READERS GUIDEThe questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Inheritance, Dani Shapiro’s powerful exploration of what makes her who she is.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
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?
23. On her hardcover tour for Inheritance, Dani Shapiro found that certain questions were asked by almost every audience. We’re sharing these questions along with Shapiro’s answers to deepen your understanding of the book and provide an interesting window into how Shapiro has continued to think about the book and her own story.
Audience Question: You’ve written multiple memoirs. When did you know that you’d have to write the story of Inheritance? How quickly after your discovery did you realize you’d eventually write a book about it?
Dani Shapiro: It wasn’t something I thought about, it was simply something I began to do. Writing is the way I have always made sense of myself and the world around me. It’s the process by which I come to understand what I feel, think, and know. In the aftermath of my discovery about my dad, initially I felt shattered, deconstructed. When I began scribbling on index cards, that was my way of trying to capture the thoughts, images, and feelings in the moment, so that I could later return to them. I was trying to piece myself back together again. There was also a ticking clock. If I was going to find and speak with the people who might know something about the circumstances of my conception, I had to do it quickly, because many of them were very old. I felt a tremendous sense of urgency to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could.
AQ: Did Ben Walden and his family know you were writing about them? How did they feel about it?
DS: I was always honest and transparent with Ben. He and his family knew I was writing a book. But they also knew that I would protect their privacy. I changed their names, and certain identifying details, so that no one reading it – even those who knew them – would be able to point and say, “Oh, this might be Ben Walden.” I took great care with that. There was a lot of trust involved. Once I finished the manuscript, I did something I’ve never done before. I sent a copy to Ben and his wife, Pilar, before turning the final draft in to my publisher. I wanted to be sure Ben felt his privacy was protected. And he did. That was a massive relief. As I’ve toured for Inheritance as well as my podcast Family Secrets, I’ve heard so many stories of other discoveries of family secrets, and I’ve realized that something truly beautiful and miraculous about my story is that everyone tried to do the right thing. Everyone tried to be kind. The trust and respect is entirely mutual. It didn’t happen overnight.
AQ: One of the thorniest issues in your story, at least as it pertained to the Waldens, was the question of whether Ben might have other offspring conceived through sperm donation. What would happen if you were simply the first? In a particularly charged moment, Pilar asks you outright if you’ll protect them. Have there been other half-siblings who have appeared? And if so, what has happened?
DS: I have heard the stories of many people who discover that they were donor-conceived and then discover scores of half-siblings. That has not happened to me. That doesn’t mean there might not be a few out there, but it becomes less likely with each passing year, as DNA testing continues to explode. Honestly, I don’t spend much time thinking about it. Ben and I have discussed how to handle or manage such an occurrence and continue to trust and respect that we’ll be able to navigate it with care. I certainly would feel a moral responsibility to a half-sibling stumbling upon this shocking information. I mean, I was that person myself not so long ago.
AQ: Your book is dedicated to your father. Which father do you mean?
DS: I have only one father: the dad who raised me. Who loved me, cared for me, nurtured me, and formed much of who I am. I loved him then, and I love him now. I very purposely worded the dedication of Inheritance in the way I did. I wanted the reader to think about what makes a father a father, what makes a family a family. I come from Ben, biologically. We share many traits, and it’s fascinating and oddly comforting to see myself in him. But he didn’t raise me. This journey has been a tremendous education for me in understanding what makes up our identities and attachments.
AQ: Is there any part of you that wishes you didn’t know? That you had never found out? What if your husband had never casually mentioned a DNA test to you?
DS: Not for a single solitary second. It was hard; it was shocking, but I’m very grateful that my life took this turn, that I learned something so essential about my identity. All my life, I had felt “other.” I didn’t fit in. Something didn’t make sense, but I had no idea what that might be. I had a good life, a contented life, but I was slightly haunted by the feeling that I didn’t totally add up. On my podcast, Family Secrets, I ask my guests at the end of each episode if they wish they’d never found out their family secret; not a single person has said, yes, it would have been better not to know. Knowledge is power. Knowledge is liberation. When the truth has been hidden in plain sight all one’s life, it’s like the lights blink on.
Suggested ReadingAll You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found by Jennifer Lauck
DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America by Bryan Sykes
The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen
She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories of Our Genes by Adam Rutherford