Through five memoirs and five novels, best-selling author Dani Shapiro has excavated and examined her family's Orthodox Jewish history and her own place in it. Then, in 2016, encouraged by her husband, Michael, she submitted her DNA to a genealogical website.
"The first thing that I see is that the breakdown of my ethnicity is surprising," Shapiro said.
The analysis on Ancestry.com showed Shapiro is only half Jewish. She compared her results with those of her half-sister.
"And that was the night my life changed," Shapiro said. "And it showed that we were not sisters. We were not half-sisters. We were not related."
Initially, Shapiro thought the analysis was wrong.
"I made my husband go downstairs and call them," Shapiro said. "But I knew it meant, if that was the case, that my father wasn't my father."
In her latest memoir, "Inheritance," Shapiro examines the essence of identity and what happens when the stories we're told about our very origins turn out to be fiction.
"I always wrote about family secrets," Shapiro said. "And so to discover at the age of 54, that I was the family secret. I was searching for something, and it wasn't until that moment when the lights kind of blinked on, that I realized that I had been the secret. And that's what I was searching for."
When Shapiro re-examined her past, she realized the evidence had always been all around her.
"I was told everyday of my life that I didn't look Jewish," Shapiro said.
The other clue came from her mother, who let it slip when Dani was 25 that she had been conceived at a fertility clinic in Philadelphia.
"And I asked, 'what was the procedure? 'And she said, 'Artificial insemination.'"
She asked if a sperm donor was involved.
"And she said, 'Absolutely not. Can you imagine such a thing? I mean, your father wouldn't have known that his child was Jewish,'" Shapiro said.
"The irony for me is my mother, who is my biological parent, is not someone that I ever felt bonded to," Shapiro said. "My father, who it turns out was not my biological parent, is someone with whom I have a profound bond."
With the help of her husband, a former investigative journalist, Shapiro began following the new clues Ancestry.com had given her. In a relatively short amount of time, she found her biological father.
"Thirty-six hours from the time I made the discovery about my dad, until the moment that I was looking at a YouTube of my biological father," Shapiro said.
Shapiro protects his privacy in "Inheritance," but reveals he was a 78-year-old retired doctor who'd been a sperm donor.
"Writing is how I process everything," Shapiro said. "It's kind of my church. It's my faith. It's my temple. It's how I understand the world."
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