'Inheritance': When DNA Genealogy Shakes Our Identity, Foundation To The Core
Find our buildout from this hour, featuring a partial transcription, here.
With Meghna Chakrabarti
A DNA test, taken on a whim, leads to a startling result and a big meditation on the meaning of ancestry and family. Author Dani Shapiro tells her story in the celebrated new book, “Inheritance.” She joins us.
From The Reading List
Excerpt from “Inheritance” by Dani Shapiro
When I was a girl I would sneak down the hall late at night once my parents were asleep. I would lock myself in the bathroom, climb onto the Formica counter, and get as close as possible to the mirror until I was nose to nose with my own reflection. This wasn’t an exercise in the simple self-absorption of childhood. The stakes felt high. Who knows how long I kneeled there, staring into my own eyes. I was looking for something I couldn’t possibly have articulated—but I always knew it when I saw it. If I waited long enough, my face would begin to morph. I was eight, ten, thirteen. Cheeks, eyes, chin, and forehead—my features softened and shape-shifted until finally I was able to see another face, a different face, what seemed to me a truer face just beneath my own.
Now it is early morning and I’m in a small hotel bathroom three thousand miles from home. I’m fifty-four years old, and it’s a long time since I was that girl. But here I am again, staring and staring at my reflection. A stranger stares back at me.
The coordinates: I’m in San Francisco—Japantown, to be precise—just off a long flight. The facts: I’m a woman, a wife, a mother, a writer, a teacher. I’m a daughter. I blink. The stranger in the mirror blinks too. A daughter. Over the course of a single day and night, the familiar has vanished. Familiar: belonging to a family. On the other side of the thin wall I hear my husband crack open a newspaper. The floor seems to sway. Or perhaps it’s my body trembling. I don’t know what a nervous breakdown would feel like, but I wonder if I’m having one. I trace my fingers across the planes of my cheekbones, down my neck, across my clavicle, as if to be certain I still exist. I’m hit by a wave of dizziness and grip the bathroom counter. In the weeks and months to come, I will become well acquainted with this sensation. It will come over me on street corners and curbs, in airports, train stations. I’ll take it as a sign to slow down. Take a breath. Feel the fact of my own body. You’re still you, I tell myself, again and again and again.
Twenty-four hours earlier, I was in my home office trying to get organized for a trip to the West Coast when I heard Michael’s feet pounding up the stairs. It was ten-thirty in the evening, and we had to leave before dawn to get to the Hartford airport for an early flight. I had made a packing list. I’m a list maker, and there were a million things to do. Bras. Panties. Jeans skirt. Striped top. Sweater/jacket? (Check weather in SF.) I was good at reading the sound of my husband’s footsteps. These sounded urgent, though I couldn’t tell whether they were good urgent or bad urgent. Whatever it was, we didn’t have time for it. Skin stuff. Brush/comb. Headphones. He burst through my office door, open laptop in hand.
“Susie sent her results,” he said.
Susie was my much-older half sister, my father’s daughter from an early marriage. We weren’t close, and hadn’t spoken in a couple of years, but I had recently written to ask if she had ever done genetic testing. It was the kind of thing I had never even considered, but I had recalled Susie once mentioning that she wanted to know if she was at risk for any hereditary diseases. A New York City psychoanalyst, she had always been on the cutting edge of all things medical. My email had reached her at the TED conference in Banff. She had written back right away that she had indeed done genetic testing and would look to see if she had her results with her on her computer.
Our father had died in a car accident many years earlier, when I was twenty-three, and Susie thirty-eight. Through him, we were part of a large Orthodox Jewish clan. It was a family history I was proud of and I loved. Our grandfather had been a founder of Lincoln Square Synagogue, one of the country’s most respected Orthodox institutions. Our uncle had been president of the Orthodox Union. Our grandparents had been pillars of the observant Jewish community both in America and in Israel. Though as a grown woman I was not remotely religious, I had a powerful, nearly romantic sense of my family and its past.
The previous winter, Michael had become curious about his own origins. He knew far less about the generations preceding him than I did about mine. His mother had Alzheimer’s and recently had fallen and broken her hip. The combination of her injury and memory loss had precipitated a steep and rapid decline. His father was frail but mentally sharp. Michael’s sudden interest in genealogy was surprising to me, but I understood it. He was hoping to learn more about his ancestral roots while his dad was still around. Perhaps he’d even enlarge his sense of family by connecting to third or fourth cousins.
Do you want to do it too? he might have asked. I’m sending away for a kit. It’s only like a hundred bucks. Though I no longer remember the exact moment, it is in fact the small, the undramatic, the banal—the yeah, sure that could just as easily have been a shrug and a no thanks.
The kits arrived and sat on our kitchen counter for days, perhaps weeks, unopened. They became part of the scenery, like the books and magazines that pile up until we cart them off to our local library. We made coffee in the mornings, poured juice, scrambled eggs. We ate dinner at the kitchen table. We fed the dog, wrote notes and grocery shopping lists on the blackboard. We sorted mail, took out the recycling. All the while the kits remained sealed in their green and white boxes decorated with a whimsical line drawing of a three-leaf clover. ancestry: the dna test that tells a more complete story of you.
Finally one night, Michael opened the two packages and handed me a small plastic vial.
“Spit,” he said.
