This post contains spoilers for Dani Shapiro’s memoir Inheritance.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Leo Tolstoy
My father filled my childhood with music. An accomplished guitar player, he performed during church worship services and parties, led his brothers in singing around campfires, provided an instrumental constant throughout evenings at home. His large hands—almost a foot long from wrist to pointer finger—would stretch or tuck when chording, pluck or bang or strum the strings. He could play softly but in singing he belted. Sunday morning was performance day. Audiences served as fuel keeping him aflame, and no one played that part more consistently than his family. His music could carry the coziness of a fireplace or the thrill of a bonfire
I recently read Dani Shapiro’s memoir Inheritance and found myself having an odd reaction to it. A fair child in an Orthodox Jewish family, Shapiro discovers through the accessibility of DNA testing that she is not the biological offspring of her father. Rather, her parents turned to artificial insemination when they had trouble conceiving. With her parents deceased, the middle-aged Shapiro finds her donor—a doctor who had been a medical student when he made the contribution that led to her conception—and reckons with the reality that her beloved, troubled father was not really her father.
Shapiro writes eloquently about this emotional journey and the denial, horror, sadness, and sense of being unmoored that she feels. But I found myself feeling befuddled, “What’s the big deal? Don’t we all know now that sperm does not a parent make?”
My teen years marked not only my transition into adulthood—awkward for all of us—but also the slow collapse of my nuclear family. I must have sensed the precarity even then, but I chocked my emotions and reactions up to all that I’d read about being a teenage. I accepted the idea that here was merely another financial hiccup, rather than the end of my mother’s robustness and the decline of my father’s pretense of devoted family man. I believed my mother when she said Christians didn’t get divorced, that my parents loved each other, that they were only taking a break. And I celebrated when they both started college—first her, then him. Grant money meant that we could pay rent and bills, as well as tuition, and degrees on the horizon carried the as-yet-to-be-experienced promise of job security. I didn’t see then how much my father wanted, perhaps needed, constant stoking from new and different acolytes to keep his flame alive.
In Inheritance, Shapiro realizes she’s been circling around this family secret her whole life. By her account her earlier memoirs obsessed over her need to belong with and understand her parents and the feeling that she never fit in with her large, history-rich Jewish family. Shapiro’s parents did not intend to hurt her. They merely followed the best advice at the time, which stated that children never need know (nor did anyone else in the family) and parents ought to embrace the possibility that their child may be theirs, biologically. The book gives the sense that such secrets corrode the heart of families, that they will eventually create a hole that can no longer contain the ooze within. She learns about a whole network of donor offspring—now legion thanks to the accessibility of DNA testing—and the lossconfusionangeruncertainty they feel. Shapiro herself discovers her biological father with only modest effort, finding a man with her eyes, coloring, and hand gestures when speaking. It’s trippy. It’s profound.
During my teens and early adulthood I tried to connect with my father by embracing what he embraced. I became obsessed with The Beatles, his favorite band. I tried my hand at writing fiction and playing guitar. My high school boyfriend, much like my father, was musical and artistic, funny and self-involved in the puppy-ish way of many affluent, able-bodied, white males. In college I majored in English, mirroring both him and her. I inherited their copies of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, bearing their annotations and highlights from only a couple of years before. I entered adulthood, they moved into a new state, new house, new job, and seemingly a new lease on life. And then he left us, taking away his insatiable appetite for attention and his warmth at the same time.
My father stacked dynamite around our family and lit the fuse. He watched, unmoved, as my brothers and sisters cried. He did not hug them or give them words of comfort. He refused even to call me, his eldest, and tell me what he was doing. No explanations. No apologies. Instead, the explosion and the long, slow burn of his resentment, feeding himself stick after stick of hurt feelings and perceptions of unfair treatment and disrespect, shutting himself away in a conflagration of his own making.
In response, I erupted into my own firey rage. I attempted to use this flame to put a wall of protection around my mother and siblings but rage, and life, don’t work like that. I also used this anger to stifle and ignore other emotions: hurt, grief, subsumed under the crackle of fury.
As Shapiro connects the dots between her parents and her donor, her childhood disconnection and her adult confusion, she worries about how the news will affect her teenage son. Like most people, she went out of her way to parent differently than had her parents. And yet she still worked to connect her son to his Jewish heritage, to the long line of belief and tradition that carried her father’s people from one diaspora to another. She agonizes over how her son will take the news that he is not, in fact, his grandfather’s grandson, only to realize that her son does not hold the same connection to this man, who he never met, that she does. His experience is not hers, and that’s both comforting and saddening.
I am on the phone with my father. I called him, part of my attempt to set aside complicated feelings and have an adult relationship with him. I hear about my half-sibling, the product of my father’s second marriage, and her trouble at school. I hear about the never-satisfied tenants at the apartment building he manages and what he did to repair a tricky light socket. I hear about his garden and how it was doing poorly but then he put fertilizer on it and now he’s drowning in tomatoes. An hour goes by and he has not asked me one question about myself or let me get in more than an affirming word or sound. He is a fire sucking away all of the oxygen. I am tired of only ever being fuel.
My own fire has declined into embers, still hot and capable of sparking but no longer constant.
In reading Inheritance I experienced another incongruous emotion: jealousy. Shapiro received an answer to the question of her parents and the chance to reformulate the story of herself. What wouldn’t I give for an answer to my own father and even a chance to reformulate myself without him? This reaction says everything about me, and nothing about Shapiro whose experience overturned her life, even though it was ultimately valuable. I cannot reform myself without him but I can remove myself from him. Detaching myself from the hope that things could be different remains harder.
In the end, I can only do what I so often do and turn to literature to understand the world, others, and myself. This inheritance comes from my mother, who escaped into books and also passed on her love for literature to me. And so I lean on James Baldwin, if he will forgive me for repurposing his metaphor of America onto my own life as well: “The time has come for us to grow up. A [person] grows up when [she] looks back, realizes what has happened to [her], accepts it all, and begins to change [herself]. [She] cannot grow up until [she] reaches this moment and passes it.” We are never not our parents’ children but at some point we—I— also have to understand and be responsible for ourselves.