Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love” by Dani Shapiro. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2019, 250 pages, $24.95, Kindle $12.

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro is a middle-aged professional writer with a slight interest in genealogy when she submits a DNA test kit for laboratory testing in 2016. As an Orthodox Jew, she’s not surprised when the results show 52 percent Eastern European Ashkenazi heritage. What rocks her world is the 48 percent English and western European ancestry that she can’t explain.

Both Dani’s parents are dead and her much older half-sister from her father’s first marriage doesn’t show significant chromosomal similarity in their genetics.  This lack of shared genetic material causes Dani to go on an odyssey that yields long buried secrets about her family history.

As a child and into adulthood, Dani is fair-haired and delicate featured in contrast with brunette contemporaries in her Jewish community.  She remembers receiving several questions from others about her appearance being unusual for her purported background.

After the shocking DNA result, Dani’s husband does some amateur sleuthing on a national DNA genealogy database and reveals a biological cousin with no known connection to her family tree. After exploring the cousin’s background with some advanced internet searching, Dani figures out that her recognized father is probably not her biological father and that the biological father may be living and someone she can trace.

Some twenty years earlier, Dani’s dad died in a serious car accident and her mother makes passing reference at that point to being treated by a fertility doctor in Philadelphia in order to get pregnant.  With her mother now dead as well, Dani tries to piece together her actual paternity. There are few older relatives to ask and so Dani seeks to contact a physician related to her cousin match in the DNA database and to research the fertility clinic. She reasons that medical students were often sperm donors for insemination and she’s able to pinpoint a certain retired doctor as her probable biological father.

What transpires is that as her parents became more and more desperate to conceive, they used the services of a non-licensed fertility doctor who used medical students as donors and a sperm-washing technique to boost chances of conception.  Much of Dani’s inquiry focuses on whether this technique was known to her parents and how it would have conflicted with their Orthodox religion. Did they know or suspect that her father was not the biological parent because of this process or did the chances of a healthy infant blind them to any moral or religious qualms?

Dani eventually arranges a face-to-face meeting with her biological father and tries to make peace with her new-found heredity and fit it into her world view. Her journey yields new insights on kinship, belonging, identity, and how biology impacts our sense of self.

Lisa Kobrin is the Reference Librarian at May Memorial Library. She can be reached at