Beyond Fixed Boundaries
In “Inheritance,” Dani Shapiro investigates a surprising lineage.
BY CATHERINE JOHNSON
FOR MOST of her life, Dani Shapiro had a clear understanding of where she came from. In previous memoirs she has grappled with the deaths of her parents, the life-threatening disease of her son as an infant—significant events that are likely to raise existential questions for anyone. But her family’s past was never in question. She was the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish father with a rich cultural heritage of which she was proud. Not only proud, but one might say, attached, even obsessed. She writes, “These ancestors are the foundation upon which I have built my life. I have dreamt of them, wrestled with them, longed for them. I have tried to understand them. In my writing, they have been my territory—my obsession, you might even say. They are the tangled roots—thick, rich, and dark—that bind me to the turning earth.” In short, her sense of Jewish belonging was a defining, critical component of what made her, her.
Then, one evening as she and her husband are preparing to leave town, they receive the results of a DNA test with shocking results: Shapiro is not related to her half-sister; therefore, she is not her father’s daughter. What follows, in Shapiro’s fifth memoir, is her resulting quest for self-understanding. Thanks to the internet, part of Shapiro’s journey is relatively short: within thirty-six hours of this discovery—and starting with only the initials of a first cousin listed on her Ancestry.com page—Shapiro and her husband are able to identify and locate the former medical student turned prestigious doctor who donated his sperm fifty-four years prior and was currently enjoying retirement. But the relationship that develops once she contacts her biological father is only part of the story.
Inheritance is less about what we inherit genetically (though Shapiro does dive into the fascinating world of artificial insemination in the 1960s—with its culture of secrecy—as well as epigenetics) and more about how stories of family lineage not only shape notions of identity and what it means to know oneself, but the stability of that identity and knowledge. Shapiro writes, “I woke up one morning and life was as I had always known it to be. There were certain things I thought I could count on...By the time I went to bed that night, my entire history—the life I had lived—had crumbled beneath me, like the buried ruins of an ancient forgotten city.”
Most of us can only imagine how we’d feel in the wake of such information—devastated, to be sure. And Shapiro is certainly entitled to such a reaction. That said, at first it is difficult to empathize with Shapiro as she responds to this revelation with hyperbolic language: “It was a field of grief, a sea of it. There were no edges...I was in a gale. My mind was wild, grasping, seeking solid ground. But there was no solid ground.” Later she continues, “My mind and body seemed to be disconnected. My body wasn’t the body I had believed it to be for fifty-four years. My face wasn’t my face. That’s what it felt like. If my body wasn’t my body and my face wasn’t my face, who was I?” It doesn’t help that she is making sense of her new reality while on vacation, dining on seafood paella and sipping French wine. Shapiro hasn’t actually lost anything, materially, and is fortunate enough to be digesting this information in relative comfort, which can inhibit the reader from fully feeling her pain. As she and her husband head out to a restaurant in San Francisco she asks: “How could I survive this new knowledge that I was made up of my mother and a stranger?”
But even if one is put off by Shapiro’s lack of awareness on this count or doesn’t personally identify with her, Shapiro is a skilled memoirist and still pulls off what memoir does at its best: invite the reader into a personally meaningful experience in a way that is relevant to our own lives. Inheritance confronts the biggest, most difficult philosophical questions in a way that’s salient and engrossing. Eventually, we see her interrogation of the narratives she has used to structure and make sense of her life as a potent invitation for us to do the same. Shapiro successfully illuminates how sometimes not knowing can liberate us a from a rigid idea of self-hood that is ultimately an illusion—that the essence of being human lies beyond fixed boundaries of identity, and that we can alter the way we experience our lives by changing the stories we tell ourselves. At one point, a rabbi friend of hers says: “You can say, ‘This is impossible, terrible.’ Or you can say, ‘This is beautiful, wonderful.’ You can imagine that you’re in exile. Or you can imagine that you have more than one home.” Eventually, Shapiro embraces the latter.
In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes, “Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life.” Inheritance is about how we read our lives given the information—whole or incomplete, true or false—we inherit from our past, and Shapiro is nothing if not a thorough, unflinchingly-curious and honest guide in exploring the most daunting and pressing problems we all face: Who am I? Why am I here? How shall I live?
Catherine Johnson’s work has been published in Oregon Humanities, STORGY, Portland Monthly Magazine, Nowhere Travel Magazine, Elephant Journal, District Lines, and is forthcoming in Scabland Books’ anthology Evergreen: Fairy Tales, Essays & Fables from the Dark Northwest. She blogs at The Bullet and the Butterfly and is a graduate from the MFA program in Nonfiction Creative Writing at Portland State University. Catherine lives and teaches writing in Portland, Oregon.