An Instant NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
A LOS ANGELES TIMES, BOSTON GLOBE, WALL STREET JOURNAL, and NATIONAL INDIE BESTSELLER
Named A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by *Elle * Vanity Fair * Wired * Real Simple * Kirkus Reviews * BookPage *
“Memoir gold: a profound and exquisitely rendered exploration of identity and the true meaning of family.” —People Magazine
“Beautifully written and deeply moving—it brought me to tears more than once.”—Ruth Franklin, The New York Times Book Review
From the acclaimed, best-selling memoirist, novelist and host of the hit podcast
Family Secrets, comes a memoir about the staggering family secret uncovered by a genealogy test: an exploration of the urgent ethical questions surrounding fertility treatments and DNA testing, and a profound inquiry of paternity, identity, and love.
In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had casually submitted her DNA for analysis, Dani Shapiro received the stunning news that her beloved deceased father was not her biological father. Over the course of a single day, her entire history—the life she had lived—crumbled beneath her.
Inheritance is a book about secrets. It is the story of a woman''s urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that had been scrupulously hidden from her for more than fifty years. It is a book about the extraordinary moment we live in, a moment in which science and technology have outpaced not only medical ethics but also the capacities of the human heart to contend with the consequences of what we discover.
Dani Shapiro’s memoir unfolds at a breakneck pace—part mystery, part real-time investigation, part rumination on the ineffable combination of memory, history, biology, and experience that makes us who we are.
Inheritance is a devastating and haunting interrogation of the meaning of kinship and identity, written with stunning intensity and precision.
New York Times Editors'' Choice
A Vanity Fair, New Yorker, Washington Post, Vulture, Bustle, Real Simple, PopSugar, and LitHub Most Anticipated Book of 2019
“[An] engrossing, compassionate memoir.... As in the best writing on the self, the point is the integrity of her search.” —
Alexandra Schwartz, The New Yorker
“The writing is that of a true storyteller who will not stop until she has bored down to the bottom of where she came from, and in this she is at her narrative best.” —
“As compulsively readable as a mystery novel, while exploring the deeper mysteries of identity and family and truth itself... a story told with great insight and honesty and heart.” —
San Francisco Chronicle
“A meditation on what it means to live in a time when secrecy, anonymity, and mystery are vanishing.”
—The New Yorker
“Shapiro is skilled at spinning her personal explorations into narrative gold.” —
“[A] swift moving narrative of profound personal disorientation. Just as you think you’ve crested the big reveal, Shapiro builds more tension, chapter by short chapter; she keeps you close as she feels her way through unfamiliar terrain.” —
Inheritance zooms in on the blind spots that result when reproductive technology outpaces an understanding of its consequences. In viewing this important and timely topic through a highly personal lens, Inheritance succeeds admirably.” —
The Seattle Times
Inheritance offers a thought-provoking look at the shifting landscape of identity.” —
The Washington Post
“[Shapiro] has an intimate, ruminating style, leaping associatively through time, addressing the reader not as an audience, or voyeur, but more as an interlocutor, thoughtfully answering the questions she thinks someone might ask, if they lived in her head.” —
“Inheritance is dedicated “to my father”. That [Shapiro] doesn’t say which one speaks volumes: those who like to insist that blood is always thicker than water should read her book, and let their own hearts slowly and gently expand.”
“Shapiro [writes]... this spare, lyrical story shattering the polished portrait of her life and piecing the fragments carefully, gorgeously back together.”
Inheritance explores Shapiro’s identity in relationship to her memory, family history, biology, and experience. And it essentially asks the question: What makes us who we are? It’s brilliant.” —
“Smart, psychologically astute, and not afraid to tell it like it is.” —
“A poignant examination of identity and what happens when one''s wholeness and understanding of who they are is completely uprooted.” —
“It''s a cautionary tale about a brave new world of technology that erases privacy, and a story about one of the oldest themes of human narrative: finding oneself.” —
“Written with generosity and honesty,
Inheritance takes the modern phenomenon of casual DNA testing and builds a deeply personal narrative around it. The result is a vital, necessary read from a talented author.” —
"A remarkable, dogged, emotional journey...
