Dani Shapiro on the Disequilibrium of a Life-Changing Moment
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. I don’t think about Donald Rumsfeld a lot, but he does occasionally come to mind when I’m about to start reading a new book. The two-time Secretary of Defense is famous and infamous for many things. But he’s particularly well known for one quote from a 2002 news briefing during the run up to the Iraq War when he said, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
If I’m reading a book of nonfiction, I’m excited because I know I’m going to get a lot of known knowns—the writer knows things and they’re going to tell them to me. If I’m reading a mystery novel, I know I can look forward to known unknowns—I know that someone is going to die, and while I won’t know who killed them, I’ll eventually find out. But one of the reasons I so love reading memoir is that all of my favorite ones are filled with unknown unknowns—things the writer and I discover together along the way: truths about herself, her family, or and the world revealed along the way. Nothing is more unexpected than real life.
And recently I got talking about memoir, family secrets, and the way that life continues to surprise with today’s guest.
Dani Shapiro: I’m Dani Shapiro and I’m a memoirist, essayist, novelist, teacher.
WS: It’s been a big year for Dani Shapiro. She published her New York Times best selling memoir, Inheritance, and launched her own podcast, “Family Secrets,” about people who—like herself—have uncovered long-hidden secrets from their families’ past. She is the author of four other memoirs and five novels, including Black & White and Family History.
DS: I grew up in Hillside, New Jersey, which is a suburb, bedroom community of New York City. My father was from an Orthodox Jewish family and so that was very much a part of my upbringing. I went to a Jewish day school until I was in seventh grade. Our home was kosher and Sabbath observant, which I actually think had a lot to do with my becoming a writer because it was very boring. I was an only child. There was a lot of time to sit and think and look out the window and dream and read because on the Sabbath, as a child, I found it very oppressive. I couldn’t ride my bike. You couldn’t drive in a car. I couldn’t really play with my friends, couldn’t play music. So there really wasn’t anything to do and I wasn’t really a big prayer person. So there wasn’t anything really to do other than to read and to think and daydream.
WS: To fill the time, Dani would read just about anything.
DS: I was a huge reader as a kid. I was the omnivore, like the reading everything, reading the back of cereal boxes. I had to be reading all the time. Reading the newspaper, reading my parents books, pulling them off the bookshelf or snooping through their bedside tables to see what they were reading that they were hiding from me. In terms of reading books, I was not a child who was read to much, so my earliest memories of reading were actually religious texts—reading the Torah, reading Genesis.
WS: Growing up in a religious household, she would eventually come across a novel that spoke directly to her.
DS: I was probably around 11 or 12 years old when Judy Bloom’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret came out and that was a revelatory book for me. Because there was something about Margaret’s internal life, the way that Bloom captured it on the page that was that feeling that I think reading gives us. And, you know, all of us who fall in love with reading have this experience and it’s part of what makes us fall in love of, “Oh, I’m not alone.”
WS: Books gave Dani a sense of belonging that she didn’t always find with her family.
DS: I had very little in common emotionally, I would say, with my mother which was a very strange thing to feel, but we didn’t have a very strong connection or bond. She had a kind of coldness to her and was a pretty angry person. My greatest connection was with my dad, who was very warm, very human in all of his joys … in his sadnesses, which were many. He was remote in certain ways, but he was extremely loving. And where he was most alive was in his world as a devout person. And so his devotion, his synagogue attendance, his morning prayers were something that I felt very connected to, even though it wasn’t part of my internal life. It was more like I internalized his internal life. I wanted to understand what it meant to him. And so that’s where I was most connected to him, was in that world of observant Judaism.What was wrong with it was that it was written from the center of a trauma.
WS: While she respected her father’s faith, she rebelled against some of its traditions.
