Inheritance

Inheritance.jpg

 

“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

She wanted to decode her beautiful, quirky genome

…we are each of us temporary depositories of information that has an almost eternal life, and which is passed on and on and on…           Lone Frank, My Beautiful Genome

Staring at the luminous model of the strand of DNA on my computer screen, a sculpture of great beauty, perfect function, and masterful design, I wondered. Who is the designer? And is this a question that even makes sense?

I say perfect function but, when it isn’t perfect, there can be disease, pain, suffering. Or simply quirkiness that doesn’t amount to much, just makes you a little different – a bit of rheumatism in your right big toe, for example, so you can’t wear high heels.

My medical librarian colleagues and I were learning how to search the data generated from the Human Genome Project and other ongoing genetics-based research. Our instructor, a bioinformatics librarian with a PH.D. in molecular biology and years of research under her belt, showed us how to look up the gene associated with cystic fibrosis in humans. We found a map of the gene’s location on a specific chromosome and links to places where you can order a clone of the DNA for research.

And over the course of the two-day class, our instructor, who is also a storyteller, told us the tale of research into the human genome, the explosion of data that’s resulted in a very short time, and how far we’ve yet to go.

My Beautiful Genome book coverA few months later, I discovered Lone Frank’s My Beautiful Genome: Exposing Our Genetic Future, One Quirk at a Time and added it to my reading list. Over the next weeks, I’ll be reading and discussing it on Books Can Save a Life as I decide whether or not to explore my own beautiful, quirky genome. I’m reasonably certain I will explore my genome unless I’m persuaded otherwise. It’s not a matter of if, but when. There is so much turmoil and confusion surrounding consumer-based genetic testing, I may wait until things settle down a bit.

The lure of this kind of knowledge – the secret of my own, one-of-a-kind, unlike-no-other-in-the-history-of-the-world genetic makeup – is something I don’t think I can resist for long, though.

As with everyone else, it’s personal.

My genetic make-up was of special concern years ago when my husband and I were deciding whether to have children. We’d gone to a genetic counselor to find out the chances of our children inheriting my mother’s schizophrenia. Fortunately, they were quite low. The counselor could tell us this by simply taking a family history and looking at the heritability data of the grandchildren of people with schizophrenia.

More recently, I was curious to know what the Human Genome Project and other research has revealed about the heritability of schizophrenia, and what a look at my signature genome might tell me. I’ll be exploring that, among other things, as I make my way through My Beautiful Genome.

Possessing this kind of personal genetic knowledge will become commonplace, I believe, and learning how to live with it ethically, in a way that will benefit humanity, will be one of the great adventures of our time.

Do you think we’re overreaching, like the mythic Prometheus? Wanting to know more than is good for us and we can responsibly handle? Please comment if you have thoughts about this.

Mindfulness Meditation

In My Beautiful Genome, Lone Frank talks about how everything we perceive is filtered through our brains, which are influenced by our genes, and how our behavior may be genetically determined. I just happen to be starting a mindfulness meditation class that will take place over the next several weeks. It will be my second time through this type of meditation instruction, a refresher that will bolster the meditation practice I began five years ago. So, while I read My Beautiful Genome,  I’ll also be highlighting some of my favorite books about meditation. If you’ve tried meditation yourself or have a practice, please join in the discussion.

Quote from My Beautiful Genome: Exposing Our Genetic Future, One Quirk at a Time, by Lone Frank, Oneworld Publications, 2011.

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