Dani Shapiro is an award-winning American author who has explored the depths of her own past and personal identity in a series of searing memoirs. So when her husband convinced her in 2016 to take a DNA genealogy test, she went along with it on a whim. But little did she know that the results would actually reveal a family secret that had been hidden for decades.
In 2014 ABC News revealed that genealogy is already one of the most popular pastimes in the United States. The only hobby supposedly more prevalent in the country is, in fact, gardening. This has perhaps been a long time coming, though, as discovering one’s family history isn’t exactly a new craze.
Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, for instance, genealogy was of interest to people who were preoccupied with their heritage, particularly among the elite. Following an influx of southern Europeans to the U.S., you see, more established immigrants sought to preserve the perceived hierarchy by seeking to prove that they were more “pure” than the new arrivals.
By the late 1960s, though, this kind of supremacy was thankfully beginning to become less prevalent. In fact, America’s vibrant collective heritage was starting to be embraced. So now genealogy began to be seen more as a journey to self-discovery through family history rather than a tool with which to “prove” the “purity” of one’s heritage.
It was during the 1990s and the advent of the internet, however, that genealogy really started to boom. And as past family records found their way online, millions of Americans were now able to access information about their relatives without having to even leave their homes.
Fast-forward to the early 21st century, and genealogy is suddenly a billion-dollar business. Our obsession with the past has given rise to hundreds of TV shows, books and websites too. In fact, online family history sites are the second-most popular kinds of pages on the internet.
And the latest offshoot of the genealogy craze is DNA testing. How does it work? Well, by sending samples of DNA to testing companies for analysis, customers can supposedly discover their individual ethnic mixes. Millions of people have already gladly entered into the process too.
Testing is not without its controversies, however. In 2013, for instance, scientists warned that some DNA ancestry services were “meaningless.” Specifically, a guide from University College London stated that “the genetic ancestry business uses a phenomenon well-known in other areas, such as horoscopes, where general information is interpreted as being more personal than it really is.”
Despite the doubts over DNA testing, though, it remains a popular way for people to learn about their pasts. The results can sometimes be surprising, however. In fact, on occasion they can uncover family secrets that have remained buried for years, as Dani Shapiro found out in 2016.
Shapiro is a best-selling author who was born in New York City in 1962. She then went to Sarah Lawrence College before becoming a novelist and writer for publications such as Vogue, Elle and The New Yorker. These days, she lives in Connecticut.
In her personal life, too, Shapiro is married to screenwriter and journalist Michael Maren. She also follows Judaism after rediscovering her faith in her 40s. In 2011, in fact, she told the Jewish Ledger, “[I] could no more reject my Judaism than reject being female or being a mother or a wife or a writer.”
And while Shapiro’s relationship with religion has clearly had its ups and downs, Judaism has nonetheless played a large role in her life. In addition to being raised by two Jewish parents, you see, Shapiro also spent some time studying at a Jewish school.
Despite Shapiro’s links to her faith, however, strangers have seemingly questioned her Jewish heritage before. To many, the author has said, her blonde hair and blue eyes are at odds with what people consider to be Jewish stereotypes. And it apparently hasn’t just been gentiles who’ve made comments about Shapiro’s looks.
According to The Washington Post, in fact, a family acquaintance once brought up the atrocities committed against Jews during World War II to slight Shapiro. They reportedly said, “We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.”
But despite such comments from friends and strangers alike, Shapiro had no real reason to doubt her heritage. So when her husband asked her to take part in a DNA genealogy test, which he’d originally intended for himself, she didn’t have any reservations about depositing saliva in a tube and sending it off for analysis.
In her book Inheritance, which was published in January 2019, Shapiro explained, “At the time, my greatest fear was that I might be genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s disease or breast cancer. But we’ve all heard stories of people who discover, quite by accident, that their family history isn’t quite what they thought.”
Shapiro was no stranger to delving into her own past, though. The writer has after all described herself as a “serial memoirist,” having penned four autobiographical works in the space of ten years. And in those books she has covered some of the most personal aspects of her life, including an affair with a married man and the automobile crash in which her father died.
This last event had been particularly hard on the writer. Growing up, you see, Shapiro had been particularly close to her Orthodox Jewish father. During a January 2019 appearance on the Today show, she explained, “My father was a very kind, very big-hearted guy. He gave a lot of bear hugs. He was a very loving person, and I felt a real bond with him.”
Shapiro had been 23 when her father had passed away. But by 2019 she had gone on to create a seemingly happy and stable life with her family. So she might well have thought that her biggest dramas were behind her. But after the fateful day upon which she received her DNA test results, she went on a journey to uncover a family secret that had been kept for 54 years.