DS: I insisted on becoming a bat mitzvah, which in the Orthodox world that I was raised in wasn’t a thing. And part of why it wasn’t, was that girls were not allowed to read from the Torah. And I insisted to my dad that I wanted to be a bat mitzvah and he said, “Fine, but it’s going to be the Book of Ruth, the entire Book of Ruth. If you want to, you know, you can’t do a Torah portion, so it’s going to be the Book of Ruth.” So I did. The poor people who attended my bat mitzvah. It must’ve been the longest and most deadliest bat mitzvah service ever because it’s quite long, and I learned it and I chanted it. And the story itself of Ruth and her identity is one that now I think about and find fascinating; that that was the story that my father chose for me. The famous language in the Book of Ruth is, “Whither thou goest I will go,” and the sense of Ruth not being part of the tribe but wanting to be and becoming part of the tribe out of her desire to be, not out of her genetic heritage.
WS: Just like Ruth, Dani sought her own tribe.
DS: I was a classical pianist and that was something that I loved and that I took really seriously. I had a much older half-sister who was a serious concertizing pianist as well as being a psychoanalyst. And I admired her. And being a pianist was something that I equated I think with passion, with culture, with being an adult, being a grown up, being mature. And maybe even a way out in some way.
WS: But ultimately it wasn’t the piano that would give her a sense of belonging.
DS: When I went to Sarah Lawrence where I went to college, I went there thinking that I would study piano. I wanted to go to Sarah Lawrence because in whatever the guidebook at the time was for colleges, the ones that are geared toward the kids who are looking at schools, it pretty much was described as a place for people who hadn’t fit in anywhere else up until then. And that’s where I began to find myself: at Sarah Lawrence.
WS: Did you always want to be a writer?
DS: I did not know that it was possible to be a writer. I didn’t know any writers. It wasn’t until I got to Sarah Lawrence and there were working writers there who were teaching. I loved to read, but the connection that somebody spent their life creating the work, that was a lifeline for me.
WS: Despite finally feeling like she fit in, Dani had a defiant streak that put her time at Sarah Lawrence on pause.
DS: I left Sarah Lawrence my junior year. I dropped out and my rebellion just got deeper and more dangerous and more complicated. And I was living this really almost unrecognizable life in New York City. I was working as an actress, sort of. I was drinking a lot. I was partying a lot. I had a very bad boyfriend.
WS: Then came a devastating event that would prompt Dani to change her life.
DS: My parents were in a car accident that killed my dad and badly injured my mother. And in the next year as I rallied, turned my life around, took care of my mother, I also went back to Sarah Lawrence because I figured that whatever I was going to do in life, a college degree would probably be a good idea. And because I hadn’t graduated from high school because I left a year early, my terminal degree was the sixth grade of the Solomon Schechter Day School in Union, New Jersey. So that wasn’t good. I had no diploma.The rabbi said to me, “We all feel other. You’ve gone to the front of otherness and you’re coming back with something to teach us.”
WS: Two mentors at Sarah Lawrence would help her find her way.
DS: There was a professor there of 19th-century literature named Ilja Wachs and Ilja was the most revered teacher on campus and there was a sign up sheet to be interviewed by him for his 19th century literature class and it was a mile long. And something made me go up to that door and put my name down. I had no business getting into that class. I had not steeped myself in 19th century literature. I was very much coming back to school, sort of with my hat in my hands. And Ilja interviewed me and he let me into his class and he became an extremely important person in my life for many years. I recently visited him and I said to him, “Why did you let me in?” And he said, “You were suffering, you were bright and you weren’t broken.” And then the other thing that happened that year is that Grace Paley said to me, “Sweetheart, there’s the door to the MFA program. You should go through that door.” Like there’s the door, just walk through. And I did. I don’t think I ever actually filled out an application. I just went and that’s where I wrote my first novel, which I sold in manuscript; it was my thesis and that was the beginning of my life as a writer.
WS: As she developed her own writing style, she kept coming back to works by the novelist, memoirist, and journalist Joan Didion.
DS: I was on the one hand during those years a maximalist in my own work, in a lot of the work that I was gravitating toward. If one simile was good, three was better. And so Didion was like an antidote to that for me.
WS: Didion would be there for Dani once more as she uncovered a devastating family secret.
DS: I must have read The Year of Magical Thinking within a week of its publication, Didion being one of those few writers for me who the moment a new book is out, I need to buy it and I need to read it. And also I think I had for years a kind of identification with Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne because my husband Michael Marin is a writer and we have a partnership as writers that their partnership very much reminded me of, or ours reminded me of theirs.
