Dani Shapiro on Unraveling Her Family’s History
The Author of Inheritance in Conversation with Michele Filgate
In Dani Shapiro’s magnificent recent book, Inheritance, the bestselling author’s world is completely transformed after finding out the results of a DNA test: the father she knew so well and had spent many years writing about wasn’t her biological father. “All my life I had known there was a secret,” she writes. “What I hadn’t known: the secret was me.” How does a person begin to make sense of their life after making such a discovery? For Shapiro, the author of nine additional books, the answer was obvious: she had to write about it.
We met at a café in Chelsea on one of the first days of spring, and we discussed the challenges and rewards of writing memoirs—and the underlying desire to understand our own stories. “It turns out that it is possible to live an entire life—even an examined life, to the degree that I had relentlessly examined mine—and still not know the truth of oneself,” Shapiro says in Inheritance.
Michele Filgate: How did you settle on the structure? Because I love how it does sort of feel like a mystery; you are uncovering these truths in your life, and that is part of the structure.
Dani Shapiro: Right, and also that there is more than one mystery, and one of the mysteries in a way that was solved very quickly was structurally complex because to me, that wasn’t something that I wanted to draw out over the course of a narrative because that would have felt really manipulative—and it’s not how it happened. It’s not true to the rhythm… part of the truth of the discovery of my biological father was the speed of it. It was the shocking way that it fell into place with just a few clues which if I hadn’t had, then I would have never known.
It felt like something was at work that was bigger than me. And I don’t mean that in a kismet way, I mean in some shocking way that was like dominoes lining up. But the deeper mystery ended up being what did my parents know, and how close can I get to the room where it happened? How close can I get, while distrusting narrative? I had been constructing narratives all my life that were only a piece of the truth.
MF: Right, and you always knew something was kind of off.
DS: I did, I did. It fascinates me that I have a body of work in which there are so many clues. [There’s a part in] Still Writing where I’m snooping through my parents things. And the line is, “What was I hoping to find? A clue. A reason.” And reason is italicized.So it’s like a trail of bread crumbs throughout my work that show me what I knew that was way too dangerous to ever think. I never entertained the thought; It was never something that I pushed away, it was a thought that I did not have. And yet, I think it was the genesis for becoming a writer. From my first novel on.
I don’t think you can write prose from the place of trauma. I think poets can do that, I think that’s what poets do. But there is a moment in the book where I quote Bessel van der Kolk, the great psychiatrist, and he wrote, “The nature of trauma is that you have no recollection of it as a story.” And if you think about any moment in your life that has been traumatic, for any of us, what do we do, we tell the story again and again and we tell it the same way because we are trying to digest it, we are trying to make sense of it, we are trying to get ahold of it. And I recognize that, but it doesn’t make good literature.
And I guess I thought I could do that because in both Hourglass and Devotion I had written excavations of the present moment, but what I realized as my heart was sinking was that in both Hourglass and Devotion, I wasn’t writing from a place of trauma. In Hourglass I was writing about my marriage. In Devotion I was writing about a spiritual inquiry and reckoning but it was actually from a tremendously settled place from which I felt I could explore those questions. This was different: my body felt like the trauma. I couldn’t do yoga for months and months and months because it felt like the body that had been doing yoga I had to re-understand.
So I knew that. And then I found myself thinking about The Year of Magical Thinking.
MF: I love that book.
DS: Me too. And I had been thinking about it from the very first conversation I had with Jordan Pavlin, my editor, and I said I think I want to write about this, and she said, “Well, I didn’t want to say anything but of course you do!” She said, “This is going to be your Year of Magical Thinking.” And what I took her to mean actually had something to do with the relationship Didion had to the material she was writing about. I didn’t go and reread it. I felt at the time, well her relationship to the material she’s writing about, she’s writing from inside it. But if you actually go back and reread that book as I did after I realized that I had 200 pages I was going to have to throw away—she’s not writing directly from the present moment. She found a spot that was not very far away but it was just far away enough that it allowed her to be nimble; it allowed her to have a fulcrum where she could move toward the moment of John’s death, and the repetition of that moment, and the ordinary instant, and all of that but she could also quote, she could bring in the wisdom of others in a way that’s with the cool remove for which she is so well known. It was accessible to her.