Inheritance reads like a mystery, unfolding minute by minute and day by day.... Shapiro’s book is a wise and thorough examination of how this news affected her. She is a good guide for the bombshells that are yet to explode for so many families."
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Shapiro [writes] this spare, lyrical story shattering the polished portrait of her life and piecing the fragments carefully, gorgeously back together.” —
“A fascinating, pertinent look into the murky world of medical ethics, as well as the kind of profound, insightful look into the meaning of love and connection that we’ve come to expect from Shapiro.” —
“A remarkable, dogged, emotional journey as Shapiro digs into the past to find the truth.” —
Inheritance reads like an introspective mystery as Shapiro sorts facts from fiction.” —
Inheritance, Shapiro movingly reckons with identity and family secrets.” —
Inheritance adds significantly to Shapiro’s body of work while plugging into some of our culture’s most pressing concerns—identity, technology and medical ethics, among others. Although her story is unique to her, it offers a way of thinking about our changing, uncertain times.” —
The Florida Times Union
Inheritance is both thrilling and fascinating—a nonfiction book that reads like a novel.” —
“Shapiro unpacks a beautiful and heartbreaking narrative of paternity, genetics, and family.” —
"Fascinating... With thoughtful candor, [Shapiro] explores the ethical questions surrounding sperm donation, the consequences of DNA testing, and the emotional impact of having an uprooted religious and ethnic identity. This beautifully written, thought-provoking genealogical mystery will captivate readers from the very first pages." —
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"For all the trauma that the discovery put her through, Shapiro recognizes that what she had experienced was ''a great story''—one that has inspired her best book." —
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Page after page, Shapiro displays adisarming honesty and an acute desire to know the unknowable." —
Booklist (starred review)
“As Shapiro deftly navigates the emotional story of her own origins, she also spins her grief, shock, and introspection into a compelling narrative that you won’t be able to put down.” —
Book Riot“[Shapiro’s] magnificent journey of selfhood, arduous and awakening, makes our communal reflection in the mirror deeper and continually delving.” —
Jamie Lee Curtis
Inheritance is Dani Shapiro at her best: a gripping genetic detective story, and a meditation on the meaning of parenthood and family.” —
“Reads like a beautiful, lived novel, moving and personal and true.” —
“A compulsively-readable investigation into selfhood that burrows to the heart of what it means to accept, to love, and to belong.” —
“In her searing story, Dani Shapiro makes the most disquieting discovery: that everything, from her lineage, to her father, down to her very own sense of self is an astounding error.... The answer is not disquieting. It is beautiful.” —
“An extraordinary memoir that speaks to themes as current as today’s headlines and as old as human history.... This beautifully crafted book is full of wisdom and heart, showing that what we don’t know about our parents may not be as important as what we do.” —
DANI SHAPIRO is the author of the
New York Times bestselling memoir
Inheritance, as well as
Hourglass, Still Writing, Devotion, and
Slow Motion and five novels including
Black & White and
Family History. Also an essayist and a journalist, Shapiro''s short fiction, essays, and journalistic pieces have appeared in
The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, Vogue, O, The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, the op-ed pages of the
New York Times, and many other publications. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, the New School, and Wesleyan University; she is cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. Shapiro is the host of the hit podcast,
Family Secrets. She lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.
When I was a girl I would sneak down the hall late at night once my parents were asleep. I would lock myself in the bathroom, climb onto the Formica counter, and get as close as possible to the mirror until I was nose to nose with my own reflection. This wasn’t an exercise in the simple self-absorption of childhood. The stakes felt high. Who knows how long I kneeled there, staring into my own eyes. I was looking for something I couldn’t possibly have articulated—but I always knew it when I saw it. If I waited long enough, my face would begin to morph. I was eight, ten, thirteen. Cheeks, eyes, chin, and forehead—my features softened and shape-shifted until finally I was able to see another face, a different face, what seemed to me a
truer face just beneath my own.
Now it is early morning and I’m in a small hotel bathroom three thousand miles from home. I’m fifty-four years old, and it’s a long time since I was that girl. But here I am again, staring and staring at my reflection. A stranger stares back at me.
