“What makes a person a person? What combination of memory, history, imagination, experience, subjectivity, genetic substance, and that ineffable thing called the soul makes us who we are?”
It’s a simple thing, really. You spit into a vial, send it off to a lab and in a few months get results that help deepen your genetic ties to the world. And sometimes, the results surprise you. You may have a smidgen of Russian in you that was never mentioned by your grandmother. Or you are not as close to 100% German/French/Asian/African as you thought. OR, in the case of Dani Shapiro, you discover that your father is not your biological father. “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love” is Shapiro’s journey from that first moment of discovery to the final acceptance of it.
Shapiro is in her early 50’s when she sends in the test to Ancestry.com. Both her parents have died; her beloved father in a car crash when she was just 23 years old and her mother more recently. That would signal a dead-end in finding out the truth. But there’s this little thing Ancestry.com does when it sends you results. It also allows you to get on their website and see if there are distant relatives who submitted their own genetic substance. And sure enough, Shapiro finds a genetic cousin on the site. And with the help of her journalist husband and other contacts, she is able to track down two important truths: she is donor-conceived and she knows where that procedure took place.
Those two truths allow her to gather more information than most donor children will ever know (Shapiro readily admits she is one of the “lucky” ones). It is so easy to get caught up in this part of her story because it’s a real-life mystery unfolding before her, and our, eyes. She finds her donor father. She reaches out to him. And I’m going to stop here and encourage you to read the book to find out what happens next. Not because it makes a difference to any of us whether Shapiro and her biological father connect but because of the emotions she experiences and the ethical questions that arise during the process; questions on the nature of donors, anonymity, and whose rights are more important. There are no easy answers nor does Shapiro provide any. She just poses these questions as it relates to her experience.
But that doesn’t make the questions any less interesting to ponder and one of the reasons I found this book such a great read. The subject matter is intriguing and Shapiro is a wonderful writer. We are with her on this roller coaster ride as she absorbs her new identity and supplies answers to questions she has no one to ask, like how her parents came to this decision (did her father know or did her mother do it surreptitiously?). Shapiro isn’t one to sit comfortably with the well-meaning advice of “you’ll never know” but the more she delves into it the more uncomfortable truths are presented to her. She starts to revisit her past and remembers tidbits and feelings she always had, feelings that she didn’t belong to her family. We are a fly on the wall of her thought process and those thoughts are sensitive and intellectual, especially as it relates to her strong Jewish faith. Through it all she provides us with historical and factual context on everything from the donor institutes of the past to the Cryobanks of today where she encounters vials housing millions of ‘potential’ souls.
In the end, Shapiro finds peace in the new landscape of her life. She circles back to her “first” father, the one she briefly lost as she recalibrated to the new her. And in doing this, she was able to answer a question she posed to herself through this journey: “Is who we are the same as who we believe ourselves to be?” Her answer is yes, and more. How would you answer that question?
Thank you for reading!