I realized I had to find that spot from which I could pivot, from which I could re-understand my own history with my parents. But what became more and more interesting to me as I was writing was I was thinking about the philosophy of identity, and I was thinking about otherness, and I was thinking about all of the big ideas this story raises, and I wanted to be grappling with them. So part of the challenge was to slow down the freight train and to tell the story in a really layered way. The most pleasurable writing was that last quarter where I had caught up with myself, and what I was thinking was what I was writing about.
MF: This is your fifth memoir. What you have you learned from examining your life so closely, and do you feel like you’ve become more comfortable with making yourself vulnerable on the page? Does it ever get easier?
DS: I think in terms of getting it on the page and making it right, arranging the pieces, I would not say that that has gotten easier because each inquiry presents its own challenges. I don’t think it should be easier. The writer is attempting to get at something really essential and tender and raw, and there is a price to be paid for that.
I wondered how it was going to feel with Inheritance, to bring Inheritance out into the world. For years I fielded the question of, or some version of, you must feel so exposed, I feel like I know you. There is kind of a misunderstanding of what it is to write memoir and creative nonfiction in that way. The very question is what makes me feel exposed, until then I don’t. I really have never felt that way, I really felt like actually this is something that I have crafted with control and created a narrative edifice. I and I alone have chosen exactly how to tell that story and that has the effect of making me feel not exposed. I hate the expression, and everybody says it these days, thank you for sharing your story. Because that’s not what it is; I mean, it is and it isn’t. It makes it sound like: here is my journal.
MF: It diminishes it somehow.
DS: It does, even though that is not what people intend. And I think they misunderstand something as being readable or conversational as “I wrote it down, I just wrote it down” where the shaping of the narrative is such an enormous amount of control that I end up feeling like within it I reveal an enormous amount but I’m choosing that; I’m choosing it again and again and again and whittling and deciding.
But by the time the book came out I think I had gotten to a place of readiness. I’m trying to think of why that is because really in terms of the scheme of things it’s a very short amount of time. I mean my whole self-definition has changed. The fact that it was my story felt like it was secondary to the fact that this was a hell of a story and I recognized it as something outside of myself. I started to feel in a way like a vehicle for it, which removed ego from it. Which is really a fantastic thing to feel.
And I began to feel a sense of purpose around it. Because I’m doing these events now where people are discovering that they were adopted and they didn’t know, thousands and thousand of people are discovering this every week now. I didn’t write this in my book but last year 12 million people did the DNA kits. And out of those 12 million people 2 percent discovered what is known as NPE which stands for “not parent expected.” So that’s hundreds of thousands of people a year. So people come to my events and I mean, there are things that are so fucked up about the policies in our country, about anonymity which can’t happen anymore, and non-disclosure which shouldn’t happen anymore. There is a whole reckoning with it and I’m having a voice in it.
I was just at Harvard last week speaking at the Center for Bioethics. And at Stanford a few weeks before that. I keep on thinking, what has my purpose been as a writer up until now? I want to be read. I want to be read after I die. That’s pretty much it: here is my body of work, I hope it moves you. This feels different; this feels like wow, we are in this very unique moment in time where all these secrets are coming out. And the people who kept the secrets, many of them are still living and having to contend with, do we tell our children that we hid their identity from them before we die? We weren’t going to but now, maybe we have to.
MF: I love the advice Rabbi David Ingber gives you, “You can imagine you are in exile. Or you can imagine that you have more than one home.” How did discovering your biological father and your half-sister expand what that word means to you?
