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Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro

What makes us who we are?

What combination of memory, history, biology, experience, and that ineffable thing called the soul defines us?

     In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had whimsically submitted her DNA for analysis, Dani Shapiro received the stunning news that her father was not her biological father. She woke up one morning and her entire history–the life she had lived–crumbled beneath her.
Inheritance is a book about secrets–secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love. It is the story of a woman’s urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been scrupulously hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history. It is a book about the extraordinary moment we live in–a moment in which science and technology have outpaced not only medical ethics but also the capacities of the human heart to contend with the consequences of what we discover.

Praise for Inheritance:

A Washington Post, Vulture, Bustle, Real Simple, PopSugar, and LitHub Most Anticipated Book of 2019

“Profound… The true drama of Inheritance is not Shapiro’s discovery of her father’s identity but the meaning she makes of it…Shapiro’s account is beautifully written and deeply moving — it brought me to tears more than once.”
—Ruth Franklin, The New York Times Book Review

“Inheritance reads like an emotional detective story…Shapiro is skilled at spinning her personal explorations into narrative gold… Life has handed her rich material. But her books work not just because the situations she writes about are inherently dramatic and relatable. Her prose is clear and often lovely, and her searching questions are unfailingly intelligent… The relevance of Shapiro’s latest memoir extends beyond her own personal experience. Inheritance broaches issues about the moral ramifications of genealogical surprises.”

“Poignant…Origin stories are among the most powerful that exist because they shape people’s identities and anchor them—to a culture, a place and other people. When stories about the past change, Ms. Shapiro argues, so does the future…In losing the genetic connection to the man who raised her, Ms. Shapiro gained new insight into their enduring bond.”
—The Wall Street Journal

“A profound and exquisitely rendered exploration of identity and the true meaning of family.”

“Dani Shapiro can tell this story like no one else could… Smart, psychologically astute and not afraid to tell it like it is.”
—USA Today

“An incredible work of investigation and self-reflection… A thrilling and emotional ride… The story’s beating heart is Shapiro herself… Written with generosity and honesty, Inheritance takes the modern phenomenon of casual DNA testing and builds a deeply personal narrative around it. The result is a vital, necessary read from a talented author.”

“A remarkable, dogged, emotional journey… Inheritance reads like a mystery, unfolding minute by minute and day by day. The reader experiences the grief, surprises and setbacks right along with the author… Shapiro’s book is a wise and thorough examination of how this news affected her. She is a good guide for the bombshells that are yet to explode for so many families.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A fascinating and pertinent look into the murky world of medical ethics, as well as the kind of profound, insightful look into the meaning of love and connection that we’ve come to expect from Shapiro.”

“An introspective mystery.”

“In Inheritance, Shapiro movingly reckons with identity and family secrets.”
—Real Simple

“Fascinating… With thoughtful candor, [Shapiro] explores the ethical questions surrounding sperm donation, the consequences of DNA testing, and the emotional impact of having an uprooted religious and ethnic identity. This beautifully written, thought-provoking genealogical mystery will captivate readers from the very first pages.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“For all the trauma that the discovery put her through, Shapiro recognizes that what she had experienced was ‘a great story’—one that has inspired her best book.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Page after page, Shapiro displays adisarming honesty and an acute desire to know the unknowable.”
—Booklist (starred review)

“Inheritance is Dani Shapiro at her best: a gripping genetic detective story, and a meditation on the meaning of parenthood and family. It raises profound questions about the quandaries and responsibilities engendered by our newfound ability to know what—and whom—we are made of.”
—Jennifer Egan, author of Manhattan Beach

“With Inheritance, Dani Shapiro tells a startling story of origins—their deep reach and their lasting reverberations. This book reads like a beautiful, lived novel, moving and personal and true.”
—Meg Wolitzer, author of The Female Persuasion

“When Dani Shapiro discovers, purely by accident, that the father who raised her was not her biological father, she embarks upon a profound journey of understanding. What is ancestry? What is identity? Inheritance is a compulsively-readable investigation into selfhood that burrows to the heart of what it means to accept, to love, and to belong.”
—Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See