Reflecting on what she believed the results would tell her, Shapiro explained, “I would have expected it to be, you know, well into the 90 percent, up to 100 percent Eastern European Ashkenazi [Jewish]. It showed that I was 52 percent Eastern European Ashkenazi. The other 48 percent was English, French, Irish, German…”
Of course, these percentages shocked Shapiro. With no explanation at hand as to how this could be possible, she was initially skeptical of the findings. And as a result, she decided to compare her DNA data to that of her half-sister through her father. And it was then that she discovered that the woman in question wasn’t a biological relation at all.
Describing what happened next, Shapiro said, “I knew what that meant. She’s much older than I am and the product of my father’s first marriage. So I knew that meant that he was likely more fertile at the time, as a younger man. Also, she looked just like him, she sounded like him, she walked and talked like him, and it was the story of my life that I didn’t.”
Given that both her parents had passed away, though, Shapiro couldn’t turn to them for answers. So she subsequently delved into her past to search for any clues. And to make sure that no stone went unturned, she started at the very beginning: a fertility clinic in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Shapiro was already aware that she’d been conceived at the establishment in question via artificial insemination. After doctors had studied her mother’s ovulation cycles, you see, her father had hurried to the clinic from his job on Wall Street to supply sperm at designated times.
Over the years, though, Shapiro had apparently heard reports that similar establishments operating at the time had employed unethical methods. Specifically, the writer had gleaned that clinics would combine the sperm from clients with sperm from other sources in order to boost the possibilities of successful inseminations. But Shapiro had never thought that such rumors could apply to her own conception.
That changed in light of her DNA test, however. So she subsequently got in touch with someone she knew through Twitter who is a self-described genealogy buff. And thanks to this individual, Shapiro was soon able to locate her biological father.
The man in question had been a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania at the time of Shapiro’s conception. And when the writer eventually found some footage of her biological dad on YouTube, she reportedly found the similarities that she shared with him to be striking.
For Shapiro, in fact, the truth was all there on the screen. She believed, for instance, that the man shared some of her features. The writer even thought he had some of the same mannerisms. And despite the shock, Shapiro found comfort in finally being able to see herself in someone else.
Shapiro had naturally always felt different to the rest of her family. Her parents, meanwhile, had endured a strained marriage. The author’s father had battled with depression too, and her mom had also had psychological issues. So over the years Shapiro had grappled with feelings of not fitting in.
But looking at this stranger on a screen, the writer felt like she could start making sense of her heritage. “I knew in a place beyond thought that I was seeing the truth – the answer to the unanswerable questions I had been exploring all my life,” Shapiro wrote.
Yet while Shapiro evidently handled the discovery of her true paternity pretty well, it had still brought up all kinds of new issues. Some of the faces she saw in frames all around her home weren’t biological relatives at all, for example. Plus, her medical history was no longer correct.
The discovery also led Shapiro to look further into the actions of fertility clinics such as the one that her parents had attended. She subsequently learned that medical students had often donated their sperm to such facilities. And these donations might have been favored by doctors for a worrying reason, Shapiro believed.
In fact, Shapiro claimed that early artificial-insemination practices employed a hint of eugenics. This is the belief that some genetic groups are superior to others and should therefore be favored in order to improve the genetic stock of the population. The concept is controversial for obvious reasons.
In the 20th century, in fact, eugenics became associated with the horrors of the Second World War. Yet many countries, including the United States, have had eugenics programs in the past. And according to PBS, these included government-funded coerced sterilization schemes that were carried out on various minorities in many American states.
But the man behind the fertility clinic that Shapiro’s parents had attended had been Edmond Farris. And, as claimed in The New York Times, the doctor was once quoted as saying there was “nothing wrong in trying to bring children of fine quality into the world.” He reportedly added that his donors had been the “best material that Philadelphia medical schools can offer.”
The New York Times also claimed that those who’d signed up to the program in order to conceive had therefore been encouraged to have intercourse in the days leading up to and following insemination. That way, the paper reported, the true origin of any resulting child would always be ambiguous. And there was apparently a consensus that the children born in this way would never learn the truth.
Since discovering the identity of her biological father, though, Shapiro has met him. The doctor in question is reportedly retired and resides in Portland, Oregon. And by the time Shapiro came across him, he had been married for 50 years. He also has three children and six grandchildren.
Speaking of the man, who didn’t want to be identified in her book, Shapiro told Today, “He doesn’t feel like my father to me. But it was very… I feel very, very lucky to be able to meet him and to get to know him a little bit, because he does feel like the country I’m from.”
And despite the revelation that her biological father wasn’t who she’d always thought he was, Shapiro still felt close the man who’d raised her. “The amazing thing, I think, that’s happening just all over the place these days is sort of a new way of understanding relationships and family,” she explained.
If there’s one aspect of her life that makes her feel more connected to her dad, though, it’s her faith. “I’m Jewish on my mother’s side and psychologically Jewish on my father’s side,” she told JewishBoston.com in January 2019. “The world I was so profoundly connected to may not be my genetic roots, but it was inside of me for 54 years. That doesn’t go away.”