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Book review of “Inheritance” by Dani Shapiro

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019

 

I finished reading Dani Shapiro’s newest memoir, Inheritance, and highly recommend it. Here’s a one-sentence plot summary: “A 54-year-old writer takes DNA test on a whim and discovers the father who raised her is not her biological father.”

Dani was conceived with donor sperm in the 1960s, at a clinic in Pennsylvania. At the time, donor sperm was mixed with sperm of the father, and Dani’s parents (both deceased) never knew whose sperm created Dani. The story told to Dani was that her parents had trouble conceiving, and visits to a clinic fixed that. The donor himself was promised anonymity. He may or may not have other donor-created children out in the world currently.

The memoir is especially timely because of our cultural moment, when DNA kits are available and cheap. As I’ve noted previously, we in the adoption community have dealt with family complexity for years, but for most people, the information that a parent is not blood related comes as a life-upending shock.

The Inheritance narrative reads like a detective yarn as Dani, her husband, and the genealogy experts they consult unravel her history. Throughout, Dani poses ethical questions about what a person who is donor-conceived has a right to know regarding her biology. But as she points out, such questions are becoming increasingly irrelevant as anyone can spit in a vial and discover unknown parents, brothers, and sisters. The implications of this reality are far-reaching.

To me, as an adoptive parent, the equally compelling question is addressed in the memoir’s parallel thread: the question of identity. Dani wrestles with identity on every page. Who am I, really? she wonders. Who am I if not the person I thought I was, if my story is different from the one I believed? Who is my ‘real’ father? What does being a father mean?

“Who am I really?” is the question asked by many people who are adopted. And on some level, the question never goes away. Answers evolve over a lifetime.

Inheritance is one of the most probing, insightful, beautifully written explorations of the meaning of family and identity I’ve every read. Chapter by chapter, Dani puts the reader right beside her as she comes to terms with her new truth: from denial and anger to understanding and acceptance. Inheritance is not written specifically about “adoption,” but its reflections will resonate with the adoption community. Dani loved the father who raised her and demonstrates a profound, driving need to know her birth father. Both these statements are true, and worth pondering.

Inheritance also offers much to think about to anyone who is donor-conceived or considering donor conception. Thought leaders in the fertility industry should be required to read Inheritance.

I’ll leave you with two quotes. The first is said by Dani’s ninety-plus -year-old Aunt Shirley, and the second by Dani’s friend and colleague, Rabbi David Ingber.

“Finding all this out is a door to discovering what a father really is. It isn’t closure—you may not get to have that—but it’s an opening to a whole new vista.” (p. 138)

~Aunt Shirley

“You can say, ‘This is impossible, terrible.’ Or you can say, ‘This is beautiful, wonderful.’ You can imagine that you’re in exile. Or you can imagine that you have more than one home.’” (p. 209)

~Rabbi David Ingber

 

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A note from my mom

Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

One of the benefits of a torn calf muscle is being forced to sit down. For the past few days, I’ve parked myself downstairs on a small stool and sorted through boxes. This is part of my ultimate plan to carve out a permanent space for a writing desk for me. Currently, I write on a collapsible Costco table that stays in our guest room until guests arrive, which is often, and I’m compelled to take the table down. (Not that our guests would complain! Just that my papers and books overwhelm the space. Bottom line: I need a surface that is permanent.)

Today, I found this note from my mother, one of hundreds I’ve saved. She was a faithful correspondent, always clipping and sending me articles: about adoption, Guatemala, child-rearing, museums, the dance world. Her handwriting is so distinctive and energized, like my mother herself. Even her choice of stationery is revelatory.

I miss her every day.

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Dancer down

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019

I tore my left calf muscle, dancing if you must know. Practicing a dance routine to be more precise, awakening my dance gene long-dormant after decades of neglect. Six weeks to recover. I’m missing my lovely walks with Charlie, who may be more upset about this turn of events than I am.

I’m using the time to:

Read more (one of my eternal goals, hard to achieve because of my guilt over sitting down). I’ve finished reading one book and today will begin another.

Re-work the beginning of my novel, to draw out certain traits of the main character, sooner. (Will send to Beta readers for their impressions.)

Re-design my blog and web page.

Stay off my leg so I can do these things.

Just when we think we have everything under control, we realize we have nothing under control. That’s the lesson I constantly must re-learn.

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Harper’s article

Monday, March 18th, 2019

I’m posting the link to an article by Rachel Nolan in April 2019 Harper’s, “Destined for Export: The Troubled Legacy of Guatemalan Adoptions.” The piece focuses on a 27-year-old man from Belgium, Jean-Sebastien Hertsens Zune, who searches for his birth parents and discovers falsified paperwork. (Zune’s adoption occurred pre-DNA days.) In addition to telling Zune’s story, the article includes an interview with Susana Luarca (from the Guatemala City women’s prison), references “The Embassy Files” by Erin Siegal McIntyre, and quotes Harvard professor and adoptive mother Elizabeth Bartholet and an unnamed searcher.

None of the information is surprising. I just wish they’d included input from one of the thousands of adoptive and birth families who have reunited in a healthy way. But this is the legacy we must live with. We make sense of it as we can.

The photo above shows my daughter at age seven, reunited with her birth mother and grandmother.