WS: The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir about grief. After Joan Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, dies suddenly of a heart attack, she writes about her life after his loss.
DS: When I read it the first time, I actually misread it as being something that she was writing from the white hot center of, almost as if she was taking notes as the story of the loss of John was unfolding for her.
WS: Dani revisited The Year of Magical Thinking after taking an over-the-counter DNA test that turned her life upside down.
DS: I had been conceived by donor insemination in the early 1960s. I found my biological father. He was a sperm donor who had been a medical student in the early 1960s. I discovered that my ethnicity was not what I thought it was, which was the least of my concerns. I discovered that I had been just plain wrong about what made me me for 54 years. And that is a staggeringly, destabilizing thing to happen. And I was writing initially from that place. I was dizzy. I was practically walking into walls, and I sat myself in this chair in my house, in the library of my house, and I pretty much didn’t move and feverishly wrote these first 200 pages.
WS: Those pages were the start of Dani’s memoir Inheritance. She left the first draft alone for a few months to go on book tour for another book, Hourglass, which gave her time to think about what she’d learned.
DS: And when I returned and, with much more clarity, read what I had written—and felt pretty okay about—my heart just sank. My heart just plummeted. It was not good. It was not what I wanted it to be and I knew what was wrong with it, but I didn’t understand why. What was wrong with it was that it was written from the center of a trauma. And I took myself out to this little café, not far from where I live in rural Connecticut with The Year of Magical Thinking and I sat down to reread it because I thought, “But wait a minute, she did this, she wrote right from the center of it, and it’s so brilliant. And how did she do that?” And as I started reading it, I realized that she hadn’t written it from the center. She embarked on that book about six months after the loss of her husband.
WS: Dani could finally see where she went wrong in writing—and thinking—about her own trauma.
DS: It taught me something that I will always take with me as a lesson about writing from trauma, which is that I don’t actually think it can be done. Because trauma is recursive. When someone is traumatized they repeat a story over and over and over again until it makes sense to them. And literature can’t be recursive. Literature can’t ask the same question again and again and in my case, grappling with the discovery that my father hadn’t been my biological father, I was asking in those first 200 pages the same question over and over. The question was: “What did my mother know? What did my father know? What did my mother know? What did my father know?”
WS: It was only after breaking this cycle that she began to ask more useful questions, ones about identity and the stories we tell ourselves.
DS: There was a moment as I was writing Inheritance where a rabbi that I was speaking with said to me, “We all feel other. You’ve gone to the front of otherness and you’re coming back with something to teach us.” And I really took that to heart. I thought, “What am I learning? What am I learning about nature and nurture? What am I learning about identity? What am I learning about what makes a family a family? What makes a father a father? About biology and how it matters or doesn’t matter?”
WS: Dani began to understand the sense of otherness she felt as a child, and how it drove her to write.
DS: I always had my nose pressed to the glass. I was always an observer and I’m not sure that really being an insider allows for good literature about the inside that one is writing about. I mean one of the things that I find pretty interesting now in light of this discovery that I made is that I was always writing toward trying to answer questions for myself that had to do with identity or piecing together a life that didn’t entirely make sense. But I didn’t have the whole picture.
WS: Joan Didion’s writing played a crucial role in helping Dani discover that missing piece.
DS: I was trying to turn what I was experiencing into language. You know, that was my impulse with everything. Can I find the right words for this? Can I find the right phrase for this? Because if I can find them, then maybe I’ll understand what it is that I’m experiencing. I write and then I look back at what I’ve written and begin to understand what I know. And so I was, I think, rushing the writing because I was in such a state of like the pieces of myself were sort of strewn all around me and I was impatient to begin to put them together again. To put myself together in some new way. But there was an urgency, I think, that would have benefited from slowing down a little bit. Not a lot. Again, not, you know, write this from the distance of your rocking chair someday, but from a place of that little bit of clarity of distance.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Dani Shapiro. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at email@example.com. I’m Will Schwalbe, thanks so much for listening.