Shocking truths

Dani Shapiro’s memoir reveals the disturbing discovery she stumbled into after taking a DNA test

THE RESULTS of Dani Shapiro’s DNA test helped answer the question that had dogged her all her life: ‘You don’t look Jewish.’ (Rick Nease/TNS) (photo credit: RICK NEASE/TNS)
THE RESULTS of Dani Shapiro’s DNA test helped answer the question that had dogged her all her life: ‘You don’t look Jewish.’ (Rick Nease/TNS)
(photo credit: RICK NEASE/TNS)
Dani Shapiro was brought up in a close-knit, loving Jewish family. Her father, Paul, who died in a car accident when she was 23, had been Orthodox and observant and was the greatest influence in her early life.
She went to synagogue with him every Shabbat, she belted out the Birkat Hamazon after every Shabbat meal, went to a yeshiva and spoke flawless Hebrew. Then, age 54, successful as a writer and happily married, her assured, settled existence was suddenly turned upside down by a discovery so traumatic that it shook her to the very core.
In Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love, Shapiro recounts this shattering experience and the effect it had on her life.
One day her husband, Michael, curious about his ancestral roots, decided to send off for a DNA test, and she agreed to be tested, too. When her results came through, they showed, to her amazement, that she was only 52% East European Ashkenazi. In other words, she was only half-Jewish. When she compared her results with those of the person she believed to be her half-sister, Susie, it became clear that the man who had loved and cherished Dani throughout her childhood was not her father at all.
In one sense, the shocking discovery explained one factor that had dogged her throughout her life. Her physical appearance, her features, her blonde hair and blue eyes had always had people saying to her, “You don’t look Jewish.” Now began a long and often painful quest to discover the truth about her origins.
By following a clue in her DNA results, and with a little luck, Shapiro identified her biological father fairly quickly. At the time of her conception he had been a medical student who, to earn a little spare cash, had been donating sperm to an artificial insemination program.
This discovery opened up a whole new series of revelations. Shapiro’s parents, desperate for a child, had sought out a doctor specializing in infertility. The failure to conceive had been identified as a problem in her father, and some medics administering artificial insemination at that time mixed semen from more than one donor.
Believing her Orthodox father would never have agreed to such a procedure, Shapiro sought the opinion of a respected Orthodox rabbi. He assured her that even if her parents had known what the procedure entailed, her father was to be highly praised. He had wanted her mother to bear a child, and he had fulfilled the mitzvah of pru u’rvu – to be fruitful and multiply. And, the rabbi pointed out, there was no harm done since, being born to a Jewish mother, Shapiro herself was Jewish, and so was her own son.
UNCOMFORTED BY this view, and subject to overwhelming and conflicting emotions, Shapiro tried to make contact with her biological father, but he rebuffed her advances. She decided she had to tell her son, Jacob, the truth as she knew it. He took it calmly, for he had never known his grandfather. What excited him was the thought that he was not harboring the baldness gene that ran in her father’s family.
Coming to terms with the events that had profoundly shaped her life was a slow process, but Shapiro came to realize that if what she had uncovered had not taken place, neither she nor her beloved son Jacob would exist. She sought out her much-loved aunt, her father’s sister Shirley, and told her all she had discovered. In a long heart-to-heart, the wisdom of her 90-year-old aunt cast a new light on all she had unearthed.
“You’re more of a daughter to Paul than you can possibly imagine,” Shirley told her. “Ultimately, in all of this, Dani – the postscript is that it’s really called love.”
Some time afterward, Shapiro learned from a fertility specialist that the Dr. Farris her parents had sought out had been operating outside the law and without a license. Her parents, the specialist told her, would have been informed that he was treating her father’s low sperm count, but her father would never have known that another man’s sperm had been mixed with his own.
But was that the case? Later, Shapiro discovered a note from her father to her mother written on the day she was born that could be interpreted in another way. Her conception might have been his white lie to her mother. Then one final discovery – a note from Shapiro’s mother a few months before she died.
“Dr. Farris,” she wrote, “was he without whom there probably wouldn’t have been thee.” Did that blow the white-lie theory away?
Some time later, Shapiro’s biological father agreed to a meeting. It was to be the start of a deep friendship between the two families, for Shapiro discovered she had a biological half-sister, and they grew close.
In this intimate and heartfelt account, Shapiro reveals how her initial trauma at discovering she had no biological connection with the man she knew as her father slowly faded. She shows how her aunt’s words came to express the real truth for her: “You’re more of a daughter to Paul than you can possibly imagine.”
Dani Shapiro may have been cut from the same cloth as her biological father but, she came to believe, she was and always would be Paul Shapiro’s daughter.
By Dani Shapiro
272 pages; $24.95