It only took a little spit in a vial and an email to blow up Dani Shapiro's world.
Shapiro was in her mid-50s, the author of four novels and four memoirs, a wife and the mother of a teenage son. Her personal identity was rooted in her Jewish heritage, particularly her late, beloved father's Orthodox family, ancestors whose sepia portraits lined the walls of her Connecticut home.
A couple of months before, her journalist husband had ordered DNA test kits from Ancestry. He knew much less about his family background than she did about hers. He wanted to fill in blanks; she took a test, too, as a lark.
Her results were puzzling: 52 percent Ashkenazi Jewish from Eastern Europe, the rest a mix of French, Irish, English and German. Given what she knew about her parents' backgrounds, the Ashkenazi percentage should have been much higher, but she shrugged it off.
Shapiro was an only child whose parents had both died, but she had an older half sister from her father's first marriage, whom she had never much gotten along with. The half sister had done a DNA test, too, and when the two sent their results in for comparison, the numbers changed everything: They were "no kind of sisters," as Shapiro's husband said upon reading the email.
The man Shapiro thought was her father was not. "By the time I went to bed that night," she writes, "my entire history — the life I had lived — had crumbled beneath me, like the buried ruins of an ancient forgotten city."
What happened after that discovery is the compelling story Shapiro tells in her fifth memoir, Inheritance. It's a cautionary tale about a brave new world of technology that erases privacy, and a story about one of the oldest themes of human narrative: finding oneself.
Shapiro writes vividly about her immediate sense of shock and dislocation, and she also recounts the head-spinning speed with which she tracks down her biological father. Thanks to information on Ancestry's website and her husband's research skills, she is watching a YouTube video of a stranger with her features, her coloring, her gestures only 36 hours after that mind-blowing email arrived.
Finding that man, she writes, "was not the end of the mystery, but the beginning." Ben Walden (a pseudonym Shapiro uses for him in the book) was not some secret lover. He was a medical student when he donated sperm at a fertility clinic, and it was there Shapiro was conceived. She delves into her own past and her parents' to try to find out why — why Paul and Irene Shapiro used a donor, and why they never revealed a whisper of it to her.
Her nuclear family had always been fraught, thanks in part to her mother's probable mental illness. "As a child," she writes, "I'd had the fantasy — a form of hope, now a staggering irony — that she wasn't actually my mother." Shapiro always felt she was "my father's daughter," much closer to him in temperament.
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Throughout her life, she had deflected countless comments that, with pale blond hair and blue eyes, she "didn't look Jewish." She recounts one day when she was about 5 and family friends were visiting. One of them (a woman who years later would become the grandmother of Jared Kushner) strokes Shapiro's hair and says to her, "We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis."
When Shapiro was in her 20s, a car crash killed her father and left her mother gravely injured. A few years later, Shapiro's infant son nearly died from a rare seizure disorder. She writes about weathering those catastrophes, but describes her loss of self after the DNA test as a whole new order of trauma.
In the light of new knowledge, she begins to recall cryptic conversations with her mother that hinted at her origins. Following the trail, Shapiro learns more than she wants to know about the state of infertility treatment in the early 1960s: "An era in which doctors played God. In which religious leaders of every faith decreed donor insemination an abomination. In which — in legal terms — it was often considered adultery, and the child a bastard."
She is tortured in particular by just how much her father did or did not know. At the time, fathers were often told their own sperm was being used, with some kind of secret ingredient to boost it. They would think the resulting baby was their own, but the secret ingredient was donor sperm. And how did donor insemination fit, or not, with her father's devout Judaism?
As Shapiro seeks what is probably unknowable — how much each of her parents knew — she also is involved in a complex email dance with Walden about whether he wants to meet her. He's a retired doctor, a married father of three, living across the country, and her existence is a shock to him.
Shapiro moves skillfully among the separate strands of her story: her parents' knowledge in the past, the impact on her family in the present, her potential relationship with Walden, what she learns about the implications of DNA testing. Wendy Kramer, founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, tells her she hears stories like Shapiro's "All the time. ... more and more. People are doing DNA testing just for kicks, and getting the shock of their lives. There was such a culture of secrecy."
Along the way, Shapiro finds support from friends and family, even members of her father's family whom she fears might reject her. And she makes sense of it all by writing about it. "I am a spinner of narratives, a teller of tales," she tells us. "I have spent my life attempting to make meaning out of random events, to shape stories out of an accretion of senseless, chaotic detail."
Shapiro finds solace as well as information when she interviews several rabbis. One tells her, "You can imagine that you're in exile. Or you can imagine that you have more than one home." Another, an old, dear friend of her father's, says, "Which story would ease your heart?"
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love
By Dani Shapiro
Knopf, 249 pages, $24.95