Bestselling memoirist, Dani Shapiro, woke up one morning to have her sense of self, family, her history, and faith pulled out from under her by a few lines on a piece of paper. She had taken a DNA test on a whim, but when the results came in, they were entirely unexpected and life changing. Shapiro learned that the man she had always known as her father was not, in fact, her biological dad. This news sent her into a tailspin that she ultimately turned into a journey of self-discovery, a powerful memoir, Inheritance, and a hit podcast, Family Secrets. On her hardcover tour for Inheritance, 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.