It was almost an afterthought.
Dani Shapiro’s husband, Michael, was looking into his own genealogy and ordering a DNA test kit. Did she want one, too? She doesn’t even recall the moment. But evidently she agreed.
Much later, he handed her a vial and told her to spit into it.
The results stunned her. Her Wall Street stockbroker father wasn’t her biological father. It turned out that half of her DNA had come from a University of Pennsylvania medical student.
Shapiro’s is one of many similar tales in this age of genetic curiosity and exploration. She detailed her emotional journey and her quest to find the man whose DNA she carried — and to try to understand what it all meant — in a memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love.
We recently spoke to Shapiro, who lives in Connecticut, about her experience.
The initial feeling was shock, disbelief. I was sure that the DNA testing company had made a mistake. When it finally sank in, there was a feeling of betrayal, and a kind of uprootedness. If I had always known, that would be one thing. But to make that discovery in midlife, my sense of identity was very disorienting. We are the sum and total of the stories we tell ourselves, the narrative edifices that we create. Mine was that I believed that I was my parents’ child.
The discovery made a great deal about my childhood and my parents make sense to me for the first time. Growing up, I was constantly told that I didn’t look like I was from my family. It was a significant part of my life story. I was the Orthodox Jewish girl who didn’t look Jewish. It’s a very strange thing to be told you aren’t who you think you are -- by strangers, teachers, classmates, friends.
Another part of it had to with the sense I always had as a child that something was amiss. A feeling of outsider-ness, of longing, that I didn’t understand. I’ve come to understand that people who have had this kind of secret kept from them almost always describe childhoods like this, whether it’s adoptees who have never known they were adopted, or people who were the product of an affair, or people who were donor-conceived.
It was founded by a scientist named Edmund Farris. He had been the director of the Wistar Institute, but was kicked out because he was performing donor insemination. Two things were problematic in that regard. One was that he wasn’t actually an M.D. He was a scientist. So he was practicing medicine without a license. The other problem was that the Roman Catholic church in Philadelphia caught wind of what Farris was doing, and it was very much opposed to artificial insemination. Farris opened his own institute in the late 1950s in a building very near the University of Pennsylvania campus. It remained in operation until the mid-1970s.
It will always be a mystery to me why my parents chose Farris. They were much more connected to New York, and there were options in New York. I think my parents wanted to avoid any chance that they would run into anyone they knew. Also, although Farris was a renegade, he also was apparently good at what he did. He was an expert in male infertility, and he had devised a method by which he could monitor a woman’s ovulation cycle. This was really cutting edge. My mother was someone who went to the best. I think she decided that Farris was the best.
I was trying to understand if they were in the dark along with me, or whether one or both of them actively engaged in keeping such a huge secret from me. I will never know for sure. My parents are both dead. There hasn’t been a conclusive piece of evidence. But the likeliest scenario is that my parents did know. The Farris Institute was known for using donor sperm. That’s why people went there. Also, it was a common practice at that time to use a lot of euphemisms around the procedure. So the phrase “donor sperm” very well may have never been used. My parents would have been told it was “a treatment” that would “boost my father’s chances” by mixing this treatment with his sperm.
If you were a couple desperate to have a child in the early 1960s when there was so much shame and trauma surrounding infertility and childlessness, you might very well be able to convince yourself that it never really happened and just move on with your lives once you had made a family. This was very much encouraged. Couples were told, “Go home and forget it ever happened. Don’t tell your parents. Don’t tell your siblings. Don’t tell anyone. Go to the grave with your secret. This will be best for everyone.”
But now, we are at the fascinating moment in time when thousands of people are making discoveries similar to mine because of the ease and accessibility of DNA testing. Twelve million kits were sold last year. About 2 percent of those people will discover what is known as an NPE — Not Parent Expected. What complicates matters enormously, from a bioethical standpoint, is that very often the sperm donors who were guaranteed anonymity are still living and they are being discovered by their biological children. Also, the parents that made the choice that was presented to them as the only choice, they’re still living. They are now faced with a reckoning. They thought they were going to the grave with this secret. Now, they realize their children may find out. I get asked all the time, “Should we want to sit down and tell them the truth, or do we want to risk them finding out after we’re gone?” I can’t think of a scenario where parents shouldn’t tell the truth.
This is my 10th book. I feel like everything I have thought about and written about as a novelist, memoirist, essayist and a professor of creative writing has led to this discovery and this book. This is a colossal thing to discover. What is it teaching me about being a human being? What is it teaching me about identity or families or what makes a father a father? This has been a crash course in all of that for me. I wanted to write a book that not just people undergoing an experience like this would relate to, but that everyone would relate to.
In the end, I had to make the journey in terms of my dad, the man who raised me, from initially feeling very much betrayed, very confused, wondering what it meant for him to have known, assuming he did. I had to understand the two of us from the beginning all over again. I lost him in a car accident when I was 23 years old. I had to lose him again at 54, and then find him again. I think that what he did — being willing to go the route my parents went to conceive me — was a very brave thing to do. It had to have been very hard for him. He was a deeply religious man. There was no religion that squared with this. He would have had to go against the Jewish body of law that he adhered to. I find all of that now incredibly moving and incredibly courageous. But it wasn’t like I snapped my fingers and got there. I had to walk through a dense wilderness to get to that place.
I feel now that I come from three people. It took three people to make me. One is my mother. One is the father who raised me. I think of it as he loved me into being. And one is my biological father, who I actually do share both a physical resemblance and quite a bit of temperament with. I feel grateful to know that and to have that information. I am cut from the same cloth as him. I like him a lot and I feel grateful to him for doing what I consider would be the right thing — being willing to have contact with a biological child who came out of the blue. But he doesn’t feel like my father.