One Book Steamboat: Inheritance
By Alesha Damerville
Image courtesy of Michael Maren
By Jennie Lay
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS –Spawned by public libraries across the country and nourished by a desire for deeper conversation, the idea of a “community read” has emerged as the ultimate book club for mega-cities and small towns alike. When everyone immerses in a single story and filters it through diverse perspectives, an elevated level of discussion opens, along with new paths for neighborly connection. This year, Bud Werner Memorial Library is steering local readers to share in reading Dani Shapiro’s bestselling memoir, Inheritance, a story that plumbs the depths of identity and the repercussions of an everyday DNA test.
Meet One Book author Dani Shapiro
A conversation about memoir, identity and Inheritance
In 2016, author Dani Shapiro spit in a tube for a typical mail-in DNA analysis. What she got back was a genetic mystery that rocked her memories, her family history and the core of her identity. Her father was not her biological father. And so began a brisk and meticulous unraveling of family secrets, an unwinding of contorted medical ethics, and a wide-open cracking of the human heart. In anticipation of Shapiro’s March visit to the library, we talked with her about Inheritance,the touching and unflinching memoir that sprang from her experience.
Steamboat Magazine:Memoir as a form has long spurred debate. What defines memoir for you? And where are you comfortable coloring inside and outside the lines – perhaps a self-imposed set of ethics and boundaries?
Dani Shapiro:I’ve never really understood why memoir as a form has spurred debate. In writing memoir, the writer is inclining her mind in the direction of memory. Our memories are inherently faulty instruments – so in writing memoir, it isn’t definitive facts we’re after, but the relationship between the self and the story. For instance, if you were to task a writer with writing the same story every decade, it would, of course, be a different story. Because the writer is the instrument, and the instrument changes with age, time, circumstances. I know that better than most people, at this point, because of the enormous discovery I made in midlife – a discovery that changed my entire understanding of my history and my family. That doesn’t negate my prior memoirs – I had written what I’d understood at the time.
SM:You've spent considerable effort exploring identity as it evolves in different, perhaps less definitive and squishier, ways than a DNA test. How did this memoir feel different for you?
DS:Inheritanceand the journey I took to write it felt like the endcap of all the prior memoirs. I had been digging and digging, though without a clear understanding of what I had been digging for. And then I discovered the truth of myself. I write it in the book: “I always knew there was a secret. What I didn’t know: the secret was me.”
SM:Your discoveries that grew into Inheritanceare relatively fresh in the trajectory of a lifetime. Did writing Inheritancefeel traumatic or therapeutic?
DS:Writing Inheritancewas very hard – the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a writer. I didn’t know if I could pull it off. I kept saying to my husband: “I just want to do the story justice.” The fact that it was my story was almost irrelevant to me. I was aware that it was an important story that just happened to be mine. I’m glad it was my tenth book, or I don’t think I would have had the tools or the craft to take my immediate, unfolding experience and turn it into a story that had universal appeal.
SM:As most of us who have done DNA tests know, the more others continue to spit, the more updated DNA connections we get. Have you continued to make new links to biological family members beyond the father and siblings you introduce us to in your book?
DS:I actually have not, which is unusual. I may not have other half-siblings from my biological father, beyond his own children. As I’ve been on tour for the book, I’ve heard countless stories from people who make discoveries like mine, and then further discoveries of scores of half-siblings – but that isn’t my story. And though, of course it’s possible that a half-sibling or two will turn up, it hasn’t happened yet.
SM:Are there perspectives or conclusions you drew in past memoirs that you'd want to change after processing the facts and events that went into writing this one? How much did your DNA revelations change the trajectory of how you told past stories?
DS:No, there’s nothing I’d change about my past memoirs because, as I’ve said, they stand as documents of a moment. Or as my great friend, the Buddhist teacher and writer Sylvia Boorstein has said: “You can only write a book about what you know now.” The now keeps shifting and changing. Everything I wrote was true to my memory. All the narratives I supplied to my life had elements of truth to them – they just weren’t the whole truth, because I didn’t have the whole truth. Perhaps I still don’t. After all, I will never be able to discuss with my parents what happened. They’re gone. I can only make educated guesses – and much of my journey has been a tremendous education.
SM:Is there more to this story you want to share, perhaps another memoir after this? Or does revealing such a deep truth that unveiled mystery and secrets spur you to return to writing fiction?
DS:Your guess is as good as mine! I do think Inheritanceis the end of a body of work that includes my memoirs Slow Motion, Devotionand Hourglass. And perhaps my hybrid memoir about writing, Still Writing. I’ve been on book tour since Inheritancecame out, so I haven’t had the mental space to quietly listen for what’s next, but whatever it is, I imagine it will be a departure. Because this discovery marks a departure, a divide, a before and after.
