Dani Shapiro: Family Secrets
Dani Shapiro is the author of the instant New York Times best selling memoir, Inheritance. Her other books include the memoirs Hourglass, Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White andFamily History. Along with teaching writing workshops around the world, Dani has taught at Columbia and New York University, and is the cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. In 2019, Dani launched an original podcast, Family Secrets, a series featuring stories from guests who—like Dani— have uncovered life-altering and long-hidden secrets from their families’ past. She lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.
Dani has written several amazing memoirs including Inheritance: a Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, Devotion: A Memoir, and Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy.
Interested in taking a DNA test? Here’s a list of the best.
CW: Infertility, death of a parent
Kate Bowler: I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. I’m a historian, author, aggressively, fast walker. But lately, in a world that promises endless progress, even now in a pandemic, I realized I just need to be a person. It’s hard to give up on the feeling that the life you want is just out of reach. If only you tried to eat this food, find that relationship, just get the kids graduated or the parents this kind of care. Only then will I feel different. Better. Whole. But that’s not the way this works. When I was 35, I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. And here’s the very fun thing about that. The world loves you better when you are shiny, when you are cheerful, when you still believe that your best life now is right around the corner. I’ve written multiple books on the history of the idea that you can always fix your life. So I’m going to be the one to say it. There are some things we can change and some things we can’t. And it’s OK that life isn’t always getting better. We can have beauty and meaning, community and love, and we will need each other if we’re going to tell the truth. Life is a chronic condition and there’s no cure for being human.
Kate: Who am I? Sometimes we answer that question by describing our roles. I’m a professor, I write books. I’m a person who still visits megachurches with a clipboard or by our relationships. I’m a wife to a strapping Mennonite, Karen and Gerry’s daughter. I’m a mom to a first grader who has strong feelings about attending an all French school. It’s comme ci comme ca, you know, it’s fine. We are known by our traits, he has his mom’s eyes or I can’t shake the Bowler ears. Thanks so much for that one, Dad. Or by our belief systems or places of origin or communities we love, I’m the kind of Canadian who lets you know she is Canadian this quickly into the conversation. Or sometimes we’re even identified by things that happen to us. I’m a chronic cancer experiencer. No, wait, no one wants to say that. But who are we when we can’t answer where we’re from? Who are we when we can’t locate ourselves on family trees or on familiar religious traditions or among genetic traits? How do we live after we thought what was true about our identity is totally upended? Today, I am so thrilled to be able to introduce you to a guest I have wanted to meet for a very long time, Dani Shapiro. Dani is the author of gorgeous best selling memoirs like Hourglass, Devotion, Slow Motion and Inheritance. She teaches writing workshops around the world, which I would like to take. And her podcast, Family Secrets, feature stories from guests who, like Dani, have uncovered life altering and long hidden secrets from their family’s past. Dani, I have been looking forward to this forever. Thank you so much for doing this with me.
Dani Shapiro: Kate, it’s such a thrill to be with you. It really is.
Kate: You came not just from a family, but from a people, and I know that’s a bit of a hard thing to sum up because the word family means so much in this context. It’s I thought maybe we could start with the fact that it’s a story reaching back to a proud history. Could you tell me a little bit about that history?
Dani: Yeah, I love beginning there because, you know, the question of where do we begin? We begin so much further back than we tend to walk around thinking about. I was raised by my mom and dad. My dad was from a long line of Orthodox Jews who were very conscious of their own lineage. They were a family who kept a lot of records, had had some financial success multiple generations back, which was pretty unusual for immigrants. And so there were portraits and photographs and of my grandfather, my great grandfather, my great great great great grandfather, and there were stories and those stories I was really raised on. And this was, you know, a family that had made good and a family that had done good. And I was. The youngest grandchild of that family, and even though these were relatives and ancestors who I had never really known, somehow it felt that I was deeply connected to them and in some kind of magical way protected by them.
