fb-pixel Skip to main content
story behind the book | kate tuttle

Unearthing family secrets in the DNA

david wilson for the boston globe

It all began with a DNA test kit. “I wasn’t particularly curious; I felt like I knew my family history. I only did it because my husband was doing it,” the writer Dani Shapiro said. The results led to her new book, “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love.”

The father she’d grown up with, it turned out, was not her biological parent. Still reeling from the news, Shapiro tracked down the man whose sperm donation had led to her conception. “What I learned was that being in shock and trying to solve a mystery were not mutually exclusive,” she said. “Embarking on trying to understand what happened was a big part of what kept me together in the early days.”


A novelist and memoirist, Shapiro found herself processing her new reality through narrative. “For me, this was a complete shift in my understanding of where I came from that came in a split second,” she said. “The way that I was going to piece myself together again was by piecing as much of the story together as I possibly could.”

She sympathized with her parents — “infertility was such a shameful thing for a couple to go through” — but also felt shaken by the revelations of lifelong secrets. “I found myself thinking a lot about what I was learning about what makes a family a family, and what makes a father a father. I went on a really scorching journey to discover that.”

Shapiro made contact with her biological father, whose privacy she protects in the book by changing his name and identifying details. Initially guarded, he eventually forged a friendship with his offspring. “I am so aware of my good fortune on so many levels: in finding him, in his being alive, in his being a lovely person,” Shapiro said. “It moved from something that initially felt traumatic to something eventually that felt like liberation, because it was the truth.”


Shapiro will read, in conversation with Dr. Suzanne Koven, at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Brookline Booksmith.

The Boston Globe may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers.

Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.