a family secret, she wrote a book about it. The response to that book taught her, she says, “There is no secrecy anymore" — and that, about some things, there shouldn’t be.

Shapiro’s 2019 book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, became a New York Times bestseller that has kept her on the road for more than 100 appearances in the last year to talk about it.

She will be the keynote speaker Jan. 18 for Eckerd College’s esteemed Writers in Paradise conference. Shapiro will kick off a weeklong series of free readings by conference faculty and guests; the roster also includes Billy Collins, Ann Hood, Michael Koryta, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman and Stewart O’Nan. (See complete schedule below.)

Inheritance is the gripping account of Shapiro’s totally unexpected discovery, through a DNA test taken on a whim, that Paul Shapiro, the man who raised her, was not her biological father. The story of how she uncovered her origins and found the man whose donated sperm was used to conceive her is filled with amazing twists, and some unanswerable questions — both of Shapiro’s parents had died years before she took the DNA test.

Related: In Dani Shapiro's 'Inheritance,' a DNA test changes everything

Shapiro, 57, is the author of 10 books whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, the New York Times Book Review and other publications. She talked to the Tampa Bay Times by phone from Connecticut, where she lives. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What kind of reader reaction have you seen to Inheritance?

Really, from day one, reader response at events, from the very first night in New York City through the very large amount of traveling for this book, which I’m still doing, readers have been very, very connected to the story. Everyone has some kind of secret in their own family, some discovery. For a lot of people, DNA testing changed everything.

When I reviewed the book, one reader called and protested that you shouldn’t have written it because you were revealing things that were meant to be a secret. How do you feel about that kind of response?

What we’re contending with now is that science, with its discoveries and advancements, which is what science does, brings all sorts of unintended consequences. Saying that it was “meant to be a secret” 40, 50, 60 years ago sort of astounds me. It’s actually not possible to keep these things secret anymore.

For someone to say, “You shouldn’t have contacted your biological father” — well, I didn’t sign that contract. I spent 54 years of my life feeling that something didn’t add up, didn’t feel right. I always felt like the other.

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Now, some people will misunderstand, will think that I’m saying nature trumps nurture. But ironically, I had a mother whom I did not feel very connected to and a father to whom I felt profoundly connected but in point of fact was not.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Some adoptees, for example, are told all their lives that they’re adopted, and they know that there’s something they don’t know. But if you’re never told, you grow up with your identity being wrapped around something empty. I feel like an absolute expert on the interior of this experience.

Do you resent the people who kept the secret from you?

Doctors preached anonymity and nondisclosure back then, and I understand it. There’s this beautiful term in ethics, retrospective moral judgment. We can’t judge people by our standards for their beliefs in another time, and that helps us come to terms with the parents and the doctors who did this. But for someone today to stick to their guns about secrecy is not right. Sleeping dogs don’t just lie in corners.

Many doctors and many donors now contend with being contacted by offspring they didn’t know about. I did a big talk in Sun Valley, Idaho, and I met a man in his 80s who had been a donor at the same institute in Philadelphia where I was conceived. He told me after the talk, “I am going to do a DNA test so any children I have out there can find me.”

After the book was published, you hosted a podcast, Family Secrets, that has been downloaded more than 11 million times. What was that experience like?

I loved doing the podcast. I love any kind of storytelling. I’ve written 10 books; that’s my craft, my art. This was a whole new opportunity to tell stories. I love the intimate way people listen to podcasts, in their cars, alone. In my case, I discovered that I was the family secret. But the stories are not remotely all about DNA discoveries; there are all kinds of secrets. It was also a great pleasure for me to get out of my own head. It’s like when I teach.

When you found out about your DNA results, did you hesitate to share your story or were you eager to write about it?

I felt utterly, utterly compelled to write it. In my book Hourglass, I wanted to write about the passage of time, and I used my own now 23-, then 18-year marriage to do that. I use my life as a laboratory to explore ideas in my books.

With Inheritance I felt that this was the book I was born to write. It was what I had been writing around and never quite been able to put my finger on. My fiction was often about families and secrets. There’s this phrase, “the unthought known.” It’s what we know but cannot allow ourselves to touch or think. I knew it was a hell of a story; the fact that it was mine was incidental.

How has the huge response to the book expanded it beyond your personal story?

This has turned out to be the thing I feel most politicized about. A year ago, I’m just going out and telling my story. But what I have seen is that thousands of people every year are now finding out that they were donor conceived, and there’s very little support or infrastructure to help them. They’re coming to my events, and that’s it!

Today, for sperm banks and egg donors to be promoting secrecy is, I think, malpractice. Anyone absolutely will be able to find their biological mother or father, so how can agencies continue to promise secrecy?

It’s stunning that the United States has no registry for donors, no regulations on how many times someone can be a donor. With no regulations, some donors don’t report fully on their physical and psychological history. That’s not so in the rest of the world. The only countries who don’t regulate it are the United States and Canada.

(Donor-conceived people) are going to find out. Someone will find out they have 47 half-siblings. Biological half-siblings will meet and not know it. You hear these stories about people who fall in love and say, “You’re so familiar to me!” Well ...

Do you see attitudes about the subject changing?

Oh, yes. In many cases those leading the charge on this are same-sex couples. If they have kids, there’s going to be someone else involved, so it’s not a secret, and they’re raising healthy, well-adjusted kids. The thing that makes it toxic is secrecy.

Dani Shapiro is pictured with her parents, Irene and Paul Shapiro, in Hawaii in 1966.
Dani Shapiro is pictured with her parents, Irene and Paul Shapiro, in Hawaii in 1966. [ COURTESY OF DANI SHAPIRO | Dani Shapiro ]

How has the book changed your own relationships and feelings toward your parents?

I’m here to tell you that I love my father more. And by that I mean the man who raised me. I dedicated the book to him. Ben Walden (the pseudonym she uses for her biological father) is not my father. He’s very familiar to me, and I’m very grateful he was willing to meet me and have a special relationship with me. But he’s not my father.

There’s no playbook for it. I was fortunate. People have had doors slammed in their faces. When you say, “You don’t know me, but we’re kin,” many people feel threatened. They say, “What do you want from me? Don’t say we’re kin; you are a stranger.”

I think what makes my story a good story is that everyone was trying to do the right thing.

Writers in Paradise reading series

Writers in Paradise presents a series of readings by conference faculty and guests. All readings are followed by book signings, with books available for sale. Readings are free and open to the public. Miller Auditorium on the Eckerd College campus, 4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 386-2264.

8 p.m. Jan. 18: Keynote speaker Dani Shapiro (Inheritance), Q&A with Les Standiford

7 p.m. Jan. 19: Ann Hood (Kitchen Yarns) and Sterling Watson (The Committee)

7 p.m. Jan. 20: Ashley M. Jones (dark//thing), Michael Koryta (If She Wakes) and Stewart O’Nan (Henry, Himself)

7 p.m. Jan. 21: Andre Dubus III (Gone So Long) and Stephanie Elizondo Griest (All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches From the U.S. Borderlands)

7 p.m. Jan. 23: Laura Lippman (Lady in the Lake) and John Dufresne (I Don’t Like Where This Is Going)

7 p.m. Jan. 24: Les Standiford (Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu), Gregory Pardlo (Digest) and Dennis Lehane (Since We Fell)

8 p.m. Jan. 25: An Evening of Poets Laureate, with St. Petersburg poet laureate Helen Pruitt Wallace (Shimming the Glass House), Florida poet laureate Peter Meinke (Lucky Bones) and former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins (The Rain in Portugal)