I Was Formed by What I Didn’t Know: The Millions Interviews Dani Shapiro

January 25, 2019 | 7 books mentioned 1 12 min read

In the spring of 2016, Dani Shapiro received one of the biggest shocks of her life when she learned, through an Ancestry.com DNA test, that she and her adored, deceased father were not biologically related. She had taken the test on a whim and wasn’t expecting to discover anything new. In fact, she thought she had pretty well excavated her family history in two of her previous memoirs: Slow Motion and Devotion. But the results of the test forced her to revisit mysteries she thought she had put to rest:

There had always been something more—something I could never quite fathom. An invisible live wire stretched between my parents and me. Touch it, and we might up in smoke. I knew this, too, thought I couldn’t have articulated it. I had turned away from fiction, toward memoir, as if a trail of words might lead me there.

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Inheritance, her latest memoir, is the remarkable story of how, with just a few clues, Shapiro discovers both that she was donor-conceived, and the identity of her donor. With her mother also deceased, there are many unanswered questions, and Shapiro finds herself delving into the early history of sperm donation, and interviewing the remaining friends and acquaintances of her parents. But she’s most powerful when she writes about the strange memories that have never left her, memories imprinted with a mystery she couldn’t recover.

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After reading Inheritance, I was very curious about how she went about writing this story, which is so different from her recent memoirs, but at the same time, speaks directly to them. I spoke to her over the phone last week, and as in her book about writing, Still Writing, she was very good at describing the different stages of her writing process. Our interview has been condensed slightly and edited for clarity.

The Millions: When did you know you would write about this experience?

Dani Shapiro: Very, very quickly. I’m a writer who has mined my own life and attempted to shape my experience into stories for my entire writing life. And then this massive wrecking ball of a story came into my life. I can’t even say it’s a story; it’s a revelation about what has always been true. It never occurred to me not to write about it. Somebody actually wrote to me on social media today—how do you think you would have written about this story if your parents were still alive? I wrote back, that’s a big question, and I’m not going to start responding to it on social media, but the fact that my parents were gone, and I was left with this massive mystery, and the only way I’ve come to understand anything about myself or about life is by writing about it, by following the line of words. And so I began jotting down notes very early on. Just fragments. Part of it was that I thought I wouldn’t remember the very early feelings and thoughts because I was in such shock. And the other reason was because I was aware that anything I might learn about the truth of my origins and the culture and the time and place that made me, those people who might know something about that, were very old if they were still living. I felt this urgency to put my reporter’s hat on and learn as much as I possibly could. I did not have the luxury of thinking, I’m going to write about this five years from now, after I’ve processed it. And, also, some books require distance, but this one felt like it required immediacy.

TM: It’s interesting that you realized right away that the clock was ticking in terms of the research you could do, and the interviews you could do.

DS: I think I would have felt that way whether I was writing the book or not. Writing a book sometimes gives you the excuse, the permission to pick up the phone and call people. I’ve always felt that way, whenever I’ve done a journalistic piece—a personal history piece—it’s always been spurred by what I really want to know but I don’t have permission ask. And if I have an assignment, then I have permission. So, there was something of that.

TM: When I was reading it, I thought it was so lucky that you are a writer—and also you had a journalist husband who could help you with your research. I just felt you had a good way of processing it, but I wondered if you felt that way, too?

DS: Initially I was just in it. I was in the fog of it; I was just doing anything I could, whatever I could. I felt that my emotional future well-being required that I at least try to turn over every stone that I could. I didn’t know what I would discover. But one of the things I figured out very quickly is that, if you have to find out that you’re donor-conceived, I had a miraculously good story. I had almost eerily so, just enough clues. My mother had once let slip, just in one brief conversation with her, certain vital clues: the word “Philadelphia,” the word “Institute.”

And then, let’s start with the fact that I did the DNA test at all. Because I easily could never had done that. It was a very random thing to decide to do, and it was only because my husband was doing it, and the prices have come down, so I thought, Sure, why not? It was so casual, and then the incredibly fast time that it took from the moment that I realized that my dad hadn’t been my biological father to finding my biological father. It was crazy, it was 36 hours, it was a domino effect, one thing leading to another, and a kind of hypothesis, and a couple of clues, and a couple of educated guesses, and the fact that my first cousin was on my page on Ancestry.com, and the fact that we could figure out who he was. It wasn’t hard. There was a certain amount of journalistic chops that were required; I think when my husband figured out that the name associated with my first cousin wasn’t first name-last name, but last name-first name, that’s the kind of thing that maybe somebody who is not an investigative journalist might not have gotten to as quickly, but it did happen in this way that, when I look back on it now, was miraculous.

