Saturday, March 25, 2023 Mar 25, 2023
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At the DMA, Author Dani Shapiro Discusses the DNA Test That Changed Her Life

At the age of 56 and after writing four memoirs, Shapiro accidentally discovered a shocking family secret that led her to write a fifth.
By Shelby Hartness |
Michael Maren

It might as well have been a full house when I walked into the Dallas Art Museum Monday night, ten minutes before author Dani Shapiro was set to take the stage at 7:30 p.m. She was in town to discuss her new—and fifth—memoir, Inheritance.

If you haven’t been to an event in the high-ceilinged Horchow Auditorium before, the room possesses an openness that is its own invitation. From a sea of blue velour seats, the audience all seemed to be on the same page: these were loyal readers, most already sitting with a copy of the book on their laps to have signed after the event.

Shapiro was introduced by Sarah Hepola, local author and journalist who once wrote a column for D called “The Smart Blonde,” and who is expecting her own book out from Random House in 2020.

The crowd was instantly attentive and equally hooked when Shapiro took the stage. Just two weeks into her book tour that’s set to last until May, Shapiro described it as one extraordinary journey on top of another.

“I thought I was done with memoir,” said Shapiro. “Then this massive comet of a story with a capital ‘S’ came crashing into my life.”

Future events in the tour will include conversations with fellow respected creators, like actress and children’s book author Jamie Lee Curtis, and acclaimed novelist Sheila Heti (Motherhood).

“When I was a girl,” said Shapiro, reading from the first page of the book. “I would sneak down the hall late at night once my parents were asleep.”

There’s a steady rhythm to her reading, an intimacy in the language that’s almost like its own confession. “It just hums,” as Hepola later pinned it. Her speaking voice matches her writing voice in this way, which is probably why it’s not surprising that her fifth memoir and tenth book charted so quickly on the New York Times best seller list.

“I want to start out with the weird fact of making a life out of writing about your life,” said Hepola. “Then having this happen.”

Shapiro’s whole life, she believed her ancestors were Jews from Eastern Europe, a leading aspect of her identity. Inheritance is rooted in a happenstance discovery that came from a non-decision. She had agreed to partake in an at-home genetic test along with her husband, just because. At 56, she found out her father, who died tragically in a car accident when she was 23, was not her biological father—or Jewish.

But this book wasn’t about catharsis, she told us. It was about the story. Her process was in answering questions like, what makes us, us? And does biological connection matter?

“Growing up it was like this fun fact,” she said. “I was the Orthodox Jew who didn’t look Jewish—the Kodak Christmas poster child.”

She said people would say things like, “Did your mother have an affair with a Swedish milkman?” What she was really being told was, “You’re other.”

People don’t realize that something like what happened to Shapiro can happen to them, but it already has. During the Q&A at the end of the discussion, one audience member asked for advice on whether to follow up with rumors about her father potentially having another child who could be her half-sibling.

“These tests really ought to come with a warning label,” responded Shapiro, empathetically.

Ultimately, that’s what this book shines a light on. The internet has increased access, but does our results-oriented approach forget the potential consequences?

This side effect of discovering unknown familial connections actually isn’t as rare as you might think. Consumer genetic testing kits like the one Shapiro used were one of the most popular holiday gifts last year. MIT reported over 12 million people used kits for DNA testing in 2017, and that number is only rising.

A portion of those people reported NPE, or Not Parent Expected. For example, a parent finds out about a child they didn’t know they had. Or, as in Shapiro’s case, when the presumed parent isn’t a biological match.

So, is all of this new access a good thing? I guess it’s up to you, reader. With Inheritance, Shapiro gives a warning about the unexpected consequences users may face.

Look out for her new podcast, Family Secrets, where she will be continuing this conversation beyond the page. It launches on Valentine’s Day, February 14, anywhere podcasts can be heard.

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