Dani Shapiro

Inheritance

“If my father wasn’t my father, who was my father? If my father wasn’t my father, who was I?”

Today, I saw myself in my daughter’s face, in her cheek’s up-sweep.1 I long to see myself in her. Is that narcissistic?

Alignment of our intrinsic sense of who we are with the genetic material from which we are formed is not something we frequently consider.

Until we must. When a genetic test proved beyond doubt that writer Dani Shapiro (born April 10, 1962) was not related to the father who raised her, she undergoes a disintegration of identity, an investigation of truth, and a reconstruction of self.

I woke up one morning and life was as I had always known it to be. There were certain things I thought I could count on. I looked at my hand, for example, and I knew it was my hand. My foot was my foot. My face, my face. My history, my history. After all, it’s impossible to know the future, but we can be reasonably sure about the past. By the time I went to bed that night, my entire history—the life I had lived—had crumbled beneath me, like the buried ruins of an ancient forgotten city.

In Inheritance, Shapiro demands to know “If my father was not my father, who was he? If my father was not my father, who was I?”2

Unable to ask either of her deceased parents the truth, Shapiro traces records at a fertility clinic, interviews family and community members, and ultimately finds her biological father and relatives.3

Throughout history, great philosophical minds have grappled with the nation of identity. What makes a person a person? What combination of memory, history, imagination, experience, subjectivity, genetic substances and that ineffable thing called a soul makes us who we are? Is who we are the same as who we believe ourselves to be?

After a lifetime of anchoring herself in the genetic makeup she imagined she had, Shapiro felt firmly connected to a Jewish heritage and tradition. She felt disconnected to this community once she learned her lineage was not her lineage.4

Footprints. Featured in "The Gifts of Inheritance."
My daughter’s footprints at birth. She has my high arches. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

C.S. Lewis once wrote about the physical nature of grief. Shapiro’s physical self feels the repercussions of her mental confusion: “My mind and body seem to be disconnected.”

My body wasn’t the body I had believed it to be for fifty-four years. My face wasn’t my face. That’s what it felt like. If my body wasn’t my body and my face wasn’t my face, who was I? […] I had dinner with my best friend … I’ll stand in her living room, tears streaming down my face and ask: ‘Do you still see me as the same person?’

And yet, in the midst of tremendous uncertainty and upheaval, Shapiro finds profound empathy for her father. Did he know? Was he told? Was he lied to? What might he have felt if he did know?5 Is this empathy her way of connecting to someone from whom she felt abruptly severed?

The question that Shapiro barely asks, but inevitably answers, is: Why did it matter?

Why did it matter so much? After all, my parents were long dead. I had survived them. I had built a life. I had a family of my own. Whatever their secrets they were now buried, lost to history. My latest book was the first of my memoirs that had nothing to do with my parents.

It turns out that it is possible to live an entire life—even an examined life, to the degree that I had relentlessly examined mine—and still not know the truth of oneself.

The lingering postscript of Inheritance is not its answers, but its questions. Shapiro abides in her examined life without all possible knowledge. We all do. We don’t entirely know who we are. We never will.

My wedding dress. Will I pass it on to my daughter? Will it bind us? Will it bind her? Photograph by Chris Cook.

An examined life, to me, means a search for answers, knowledge, means of knowing, and the boundaries of our consciousness.

A process not an arrival. We sculpt and mould knowledge to define who we are, but we must consider who we are isn’t static. And thus not knowable.

‘I gave you life!’ my mother screamed at me whenever she was at her angriest, when I wasn’t complying with her wishes or to her will. ‘I gave you life!’ I had always found it borderline funny, but also disturbing, that my mother felt the need to underscore this bedrock parental fact. On each of my birthdays as an adult, I was meant to call her – it never occurred to me that it was usually the other way around – and thank her for having me. But here were the noxious fumes, leaking from beneath the sealed door where the truth resided.

Shapiro’s writing is divine, direct (you will swear she’s talking to you), curious, and brave. Accompany Inheritances with Mark Strand’s reflection of time, space, poetry, and being. Strand, a favorite of Shapiro’s and mine, posits existence is a function of place and being.

The crumbling of our personal narrative can happen instantly and can change everything. “And then I remembered…,” Joan Didion wrote when she suddenly lost her husband. “Life as you know it is over,” wrote Didion when she lost her daughter.

This body of thought reminds me of something Buddhist monk and thought leader Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote in his book on repairing the past in the present.

We are the recipients of a genetic inheritance that comes from our mother, our father, and all of our ancestors. If you have a grandfather who live to be ninety, this grandfather is still alive in you. If you are weak, if there are cells in you that are not functioning properly, you should call on that grandfather in yourself and say, “Grandfather, come help me.” Your grandfather will manifest immediately; and you will know that your grandfather is not just a notion, he is a reality within you. Every one of your cells has your grandfather in it.

From Thích Nhất Hạnh’s You Are Here

Throughout life, we will be called to reconstruct our self. Assembling what we believe to be who we are. Moreover, we will be asked to move forward in this new self.

Thankfully, Shapiro shows us how.

Illustration of Dani Shapiro.