I’ve heard a lot of stories now of dead ends, of donors who don’t want to be disturbed, or who don’t come around, and don’t respond. I just recently heard a story of a woman who is nearly 80 who just found out that her father had not been her biological father. What do you do with that when you’re 80 years old? I feel like the when in my life when I found out, was probably when I had the most stability, the most time and space, to actually be able to truly, deeply go on this journey. I wasn’t too young and I wasn’t too old. I write about this in the book, but when I was told about donor-conceived people who tattoo their donor numbers on their body, I get that. I had 36 hours, which is nothing, of feeling like I may never know who my biological father was. It felt like I was walking with a void underneath me. Like I had been uprooted—the roots that I thought that I had were no longer my roots. I might never know the facts of my identity.

TM: Did you know the structure of the book right away? And did the writing of this book feel different from writing previous memoirs?

DS: I started writing right away and I thought that I was writing the book. It’s funny, because I’ve taught writing for many years, and I’ve written a book about writing, and every once in a while I come up against something where I think, I know I would tell a student that this is impossible, but it’s not going to be impossible for me…

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I learned something important to writers, regarding writing from experience. I have written directly from experience before. In my memoir Devotion, and in Hourglass, those are both books written like the present is a laboratory, and writing from the center of experience, but what was totally different about embarking on writing Inheritance was that those earlier books were not being written from a place of trauma. In initially trying to get what was happening to me down on the page, I was writing from the center of trauma. There’s that moment in my book when I quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s—I don’t have the quote exactly right, but it’s something like, “It’s the nature of trauma that doesn’t allow a story to be told.” It’s the reason why people who are in a traumatic state repeat themselves, and need to keep telling the same story over and over again. But that does not make for good literature—although I want to interject and say that I do think there is one literary form in which you can write directly out of trauma, and it’s poetry.

I wrote 200 pages of a draft. And I was already under contract and I was feeling actually pretty good about what I had on the page at that point. But then I had to go on tour for Hourglass. And I went on the road and I had to go on this mode of really not thinking about it, because I couldn’t think about it and be talking about Hourglass, which was a book that I felt so proud of, and wanted to be promoting. So I was on the road, and I think it must have been about two months that I didn’t touch the manuscript. And I sort of settled in, and I took myself to a local café where I like to read, and I started reread and my heart just completely sank. It had some passages that worked, but as a whole, it simply was not the book I wanted to write. And I was in despair. I went home and told my husband, I know that this is productive despair, I would tell any writer telling me this story that it is productive, and that this is going to end up being a good thing, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like despair with a capital D.

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And then I went back and I reread The Year of Magical Thinking. Because my editor and I had spoken about The Year of Magical Thinking before I had even started writing. She brought up that book as something that had within it a sense of immediacy. And yet at the same time, a powerful coolness to it because that’s what Didion does. In my memory of the book, she was writing from the center of her husband’s death. But when I started rereading it, I realized she actually found a place that is slightly removed from, that was outside the sphere of direct shock and trauma. She was writing from that spot, which allowed her to move back into the immediacy but also away from it in a way that allowed her to tell a story. And so I understood that I hadn’t known what that was. So I spent a couple of months exploring what that place was from which to tell the story, that was on the one hand still unfolding. But the actual breathless 36 hours of that story was very much in the rear view mirror for me when I sat down in earnest and was writing.

My job as a writer was twofold. One was the opposite of what writers need to do—I had to really slow it down. It’s a runaway train of a story, and I had to really think about how to give it the ballast and the weight that it required. The other way that it was different was that I was aware of the outsized details, the sheer strangeness of the story itself, and the uniqueness of it. I mean, I know it’s happened to a lot of people, but most people haven’t experienced it. Yet I wanted to write a book that people would be able to read and find for themselves what’s universal in it. In my memoir Slow Motion for example, my parents had been in a car accident. Even if your own parents haven’t been in a car accident anyone can emphasize and imagine what the person might feel like.

When I’ve written a couple of times about my son when he was little and he was sick, anyone, whether they’re a mother or a father, can put themselves in the shoes of this person telling the story. And I was aware that discovering in midlife that my father was not my biological father, I was going to have to a) help the reader understand what that feels like and b) write a book that took those experiences and took the strange, later-in-life journey that I found myself on, and really made meaning about what is this teaching me about human nature, about personhood, about identity, about family, about love, about what makes a family, about what makes a father, about nature and nurture, about all these huge ideas that I was suddenly grappling with on a deeper level than most people ever have to, and certainly than I had ever done before.

TM: The experience you describe of being able to see your biological father online, giving a video presentation, was just so stunning—I mean, the fact that we are even able to do that, first of all, but also the way you could recognize him. It just must have been so bizarre. You did a great job of describing it, I felt like I experienced it, and it made me think about how we look like our relatives, how my children look like my grandparents, or whomever, and I take it for granted, I don’t really think about it.