Kate: Your host of saints. Yeah, I like when you refer to that, like you refer to them as sort of like the like the ancestors in the very present and real way. And so it was entirely undramatic for you in so many ways to send off for one of those DNA kits. Right. Where you would like tests your saliva. Is that right? And then it’s supposed to tell you something. But I imagine you didn’t feel like it would tell you very much because you already knew.
Dani: It was so undramatic that when my husband asked me if I wanted to do it, I almost said no. And so undramatic that I completely forgot that I had done it. I thought I knew everything that there was to know. And I I didn’t really have any curiosity because I had what I thought was kind of a treasure trove of information and stories.
Kate: And the results were confusing. I imagine looking at it, you do such a lovely job of explaining the way that the brain slows down in the midst of like a completely life altering moment. It sounded like your brain was trying to process multiple conflicting truths at the same time. This doesn’t make any sense.
Dani: Yeah. I mean, I think there are different kinds of shock. And, you know, in trying to metabolize something as massive as, wait a minute, this information, these breakdowns of ethnicity, these people who are showing up as my closest DNA matches, none of this makes any sense to me. That’s a huge like what do you even, how do you even process something like that? And I think the brain, or at least my brain in that moment, both really slowed down and started working over time, like almost splintered into different team members like Team Dani’s brain, like, you know, the and the slow part I think has to do with being very self protective, like only being able to take in so much at a time and then the part that’s working overtime is working overtime to try to figure out what’s going on here, what has happened? And then there’s the denial part, the like. Is this even true? This can’t be true. There must be a mistake.
Kate: Yeah. And what were the first truths that started to settle in as plausible?
Dani: What happened was I had a way of comparing my DNA results with those of my half sister, who was my father’s daughter from an earlier marriage, and it took a fraction of a second for the results to compile. And when they did like the image that I’m having, as I’m talking to you, as those you know, those lottery balls that go like, you know, I forget what they’re called, like Powerball here in the States where it’s like and then there’s the number, like the numbers are there. And it showed that we were not related. And that was the big truth because, you know, the part of my brain that was working overtime went, if we are not half sisters, that means we do not share a father. That means that our father is only the father of one of us, not both of us. And if that’s the case. It’s like everything suddenly became like technicolor clear, and I realized that it meant that my dad had not been my biological father.
Kate: You write very powerfully about that moment. I wrote down a million quotes that just blew my mind. When you talk about before and afters when you wrote: By the time I went to bed that night, my entire history, the life I had lived had crumbled beneath me like the buried ruins of an ancient, forgotten city. There’s these moments where everything changes, where we can so very clearly recognize befores and afters. And even though I’ve never had yours, I was so struck by that feeling that your life just kind of teeters from one and then all of a sudden it’s become something entirely different.
Dani: And those kinds of dividing lines, you never go back, you know, you never unknow what you know, you never unsee what you see. And even as things you know, like in the case of a before and after of an illness or something, you know, like you contend with even when it’s not as stark as it first was, it’s still always that dividing line that before and after and it’s something that I had given a lot of thought to. And actually my first memoir, Slow Motion, which came out in 1998. So a very long time ago, the first line of it is: The night before the phone call that divides my life into before and after. I am in a you know, then it goes on and that before and after was my parents car accident that killed my father when I was 23 and that badly injured my mother. What I hadn’t realized then was that life contains more than one. Our lives, if we’re fortunate enough to live long enough, our lives contain multiple moments of before and after. And I would say my life is contained maybe three. But this was a doozy because it wasn’t just before and after. It was, this reorients everything about the before.
Kate: Yes, that’s right. Yeah, well, and now you have all this new information and are not able to go back to then process to talk to your dad, to be able to ask him the questions, to be able to unravel little bits of what it might mean to be so far away from that information. That must have been overwhelming.
Dani: You know, both of my parents were gone, but I realized very quickly that anyone who might still have any knowledge, if there was anyone who might have knowledge, was going to be very old. And you know, that I had to really I mean, that was the part that started working overtime, right? Like that was within twenty four hours of realizing that my dad hadn’t been my biological father, I was picking up the phone and calling people, you know, saying, did you know anything about, you know, trying to trying to explain, like, you know, home DNA testing to nonagenarians. That was fun. That was a good time. I had one elderly aunt. Very smart lady, I mean, had like two PhDs and was a professor and she actually said to me, so are you saying that your part your father and part somebody else? Because if you think about it, people that age, like, you know, they, DNA was discovered when they were like middle aged. You know?
