Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy,
Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro
Knopf, 2019; 252 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
I’ve read Dani Shapiro before; Still Writing is probably one of my favorite memoirs of the writing life on my shelf. But her latest memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, touched me in a way that I didn’t expect. I knew the premise: Shapiro took a genetic test on suggestion from her husband and was surprised to find out her parents were not who they said they were. However, the memoir does not stop at mistaken ancestry; Shapiro cannot help but demonstrate how our intuition works to assert us, how decades of doubt can be inherited as well as decades of assumption. Shapiro had spent over fifty years sitting in discomfort and doubt with “facts” she had no reason to doubt, and, with the communication of results compared with her half-sister, confirms that doubt, even though she was not seeking out the confirmation when she took the test.
That previously doubted intuition is what Shapiro utilizes when she starts the search for her true genetic history, even though the reader sees her cross back into doubting herself several times in the journey of discovery. Shapiro not only has to bridge the genetic truth, but a religious one, crossing from a strong Jewish heritage and continuing lineage with her son into finding herself reconciling her new discovery with Christianity. This beginning line of identity reaches out into other possible recklessness in not knowing her family’s secret: were there heredity health conditions at stake? Would she give herself away, and her new-found family away, in her mere mannerisms? Sorting the discovery itself, the path of finding family, and continuing to serve her work obligations, Shapiro does her best to set the record straight with medical professionals, including pain management for the stress of “shouldering” these events. At one point she visits an acupuncturist, who helps with the procedure and with her mental struggle:
“Do you know the three great spiritual questions?”he asked . . . I lay on that table for what seemed like hours. Hanging on the wall next to me were several Eastern medicine diagrams of the human body. . . . Fine lines and and arrows dipped and swirled in elaborate patterns and channels that I found at once disconcerting and comforting. How had I lived my life without being able to answer that first and most fundamental of all questions: Who am I? Without the answer, how could I possibly have fully moved on to the others? Why am I here? . . . This was the challenge that had been set down at my feet. How shall I live?
Should the reader take a genetic test? That question is never posed by Shapiro. Her questions and her struggles still manage to stay universal for any number of applications. Did you doubt the calling that someone else had for you? Did you feel that something was off with a lifestyle choice? Did you try to blend in with something you could not possibly sustain blending in with? Shapiro gives credence to individual intuition and the quest to live as authentically as possible, in spite of how that instinct disrupts the world that others have created, or that the individual has bought into for the sake of family. This memoir is not only brave, but it gives courage license to the reader to embrace, in challenging environments of their own.