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

Published: 2019-01-15
Hardcover : 272 pages
15 members reading this now
70 clubs reading this now
6 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 5 of 5 members
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER 

“A gripping genetic detective story, and a meditation on the meaning of parenthood and family.” —Jennifer Egan, author of Manhattan Beach 

 
From the acclaimed, best-selling memoirist, novelist—“a writer of rare talent” (Cheryl Strayed)— and ...
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Introduction

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER 

“A gripping genetic detective story, and a meditation on the meaning of parenthood and family.” —Jennifer Egan, author of Manhattan Beach 

 
From the acclaimed, best-selling memoirist, novelist—“a writer of rare talent” (Cheryl Strayed)— and  host of the hit podcast Family Secrets, comes a memoir about the staggering family secret uncovered by a genealogy test: an exploration of the urgent ethical questions surrounding fertility treatments and DNA testing, and a profound inquiry of paternity, identity, and love.

What makes us who we are? What combination of memory, history, biology, experience, and that ineffable thing called the soul defines us?
     In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had whimsically submitted her DNA for analysis, Dani Shapiro received the stunning news that her father was not her biological father. She woke up one morning and her entire history--the life she had lived--crumbled beneath her.
Inheritance is a book about secrets--secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love. It is the story of a woman's urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been scrupulously hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history. It is a book about the extraordinary moment we live in--a moment in which science and technology have outpaced not only medical ethics but also the capacities of the human heart to contend with the consequences of what we discover.

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Excerpt

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Discussion Questions

1. The title of this book is Inheritance. What does it mean, in the context of the memoir?

2. Shapiro chose two quotes for her epigraph, one from Sylvia Plath and the other from George Orwell. What do they mean individually, and how does each affect your understanding of the other?

3. “You’re still you,” Shapiro reminds herself. What does she mean by this?

4. Much of Shapiro’s understanding of herself comes from what she believes to be her lineage. “These ancestors are the foundation upon which I have built my life,” she says on page 12. Would Shapiro feel so strongly if her father’s ancestors weren’t so illustrious? How does Shapiro’s understanding of lineage change over the course of the book?

5. Judaism is passed on from mother to child—the father’s religion holds no importance. So why does Shapiro’s sense of her own Jewishness rely so much on her father?

6. Chapter 7 opens with a discussion of the nature of identity. “What combination of memory, history, imagination, experience, subjectivity, genetic substance, and that ineffable thing called the soul makes us who we are?” Shapiro writes on page 27. What do you believe makes you, you?

7. Shapiro follows that passage with another provocative question: “Is who we are the same as who we believe ourselves to be?” What’s your opinion?

8. Identity is one major theme of the book. Another is the corrosive power of secrets. On page 35, Shapiro writes, “All my life I had known there was a secret. What I hadn’t known: the secret was me.” What might have changed if Shapiro had known her origins growing up?

9. On page 43, Shapiro quotes a Delmore Schwartz poem: “What am I now that I was then? / May memory restore again and again / The smallest color of the smallest day; / Time is the school in which we learn, / Time is the fire in which we burn.” What does this mean? Why is it significant to Shapiro?

10. Throughout the memoir, Shapiro uses literary extracts to illuminate what she feels or thinks—poems by Schwartz and Jane Kenyon, passages from Moby Dick and a novel by Thomas Mann. How does this help your understanding?

11. All her life, people had been telling Shapiro she didn’t look Jewish. If this hadn’t been part of her life already, how do you think she might have reacted to the news from her DNA test?

12. After Shapiro located her biological father, she emailed him almost immediately—against the advice of her friend, a genealogy expert. What do you imagine you would have done?

13. Why was it so important to Shapiro to believe that her parents hadn’t known the truth about her conception?

14. Her discovery leads Shapiro to reconsider her memories of her parents: “Her unsteady gaze, her wide, practiced smile. Her self-consciousness, the way every word seemed rehearsed. His stooped shoulders, the downward turn of his mouth. The way he was never quite present. Her rage. His sorrow. Her brittleness. His fragility. Their screaming fights.” (page 100)

15. On page 107, when discussing her father’s marriage to Dorothy, Rabbi Lookstein tells Shapiro, “We thought your father was a hero.” Shapiro comes back to her father’s decision to go through with the marriage several times in the book. Why?

16. At her aunt Shirley’s house, Shapiro sees a laminated newspaper clipping about the poem recited in a Chevy ad. (page 133) Why does Shapiro include this detail in the book? What is its significance?

17. On page 188, Shapiro writes, “In time, I will question how it could be possible that Ben—a man of medicine, who specialized in medical ethics—had never considered that he might have biological children.” How do you explain that?

18. How does Shapiro’s experience with contemporary reproductive medicine affect the way she judges her parents? What do you imagine future generations will say about our current approach to artificial insemination?

19. What do you make of the similarities between Shapiro and her half sister Emily?

20. On page 226, Shapiro brings up a psychoanalytic phrase, “unthought known.” How does this apply to her story?

21. What prompts Shapiro to legally change her first name?

22. Shapiro ends her book with a meditation on the Hebrew word hineni, “Here I am.” Why is this phrase so powerful?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
by mommasue (see profile) 05/28/20

 
  "Inheritance"by bkmnmpl (see profile) 02/05/20

While the telling of Dani Shapiro's story lagged in spots, I enjoyed it. I learned a great deal about the Jewish culture, artificial insemination practices of the 60's, & the life journeys of children... (read more)

 
by TammyCar (see profile) 11/11/19

 
by haskew1 (see profile) 10/28/19

 
  "INheritance"by Carolynr (see profile) 10/23/19

probably a 2.5
it was an interesting book from the perspective of the ethical issue - sperm donors who donate anonymously and are then confronted with children in later years wanting medica
... (read more)

 
by LoriLichstrahl (see profile) 08/16/19

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