SM:As your paternity story was emerging, did you know already that you wanted to share it, or did it take a while to decide?
DS:Writing is the way I come to understand what I think, what I feel, what I know. I began making notes right away. I kept index cards with me and would jot down phrases, words, feelings. I began researching right away, putting on my reporter’s hat, partly because it was my way of making myself whole, and partly because some of the people I needed to contact were elderly, and I was worried I wouldn’t get to them in time. So there was a real ticking clock. I began writing the book while very much in discovery mode. In fact, I made a false start (of 200 pages) and had to start all over again, once I had a little distance. I needed just a modicum of distance so I could become a storyteller telling a story.
SM:Aside from an obvious conversation with your parents, are there interviews you wanted but weren't able to get because individuals passed, or wouldn't cooperate?
DS:No, I was fortunate in that everyone I was hoping to speak with was willing. Actually wait, that’s not quite true. I reached out to the older, adult children of the late Dr. Edmond Farris, hoping they might be able to shed some light on their father and his institute, where I was conceived. They were unresponsive.
SM:You were raised Orthodox, then your spiritual practices evolved as an adult. When you unexpectedly learned you were only half Jewish, did it erode your personal sense of Jewishness?
DS:Quite the opposite. For the first time in my life, I finally understood why I had been haunted by a feeling of otherness, despite my Jewish credentials. I always wondered why I felt different, why I felt other, why I felt I didn’t belong. I was constantly told I didn’t “look” Jewish, which certainly contributed to that sense of being an outsider. When I finally learned the truth, it was liberating because it explained myself to me. And now, if anything, I feel more Jewish – despite the fact that biologically I am half-Jewish – because I know the truth of myself.
SM:After what you've experienced, and having hashed it out in a memoir, where do you come down on the question of nature versus nurture? Did you change camps after this experience?
DS:Both matter. We humans would like to convince ourselves that it’s all nurture, that nature doesn’t matter at all. I’ve come to the realization that the reason for this is that we think we can control nurture. That if we nurture our own children or loved ones in exactly the right way, all will be well. But nature also asserts itself. I’m proof of that. I never really understood my own constitution until I met my biological father. I was nurtured to varying degrees by the parents who raised me (my biological mother and social father, as it turns out) and that was huge, but it wasn’t all.
One Book Steamboat: How to participate
Read the book: Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love by Dani Shapiro
Buy the paperback of this critically acclaimed, New York Times bestseller at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore, or get it on loan for free at Bud Werner Memorial Library.
Expand your horizons.
Attend the library’s films and talks surrounding Shapiro’s themes from the book:
Tuesday, Feb. 4 Genealogy 101
Thursday, Feb. 13 Data Mining the Deceasedwith filmmaker Julia Creet
Monday, Feb. 17 Special One Book Exploring the Sacred looks at spiritual identity
Tuesday, Feb. 25 Decoding Watson
All events are free, starting at 6:30 p.m. in Library Hall.
Join a free community book discussion at noon on Tuesday, March 3, or 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 4, in the conference room next to Library Hall.
Meet the author.
Dani Shapiro presents a free community talk about Inheritanceat 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11 at Bud Werner Memorial Library.
Get more info.
Learn more about the book, the author, genealogy resources and One Book Steamboat events at
What to read after One Book
Dani Shapiro shares a list for reading more – and different.
Fiction she’s reading now…
Richard Powers’ “masterpiece,” The Overstory
Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School
Another author’s memoir she’s reading now…
Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House
Who to read for inspiration when you’re writing a book like Inheritance…
Joan Didion, especially in The Year of Magical Thinking
Top books for a deeper dive into questions of identity…
“A recently-published memoir by Adam M. Frankel, The Survivors, is a powerful, moving story of trauma and identity.” And, “speaking of trauma, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Scoreis incredibly helpful for anyone grappling with the fallout from such a discovery. Many thousands of people are making these discoveries every day.”
Listen to the podcast: Family Secrets
After writing Inheritance, Dani Shapiro says it felt organic to launch into a podcast. “I had just finished the manuscript, and I sent it to a friend, who proceeded to tell me an amazing story of her own family secret. As I was on the phone with her, I had the thought: I wish I was recording this,” she says. And with that, the podcastFamily Secretswas born. “I love podcasting as a form of storytelling. I love interviewing my guests, and then holding and shaping their stories. The only thing I find challenging is that I now have more than one full time job!” Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.