Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love takes a deep dive into the meaning of family and identity, and how our genealogical heritage shapes who we are. The way we are raised clearly matters, but so does biological inheritance. Shapiro knew and cherished the Jewish culture of the family she grew up with. She only learned about her non-Jewish genetic paternity when, at the age of 50, she took a DNA test.
Dani Shapiro’s book reminds me how powerful language can be. She focuses less on what happens than how it affects her, giving voice to her inner thoughts and feelings. It’s a good reminder for me, as a social scientist preoccupied with documentation of social worlds. Sometimes it’s better to provide fewer details, taking the time to plumb their deeper meanings.
As much as she embraced and was embraced by her family, Shapiro writes about the feeling of not quite fitting in. She would gaze at her father’s face and not see herself reflected in his dark hair, eyes, and complexion. Only when she met her blue-eyed, pink-cheeked biological father did she have that moment of recognition. Although she was raised in a household where her Jewish credentials were never in question, her physical appearance made her feel pressured to prove her Jewishness—by reciting Hebrew prayers, by referencing her kosher upbringing.
This isn’t to say that all Jews need to look a certain way. That’s not Shapiro’s point, and it’s not mine. But I do understand the urge to find yourself in the features of your parents.
Through it all, Shapiro never questioned the story of her heritage that was told to her, even when her mother let slip that her parents struggled to conceive and so they sought help for fertility issues. Even when her half-sister told her it was common practice at the time of her conception to mix the sperm of the husband with that of a sperm donor to increase the chances of pregnancy. Even when a poet stared at her and concluded, “You’re not Jewish.” She never doubted her origins, even when she looked in the mirror and saw her own blond hair, blue eyes, and pink and white skin.
What resonates the most strongly with my own experiences is that failure to know, even when you kind of do know. Shapiro’s mother knew how her daughter was conceived. She must have had some idea that her daughter’s biological paternity might be in question, but she nevertheless provided doctors with her husband’s family medical history and worried Dani might have inherited health issues from them. Similar things happened in my family. In fact, I did this kind of thing myself, when for instance I did not even consider my Jewish heritage while researching all the genetic diseases I should watch for while pregnant with my son. I had learned that my grandmother’s family was Jewish when I was in my 20s, but it didn’t really enter my consciousness as an expectant mother in my 30s. That’s how strong my identification was with my mom’s adopted Polish Catholic heritage.
Shapiro refers to the psychoanalytic concept of “unthought known,” experiences that are indescribable in words but that nevertheless influence thoughts and behavior later in life. The concept refers to awareness derived from early, preverbal childhood experiences, so it’s not an exact match to what I’m describing. But certain aspects apply. Even though I “knew” the secret of my mom’s family origin, I chose not to include it in my self-identity. I excluded it from the way I thought about myself, and also how I presented myself to others. I’m sure my mom did the same. She identified as a Catholic Pole and refused her Jewish heritage. She felt offended if anyone ever alluded to it. For her, and I guess for me too, who we were supposed to be was more real than who we actually were, who we actually came from.
Except that growing up, I felt something was hidden. Here my experiences come closer to the psychoanalytic meaning of unthought known. I felt the silences in my family history, and the feeling of displacement they produced. Shapiro’s story is a little different, because she fully embraced the Jewish heritage of her family, confident in her deep roots in that community. So for her, learning that her biological father was not Jewish led to a sense of loss and of disconnection. For me, by contrast, learning about my Jewish family has filled the empty spaces in my own family story. I know who I came from, which helps me know who I am. I’ve been embraced by my complex, heterogeneous extended family.