Bestselling author Dani Shapiro joins Jamie Lee Curtis to discuss excavating family secrets

By Bliss Bowen

When bestselling author Dani Shapiro learned she was not genetically related to her adored father, who died when she was just 23, the news left her understandably thunderstruck. Yet it also confirmed a vague, lifelong sense of otherness. It drove her to question everything she thought she knew about herself and her heritage — and, by extension, bedrock definitions of identity, family and love.

Near the beginning of her newly published book “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love,” she ticks off a list of relatives headed by her paternal grandparents (“pillars of the observant Jewish community both in America and Israel”) and her father, a sad but loving stockbroker to whom she still feels a mystical connection. “I am the tenth and youngest grandchild of Beatrice Shapiro … I am the daughter of their oldest son, Paul,” she writes. “Everything I am, everything I know to be true, begins with these facts.”

“Inheritance” is her eloquent testimony to the canyon separating facts from truth.

The book is launched by the shocking results of a casually taken DNA test that certify she is not her father’s daughter. Psychologically probing and at times raw with nerves, it reads like a genealogical detective story, one that gains dimension from analysis of provocative ethics, privacy and technology issues.

Journalist/screenwriter Michael Maren emerges as leading contender for supportive Husband of the Year as Shapiro hunts for clues to her birth like a reporter cracking a dusty cold case. Locating her biological father proves unnervingly easy. Understanding their connection without betraying the man who raised her is not.

“[He] felt, to me, like my native country. I had never lived in this country. I had never spoken its language or become steeped in its customs. I had no passport or record of citizenship. Still, I had been shaped by my country of origin all my life, suffused with an inchoate longing to know my own land.”

Her biological father and his family turn out to be sympatico and kind. She is the first to uncover their shared DNA; what if other biological offspring (whom she suspects exist) had reached out before her? Would the family still have accepted her? Positioning her thoughtful scrutiny of identity within the larger cultural framework of sociopolitical tribalism feels timely, and illuminates unsettling questions about bonds and divisions like existential chiaroscuro.

It was absurdly easy in our hyper-connected age for Shapiro and Maren to identify the man who held the key to her family mystery. More elusive is the answer to the question of how well we can really know the people we depend on to love us the most. As she considers commitments and choices made, Shapiro cites Hebrew scripture like a guide through isolating darkness even as she questions the legitimacy of her connection to it.

“Inheritance” is threaded with recollections of her father’s granite faith, the tallis he shook from a velvet pouch, and the calming strength he derived from intoning Hebrew liturgy. “As a young girl, I was allowed to sit next to him in shul,” she writes. “Prayer was our secret language, our way of connecting.” No longer observant, she strives to reconcile his religiously observed code of honor with what she initially interprets as grievous sin, querying rabbis, doctors
and scholars.

But it is her 93-year-old Aunt Shirley who gives her peace:

“‘You take something that isn’t your own and you breathe life into it. You create it — and it becomes your creation. You are an agent to help my brother express the finest kind of life.’ …

“She was telling me that she was still my aunt — that my father was still my father. My whole lost family encircled us as we sat in the fading light of her kitchen.”

Her mother, now dead, rises from the page as a status-conscious woman whose lack of warmth and honesty fractured relationships with her husband and daughter. Shapiro candidly acknowledges that “Inheritance” would be a resoundingly different book — one of wish fulfillment — if she had learned it was her mother with whom she shared no genetic connection. Petite and blonde as she is, the author could pass for a yoga-practicing sister of actress Marg Helgenberger; more lightly complected than relatives, throughout her life she recalls reflexively turning intrusive questions into wisecracks. Never did she respond with serious curiosity. (“The clues screamed in neon,” she writes. “But I could not see them.”)

Some may find that strange, but readers with similar family dynamics will recognize self-protective behavior. Shapiro’s story resonated with this writer because my mother discovered in her fifties that she had been adopted, a fact known to blood relatives, in-laws and church community but not to us — an 8.5 emotional earthquake whose aftershocks still disturb family ground. It is a surreal circumstance in which nothing changes, yet everything does. Every family legend, every memory and conversation is now perceived through that filter. With “Inheritance,” Shapiro confronts similarly irreconcilable fragments, and creates something whole.

Dani Shapiro discusses “Inheritance” with Jamie Lee Curtis at 3 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 17) at Diesel Bookstore’s lower outdoor courtyard, 225 26th St., Santa Monica. Free admission. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit dieselbookstore.com.

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