‘Inheritance’ a gripping memoir about family, love, identity

Dani Shapiro is appearing locally to promote her memoir "Inheritance." (Courtesy Michael Maren)

Dani Shapiro is appearing locally to promote her memoir "Inheritance." (Courtesy Michael Maren)

In her thoughtful and gripping new memoir, “Inheritance,” Dani Shapiro recounts the shock and sorrow of discovering she was conceived by artificial insemination. Not only is her father not her biological father, she loses her proud identity as a 100 percent Ashkenazi Jew. Fifty-four years old, an only child with deceased parents, Shapiro feels like an earthquake has destroyed her foundation. She is left to determine what of her identity remains and how she will integrate this revelation into her life.

This book is a fascinating read by a gifted writer. At one level, it is a mystery: Who is her biological father? At another, it is a psychological drama. Why didn’t her parents tell her? At yet another, it is an investigation into artificial insemination. Are there records from this defunct clinic?

While she pursues answers to these questions, she absorbs each new fact with understanding, empathy and grace. Her memoir is made richer by ruminations of rabbis, relatives, therapists and doctors with whom she consults.

Shapiro describes a difficult childhood. Her parents, Paul and Irene, had a complicated marriage, burdened by bitterness and resentment. Her mother’s volatile personality had a corrosive effect on the household.

But her father’s unconditional love and acceptance sustained Shapiro. She went to yeshiva, spoke Hebrew and spent Saturday mornings with him at synagogue. He came from a long line of respected Orthodox leaders, which gave Shapiro a sense of grounding, pride and belonging.

Yet Shapiro often felt like an outsider. Seared into her memory is a survivor’s comment, “We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.” Early on, she experiences the feeling of being included and excluded from her community. Shapiro says,“Now I know that it was the kernel of truth embedded in that memory that kept it intact for me.”

The book’s most intriguing theme is the impact of secrets. Had her parents just deceived her or had they also deceived themselves? Did they come to believe Paul was her biological father? She concludes about her parents, “If it wasn’t thought, it wasn’t so. If it wasn’t spoken, it hadn’t happened. Except that secrets, particularly the most deeply held ones, have a way of leaching into everything surrounding them.”

Using social media and genealogical websites, Shapiro finds her biological father, a doctor and medical ethicist she calls Ben Walden. When Shapiro watches him lecture on YouTube, she is startled by their resemblance. She sends him an inquiry and he confirms he donated sperm to a clinic in Philadelphia in the 1960s. One strand of the story follows the complicated, beautiful evolution of their relationship.

Sprinkled with literary, psychoanalytic and philosophical references, the book ponders assumptions about identity. By the end, Dani Shapiro seems to have found peace.

The central enigma of her life is known. “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.”

Though Shapiro will probably continue to wrestle with the implications of this genetic surprise, she feels blessed by the man she comes from AND the man who loved her into being. She says of her father, Paul, “I was connected to him on the level of “neshama” (Hebrew for soul), which had nothing to do with biology, and everything to do with love.” In the end, love is her beautiful inheritance.

Katherine Read blogs at https://readsreading.blogspot.com

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love
By: Dani Shapiro
Published by: Knopf
Pages: 272
Price: $24.95


1 p.m. Feb. 19: Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, free
7:30 p.m. Feb. 19: Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore, 2904 College Ave., Berkeley, free
12:15 p.m. Feb. 20: Li Ka Shing Center, Room 120, Stanford University, free
7:30 p.m. Feb. 20: Kepler’s Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, $10-$40
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