As the popularity of over-the-counter and mail-order DNA test kits grows, so do the number of people discovering ancestry results they may find surprising, even shocking.
On April 27, novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro brings her own candid and compelling DNA-discovery story to Baltimore as keynote speaker at the CityLit Festival at University of Baltimore.
“Anyone familiar with Shapiro’s ‘Still Writing’ will be taken by ‘Inheritance,’ and her urgent quest to uncover a fact that derails her from what she thought was an ‘examined life,’” said CityLit executive director Carla Du Pree. “Hers is one of many stories taking shape in America today as scientific advancements allow us to ponder who and what we are. Having access invites inquiry. Shapiro has a way of making her discovery ours.”
As the author of four memoirs and five novels, Shapiro delves deep into the struggles, tragedies and triumphs inherent in family relationships, marriage, Judaism and the writing life. But even to one so adept at scraping away the flesh of life to get down to the bone of living it, what Shapiro discovered after she and her husband, on a whim, had their DNA tested, would change her life in an instant.
In that instant, as she and her husband were preparing for a 2016 cross-country flight, Shapiro’s husband Michael told her that a DNA comparison with her half sister showed that they were not related.
“Somewhere within me, in a place as dangerous and electric as a live wire, I knew what this meant, if it was true. If it was true being something I would repeat to myself again and again. If it was true being something that I might always cling to, in a disbelieving, childlike way…,” Shapiro writes. “If it was true that Susie and I were not half sisters, then my father was not my father.”
Shapiro’s father was the parent to whom she related most closely — her father and his Orthodox family with historical roots that stretch back to shtetl life in pre-World War II Horodok, Poland (now part of Ukraine).
This revelation is no spoiler for readers of the memoir, as the meat of the story is a real-time, page-turner of a mystery, as Shapiro and her journalist husband apply the research skills so crucial to their craft to Shapiro’s own life history. Using those skills she discovers who, in fact, is her biological father, along with the rest of a journalist’s “Five Ws”: the whats, whens, wheres and whys that had been a secret to her for all of her then 54 years.
Shapiro said the impulse to write everything down and the thought that the story, as it unraveled, could be her next book, were “two impulses are very, very closely related.”
“I understand my world best through the process of writing. And by the process of writing I really mean trying to make sense of it,” Shapiro said. “And trying to take the chaos of it and turn it into literature, turn it into language, turn it into a story that is going to connect with others. It’s just what I’ve always done. And so this was, no pun intended, but it was like the mother of all — the father of all stories.”
And that story, as seems obvious from most of her other works, was the thing Shapiro said she “had always been unconsciously digging for my entire life as a writer. I understood very quickly that it was my next book.”
Although not knowing exactly how she would tell that story, Shapiro also felt a sense of urgency to begin writing.
“It felt like my identity was in pieces all around me and I was trying to put it back together again in a whole new way,” she said. “Also, I was worried that I would not remember some of the early thoughts and feelings that I was having, because it was such a shocking and stunning period of time.”
Not only did Shapiro want to write everything down so she would remember it, but because both of her parents were dead and many of the people involved would be very old.
Because Shapiro’s connection to Judaism came from the relationship with her father, the revelation that he was not her biological father affirmed many of the doubts she, as a blond-haired blue-eyed girl, had had all her life. Nevertheless, that revelation also strengthened her relationship to her Judaism.
“I understand it now. I’ve come to realize just how much my physical appearance, and the ceaseless commentary on it, made me feel ‘other’ when I was in Jewish settings. Truly, I did look like I came from a different part of the world. I just do,” she said. “Yes, according to Jewish law I’m Jewish because it comes through the matriarchal line. But I don’t care about any of that. I care about the psychology and the culture of my Jewishness. My roots that I spent 54 years believing were my roots are, therefore, still my roots. And when I look in the mirror, I understand my own face. Here I am, all of me.”