Book Review: Not her father

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Spitting into a small plastic vial: Dani Shapiro had no idea this simple action was going to radically change her world. That’s because the results of her DNA test were shocking: Shapiro learns her beloved father – the man who shaped her life – is not her birth father. In “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love” (Alfred A. Knopf), the author describes her reaction to the discovery and contemplates the meaning of family.
Shapiro, who has written about her parents in prior memoirs (only one of which I’ve read), has previously analyzed her life and family history in intricate detail. This is partly because she always felt there was something she didn’t know – something that was hidden. Now the author realizes she was the secret, or at least, the history of her birth was. But, since both her parents are dead, she has to discover the story of what happened through research and Internet searches. The only clue she has is a vague statement from her mother about how the author’s conception took place in Philadelphia, rather than New York where they lived.
It’s surprising how quickly Shapiro manages to discover the details of her conception, which took place in a controversial fertility clinic in Philadelphia. The result of the DNA test also leads her to a cousin she has never heard of and, through exploration on the Internet, she quickly finds a man she believes is her birth father. After reading his website and watching his family’s videos on Youtube, she is amazed by their physical resemblance and shared mannerisms. She immediately sends him an e-mail – explaining their connections and directing him to her own website so he can see that she’s not a stalker. Over the course of the memoir, readers learn the result of that communication. 
Part of the reason Shapiro is so shaken to discover her father is not her birth father is that she intensely disliked her mother, going as far as to define her as having a “Narcissistic personality disorder. Borderline.” Shapiro notes that she spent years trying to overcome the disadvantages of having that woman as a mother by reading both serious psychology books and self-help works. Yet, through it all, one thing stood out: “My single best defense [against her mother] had always been that I was my father’s daughter. I was more my father’s daughter. I had somehow convinced myself that I was only my father’s daughter.” 
This acknowledgment of only one side of her family becomes clear when she discusses her parents and their marriage. The only ancestors she writes about are those on her father’s side. While both parents played a role in their unhappy marriage, the author clearly feels more for her father than she does for her mother. Although she does acknowledge how much her mother must have wanted a child, she still seems to feel little sympathy for her. In fact, Shapiro’s idea that only her father’s DNA matters means she worries his family – which she no longer seems to think of as her own – will reject her. The idea that her father wanted and loved her – and was a true father even if they didn’t share DNA – doesn’t occur to her for a good portion of the book.
Also problematic is her relationship to the Judaism she no longer practices. The Shapiro family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue and were observant in their home. The author’s schooling took place in an Orthodox environment. However, she now seems to feel that her Judaism isn’t real because the man who raised her was not her birth father. Yet, her mother was Jewish, a secular Jew who promised to practice Orthodoxy after her marriage. Shapiro’s feelings are also complicated by the fact people have told her she doesn’t look Jewish. Some even went as far as to suggest she couldn’t possibly be Jewish. She now allows this to affect her connection to Judaism and the religion of her birth father. 
While it’s understandable that Shapiro was upset by what she learned, there is a sense of hysteria throughout her memoir. She notes that she wrote about these events as they was happening, which means that she hasn’t had time to completely absorb what occurred. Fortunately, she does come to some clarity by the end of her work. “Inheritance” is filled with ethical topics, which would make it perfect for book clubs discussions. It may also make readers think twice about getting their DNA tested.