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Dani Shapiro: DNA Test Unlocks Powerful Family Secrets

Author talks about her new memoir: INHERITANCE.

Michael Maren
Source: Michael Maren

It's hard to believe (or maybe not!) that Dani Shapiro has written yet another lovely and intriguing memoir. This one, her tenth book, came to her totally by surprise after she read the shocking results of an over-the-counter DNA test and discovered the father who raised her was not her biological father. Jennifer Egan describes this book as “a gripping genetic detective story, and a meditation on the meaning of parenthood and family.” I read it in one sitting, and then I read it again. Here's more from Dani about INHERITANCE: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love.

Jennifer Haupt: You mention that writing your first novel, in your twenties, was how you dealt with your sorrow about the death of the father who raised you. Was writing INHERITANCE healing in the same way? Did writing this book help you to make sense of the loss you felt when you discovered the father who raised you was not your biological father?

Dani Shapiro: At one point in the book, I describe feeling, shortly after making my discovery, that I was losing my father all over again. It was a very intense period of loss, of grief, of a different kind of death – not only the loss of my father, but of the roots that had tethered me, my ancestors, my grandparents, aunts, uncles – none of whom, as it turned out, were related to me. Over the course of writing INHERITANCE, I attempted to find language, form, and shape to this story, which ultimately is about identity and personhood. There’s always something healing in finding a way to tell a story, though INHERITANCE is different from all the rest of my books, in that my discovery made me question narrative itself – because of the stories I had been telling myself all my life, and how wrong I had been about some of the deepest parts of what (and who) made me, me.

JH: How difficult was it to forgive your parents for keeping the secret of your conception, your true identity, from you?

DS: I don’t think we can frame that question in the past tense, as this is something I will probably grapple with for the rest of my life. I would say that one of the deepest parts of the journey for me was in thinking of my parents as people – not only as my parents. As flawed, traumatized, complicated people who were creatures of their time. Learning to see our parents as who they were before us is one of the markers of maturity, I think. We aren’t often forced to go there, to think of our parents as completely separate from us – but I was forced to go there, and learned so much in the process.

JH: I don’t want to give away too much of the story, so let’s talk more about your writing process. Did you have any trepidation about writing this very personal memoir?

DS: I had in equal parts trepidation and obsession! I had to write this memoir. I knew that even as my discovery was unfolding. It is, quite literally, the story of my life, the story of how I came to exist. And in a literary sense, the story that I was trying to write all my life without even knowing it. I have always written about secrets – secrets within families. If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have had some well-honed answers as to why that was the case. But my well-honed answers would have been only part of the story. As it turns out – as I write in INHERITANCE: “I always knew there was a secret. What I didn’t know: the secret was me.”

JH: Did you need to emotionally separate yourself from the pain of the experience so that you could write this story? If so, how did you do that?

DS: I’m very glad that INHERITANCE is my tenth book. As a novelist, a memoirist, a storyteller, I embarked on this book with a pretty well-stocked tool box when it came to craft. I did write 200 pages very quickly, at first. And then I had to go on book tour for my previous book, HOURGLASS, and so I put those pages aside for a few months. When I returned to them, my heart sank, and I realized I hadn’t yet found the distance from which to tell the story. That was a huge lesson: good writing can’t be done from the center of trauma. I had to find that half-step away from the pain and trauma, from which I could write from a place of observing as well as feeling.

JH: You lost huge and important pieces of your identity, but it seems that you also gained some new understanding of yourself. True?

DS: Absolutely. I remember a friend, early on, telling me that when I got to the other side of the really hard stuff, I would be free. And I do feel that way now. Knowing the truth of my identity is enormously liberating. It was always there, staring at me in the mirror. On some level, I knew without knowing. It’s better to know, and to live from that place of knowing.

JH? Tell me about how this experience changed your relationship with your half-sister, Susie? (Did it?)

DS: Susie and I hadn’t been close in a long time and had always had a complicated relationship. She’s so much older than I am, and we never lived under the same roof. I think, honestly, that the discovery that we don’t share a father made a strange kind of sense.

JH: What’s next for you: fiction or memoir?

DS: God knows! I can’t imagine writing another memoir. I have a feeling that, whatever I do next, it will be a real departure.

JH: What’s the One True Thing you learned from writing this memoir?

DS: That secrets have their own energy and power – eventually, no matter how well-hidden, how buried, the truth will come out.

Dani Shapiro is the author of five memoirs and five novels. Also an essayist and a journalist, Shapiro’s short fiction, essays, and journalistic pieces have appeared in The New Yorker, 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. She lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.