Dani Shapiro has been thinking about secrets all of her life, exploring the theme repeatedly in five novels and four memoirs. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that she unwittingly uncovered the biggest secret of all: Her beloved, late father wasn’t her biological father.
“I needed every single brain cell to focus on this discovery and to try to understand what it meant,” she says, speaking from her home in the Connecticut countryside.
Growing up as an only child in 1960s and ’70s New Jersey, Shapiro couldn’t help feeling partially like an outsider as the pale, blue-eyed, blond-haired daughter of her darker, Jewish parents. In fact, a family friend and Holocaust survivor was so startled by her unlikely features that she peered into her eyes and announced, “We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.” The dramatic proclamation made a searing imprint on Shapiro.
“All my life I had known there was a secret. What I hadn’t known: the secret was me.”
When Shapiro was 23, her father died from injuries he suffered in a devastating car crash, a tragedy she chronicled in her 1998 memoir, Slow Motion. Years later, when Shapiro’s husband decided to order a DNA kit, he asked her if she wanted one as well. She gamely agreed, and gave it little thought until several months later, when the kit’s shocking results showed that she was only half Jewish. Furthermore, she wasn’t biologically related to her half-sister, her father’s child from a previous marriage. An offhand remark made decades earlier by Shapiro’s now-deceased mother provided a clue to the puzzle: She told Shapiro that she had been conceived in Philadelphia.
With astonishing speed, Shapiro and her husband unraveled the mystery. Her parents had traveled to Philadelphia for artificial insemination; an anonymous sperm donor was Shapiro’s biological father. The DNA results and some internet sleuthing allowed Shapiro and her husband to track down the identity of her father, a now-retired physician who specialized in, of all things, medical ethics.
“All my life I had known there was a secret. What I hadn’t known: the secret was me,” Shapiro writes in her mesmerizing account of that revelation and its aftermath, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love.
“You can’t make this stuff up; I could never write this in a novel.” Shapiro says. She also explains that there was no way she could’ve made sense of the experience without writing through it. “Thank God it’s my 10th book. I had a toolbox. I had a set of skills and craft, both as a writer and someone who teaches writing, to be able to shape it and understand that it needed to be shaped. I recognized that it was an astounding story, and I wanted to do it justice.”
Shapiro contacted and eventually met her donor father, Ben, and his family, whose names and identifying details have been changed to preserve their privacy. As a medical student, Ben had donated his sperm at the Farris Institute in Philadelphia, which was operated by Edmond Farris, a renegade scientist who was practicing medicine without a license. Farris mixed Ben’s semen with that of Shapiro’s father—not an uncommon practice at the time. Ben went on with his life, forgetting about the procedure, never imagining a future in which his role could be identified.
As strange as this story is, Shapiro explains that it’s not that uncommon. “There’s no anonymity anymore,” she says. “These stories are happening. They’re just tumbling out. Because of DNA testing, many people are having to reimagine family to some degree. . . . One of the beautiful things about this whole story is that ultimately it’s about people being kind to each other. Doing the right thing by each other. Ben and I have a relationship for which there is no playbook. He doesn’t feel like he’s my father. I don’t imagine that I feel to him like I’m his daughter. And yet we do share a very powerful bond.”
The question that haunts Shapiro is how much her parents knew. “To me, the story is not about what happened,” she says. “The much richer part is about what’s underneath all that—the lies, what did my parents go through, what they know, our shared lives together, what was the truth of that? Everything thrumming underneath was what I wanted to really be the heart and soul of the story.”
Shapiro recognizes that she’ll never have definitive answers to these questions, but she does have some ideas. She characterizes her mother as “not entirely mentally well” and “capable of bending reality to her will.” She concludes, “I think she decided from the moment that she was pregnant that I was my father’s child and that was that. I believe she would have passed a polygraph.” As for her father, to whom she dedicates the book, Shapiro believes that he may have thought he was her biological father during his wife’s pregnancy but thinks he undoubtedly realized the truth over the years.
“I don’t think he cared,” she says. “I know he loved me, but I think that was part of the knowledge that he carried around.”
So far, she hasn’t uncovered any additional half-siblings besides the children of Ben and his wife. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if there are a few out there,” she admits.
Might Inheritance help turn some up?
“I think a lot of people, when they hear the story, will immediately go order a DNA kit,” Shapiro acknowledges. Noting that unlike her, most people make “fairly benign discoveries” with such kits, but the author cautions, “It’s powerful stuff. You have to decide whether you’re open to the potential of a big surprise.”
Author photo by Michael Maren.