Are You My Father?

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love BY Dani Shapiro. New York: Knopf. 272 pages. $25

IN 1983 THE CABBAGE PATCH KIDS craze set a record in the toy industry. Three million unique and individually named dolls were produced that year and still didn’t meet customer demand; the markup on secondary sales was 100 percent; and they made the cover of Newsweek. By way of comparison, as of January of this year, over 26 million people have contributed their genetic information to online databases controlled primarily by the commercial genetic-testing companies 23andMe and Ancestry.com. Analysts at the MIT Technology Review predict that, at the current rate of growth, the number of participants will easily exceed 100 million in the next two years. That is to say, recreational genetics is big, way bigger than Cabbage Patch dolls.

The aftermath of the Cabbage Patch craze revealed a marked diminishment in our collective dignity (there were riots). The consequences of “recreational genetics” are only just being discerned. While a recent ad for Ancestry.com features a soulful young man gushing over the pleasures of researching the brave pioneering history of recently discovered ancestors, not all results are so benign. In 2016 the writer Dani Shapiro recreationally took a home DNA test and discovered that her father wasn’t her biological father. She’s hardly alone in such shocking surprise. 23andMe has specialized customer-service agents fielding the reported four to six thousand calls the company receives each week from people getting unexpected results, a great many of them having to do with similar matters of paternity—or NPE, “Not Parent Expected,” according to the robotic nomenclature. “This interesting test has turned out to be a nightmare,” one customer reports in The Atlantic. “I lie awake at 2 a.m. wondering where the connection is.” Her quandary is as shapeless as the incontrovertible context-free data provided by these tests. A British fertility watchdog group concerned with bioethics estimates that two-thirds of donor-conceived people don’t know they are donor-conceived—by design. As a physician says ruefully to Shapiro in Inheritance—her new memoir about the experience of learning in middle age that she was secretly conceived with anonymous donor sperm—this new era of unregulated DNA information means that “there are no more secrets.”

Dani Shapiro with her father, Paul Shapiro, Bermuda, ca. 1965.

Shapiro’s discovery that her beloved father—who died suddenly when she was in her early twenties, about whom she has written prolifically—is not her biological father sends her into an identity wormhole. As her bewilderment mounts, she finds that she can’t even remember the three basic spiritual questions—Who am I? Why am I here? How shall I live?—let alone answer them. She finally has an explanation for why she doesn’t look like her relatives (including, especially, her half sister). The blonde, photogenic symmetry, always presumed to be a lucky roll of the genetic dice, is at long last explained: paternal misattribution, not random, and not luck. She doesn’t recognize her face in the mirror. She contemplates stripping her house of the long-prized collection of family pictures—the rabbis, the shtetels—and is simultaneously terrified that her elderly aunt will cast her out once she learns they have no blood bond. To disown or be disowned. She consults rabbinical experts on the legality of artificial insemination, not because she’s worried about her own Judaism, but because she knows her father would have been—if she could only figure out whether he knew about it. Impossible that he did, she thinks. Impossible that he didn’t, she keeps hearing. She does what many of us do in a crisis: She gathers information. She investigates the back-alley, unlicensed fertility clinic where she was conceived; she connects with other casualties of recreational genetics, interviews genealogy experts; she locates and contacts her biological father. Blustering forward with the most tentatively formulated questions, she amasses great piles of irreconcilable answers. This is uncharted territory.

How is a person supposed to react when they discover in middle age that they are not related to their family? What is the real, actual, articulable difference between paternity and fathering? Why is the phrase “your father is still your father,” repeated so often to Shapiro in the immediate aftermath of the DNA revelations, not a comfort? Why is her response to those words always Yes, but . . .

Shapiro’s first memoir, Slow Motion, was, ironically, about losing her father in a car accident. Over the next two decades, and over the course of (now) five memoirs, Shapiro has publicly, carefully, and often beautifully constructed her identity. If nothing else, memoirists control their own narrative, their own self-presentation (obviously). The better the writer, the more unassailable the identity. This makes the identity crisis of Inheritance all the more precarious—and Shapiro’s presentation of it all the more remarkable.