I felt vaguely ridiculous and undignified as I bent over the vial. Why was I even doing this? I idly wondered if my results would be affected by the lamb chops I had just eaten, or the glass of wine, or residue from my lipstick. Once I had reached the line demarking the proper amount of saliva, I went back to clearing the dinner dishes. Michael wrapped a label around each of our vials and placed them in the packaging sent by Ancestry.com.
Two months passed, and I gave little thought to my DNA test. I was deep into revisions of my new book. Our son had just begun looking at colleges. Michael was working on a film project. I had all but forgotten about it until one day an email containing my results appeared. We were puzzled by some of the findings. I say puzzled—a gentle word—because this is how it felt to me. According to Ancestry, my DNA was 52 percent Eastern European Ashkenazi. The rest was a smattering of French, Irish, English, and German. Odd, but I had nothing to compare it with. I wasn’t disturbed. I wasn’t confused, even though that percentage seemed very low considering that all my ancestors were Jews from Eastern Europe. I put the results aside and figured there must be a reasonable explanation tied up in migrations and conflicts many generations before me. Such was my certainty that I knew exactly where I came from.
In a cabinet beneath our television, I keep several copies of a documentary about prewar shtetl life in Poland, called Image Before My Eyes. The film includes archival footage taken by my grandfather during a 1931 visit to Horodok, the family village. By then the owner of a successful fabric mill, he brought my great-grandfather with him. The film is all the more powerful for the present-day viewer’s knowledge of what will soon befall the men with their double beards, the women in modest black, the children crowding the American visitors. Someone—my grandfather?—holds the shaky camera as the doomed villagers dance around him in a widening circle. Then we cut to a quieter moment: in grainy black and white, my grandfather and great- grandfather pray at the grave of my great-great-grandfather. I can almost make out the cadence of their voices—voices I have never heard but that are the music of my bones—as they recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. My grandfather wipes tears from his eyes.
In the year before my son’s bar mitzvah, I played him that part of the documentary. Do you see? I paused on the image of the rough old stone carved in Hebrew. This is where we come from. That’s the spot where your great-great-great-grandfather is buried. It felt urgently important to me, to make Jacob aware of his ancestral lineage, the patch of earth from which he sprang, the source of a spirit passed down, a connection. Of course, that tombstone would have been plowed under just a few years later. But in that moment—my people captured for all time—I was linking them to my own boy, and him to them. He hadn’t known my father, but at least I was able to give Jacob something formative that I myself had grown up with: a sense of grounding in coming from this family. He is the only child of an only child, but this—this was a vast and abundant part of his heritage that could never be taken away from him. We watched as the men on the screen swayed back and forth in a familiar rhythm, a dance I have known all my life.
So that 52 percent breakdown was just kind of weird, that’s all, as bland and innocuous as those sealed green and white boxes had been. I thought I’d clear it up by comparing my DNA results with Susie’s. Now, on the eve of our trip to the West Coast, Michael was sitting next to me on the small, tapestry- covered chaise in the corner of my office. I felt his leg pressed against mine as, side by side, we looked down at his laptop screen. Later he will tell me he already knew what I couldn’t allow myself even to begin to consider. On the wall directly behind us hung a black-and-white portrait of my paternal grandmother, her hair parted in the center, pulled back tightly, her gaze direct and serene.
Comparing Kit M440247 and A765211:
Largest segment = 14.9 cM
Total of segments > 7cM = 29.6 cM
Estimated number of generations to MRCA = 4.5
653629 SNP’s used for this comparison
Comparison took 0.04538 seconds.
“What does it mean?” My voice sounded strange to my own ears.
“You’re not sisters.”
“Not half sisters?”
“No kind of sisters.”
“How do you know?”
Michael traced the line estimating the number of generations to our most recent common ancestor.
The numbers, symbols, unfamiliar terms on the screen were a language I didn’t understand. It had taken 0.04538 seconds—a fraction of a second—to upend my life. There would now forever be a before. The innocence of a packing list. The preparation for a simple trip. The portrait of my grandmother in its gilded frame. My mind began to spin with calculations. If Susie was not my half sister—no kind of sister—it could mean only one of two things: either my father was not her father or my father was not my father.
Excerpted from INHERITANCE by Dani Shapiro. Copyright © 2019 by Dani Shapiro. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Time: “How a DNA Testing Kit Revealed a Family Secret Hidden for 54 Years” — “One evening in the winter of 2016, my husband mentioned that he was sending away for one of those commercial DNA-testing kits. He asked if I wanted him to order me one as well. I could easily have said no. I wasn’t curious about my ancestry. I knew where I came from–Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews on both my parents’ sides. Instead, I said yes. Why not? It seemed like a game–like those personality tests people often take online.
“The results, when I received them a few months later, changed everything I had ever understood about myself. I was only half Eastern European Ashkenazi, as it turned out. A person I had never heard of was identified as a first cousin. The truth was unavoidable. My beloved father, who died in a car accident when I was 23, had not been my biological father.
“This discovery led me deep into a world I had known nothing about: the history, science and psychological underpinnings of assisted reproduction. I have spent the past few years piecing together the story of how I came to be, the truth of where (and who) I come from–and the ways in which my identity was scrupulously hidden from me.”
Brian Hardzinski produced this hour for broadcast.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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