“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.