Nursing Book Club

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love by Dani Shapiro

DNA testing unearths family secrets

The widespread availability of commercial DNA testing is another modern scientific wonder that we’re already starting to take for granted. It’s become routine: Just spit in a tube, send it away and wait for the report. I’ve done it myself.

Such testing is now so easy and commonplace that we may be caught off-guard by the potentially life-alerting results. What you thought would be a harmless way to learn what countries your ancestors came from might instead reveal that your family’s stories  were just that: stories.

In her new memoir, Inheritance, author Dani Shapiro talks about how an offhand comment by her mother sent her down the rabbit hole, beginning a strange odyssey of genetic testing, lies and family secrets.

Shapiro’s quest began with her mother’s strange remark that Dani “was conceived” in Philadelphia, a city where her parents do not live. It didn’t take long for Shapiro to bring her journalistic skills to bear on the question and discover that she was conceived through artificial insemination, something to which she is sure her Orthodox Jewish father would have only reluctantly agreed.

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I won’t spoil any of the twists and turns of this very bumpy ride, but I will say that along the way, we learn much about DNA, artificial insemination and how modern families conduct themselves.

A Question of Identity

Among her many books, Shapiro counts more than a few memoirs — this is her fifth. The common thread running through all of them is her desire to understand her place in the world and, on a smaller level, her place in her own blended family. This book finally answers some of her lingering questions, like why she is the one blond-haired, blue-eyed Jewish girl in a family with almost universally dark hair and dark eyes.

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For Dani, and I’m sure for many other people, DNA analysis can create as many questions as it answers. If we’re not who we thought we were, then who are we, exactly? If the people we believed to be our family are not our biological kin, then what holds us together? Whom do we trust? Whom do we love?

I found Inheritance fascinating enough to explore Shapiro’s other memoirs. Some may consider her continued self-examination excessive, but I find it intriguing, possibly because I have also discovered some long-held secrets in my own family.

Commercial DNA testing is another reminder that the future doesn’t always wait for us to sort out the ethical implications of our discoveries and innovations. Inheritance doesn’t purport to have the answers, but shows us how unexpectedly profound — and sometimes devastating — those implications can be.

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love by Dani Shapiro (Alfred A. Knopf,  2019)

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, ranging from infants to geriatrics. She enjoys volunteering for medical missions.

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