DS: Yes—or, if you know that you’re not biologically related to your parents, or one parent, then you know that and that also becomes part of your identity. And that’s a point that I find that I need to make, because it’s not an obvious one. People who are adopted or people who are donor-conceived, who have always known this, or parents who have donor-conceived kids, or adopted kids, who have always disclosed to their children their origins, that is a completely different story from mine, or from the many people these days who are discovering that a secret was kept from them. If you grow up knowing that you don’t know something, then that lack of knowledge becomes part of your identity. But if you grow up believing something that isn’t the case, and something about it just doesn’t make sense—that was the story of my life, and I think it’s actually the reason for all those memoirs.

TM: I actually had the same thought while I was reading. I found myself wondering if you would continue to write memoirs after this?

DS: I very much doubt that I will ever write a straightforward memoir ever again. Hopefully I’ll write fiction and I’ll write nonfiction. I was moving in a direction before I wrote Inheritance that was kind of a more fractured narrative, and away from traditional narrative, which is hilarious to me and ironic because then I had this story land on me, that was like a story with a capital S that could only be written in a straightforward, linear way. I hadn’t written in a linear fashion in a decade or more. So I have no idea what’s next for me, but I really do believe that my writing life has been formed by not knowing and always searching for what I did not know. There are clues all over all of my books. There are clues in my first novel, there are clues in my second novel, there are clues in Slow Motion, there are clues in Still Writing, and there are certainly clues in Devotion; there are clues in all my books except perhaps for Hourglass, which is really a book that is about marriage and time and memory and kind of steered clear of some of my other obsessions, but I was formed by what I didn’t know.

TM: I think Inheritance is also, in a way, a book about writing. Because you write about looking back on your old books—on what you’ve written before—and I also appreciated the amount of textual analysis you applied to the emails from people, and to what people say to you, and what you said to yourself.

DS: I love that, you’re the first person who has said that to me, and I was aware that I was parsing Ben’s emails—he used this word or he made this Freudian slip—and parsing the language that was used at the time of my conception. The word “treatment,” the word “boost.” And all the ways in which euphemism was used, to create a cloud of unknowing, that parents could find themselves wandering in a fog for the rest of their lives about what they had done—if they wanted to, they could do that. And also, I really do feel like everything I’ve written has led to this. My husband, early on, I think he felt bad that I had made this discovery, and it was his fault because he had asked me if I wanted to do the DNA test, but I have never had a moment—not even at my most destabilized—of feeling like I haven’t known. Because my life, in particular, as somebody who has been relentlessly exploring identity, my dad, my relationship with my dad.

It’s taught me a lot about stories and the narratives that we tell ourselves—all of us, not just writers. It’s how we all understand ourselves through storytelling. My narrative about both of my parents had to be reconsidered in light of this new information. I have a shelf of books that supply reasons for why they were the way they were and all of that is still true, but it’s not the whole truth. I was missing the biggest bone. The part that puts it all into complete dimensionality had eluded me until I made that discovery. And then it made everything make profound sense. Almost instantly. It didn’t make it less painful. It was very hard to digest. But I knew absolutely that I was looking at the truth and I had never seen the truth in my life.

TM: One last question—I was wondering if you have read Proust?

DS: I have read Proust, I have taught Proust—why do ask?

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TM: I felt like the theories of memories you write about are similar to the ones in In Search of Lost Time, especially the idea that the memories that survive childhood, the deep ones, are the ones that have the truth in them and you have to kind of deep dive to find them.

DS: And to return to them. Why did that conversation with Mrs. Kushner stay with me my whole life? Because I don’t have a good memory of my childhood, but that—I can tell you what the leaves on the tree looked like, and the glasses of iced tea, and what Mrs. Kushner looked like. It was seared into my memory. And that was also true of the conversation I had at Sarah Lawrence with my mother, and on the car ride home. And what’s Proustian about all that is that we don’t know that those moments are becoming recorded in a way, but they are, because somewhere within us there is this very subtle recognition of their importance.

When I taught In Search of Lost Time it was in a graduate writing program at The New School, and I was teaching the literature of autobiography. I made my own syllabus, and I chose books that I wanted to reread. I think I taught that class for 10 years. And I would end every year with Proust. What was drawing me again and again to thinking, to the way he thought about memory? That’s part of what I mean by it all led to this. My friend Hannah Tinti, who is one of the people that I told pretty early on, she had one of the best reactions: She burst out laughing, first of all—laughing at the incredulity, and also like, of course. She wrote to me the next morning and said I had been in training for this my whole life. And I thought, what is it to be in training for something my whole life and have it happen? Or was I in training because of it? It haunts me that I could have possibly have never known this, because I would have missed my mark.

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Chattahoochee Review, among others. Read more at hannahgersen.com or sign up for her newsletter here.

One comment:

  1. When Shapiro gets a tattoo and changes her name in response to her discovery in Inheritance, I was reminded of the tattoo and name change Cheryl Strayed got after her divorce in her memoir Wild. The similarity made Shapiro’s response seem banal and disappointing, like she had consciously or unconsciously copied Strayed. Women writers used to cut their hair off in response to trauma. Now, apparently, they get a tattoo and a name change.

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