Shapiro is a public contemplative, or a “serial memoirist” (as she has labeled it). In various, subtly shifting forms and incurably readable prose, she has narrated the prime metaphysical subjects of adulthood, including marriage, spirituality, the deaths of parents, being a parent, aging, and how to put a shape on it all. She 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. In the new memoir, Shapiro remembers:

My mother in the car, the darkness, the inky black of the Hudson River, the graceful arc of lights illuminating the George Washington Bridge. Institute. Philadelphia. Your father. Slow sperm. Brilliant doctor. How did I know to commit her words to memory? Not a pretty story.

The scene, from many years earlier, with its forbidding last phrase, not a pretty story, hinted at (or, if life is organized as a narrative, foreshadowed) the subject of conception by sperm donation. One might imagine that Shapiro’s mother—the flawed narcissist, a recurring dramatic foil in the memoirs—was describing her shame at her and her husband’s inability to conceive, their secret recourse to a back-alley fertility doctor, the indignity of artificial insemination (or “treatment,” as it would have been labeled). But to Shapiro, this moment, the apparently random memory that in retrospect heralds great upheaval, is a signpost along a trail of clues that maps out her alternate origin story. The phrase, not a pretty story, so precisely about presentation. Nothing in Shapiro’s carefully crafted life story can quite accommodate this plot twist.

Shapiro is obsessed with stories, storytelling, making stories out of her life. “I have no interest in telling all,” she wrote in the New York Times just before the 2017 release of Hourglass:

My interest is in telling precisely what the story requires. . . . I am striving to make order out of chaos, which is the sweetest pleasure I know. When I succeed, I have a thing, this story, to offer. It isn’t me. It isn’t even a facsimile. I have used my life—rather than my life using me—to make something more beautiful and refined than I could ever be.

And up through Hourglass, an exquisite account of her eighteen-year marriage, that’s precisely what she’s done: made order. A succor in the face of life’s everything-ness that readers crave.

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage is a showstopper, Shapiro performing at the height of her abilities: a kaleidoscope of emotions and arrangements, the telescoping of shared experiences. What could be more interesting, self-revealing, and simultaneously more mundane than someone else’s marriage? That it succeeds so gorgeously is testament to the control Shapiro has over her craft—the telling detail, the precision (even the semicolons have significance), the openness:

The romantic dinner, candles dripping, his East Village apartment, the two of us tangled up in his bedsheets. The tiny wedding; the Provençal honeymoon; the birth of our baby; the close call. The raising of him, the reveling in him. The Brooklyn town house, the Connecticut saltbox. The lung cancer, the Alzheimer’s. The bar mitzvah. The triumphs; disappointments; terrors; risks. The books; films; teaching; travel. The smart moves; the idiocy. The sheer velocity of it all.

In many respects, Hourglass is a pinnacle performance of memoir. Intelligent and intimate, it practically pirouettes, a razor’s edge from exhibitionism, but without a whiff of oversharing. Financial security is one theme of the book: the compromises it demands, the luxuries it permits, and the elusiveness, the way it mirrors emotional security. Deftly handled, as the couple spends a lot of time doing things most people wouldn’t associate with bohemian squalor—transatlantic trips, hotels, a house with extra rooms—yet the point is not material. Life upsets, as Shapiro well knows, in a flash. If she’s dramatized nothing else through her prodigious output, it’s that everything and anything can change quickly, be given or whipped away. So, Shapiro and her husband take a writing job with a pharmaceutical company, a mercenary move that nonetheless has resonance in the couple’s life because the focus of their assignment is Alzheimer’s, which Shapiro’s mother-in-law has. Shapiro describes a meeting with the company’s creative department (“the offices seem dreamt up by a set designer”):

M. and I sit around a shiny, oval conference table and discuss concept and workflow. We nod and take notes as the boss shares reams of research with us, charts full of arrows and bubbles based on thousands of pages of interviews in the field. Empathy, it seems, can be graphed.

. . . As if she didn’t already have total command of empathy’s workings. Careful, even chartable, control of information—just what you need to tell the story—a memoirist’s stock-in-trade. Which begs the question, what happens if there’s an information short circuit, or an overload—as in the case of a sudden surfeit of scientific data that threatens to make moot all of the stories that have come before?

