Inheritance

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“Now the details are so clear to me, as if contained in a time capsule: the Hudson River in the darkness; the lights strung across the George Washington Bridge; the even timbre of my mother’s voice; the high plane of her cheekbone. Her long-fingered hands clasped in her lap. Institute. World-famous. Philadelphia.” Inheritance, Dani Shapiro

A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Over the next month or two, I’ll be looking at memoir through the lens of inheritance – genetic, ancestral, cultural, and otherwise. This, as I send off my DNA to be analyzed and journey to my two ancestral homes: Sweden, for the first time; and Sicily, where we’ve traveled as a family on several occasions while raising our sons.

I’m not sure what I’ll find in Sweden – more about that in upcoming posts. As for Sicily, I look forward to seeing my extended family again and their stunningly beautiful landscape, their small city on the sea which has been their ancestral home for centuries, and their warm, embracing culture.

I wanted to begin with Dani Shapiro’s jaw-dropping Inheritance because it is a “big,” important memoir, masterfully executed by a seasoned memoirist and novelist, about an increasingly common situation: more people are having their DNA analyzed, and some are getting huge surprises. Others are having long-held suspicions about maternity or paternity confirmed.

In Dani’s case, she learned that her father, whom she adored, was not her biological father. Which meant that her half sister was not her sister. Her beloved aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents were not her blood relations, either. Their rich, storied Jewish history and culture were not hers. (Or were they? Do true blood ties matter? Or can nurture make up the difference? Dani explores this.)

Some of Dani’s memories are especially resonant and ironic in hindsight:

At a writer’s retreat, when she was young, aspiring, and still unknown, a famous poet, observing her fair-skinned features, commented: “There’s no way you are Jewish. No way.”

At a backyard barbecue in their close-knit, Jewish neighborhood, a friend and Holocaust survivor said to a baffled, eight-year-old Dani: ““We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.”

After a photographic portrait session, three-year-old Dani was selected by Kodak for the Grand Central Station Colorama photo: the iconic, blonde, All-American (non-Jewish) child in front of the Christmas tree waiting eagerly for Santa.

But I found the following memory most haunting of all: it speaks of Dani’s staggering loneliness and bewilderment as an only child who had always had an innate, deeply felt sense she didn’t belong in her own family. Years after it happened, a neighbor recalled how one day Dani ran across the street to her house, frightened and crying. A home security alarm had gone off, and Dani’s babysitter had been apparently indifferent or unconcerned. The neighbor said she later called Dani’s mother, fed up with Dani’s endless string of babysitters and what she saw as parental neglect. I should say here that Dani had a challenging, contentious relationship with her mother who was, to say the least, a difficult woman.

Inheritance is an important memoir for many reasons; among other things, it raises moral and ethical questions that we, as a society, need to confront. I’ve written before about Jaron Lanier’s call for a more humanitarian focus as our culture becomes shaped and influenced in unforeseen ways by advances in technology. As genetic identities become easily obtainable, we’d do well to ask:

At what point does the quest to have children, at all costs, become morally questionable?  (There is something deeply ironic about the profession chosen by Dani’s biological father, whose identity she goes on to discover.)

Is it not the basic human right of every individual to know his or her genetic identity? Is it ever right for that genetic identity to be legally or otherwise withheld?

Dani comes to think of her discovery as a form of trauma:

“Later, I will become a student of trauma. I will read deeply on the subject as a way of understanding the two opposite poles of my own history: the trauma my parents must have experienced in order to have made a decision so painful that it was buried at the moment it was made, and the trauma of my discovery of that decision more than half a century later.

It is the nature of trauma that, when left untreated, it deepens over time. I had experienced trauma over the years and had developed ways of dealing with it. I meditated each morning. I had a decades-long yoga practice. I had suffered other traumas – my parents’ car accident, Jacob’s childhood illness – and had come out the other side, eventually. What I didn’t understand was that as terrible as these were, they were singular incidents….

But this – the discovery that I wasn’t who I had believed myself to be all my life, that my parents had on some level, no matter how subtle, made the choice to keep the truth of my identity from me – this was no singular incident. It wasn’t something outside myself, to be held to the light and examined, and finally understood. It was inseparable from myself. It was myself.

Their trauma became mine – had always been mine. It was my inheritance, my lot.”

Dani Shapiro now has a podcast series, “Family Secrets.”

Memoir, as a genre, is coming into its own, partly because we are finally realizing how silence and secrets can deepen trauma, with impacts on individuals, families, communities, and our larger culture.

Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:

  • The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies, by Megan Griswold. There is something uniquely American and West Coast about this hilarious and deeply honest memoir by a fabulous writer. I’ll be looking at her familial and cultural “inheritance.”
  • My personal stake in memoir, my own writing of memoir, and what aspects of inheritance I’ll be searching for when I travel to Europe.