The coordinates: I’m in San Francisco—Japantown, to be precise—just off a long flight. The facts: I’m a woman, a wife, a mother, a writer, a teacher. I’m a daughter. I blink. The stranger in the mirror blinks too. A daughter. Over the course of a single day and night, the familiar has vanished.
Familiar: belonging to a family. On the other side of the thin wall I hear my husband crack open a newspaper. The floor seems to sway. Or perhaps it’s my body trembling. I don’t know what a nervous breakdown would feel like, but I wonder if I’m having one. I trace my fingers across the planes of my cheekbones, down my neck, across my clavicle, as if to be certain I still exist. I’m hit by a wave of dizziness and grip the bathroom counter. In the weeks and months to come, I will become well acquainted with this sensation. It will come over me on street corners and curbs, in airports, train stations. I’ll take it as a sign to slow down. Take a breath. Feel the fact of my own body.
You’re still you, I tell myself, again and again and again.
Twenty-four hours earlier, I was in my home office trying to get organized for a trip to the West Coast when I heard Michael’s feet pounding up the stairs. It was ten-thirty in the evening, and we had to leave before dawn to get to the Hartford airport for an early flight. I had made a packing list. I’m a list maker, and there were a million things to do.
Bras. Panties. Jeans skirt. Striped top. Sweater/jacket? (Check weather in SF.) I was good at reading the sound of my husband’s footsteps. These sounded urgent, though I couldn’t tell whether they were good urgent or bad urgent. Whatever it was, we didn’t have time for it.
Skin stuff. Brush/comb. Headphones. He burst through my office door, open laptop in hand.
“Susie sent her results,” he said.
Susie was my much-older half sister, my father’s daughter from an early marriage. We weren’t close, and hadn’t spoken in a couple of years, but I had recently written to ask if she had ever done genetic testing. It was the kind of thing I had never even considered, but I had recalled Susie once mentioning that she wanted to know if she was at risk for any hereditary diseases. A New York City psychoanalyst, she had always been on the cutting edge of all things medical. My email had reached her at the TED conference in Banff. She had written back right away that she had indeed done genetic testing and would look to see if she had her results with her on her computer.
Our father had died in a car accident many years earlier, when I was twenty-three, and Susie thirty-eight. Through him, we were part of a large Orthodox Jewish clan. It was a family history I was proud of and I loved. Our grandfather had been a founder of Lincoln Square Synagogue, one of the country’s most respected Orthodox institutions. Our uncle had been president of the Orthodox Union. Our grandparents had been pillars of the observant Jewish community both in America and in Israel. Though as a grown woman I was not remotely religious, I had a powerful, nearly romantic sense of my family and its past.
The previous winter, Michael had become curious about his own origins. He knew far less about the generations preceding him than I did about mine. His mother had Alzheimer’s and recently had fallen and broken her hip. The combination of her injury and memory loss had precipitated a steep and rapid decline. His father was frail but mentally sharp. Michael’s sudden interest in genealogy was surprising to me, but I understood it. He was hoping to learn more about his ancestral roots while his dad was still around. Perhaps he’d even enlarge his sense of family by connecting to third or fourth cousins.
Do you want to do it too? he might have asked.
I’m sending away for a kit. It’s only like a hundred bucks. Though I no longer remember the exact moment, it is in fact the small, the undramatic, the banal—the
yeah, sure that could just as easily have been a shrug and a
The kits arrived and sat on our kitchen counter for days, perhaps weeks, unopened. They became part of the scenery, like the books and magazines that pile up until we cart them off to our local library. We made coffee in the mornings, poured juice, scrambled eggs. We ate dinner at the kitchen table. We fed the dog, wrote notes and grocery shopping lists on the blackboard. We sorted mail, took out the recycling. All the while the kits remained sealed in their green and white boxes decorated with a whimsical line drawing of a three-leaf clover. ANCESTRY: THE DNA TEST THAT TELLS A MORE COMPLETE STORY OF YOU.
Finally one night, Michael opened the two packages and handed me a small plastic vial.
“Spit,” he said.