Kate: That’s impossible.
Dani: The things that we grew up with of, you know, seeing the way that, you know, the sperm penetrates the egg like that whole like seeing that we know how babies are made, like they really actually didn’t.
Kate: Oh my gosh, I remember that movie very clearly in school. What is it doing and why? I’m just thinking back to a conversation with your mom and you’re trying to think through what really did I know about how I was born and where I was born and what my mom told me before?
Dani: Almost instantly, what came to mind was a conversation that I had had with my mother nearly 30 years earlier, and I remembered everything about it, which is also to me just really, really interesting in terms of like when things are important, even if we don’t know at the time that they’re important, they lodge somewhere. They I mean, this conversation came back to me as if it was in a like a time capsule that was broken open. And I remembered the date. It was February, twenty third, nineteen eighty eight. The reason why I remembered the date is because it was the second anniversary of my father’s death and I was in graduate school pursuing my MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. And the MFA students were giving a reading that night and I didn’t want my mother to be alone on the anniversary of my dad’s death. And even though my mother and I had a very complicated, fraught, difficult relationship, but I was her only daughter and I tried to do right by her. And I invited her to the reading, which was about a half an hour’s drive from New York City where we both lived. And we drove up there and there was a little reception in advance of the reading. And I introduced my mother to a classmate of mine. And the conversation went like this, my mother said, Oh, lovely to meet you, where are you from? And my classmate Rachel said, I’m from Philadelphia. And my mother said, Oh, my daughter was conceived in Philadelphia. And I was standing there. I’m twenty five years old. I’ve never heard this before. My mother is saying it to a complete stranger at a graduate school reception and I say and like how often do we actually ever I mean, do our parents ever really you know, it’s like no, no, no TMI I don’t know. Thank you. Thank you for thank you for not sharing. But I said, Mom, what are you talking about? And she said, Oh you don’t want to know. It’s not a pretty story. I was driving my mother back to the city and I had her captive in my car and I was I was driving and I said, Mom, you cannot just say that my conception was not a pretty story. That’s just please don’t leave me there. Like I don’t want to be left with that. And she proceeded to tell me in kind of a halting way, but nonetheless, she did. She said, well, your father and I were having trouble conceiving. He had slow sperm and there was an institute in Philadelphia where we would go, what was the procedure? And she said artificial insemination. But she made it very clear to me that it was the two of them, you know, using my father’s sperm to have their own baby, which was something that, you know, many people did when they were having trouble conceiving and still do and that was the end of the conversation. But that’s what went into the time capsule because and really I everything about it, every word I know I am remembering as it was, and I don’t often feel that way about my memories. But it was important and it got stored away.
Kate: Yeah. Wow. Your brain is like this is for later.
Dani: Like later or maybe or maybe never or maybe never. But.
Kate: I don’t mean for this to sound narcissistic because I always find it not really compliments when people say you remind me of me, but when my, and I was dealing with medical stuff and as I was experiencing it, it just made me want to dig more and more and more. I remember my mother in law said, Oh, Kate, she’s our ruthless one. And there was there was a ruthlessness with which you approach the question. I thought I mean, I would say like an honesty with which she just decided this has layers to it and I’m going to peel them away. And what you discovered also just took you back to the truth of of the history of reproductive science in this country. What did you learn?