 

Villa window

Coming up: What I’ll be searching for in Sweden and Sicily

 

Sea, beach, sky

Not far from my Sicilian ancestral home

Why We Write About Ourselves (Excavating a Life)

Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature

Why We Write About Ourselves book coverA few days after I wrote my blog post Why I Write Memoir (one of my most shared and commented on posts ever – many thanks to those of you who did so), I was intrigued to see at our local Barnes & Noble Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran, who is herself a memoirist.

Just published this year, I hadn’t known this was coming. Here’s Meredith’s dedication: “For those who read memoirs and those who write memoirs, and for those who wish we wouldn’t. We’re all just looking for the truth, aren’t we.”

Meredith writes that emotions ran high when she asked the authors, some of our finest memoirists, to share honestly what it was like for them to see a memoir through to publication.

Each memoirist gets his/her own chapter that concludes with a short “Wisdom for Memoir Writers” section.

You’ll find, of course, these writers have strong opinions and distinctive voices, with widely varying opinions about self-exposure, writing about others, truth and accuracy, and other memoir writing land mines.

As I try my hand at memoir writing, I appreciated the moral support, guidance, and encouragement I found here. If you’re writing one I think you will, too. Whatever challenges and blocks you’ve encountered, you can be sure these writers have faced down the same thing.

And if you love to read memoirs, you’ll likely find a few titles and authors you’ll want to check out. No doubt, you’ll be more aware of the behind-the-scenes decisions the memoirist had to make about how to tell her story, which will make your reading experience richer.

Here are some of my favorite memoirist comments:

The Great Santini book coverPat Conroy (The Great Santini): “Some of us are the designated rememberers. That’s why memoir interests us–because we’re the ones who pass on the stories.”

Cheryl Strayed (Wild): “I’m always asking myself if material I have from my own life would be best used in a novel or a memoir or a short story or an essay. I was moved to write Wild as a memoir because I thought that was the best way to tell that particular story.”

Jesmyn Ward (Men We Reaped): “The further I got into the book, the worse it got. Recounting the events when my brother died was so difficult….especially the very big edit I did with the direction of my editor, Kathy Belden, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in relation to writing. I did four drafts, and she was asking me at every point to offer some judgment, some assessment of these events…..I recounted a story about a cellar in the woods. Kathy had a page of notes on the section. She kept telling me to dig deeper, to look at myself in the past, to figure out why that cellar meant something to me…..I finally realized…All the feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness I had at that age were embodied by the cellar. It symbolized all the dark things that happened to me, things I thought I deserved because of the way I thought of myself at that time: as a young black woman in the South.” (Note: Jesmyn won the National Book Award for her novel, Salvage the Bones.)

The Mistress's DaughterA.M. Homes (The Mistress’s Daughter): “There were many points at which I thought, I don’t really want to be doing this. I want to stop. What propelled me to keep going was that I felt I could bring to the memoir my experience and training as a writer–finding language for primitive emotional experiences. One of the things that worked about the book was that it gave voice to people who hadn’t found language for the adoption experience. It allowed them to explore their own experience in a different way, and/or to have their feelings about it articulated and confirmed.”   

(Note: I especially liked Homes’ memoir.)

Dani Shapiro (Three memoirs: Slow Motion, Devotion, and Still Writing) “After I gave my mother the galleys, her therapist called and asked me to meet with her. What can I say? We were all New York Jews. I gave the therapist a set of galleys so she could read it before my mother did. After she read it, she said she didn’t think there was anything that would upset my mother, that it was very fair to her. I had two thoughts: First, that this therapist didn’t know my mother at all, and second, that my mother had been wasting her money for years…

…when people in her life heard that her daughter had written a memoir, they all read it as a way of trying to understand her: her doorman, her lawyer, her dentist, her neighbors. I couldn’t have imagined such a thing happening. It was like she was in The Truman Show. The whole thing was very sad and painful, but not painful enough for me to wish I hadn’t written the book.”

James McBride (The Color of Water“The narrative of the book was as thin and muscled as my life was at that time. You know, with every story you do, you’re trying to shove a lot of things into the keyhole and drag the reader with you. You have to narrow the focus of the story so it has the push of a creek in a narrow spot.”

“You write a memoir for the same reason you write a song–to help someone feel better. You don’t write it to show how smart you are or how dumb they are. You’re trying to share from a sense of humbleness. It’s almost like you’re asking forgiveness of the reader for being so kind as to allow you to indulge yourself at their expense.”

(Note: James McBride won the National Book Award for his novel, The Good Lord Bird.)

Here’s my 2016 list of memoirs to read – who knows how many I’ll get to:

In Other WordsIn Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri

Welcome To the Goddamn Ice Cube, Blair Braverman

A Common Struggle, Patrick J. Kennedy and Stephen Fried

Beautiful Affliction, Lene Fogelberg

The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander

Into Great Silence: A Memory of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas, Eva Salitis

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi

Just Kids; M Train, Patti Smith

Life From Scratch, Sasha MartinWelcome

Shepherd, Richard Gilbert

A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail, Jenna Butler

I would love to know if you have a favorite memoir, one that really spoke to you and that you’d recommend to others.

 

 

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