I felt vaguely ridiculous and undignified as I bent over the vial. Why was I even doing this? I idly wondered if my results would be affected by the lamb chops I had just eaten, or the glass of wine, or residue from my lipstick. Once I had reached the line demarking the proper amount of saliva, I went back to clearing the dinner dishes. Michael wrapped a label around each of our vials and placed them in the packaging sent by Ancestry.com.
Two months passed, and I gave little thought to my DNA test. I was deep into revisions of my new book. Our son had just begun looking at colleges. Michael was working on a film project. I had all but forgotten about it until one day an email containing my results appeared. We were puzzled by some of the findings. I say
puzzled—a gentle word—because this is how it felt to me. According to Ancestry, my DNA was 52 percent Eastern European Ashkenazi. The rest was a smattering of French, Irish, English, and German. Odd, but I had nothing to compare it with. I wasn’t disturbed. I wasn’t confused, even though that percentage seemed very low considering that all my ancestors were Jews from Eastern Europe. I put the results aside and figured there must be a reasonable explanation tied up in migrations and conflicts many generations before me. Such was my certainty that I knew exactly where I came from.
In a cabinet beneath our television, I keep several copies of a documentary about prewar shtetl life in Poland, called
Image Before My Eyes. The film includes archival footage taken by my grandfather during a 1931 visit to Horodok, the family village. By then the owner of a successful fabric mill, he brought my great-grandfather with him. The film is all the more powerful for the present-day viewer’s knowledge of what will soon befall the men with their double beards, the women in modest black, the children crowding the American visitors. Someone—my grandfather?—holds the shaky camera as the doomed villagers dance around him in a widening circle. Then we cut to a quieter moment: in grainy black and white, my grandfather and great- grandfather pray at the grave of my great-great grandfather. I can almost make out the cadence of their voices—voices I have never heard but that are the music of my bones—as they recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. My grandfather wipes tears from his eyes.
In the year before my son’s bar mitzvah, I played him that part of the documentary.
Do you see? I paused on the image of the rough old stone carved in Hebrew.
This is where we come from. That’s the spot where your great-great-great grandfather-is buried. It felt urgently important to me, to make Jacob aware of his ancestral lineage, the patch of earth from which he sprang, the source of a spirit passed down, a connection. Of course, that tombstone would have been plowed under just a few years later. But in that moment—my people captured for all time—I was linking them to my own boy, and him to them. He hadn’t known my father, but at least I was able to give Jacob something formative that I myself had grown up with: a sense of grounding in coming from this family. He is the only child of an only child, but this—this was a vast and abundant part of his heritage that could never be taken away from him. We watched as the men on the screen swayed back and forth in a familiar rhythm, a dance I have known all my life.
So that 52 percent breakdown was just kind of weird, that’s all, as bland and innocuous as those sealed green and white boxes had been. I thought I’d clear it up by comparing my DNA results with Susie’s. Now, on the eve of our trip to the West Coast, Michael was sitting next to me on the small, tapestry-covered chaise in the corner of my office. I felt his leg pressed against mine as, side by side, we looked down at his laptop screen. Later he will tell me he already knew what I couldn’t allow myself even to begin to consider. On the wall directly behind us hung a black-and-white portrait of my paternal grandmother, her hair parted in the center, pulled back tightly, her gaze direct and serene.
Comparing Kit M440247 and A765211:
Largest segment = 14.9 cM
Total of segments > 7cM = 29.6 cM
Estimated number of generations to MRCA = 4.5
653629 SNP’s used for this comparison
Comparison took 0.04538 seconds.
“What does it mean?” My voice sounded strange to my own ears.
“You’re not sisters.”
“Not half sisters?”
“No kind of sisters.”
“How do you know?”
Michael traced the line estimating the number of generations to our most recent common ancestor.
The numbers, symbols, unfamiliar terms on the screen were a language I didn’t understand. It had taken 0.04538 seconds—a fraction of a second—to upend my life. There would now forever be a
before. The innocence of a packing list. The preparation for a simple trip. The portrait of my grandmother in its gilded frame. My mind began to spin with calculations. If Susie was not my half sister—
no kind of sister—it could mean only one of two things: either my father was not her father or my father was not my father.