“Inheritance is an extraordinary memoir that speaks to themes as current as today’s headlines and as old as human history. With unflinching curiosity and candor, Dani Shapiro explores the mystery of her own lineage as she questions the notion of lineage itself: What makes a father a father? And how are we shaped by our family lore? This beautifully crafted book is full of wisdom and heart, showing that what we don’t know about our parents may not be as important as what we do.”
—Will Schwalbe, author of Books for Living and The End of Your Life Book Club

“Identity is frail business, and in her searing story, Dani Shapiro makes the most disquieting discovery: that everything, from her lineage, to her father, down to her very own sense of self is an astounding error. How do we live with ourselves after finding we are not who we thought we were? The answer is not disquieting. It is beautiful.”
—Andre Aciman, author of Call Me by Your Name


I shall never get you put together entirely, Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
—Sylvia Plath, “The Colossus”

If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.
—George Orwell, 1984

These great relevant quotes open up and welcome this work.
Curiosity in origin opens up a pandoras box of surprises in this writing.
That box came with the label

What followed with results was a deciphering of her photos of her father, one conscious of their own legacy and recording of it.

And questions and deep insights followed:

“If Susie was not my half sister—no kind of sister—it could mean only one of two things: either my father was not her father or my father was not my father.”

“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.”

“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. I looked at my hand, for example, and I knew it was my hand. My foot was my foot. My face, my face. My history, my history. After all, it’s impossible to know the future, but we can be reasonably sure about the past. 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 a long-forgotten city.”

“All my life I had known there was a secret. What I hadn’t known: the secret was me.”

And so onward she wrestles with the new facts, with parents dead and buried, a dilemma, and only left a few to connect with this new discovery of hers, including the biological father and to try and makes sense of it out all and deciphering her past and what was and could of been and anticipation of a possible reckoning, and her heart at battle with itself with finding ultimately the fundamental answers behind to two questions, who are you? what are you?

A Meditation on identity, truths, family lineage and finding ones self, with a revelation of an emotional journey, rewriting and unearthing histories.
A great injustice researched here, that of ones self, her own identity, her birth parents identity.
She will recall histories with a new keen assuming enquiring eye, unearth the past before the reader and widen ones scope of understanding of ancestry, parents, emotions and behaviours.
Writing here like that of Joan Didion, Anne Dillard, Joyce Carol Oates, and Susan Sontag to name a few.
Great writing, the cadence has you reading on with empathy and great choices in words deciphering chaos to a particular order on the page in the sentence with a word before a period.


“Throughout history, great philosophical minds have grappled with the nature of identity. What makes a person a person? What combination of memory, history, imagination, experience, subjectivity, genetic substance, and that ineffable thing called the soul makes us who we are? Is who we are the same as who we believe ourselves to be? Philosophers, who love nothing more than to argue with one another, do seem to agree that a continued, uninterrupted sense of self, “the indivisible thing which I call myself,” is necessarily implied in a consciousness of our own identity. “The identity of a person is a perfect identity: wherever it is real it admits of no degrees; and it is impossible that a person should be in part the same, and in part different; because a person . . . is not divisible into parts.” This, from early nineteenth-century philosopher Thomas Reid.”

“I squeezed my eyes shut I squeezed my eyes shut against hot tears. This felt like a second death. I was losing him all over again. I had become divisible. In part the same. In part different. A fundamental law of identity—my very sense of self—broken open.”

“What next? I couldn’t imagine what might come next. I am a spinner of narratives, a teller of tales. I have spent my life attempting to make meaning out of random events, to shape stories out of an accretion of senseless, chaotic detail. As a writer and a teacher of writing, this is what I do. What if, I might begin to suggest to a student. How about . . . ? But I had been dealing within the confines of a known world. I am not a fantasist. I have never been particularly drawn to mysteries of the whodunit variety, or to sci-fi. A hint of magic realism interests me, but there are limits to my suspension of disbelief. What never fail to draw me in, however, are secrets. Secrets within families. Secrets we keep out of shame, or self-protectiveness, or denial. Secrets and their corrosive power. Secrets we keep from one another in the name of love.”

“Lines from a Delmore Schwartz poem come to mind: “What am I now that I was then? / May memory restore again and again / The smallest color of the smallest day; / Time is the school in which we learn, /Time is the fire in which we burn.”

“I was the lone pale, blond child in the sea of dark-haired, dark-eyed grandchildren and great-grandchildren—my otherness and difference glaringly evident.”