The plot of Inheritance is unbelievably timely. Recreational genetics and hobby ancestry are at a record high, and the flow of information, the making of connections, is happening at an unprecedented rate, and is entirely, defiantly unregulated. Privacy contracts, anonymity protections, closed adoptions, medical histories are all undone in this next-generation wilderness. Here is where the orderly memoirist takes a sharp turn from the path:

As I scrolled through websites and online essays, words swam; sentences broke apart. In every other area of my life I was capable of clear thought. But here, I was back in the thick sludge. . . . The understanding that this world was my world, that I was donor-conceived, that this was indeed (and had always been) a term that applied to me, rose up like a concrete wall I slammed into again and again.

Inheritance is a disorderly book. There is panic, neurosis, disorientation. Shapiro chases down leads that go nowhere. Repeats questions that have already been answered or have no answer. Worries that her donor-conceived status makes her an abomination under Jewish law, learns that it doesn’t. Worries that her father might have thought it was an abomination if he knew, and wonders if he did—marvels that, ultimately, he must have known. It’s gory, not contemplative. And it’s wonderfully apt. One piece of information that changes everything and nothing. Something really important has been learned that ultimately has impact but no effect. “Your father is still your father”—or is he your “social dad”? The shared history between father and daughter remains intact. The rest is semantics. Alas, there’s nothing more important than semantics to a writer.

“I used to tell my students,” writes Shapiro in Hourglass,

that in order to write memoir—or at least good memoir, the kind that will be of value to the disinterested reader—the writer has to have some distance from the material. I was quite certain that we could not write directly from our feelings, but only the memory of our feelings. How else to fi nd the necessary ironic distance, the cool remove? How else to shape a narrative but from the insight and wisdom of retrospect?

But, she argues, “retrospect is mutable,” “an illusion.” In this passage of Hourglass she designates for herself a challenge—a remedy for the illusion of retrospect: to “attempt to tell the story as I’m inside it.” To write in the moment, in other words, before the impulse to shape, interpret, and resolve takes over. Hourglass isn’t that book. The material is processed (for lack of a better word). It’s wonderfully considered; there are themes, motifs, multidimensional portraits, and anecdotes. It’s perfect and wise. Even if the original impulse was to write from within the immediate experience of her marriage, Shapiro herself is too controlled to simply disgorge. I would even go so far as to argue that the stakes are too high.

Shapiro was exploring similar ambitions with her 2010 spiritual memoir, Devotion. In an interview she explained: “I wanted to understand something through writing about it. Writing about it as I was living it. Writing about it from the center of it, which is something I never recommend writers do.” Again, she’s describing a kind of raw account—experiences and refl ections that don’t neatly resolve. In Devotion, she was pushing toward that form through a question-directed structure. Perfectly appropriate, as faith itself is an art of questioning, doubt, and solace. But it is still art, and Devotion is artful. Order is formed of chaos—“the sweetest pleasure.” There’s a paradox in Shapiro’s elegant approach to the self-examined life; it isn’t elegant if it’s not ordered, yet order in life is a kind of illusion, the illusion of retrospect, of storytelling.

Then lightning strikes. At the heart of Inheritance isn’t a metaphysical problem to be untangled, like that of spirituality, grief, addiction, or enduring love. It’s a proper mystery about an undefined crime that leaves its victims unsure as to what kind of injury they’ve suffered—broken identity? Not a metaphysical question, but a material, almost arbitrary fact. It’s a story in that it’s a series of events arranged around consequence whose meaning is undefinable. Shapiro’s account of her experience with an unexpected result from genetic testing is superficially so much more storylike than her previous stories. It functions like a mystery to be solved, one where many of the protagonists are dead, the fractures all shelved and archived. Shapiro circles, looking for a culprit, a betrayal, a cover-up, but is unable to discern one. Her parents wanted a baby but couldn’t make one themselves, so they resorted to artificial insemination. The ethics at the time dictated that the means of conception should remain both anonymous and secret. The biggest culprit turns out to be shifting mores and advancing technology.

You’ll never know simply could not be what I was left with in the end,” Shapiro despairs. “Who was I without my history?” The order has been thrown back into chaos. Then she hears an interview with a noted psychiatrist, who claims, “The nature of trauma is that you have no recollection of it as a story. The nature of traumatic experience is that the brain doesn’t allow a story to be created.” This is the plot twist. With everything suddenly on the table—to contemplate—and no way to resolve it, Shapiro finds the subject that allows her to write from the center, raw, as the story unfolds, in the wreckage of immediacy.

Minna Zallman Proctor is the author of Landslide: True Stories (Catapult, 2017).