Dani: I love the word ruthless, I, I it’s how I felt and I think it’s what one does when one is fighting for one’s life and, you know, and that can be taken, I think, any number of different ways it can be fighting literally for one’s life or fighting for one’s soul. So and that is very much how I felt. I felt like I was fighting for me because I suddenly didn’t know what constituted me. So a couple of things. So without that conversation with my mother, I would have been forever in the dark because she used the word institute. She didn’t say hospital. She didn’t say clinic. She didn’t say doctor. She said institute. Three minutes on Google or less, and it became clear what the institute, which you know, where it had been. And then because when you do one of these home DNA tests, people with whom you share DNA show up on your chart. There was a first cousin who is a stranger to me. So that was another clue. And because of all this, which I won’t take you through step by step. It took 36 hours from the time that I discovered that my dad had not been my biological father until I was able to identify the sperm donor who had been a medical student in Philadelphia at the time of my conception. I went back deeply into the history of reproductive medicine in this country and what the practices were, what parents would be told, and it was an atmosphere of such secrecy. It was also an environment where there was a great deal of shame around infertility, especially male infertility. Male infertility was so shameful that it didn’t exist.
Dani: It was always the wife, always the woman, you know, and meanwhile and women would be tested like crazy, some invasive tests and all different kinds of things. While meanwhile, to test for male infertility would literally require, you know, ejaculation and a microscope. You know, and many doctors wouldn’t do it at all. And as it turns out, the institute that my parents went to was run by a scientist who was very interested in male infertility, which made the entire medical profession hate him because he was you know, he was speaking to something that nobody wanted to. But when a couple would come and decide that this is how they wanted to have a family, they would be told, first of all and I mean, listeners should just really like take a second and take this in. They would mix the sperm of the intended father with the sperm of a donor. Mix the sperm, there was a term for it and the term, the term was confused artificial insemination: CAI for short and the confusion was meant to be a kind and gentle and a mercy, exactly. You know, my husband has likened it to the, you know, on firing squads the way that like.
Kate: Who knows whose bullet it was?
Dani: Who knows whose bullet it was exactly. And couples would be also told to have sex before the procedure and then have sex after the procedure. And that way they would never really know and they would be told to never tell anyone what they had done. And so they would go home never to tell their own parents, the grandparents never to tell their friends and the child would never know. And you know what we don’t know doesn’t hurt us.
Kate: Yeah. I’m just thinking of so many examples of that right now.
Dani: And generations and generations of people were born precisely in this way and were raised not knowing the truth of their genetic identity. And to this day, to to this day, that is still the case in many in many situations, even though we know today that what we don’t know does hurt us. And we also know that, in fact, there is no more possibility of anonymity or of hiding or secrecy in that way because of these DNA tests. I mean, just a fun statistic is to date, there have been 35 million home DNA tests administered and around two percent of that figure discover what’s known as an NPE, which stands for non parental event.
Kate: Oh, wow.
Dani: It’s a lot of people. It’s millions of people. Many of whom still don’t know because there was just this culture of secrecy.
Kate: Our secrets are kept to out of such complicated, intense kinds of love. And you have such a tenderness, I think, with the way that you handle why this secret was kept so long.
Dani: I heard a story from a woman who was in her 80s who had conceived her children via donor at the same institute where I had been conceived. So it’s kind of as close to in the room where it happened as I was ever going to get. And she told me that when she got the news that she was successfully pregnant, she was also told by the institute, congratulations, Mrs. So-and-so. This is such fantastic news. But it’s interesting your blood levels show that you must have already been pregnant when you got here. And her husband was sterile. He had had the mumps. You know, I mean, they would they would always, always create this kind of I mean, it’s taught me so much about what we’re just we human beings are able to metabolize, incorporate. It was an opportunity for me, with my parents gone. I mean, at first, I felt really betrayed because everyone has a right to know as much about their identity as they can. Right? And I felt that the stories that I was surrounded by as a child had an element to them that was like an empty husk, you know, that there was something that wasn’t true entirely about them. You know, one of the things I I always try to underscore when I’m talking about this, because, you know, there inevitably are people who read my book or who listen to me who are adoptive parents and who immediately think, well, what are you saying? Are you saying that all that matters is, you know, the genetic peace and all that matters is the nature peace? It’s not remotely what I’m saying. Adopted kids who have known from the time that they’re sentient that they’re adopted. That is the truth of their identity. They’re told the truth of their identity. They may go searching later for their biological parents for one reason or another, or they might not. But they know why they feel the way they feel.
