“What’s fascinated me from the time I was a little kid was the way we construct our lives through stories.”Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Who are you? I suspect we all have a basic sense of who we are. I’m a 52-year-old husband and father, born in New York but raised in California, a sports fan, a writer, a liberal, an atheist. I’m Ashkenazi Jew on both sides of my family tree going back as far as the historical record. This is the “story” I tell myself and others about me. But what if one day you found out that a huge piece of your story was based on a lie?
Author Dani Shapiro thought she knew her story as well, until one day the results of an Ancestry.com DNA test she took “on a whim” came back with a shocking result. She was not genetically related to her father (the only father she ever knew). Shapiro’s world was turned upside down and her story changed in an instant. As a writer who specializes in memoirs, she handled this life event in the only way she knew how — she wrote a book about the experience. The result is Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love (Knopf ( 2019).
I’m not going to ruin the book for you with spoilers, but suffice it to say the memoir reads like a mystery novel and it’s beautifully written. I didn’t know Shapiro’s work prior to reading Inheritance, but I was really blown away by how she weaves this story and by how she lays herself bare in the process. It’s clear she was devastated by the results of the DNA test, but that doesn’t stop her from taking the reader along for the whole intimate ride. At each turn of the narrative she delves deeply into her psyche as she starts to put the pieces of the story — her new story — together like a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Truthfully, it’s a brave retelling given how much of herself she lost along the way.
It’s interesting to think about the simple, almost matter-of-fact decision that led to the unraveling of Shapiro’s sense of herself. Her husband purchased a DNA test for each of them (even though she was not overly keen on the idea) and then decided to compare her results to those of her half-sister. Maybe she subconsciously knew her results would provide a surprise, especially given that as we learn in the book she had always felt a nagging feeling that she didn’t quite fit. There were little moments in her life that, on reflection, gave her pause about her deep Jewish roots. Plenty of people told her she didn’t “look” Jewish.
In 2003 when the Human Genome Project was completed, I suppose even the scientists involved couldn’t have imagined less than than two decades later people all over the world could spit in a test tube and for a hundred bucks or so get their entire genome mapped and categorized. Genetic sequencing has become an integral part of medical science and disease diagnosis and treatment, and it has applications in law enforcement, paternity testing, and of course ancestry research. With these advances have come a host of ethical issues, not the least of which involves privacy, and perhaps mankind has been slow to put sufficient guidelines around those ethical issues. Of course, when you agree to take a DNA test for ancestry research you agree to see the results no matter what news the results may bring. The internet is full of stories like Shapiro’s.
Ever since I almost died from a heart attack in 2011 I’ve been obsessed with ancestry and genetic detective work. My interest in genealogy has not been driven by my medical condition, but rather by a desire to know who I am and where I come from in order to pass my story on to future generations (especially my son). I was able to get my DNA sequenced as part of a heart study at the University of Michigan and in return for allowing them to use my DNA for their study I received a summary of my results. No surprises for me: I’m 65 percent Eastern European and 34 percent West Asian and North African. My people come from the area around the Black Sea and likely migrated up from the Middle East and Northern Africa. A classic story of Jewish diaspora.
But while reading Inheritance I found myself wondering what it’d be like if my DNA test had come back with a surprising result. I watch a lot of ancestry shows like Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates and Who Do You Think You Are? and people get surprised all the time. Hell, last season on Finding Your Roots, white actor Ty Burrell discovered he is part African American and African American radio host Joe Madison found out he was part white! Talk about changing your perception of self?
Of course, I knew I was genetically related to my parents. All you have to do is look at us to see that. Still, what if I found out a few branches back we were not Ashkenazi but rather something altogether different? You can imagine that kind of genealogy discovery would change who you are, let alone finding out you weren’t related to your father like Shapiro uncovered. And to find this out in your 50s, after both your parents had died, would make it even more hard to handle.
For Shapiro, a big part of her identity was tied to her upbringing as an orthodox Jew. So many of her childhood memories were tied to that Jewish culture, especially the times she spent with her devout father. And then to find out she’s not even related to her father? That’s she’s Jewish, but only on her mother’s side? She moved on from her religious upbringing, but it was still part of her identity — her story.
The book really made me think about story and how we identify. You know where you’ll find your story in its most basic form? Your Twitter profile! Mine says: “Husband, Dad, Desert Dweller, Sports Fanatic, Survivor.” Shapiro’s declares: “Novelist, memoirist, essayist, teacher, wife, mom.”
What’s your story?