Inheritance (Shapiro)

Inheritance:  A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love 
Dani Shapiro, 2018
Knopf Doubleday Publishing
272 pp.
ISBN-13:
9781524732714 


Summary
A memoir about the staggering family secret uncovered by a genealogy test: an exploration of the urgent ethical questions surrounding fertility treatments and DNA testing, and a profound inquiry of paternity, identity, and love.

What makes us who we are? What combination of memory, history, biology, experience, and that ineffable thing called the soul defines us?

In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had whimsically submitted her DNA for analysis, Dani Shapiro received the stunning news that her father was not her biological father. She woke up one morning and her entire history—the life she had lived—crumbled beneath her.

Inheritance is a book about secrets—secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love.

It is the story of a woman's urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been scrupulously hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history.

It is a book about the extraordinary moment we live in—a moment in which science and technology have outpaced not only medical ethics but also the capacities of the human heart to contend with the consequences of what we discover. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—April 10, 1962
Where—New York, New York, USA
Education— B.A., M.F.A., Sarah Lawrence College
Currently—lives in Bethlehem, Connecticut


Dani Shapiro is the author of the memoirs Inheritance (2019) Hourglass (2017), Still Writing (2013), Devotion (2010), and Slow Motion (1998). She has also the author of several novels, including Black & White (2007) and Family History (2004).

Shapiro's short fiction, essays, and journalistic pieces have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, Vogue, Oprah Magazine, New York Times Book Review, the op-ed pages of the New York Times, and many other publications.

She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, the New School, and Wesleyan University; she is cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. In 1997 she married screenwriter Michael Maren. They have one child and live in Litchfield County (Bethlehem), Connecticut. (From the publisher.)


Book Reviews
(Starred Review) Fascinating…. With thoughtful candor, [Shapiro] explores the ethical questions surrounding sperm donation, the consequences of DNA testing…. This beautifully written, thought-provoking genealogical mystery will captivate readers from the very first pages.
Publishers Weekly


Shapiro surprises us again with her latest meditation. [Through DNA, she] discovered that her father was not her biological father. What results is an exploration of family secrets, a painful rebuilding of her sense of self, and an understanding of how we manage whatever life tosses our way.
Library Journal


(Starred Review) Page after page, Shapiro displays a disarming honesty and an acute desire to know the unknowable.
Booklist


(Starred Review) [A]n origin story that puts everything [Shapiro] previously believed and wrote about herself in fresh perspective.… For all the trauma…, Shapiro recognizes that what she had experienced was "a great story"—one that has inspired her best book.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. The title of this book is Inheritance. What does it mean, in the context of the memoir?

2. Shapiro chose two quotes for her epigraph, one from Sylvia Plath and the other from George Orwell. What do they mean individually, and how does each affect your understanding of the other?

3. "You’re still you," Shapiro reminds herself. What does she mean by this?

4. Much of Shapiro’s understanding of herself comes from what she believes to be her lineage. "These ancestors are the foundation upon which I have built my life," she says on page 12. Would Shapiro feel so strongly if her father’s ancestors weren’t so illustrious? How does Shapiro’s understanding of lineage change over the course of the book?

5. Judaism is passed on from mother to child—the father’s religion holds no importance. So why does Shapiro’s sense of her own Jewishness rely so much on her father?

6. Chapter 7 opens with a discussion of the nature of identity. "What combination of memory, history, imagination, experience, subjectivity, genetic substance, and that ineffable thing called the soul makes us who we are?" Shapiro writes on page 27. What do you believe makes you, you?

7. Shapiro follows that passage with another provocative question: "Is who we are the same as who we believe ourselves to be?" What’s your opinion?

8. Identity is one major theme of the book. Another is the corrosive power of secrets. On page 35, Shapiro writes, "All my life I had known there was a secret. What I hadn’t known: the secret was me." What might have changed if Shapiro had known her origins growing up?

9. On page 43, Shapiro quotes a Delmore Schwartz poem. What does this mean? Why is it significant to Shapiro?

What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day;
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.

10. Throughout the memoir, Shapiro uses literary extracts to illuminate what she feels or thinks—poems by Schwartz and Jane Kenyon, passages from Moby Dick and a novel by Thomas Mann. How does this help your understanding?

11. All her life, people had been telling Shapiro she didn’t look Jewish. If this hadn’t been part of her life already, how do you think she might have reacted to the news from her DNA test?

12. After Shapiro located her biological father, she emailed him almost immediately—against the advice of her friend, a genealogy expert. What do you imagine you would have done?

13. Why was it so important to Shapiro to believe that her parents hadn’t known the truth about her conception?

14. Her discovery leads Shapiro to reconsider her memories of her parents: "Her unsteady gaze, her wide, practiced smile. Her self-consciousness, the way every word seemed rehearsed. His stooped shoulders, the downward turn of his mouth. The way he was never quite present. Her rage. His sorrow. Her brittleness. His fragility. Their screaming fights." (page 100)

15. On page 107, when discussing her father’s marriage to Dorothy, Rabbi Lookstein tells Shapiro, "We thought your father was a hero." Shapiro comes back to her father’s decision to go through with the marriage several times in the book. Why?

16. At her aunt Shirley’s house, Shapiro sees a laminated newspaper clipping about the poem recited in a Chevy ad. (page 133) Why does Shapiro include this detail in the book? What is its significance?

17. On page 188, Shapiro writes, "In time, I will question how it could be possible that Ben—a man of medicine, who specialized in medical ethics—had never considered that he might have biological children." How do you explain that?

18. How does Shapiro’s experience with contemporary reproductive medicine affect the way she judges her parents? What do you imagine future generations will say about our current approach to artificial insemination?

19. What do you make of the similarities between Shapiro and her half sister Emily?

20. On page 226, Shapiro brings up a psychoanalytic phrase, "unthought known." How does this apply to her story?

21. What prompts Shapiro to legally change her first name?

22. Shapiro ends her book with a meditation on the Hebrew word hineni, "Here I am." Why is this phrase so powerful?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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