Kate: Must have been very painful to look back on moments when, as with blond hair and blue eyes, that you had to defend your Jewish identity to friends and to strangers.
Dani: I was the Orthodox Jewish girl who looked like she had skipped over, you know, from you know, from the Alps, you know? Because I did, because I really didn’t look like my ethnicity and my family history would have, you know, made you think. I grew up really feeling like something was amiss, I didn’t fit in, I felt other I felt somehow like an outsider in my own family and my own extended family, but that made no sense and I didn’t understand why. And when a child has feelings that she doesn’t understand, she turns them on herself. And so it explains for me a great deal of how I felt during, you know, formative times in my life and why I felt this otherness, you know, it’s a huge part of why I’m so glad I know, aside from the fact that just it’s the truth. But a huge part of why I’m glad I know is because that feeling of otherness has entirely turned around and walked out the door. And I carried it with me for all of my life until that DNA test.
Kate: And then all of a sudden you’re looking at sounds like 36 hours after your DNA test, you’re looking at a video of a blond man delivering a lecture who has your mannerisms and your, that must have been completely shocking.
Dani: It was surreal. I did not see immediately how much physically I resemble him because I was a 54 year old woman and he was a 78 year old man. And like, it’s not like it’s not it’s not apples to apples. But there was a moment. Well, first of all, he was doing something that I do all the time, that I’ve seen many videos and pictures of myself doing, which was he was behind a lectern giving a lecture and he was gesturing with his hands. I’m doing it right now. I mean, gesturing with his hands in a way that I recognized. It was like it wasn’t an intellectual thing. It was like it permeated me. That gesture is my gesture. And I it also permeated me that I had never had that experience before.
Kate: I have a friend who, who as an adult, finally spoke to her biological mother for the first time and her very first questions sounded like they took her right back to childhood. She said it was over the phone and she said, Do I look like you? Do I act like you? Am I, do I belong to you? Like those are I mean, those are like those are deep ontological questions, like, can I find me there?
Dani: When I met him, which took a while. I mean, imagine being a 78 year old retired physician, you know, married for 50 years with three kids of your own, grandkids, and you open your email one day. And, you know, amid all the expected emails and the political entreaties and, you know, the country club memberships and whatever, there’s a you know, I think you might be my biological father. I mean, I wrote a very careful note to him when I reached out to him, but it was nonetheless, I was very conscious of what a shock it probably would be. But when we did reach a point of meeting, we had lunch, he and his wife and my husband and myself and during the lunch, I was in an altered state. During, it was a four and a half hour lunch, and during the lunch I was, I could almost not look straight at him. It was like looking at the sun. I could only take a little bit at a time. And I was also acutely aware of myself that he was looking at me and knowing that I was his biological daughter. And there was so much that went on in that lunch that was extraordinary. But in the days afterwards, I was surprised to realize how I got very sad afterwards and it took me a little bit to realize that my sadness was he did not feel like my father to me. In a way, meeting him brought me back to my dad, because up until then, you know, well-meaning people like, this should go on the list of platitudes that should not be said, although a very, very esoteric version, which is no matter what your father, still your father. I mean, from minute one, people were just dying to say that to me. It made them feel better. I didn’t know what to make of it, though, at first because I felt like. Well, but in point of biological fact, no. And I never knew this. And did he always know this and keep it from me? What did it mean to us that we weren’t kin? What did that mean? And so I was struggling and on my own journey about all that and not being able to ask him, you know, not being able to say, what did this mean to you? And then to meet the man who was my biological father. And to see all this familiarity and all this similarity so much, I mean a similar sense of humor, same favorite novel, I mean, crazy stuff. He’s a really good writer and he’s a really good writer. And but I then found the language, which is what I do. It’s how I heal. And it was days later and I was meditating in the morning and the language came to me. It’s like he’s my native country, like he’s the country I’m from. And I’ve never been there. And I’ve never set foot on it’s, you know, on it’s land. But it is where I’m from. He is where I’m from. And that’s a different and it’s a and it’s a very soothing feeling for me actually now because I have that relationship with him. He’s where I’m from. And I feel incredibly fortunate that I got to know that because so many people don’t. And then something remains. A question mark always. But he’s not my father, and I feel like I’m I am like I was literally born to become this thought experiment on, like the nexus between nature and nurture. There’s so much in me that is of my dad. And there is something of me that is of my mom and there is something of me that is of my biological father. And, you know, it took a village. What can I say?
