I learned about the book Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love on the podcast The Literary Life. The show is hosted by Mitchell Kaplan, the owner of Books & Books, my favorite independent bookstore in Miami, FL. The author, Dani Shapiro, sat down with Kaplan to talk about this incredibly personal journey.
Inheritance is the true story of Shapiro's discovery that the father she knew all her life is not her biological father. This secret is revealed when Shapiro and her husband, Michael, decide to do DNA tests. Her husband was the one who was most interested, hoping to learn more about his family's medical history. When the envelopes arrived, the bombshell was Dani's results.
Can you imagine, at 54 years old, learning that you are not, genetically speaking, the person you thought you were? Now imagine that both of your parents are deceased, so you can't even ask them. Or try to learn more.
Inheritance brings you along on Shapiro's quest to uncover as much as she can about her origins. She is eventually able to locate her biological father, and thanks to the internet, even has the chance to watch a few YouTube videos of him before reaching out to make contact.
She describes, "Time slowed to a near standstill. I couldn't compute what I was seeing. Or rather, who I was seeing. The man was wearing khakis, a blue button-down shirt, and a fleece vest. He had a pale complexion, but his cheeks were pink, his color high. My exact coloring . . . I saw my jaw, my nose, my forehead and eyes. I heard something familiar in the timbre of his voice. It wasn't merely a resemblance. It was a quality. The way he held himself. His pattern of speech. He was recommending a book to the audience, Atul Gawande's Being Mortal. He referenced an article in The Onion. I had a bizarre thought that he had good literary taste. I ran my hands down the length of my legs. Who was I? What was I? I felt as if I might disintegrate right there in that hotel room floating high above the city. This wasn't what I wanted to see. But now that I had seen it, I would never be able to un-see it."
As Shapiro digs deeper, she learns that despite growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community, and always being part of that world, her biological father is not Jewish. This sparks a deep sense of self-doubt, especially given how strict the Orthodox are about lineage.
She decides to visit her father's sister, her aunt, to share the news. This scene is one of the most touching in the entire book. She writes, "'Dad isn't my biological father,' I said. Five words. Five words and a lifetime. Her eyes were locked onto mine. I was afraid she was going to stop breathing. Not a blink. Not a sound. I feared it was as if I had said to her: You're not mine. I'm not yours. We don't belong to each other. It felt violent. The world around us fell away. She leaned slightly forward, reached out, and grabbed my hand. 'I'm not giving you up,' she said. The thin shell holding me together cracked, and suddenly I was weeping with my whole body."
Every word of this story is emotionally charged. It's raw, real, and vulnerable. Towards the end of the book, the reader learns the meaning behind the book's title. Shapiro explains, "Their trauma became mine - had always been mine. It was my inheritance, my lot. My parents' tortured pact of secrecy was as much a part of me as the genes that had been passed down by my mother and Ben Walden."
I was gripped to this book from page one. Shapiro writes with an urgency that will make you unable to put the book down. I would finish a chapter and say to myself, "Ok, one more." Then I would find myself another three chapters in. I was with her as these land mines kept exploding, and she had to make sense of these constantly shifting realities.
I loved this book. It was beautifully written and brave. It moves at a frenetic pace, just as one's mind would, reeling from uncovering these deep, dark secrets.
Add this to your reading list, and if you've already finished, I'd love to discuss it!
*Photo courtesy of The New York Post.