DS: I love that David said that, too. The people that I reached out to said really the most extraordinary things.
MF: Your aunt too. That scene really makes me cry.
DS: Everyone tells you that scene makes them cry. When she said to me, you are not an accident of history, in a way it relates to what David said, that feeling that is profoundly part of that discovery of being an accident, being in exile, wandering through your own life. I’m very lucky that I found [Ben Walden], that he was living, that he was willing to have contact with me, that I ended up liking him, that my half-sister grew up with brothers and always wanted a sister so she was really curious and really open. I’ve heard many stories about it being otherwise.
MF: You write, “It is a measure of true adulthood that we are able to imagine our parents as the people they may have been before us.” I really love that. Do you feel like you understand your mom and dad even more after finishing this book?
DS: I’m glad you got that line; it seems like something I had arrived at that was hard won. Because I had to think about them before me in order to understand as close as I could get to what they went through, and the choices that they made. Understanding it as these two people desperate and traumatized and filled with shame and so much secrecy around all of it. And my mother’s desperate desire for a child. And their love for each other, that had eroded by the time I had any memory of them, but it was there. I found that florist card that my dad wrote on the day of my birth: “Dearest Darling,” all I could think looking at it was—you really loved her. You were two people who were going down this road together, and so much changed.“To me, it’s always an act of trying to put something together again that is both broken or that needs a kind of understanding, and that is the work.”
I’ve always had more empathy for my father than my mother, and that is pretty clear throughout my writing. I end up having more compassion for my mother and I guess a certain amount of gratitude to her because she made this happen. She went to the place that got it done, she convinced my father.
MF: You write that, “I had grown up in a house where the air crackled with the unsaid.” I’m really interested in the idea of silence being a formative experience for writers. Do you think silence is part of why you became a writer in the first place?
DS: I do. And I always did, but I think now I understand differently. In Still Writing I talked about being in a Sabbath observing home, and there being one day a week in which there was boredom, there was no activity, there was no telephone, you couldn’t go anywhere. And I always understood that to be formative. And I also really did know that I grew up in a house that had secrets in it, and I did a lot of exploring about what those secrets were, and those secrets were all there: I was just missing the big one. But the silence, the unsaid, it’s hard to tease it away from secrecy. I grew up in a very quiet house. There weren’t other siblings, the walls were thick; things kind of echoed. And I require a lot of silence. It’s probably one of the reasons why I had one child, ultimately. As much as I had a fantasy of myself with a brood of children, I need a lot of space, I need a lot of order. And that’s not something, I mean nature wise, we can’t decide that about ourselves: if you are somebody who needs that, then you need that.
MF: I really love that you admit in this book to having a bad memory. You say, “And so I followed my own line of words to see where it would lead me.” It was really refreshing to see someone who has written memoirs talking about how difficult it can be to access our memories.
DS: I think even among writers, even among people who think about literature, it’s like there is either a kind of distrust of the recreation of something or the use of dialogue, like ‘do you remember her saying that’ kind of thing. Where the reaching for it is what actually the work is. You always know when you are writing memoir whether you are reaching for it or whether you are making something up. It’s unmistakable, when you are making something up, you are writing fiction. But the reaching for it, the device I suppose of just I don’t know this, I don’t remember this—or moments in Inheritance where I’m imagining my father on the train on his way to Philadelphia, well, obviously I wasn’t there.
And what are the ways in which we can help ourselves remember? I have a meditation practice; I would not say memories surface so much as clarity surfaces when I am meditating. I haven’t done this in a long time, but when I play piano—like when I was writing Devotion, I grew up as a pretty serious pianist, I would just sit down and play because it would allow the mind to just kind of quiet and roam and go places. But I think those blessed with some kind of perfect recall might not be memoirists. Why would they be? To me, it’s always an act of trying to put something together again that is both broken or that needs a kind of understanding, and that is the work. If you know what happened, why tell the story?