Kate: Yeah. Yeah. I know this sounds like a very ontological question to end on, but for people who are thinking about maybe opening the door, they want to know more about their own past and they there they may be worried they are not quite as as ruthless or as courageous as you’ve been or they’re scared of what they might find. How do you advise people who are not sure that they want to look back over their shoulder?
Dani: I’m very thankful that the secret that was kept from me came out, that I learned it when I did not when I was a young, really vulnerable, really messed up young woman. I wouldn’t have been good for me at that time. I’m glad I found out when I did. So I think, you know, to look into one’s own heart and mind not so much for the question of ruthlessness, but for the question of like, do I want to know? Do I want to know? Do I have support? Am I surrounded by support? If I do find out something that’s difficult? Will there be people around me who can help shore me up and can help keep, you know, the walls around me feeling solid? I think those kinds of you know, those kinds of questions. But also for the people like me who are suspicionless, it’s I think, really important for people to understand that it’s possible, you know, that all bets are off when you do one of these tests and it is rather epidemic that people are making various different kinds of discoveries about secrets. It might not be a secret like mine. It might be that their aunt had put up a child for adoption as a teenager. Like suddenly who’s this person? I mean, there’s so many different kinds of secrets that are coming tumbling out because of the extraordinary power, complicated power of these DNA tests that have, you know, allowed us, you know, these unintended consequences of this scientific advancement and like, what do we do about it?
Kate: Dani, your curiosity, the compassion that you extend to these big questions like who are we and then who will I become in light of that is been really powerful and it’s helped me kind of realize how much we all need to feel, not just loved, but also explained. What a powerful impulse that is. Thank you so much for giving me new language for that.
Dani: Oh Kate, thank you. I’ve loved this conversation.
Kate: One of my more common prayers is pretty simple, it’s just, God, I want to see the world as it really is. Help me see. But what about when the truth is too painful? Life altering, complicated, ugly. What if I’m not ready? What if I don’t have enough support? What if I’m barely holding on? The truth is sometimes difficult to look at directly. The way Dani talks about it, it’s like looking straight at the sun. And sometimes we can only stand small glimpses at a time. Whether we’re trying to be more honest with ourselves or with others, with our kids or with our parents, our friends or with our communities, telling the truth is awful, but so is a lie. We are often so good at tolerating the weight of untruth that we forget that it might be kind of nice to live without it. It might be kind of nice to set those burdens down. So whether or not we’re ready, let’s celebrate the truths that set us free, the truth that helps explain us, the truth, that helps ground us, the truth that helps cut through the ugliness of our world with its clean, sharp edges. And we celebrate all the tiny steps we can take to inch up closer and the moments where we find the courage to stare up at it just a little longer, even when it hurts.
Kate: We are in the season of Lent, the time in the church calendar that challenges us all to turn ourselves toward the truth that the world is both terrible and beautiful and somehow God meets us there. I’ve been posting a video every morning on Instagram and Facebook, as well as sending out daily email reflections to help orient our day. So if that’s your thing and you want to join along visit, KateBowler.Com slash Lent to sign up for free. Today’s episode was made possible by our lovely partners, the Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment and Duke Divinity School, who support our faith and media project. We are so grateful for their generosity and investment in what we do. And of course, my team, who I am completely obsessed with, Jessica Richie, our executive producer, Harriet Putman, our associate producer, Keith Weston, our sound designer. And the rest of the Everything Happens crew who make this project so much fun. Dan Wells, AJ Walton, Mary Jo Clancy, J.J. Dickinson, Launa Steward, Kelly Dunlap, Erin Lane, Jeb and Sammi. Thank you. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.