In 2016, at age 54, Dani Shapiro’s life took quite a turn. On a whim, she sent in a DNA test kit to a genealogy website. As it turned out, her father (or the man she identified as such) was not her biological father. Almost miraculously, some friends were able to use genealogy websites to help her identify and reach out to someone who very likely was. Her biological father was in the twilight of his life, happily married, with kids and grandkids, and never dreamed that he would ever hear from any child resulting from an anonymous sperm donation made when he was a poor medical student at Penn.
Shapiro also learns that she is not biologically related to her half-sister, as she thought she was, and that her biological father was not Jewish. Shapiro was raised an Orthodox Jew, and was taught to take pride in the history of her Eastern European ancestors. To discover she was only half-Jewish was a shock to her foundations, and deeply challenged her sense of self. At the same time, she admits that the discovery helped her come to peace with the feeling that she had never really fit with her family or her community. “I knew in a place beyond thought that I was seeing the truth — the answer to the unanswerable questions I had been exploring all my life.”
Both Shapiro’s parents had died before the DNA test, so Shapiro can’t get to the story at its source. She takes the reader on quite an amazing journey of discovery: she digs up as much as she can about her family and her parents’ relationship, about how she was conceived, about her new identity and how it impacts her faith, and about the evolution of medical ethics. She also pursues a relationship with her biological father and family as compassionately and gently as possible. (No spoilers.) You struggle with her throughout the journey, and of course, you know that there can be no real resolution in the end.
In the end, the book is not so much about the discovery of her true father’s identity, but the meaning that she makes of everything she learns. She slowly comes to accept a new sense of her heritage, seeing her “family” as a construct of memory, history, biology, and experience.
As an amateur genealogy buff, I found this an engaging and thought-provoking read. I have found a few skeletons in the closet as I construct my own family trees, but I can’t imagine making a discovery like Shapiro’s. I admire how she came to grips with this huge family secret, and the fact that had been kept from her for so many years. Shapiro has written several other memoirs before this one, and I look forward to reading them as well.
Review by Roberta Jordan, the Outreach and Instruction Librarian.
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