The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A writer spent her career mining her past. Then she took an ancestry DNA test.

Author Dani Shapiro (Michael Maren)
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Dani Shapiro was used to hearing it: “There’s no way you’re Jewish.” With her blond hair, blue eyes and delicate features, Shapiro has long been easy prey for cultural assumptions.

Shapiro must be your married name, she’d heard more than once. A family friend (Jared Kushner’s grandmother, as it turns out) took things a step further: “We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.” Never mind that the 56-year-old author was raised as an Orthodox Jew and studied the Talmud; she has, as a blogger put it, “a look that would qualify her for the role of lead shiksa in a Woody Allen movie.

Now, in her new book, “Inheritance,” Shapiro reveals the shocking result of an over-the-counter DNA test: Biologically speaking, she could play lead shiksa. In fact, her memoir — a modern-day mystery with a neurotic heart — could easily be the screenplay for a Woody Allen movie.

The tale begins innocently, in a casual moment at Shapiro’s Connecticut home. Her husband, curious about his own roots, has sent for one of those genetic kits that promises to tell “a more complete story of you.” The vials lie around the house for a while, become “part of the scenery,” resting ominously on a kitchen counter as the couple go about their daily lives. One night, Shapiro’s husband unwraps the containers and nonchalantly tells his wife to spit in one. Without much thought, she does. “I felt vaguely ridiculous and undignified,” she writes. “Why was I even doing this?”

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Shapiro, a self-professed “serial memoirist,” had, after pages and pages of introspection, become quite certain of who she was. Over the course of a decade — and four memoirs — she documented a personal life full of dramatic twists. In “Devotion” and “Slow Motion,” Shapiro divulged the tumult of her early adult years — her relationship with the stepfather of a close college friend (a married, flamboyant lawyer who later ended up in jail), the car accident that killed her father and nearly destroyed her mother, the rare illness that threatened her young son’s life. In “Still Writing” and “Hourglass,” Shapiro shared the experience of working her way through her troubles and building a mostly happy family life after two failed marriages.

“I am no longer consumed by the question: What if?” she wrote fatefully in “Hourglass,” a book she had just completed before her OMG genetic test.

“Inheritance” is consumed by the question of what if? What if the man Shapiro thought was her father is not? What if she could find the man who is her biological father? What if he doesn’t want anything to do with her? What if he does? What if she is not who she thought she was? “All my life I had known there was a secret,” she writes. “What I hadn’t known: the secret was me.”

The first unknowns slip away easily: Comparing her DNA test with that of her half sister indicates the father who raised Shapiro was not her biological father. Identifying the man who is turns out to be almost as simple and quick, thanks to the Internet.

But solving the other mysteries proves more difficult. Shapiro wrestles with questions both mundane and profound: how to get in touch with her biological father without scaring him away; how to share the news with her teenage son; how to look at old family photographs and understand her connection to the people in them; how to reconstruct, as she puts it, “the narrative edifice” of her life.

Shapiro’s parents are long dead, as are their contemporaries and relatives who could have helped her understand why her biological roots were kept from her. Shapiro vaguely recalls her mother mentioning fertility problems, and it is this memory that leads her to the most interesting parts of the book — an examination of the shady world of fertility treatments in the early 1960s. Shapiro learns about the since-shuttered clinic in Philadelphia where she’d been conceived, using her mother’s egg and the sperm of a medical student who is now a retired doctor in Portland, Ore. (Shapiro got consent from her biological family to use their story but not other identifying information.) Equally engaging is the complicated relationship she forms with her newfound family, who tiptoe toward embracing her.

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“Inheritance” is fundamentally a tale of soul-searching. Much of the book consists of Shapiro processing and pondering each new bit of information. “What do we inherit, and how and why?” she asks. “What had I inherited psychologically? What was in my blood?” She seeks guidance from friends, rabbis, ministers, Buddhist monks, even an acupuncturist. At times, her literal and philosophical quest is overly self-involved and melodramatic: “I am the black box, discovered years — many years — after the crash. The pilots, the crew, the passengers have long been committed to the sea. Nothing is left of them. Fathoms deep, I have spent my life transmitting the faintest signal. Over here! Over here!” Just because the black box has been recovered doesn’t mean everyone wants to know its contents.

Still, as at-home genetic tests become more popular and stories like Shapiro’s become more common (witness the recent revelations of actress Sarah Polley and writer Elizabeth Wurtzel; see also Elizabeth Warren), “Inheritance” offers a thought-provoking look at the shifting landscape of identity. It will make you think twice before you casually spit into that vial.

Nora Krug is a writer and editor at Book World.

On Jan. 21 at 7 p.m., Dani Shapiro will be in conversation with writer Jennifer Mendelsohn at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.

By Dani Shapiro

Knopf. 247 pp. $24.95

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