Every day, as DNA testing sites deliver results to those who have submitted their saliva in small vials, dozens of people confront surprising news about their paternity and maternity.

Often it is a shocking revelation: the discovery that one’s heredity is not what one assumed; not what was accepted as fact. Dani Shapiro’s new memoir, Inheritance (Knopf), illuminates the feelings and issues that come along with uncovering family secrets and upending settled truth. 

Shapiro was puzzled but didn’t give it much thought when her Ancestry.com report showed a DNA “ethnicity estimate” that belied her family’s identification as 100 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. Nearly one-half mixed European, Irish, and English?!

“I put the results aside and figured there must be some reasonable explanation,” she recalls. But then, when Shapiro compared her results with her half-sister, her father’s daughter by his first wife, she learned that they shared no DNA at all. “It could mean only one of two things,” she writes. “Either my father was not her father or my father was not my father.”

Thus begins an exhausting, exhilarating journey, as Shapiro and her husband hone in on the man who is her biological father, a physician who donated sperm at an infertility clinic while studying at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine during the early 1960s.

It turns out that he and his wife have been married for decades and have three grown children. Initially, they are wary of Shapiro, and rebuff her strong desire to connect. But eventually the donor reconsiders, and he and Shapiro begin an email correspondence that will culminate in a meeting. 

In the meantime, Shapiro tries to piece together the story of her existence. Her parents died many years earlier so she cannot turn to them. She is fortunate that her husband, a journalist, is a crack researcher, and that Google yields hundreds of books and articles about infertility studies during the postwar era.

An elderly aunt is still coherent, although neither parent confided in her. She tracks down two physicians who remember details about the clinic where she was conceived and the researcher who presided over it. She learns that there were protocols for artificial insemination; that the most important one was absolute secrecy: the donor must remain anonymous, and the child must never be told.

And now, 54 years after Shapiro was conceived, both secrets are revealed. What else is there to know? A great deal, it turns out. Until the 1970s, laboratory technicians at infertility clinics mixed the donor’s sperm with the sperm of the recipient’s husband, knowing it would not make a difference. But the mixing offered each couple hope that the baby who was conceived might be entirely their own.  

Upon learning of this procedure, Shapiro is driven to find out if one or both of her parents knew the truth about her paternity, and whether it matters. Seeking wisdom, she meets with two eminent rabbis and recounts “the story I’d learned to tell without feeling the shock of its impact.”

She waits for judgment but receives none; each man affirms Shapiro’s place in the world and asks her to accept that she will never know all of the answers. Thus, while Shapiro will continue to wrestle with demons – her childhood self who felt like an outsider, her depressed father and narcissistic mother – she realizes that the shocking DNA revelation will lead her into the future. Happily, she now inhabits “the architecture of extraordinary moments.” 

Inheritance is now available for purchase.

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Image courtesy of danishapiro.com

Dani Shapiro is the best-selling author of four memoirs, HourglassStill WritingDevotion, and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Dani’s new memoir, Inheritance, was just published by Knopf. Her books span diverse subjects from her tumultuous upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish community and the tragic death of her father to her explorations of spirituality and the nature of our deepest relationships.