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Free

Wednesday, March 13th, 2019

I sent off my manuscript to my agent and for the first few days after, I felt adrift and purposeless. Shouldn’t I be writing, editing, rewriting? That was my existence for the past (many) years: sitting at a table or desk, opening my laptop, and beginning to work.

Now I’m floating in the sweet space of possibility, hoping my agent will like my first novel, and not yet faced with the million more edits I’ll undoubtedly need to make if she does.

The first real writing workshop I ever attended was in 2006, at Squaw Valley. My project-in-progress was my memoir, Mamalita. I remember the first night, during orientation, sitting in a room filled with other writers and feeling like I’d made it to somewhere great, finally. And then, during workshop the next morning, having my pages–the pages I’d agonized over–ripped apart.

I came home, devastated. My book was trash. I’d never finish it. I spent a few weeks flattened by despair, then steeled myself to re-read the workshop’s comments. They were as bad as I remembered, as harsh, but contained within were morsels of hope: “A good story,” someone said. “I’m interested,” said another. “Keep going,” urged a third.

The criticism could make the work stronger, if I was willing to listen. The key was to stay open enough to receive the knowledge generously offered.

For years, I studied dance in New York. One of my teachers once said only two things were required to master technique: the desire to learn, and someone to teach you.

I don’t know if I’ll ever “master” writing. But the desire is there, and I’ve found the teachers.

Regardless of what happens with my manuscript, I needed to write this novel in order to tell this story. At last, I’m free of it. 

Photo credit: Jeffrey DuFlon; poetry reading with friends.

 

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Book group “Taking Flight”

Monday, March 11th, 2019

On Sunday, our Adoption Book Group discussed the memoir by mother-and-daughter Michaela and Elaine DePrince, Taking Flight (also published as Hope in a Ballet Shoe).

Michaela was born in war-torn Sierra Leone, orphaned by violence and disease, and adopted by the DePrince family in Vermont. From a very young age, she showed exceptional promise as a ballerina and is now a soloist at Dutch National Ballet; you may also recognize her from the documentary “First Position” and “Dancing with the Stars.” Michaela is an extraordinary young woman with an amazing story, and the book is an inspiring read.

Taking Flight seems to be written for a Young Adult audience, although any reader will be moved by Michaela’s strength and resilience. The love and support she feels from her family is palpable.

Photo credit: michaeladeprince.com, Vogue Germany

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Mateo’s Confirmation

Tuesday, March 5th, 2019

On Saturday, Mateo received his Confirmation. For his Confirmation name, he chose “Miguel” (as in the Archangel), and for his sponsor, Olivia.

I’m proud of my son for reaching this milestone, and of his sister for guiding him through his faith journey.

Like siblings everywhere, my kids fight. But when it matters, they stand up for each other, and have from the beginning.

Here they are at Confirmation, and meeting for the first time in the lobby of the Guatemala City Marriott (now Barcelo), when Mateo was six months old and Olivia three.

Not only blood makes a family.

xoxo

 

 

 

 

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Shoplifters the movie

Friday, March 1st, 2019

I saw the Japanese film, Shoplifters, a few weeks ago and am still thinking about it. The theme is adoption, or at least families together who are not biologically related.  Loosely, it’s about a man who teaches his son what he knows, which is shoplifting. It’s also about a man and the woman he loves and the children they love, and how they become a family. To tell you more would reveal too much because the film is full of surprises.

I love that Shoplifters was made in Japan, by a filmmaker who is male. The reason I love these things is because they prove issues of adoption are universally felt, and by people who are not only female.

(This should be obvious, but isn’t, always.)

Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The performances are across-the-board masterful, with Sakura Ando’s portrayal of the mother particularly breathtaking. The film is rated R. My kids haven’t seen it.

Shoplifters is provocative, moving, quiet, and powerful. It’s well worth watching.

 

 

 

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Monet at the museum

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

No school for Mateo on Tuesday, so we went to the de Young Museum to see Monet: The Late Years. The paintings are gorgeous, expressive, breathtaking. To stand in those galleries among them was to feel embraced by beauty. The exhibition will be on view through May 27.

Monet painted the works when in his 70s and 80s, living with his family in Giverny, France, World War I raging all around them. I’m curious to read Ross King’s book about Monet’s Giverny years, Mad Enchantment. I was also heartened and encouraged to learn some of Monet’s canvases took a decade to complete. (I say this as someone who has been hammering away at a novel for a very long time.)

One of my goals this year is to go to museums more often, and so far, I have. Already, I’ve seen the Vija Celmins exhibition at SFMOMA, and the Gauguin and Monet at the de Young.

How do I convince my 14-year-old son to accompany me without too much complaint? Bring a friend. Spring for the Audio Tour. Eat lunch at the Café. Buy a puzzle at the Gift Shop. (Edward Hopper: Portrait of Orleans.)

Plus, I’m lucky. Mateo really likes art.

photo credit: De Young Museum

 

 

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The Guatemalan fire trials begin

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

Today the New York Times remembers the horrific fire at Guatemala’s state-run group home, known as the Virgin de Asuncion Hogar Seguro, in “A Locked Door, a Fire, and 41 Girls Killed as Police Stood By.” (Ironically, the word “Seguro” translates as “safe.”) Fifty-six girls were locked in a room when fire broke out. Forty-one girls died while police stood outside the door for nine long minutes and failed to unlock it.

Trials have begun for officials held accountable. Can justice really be served? The girls are dead. It’s doubtful anything will change.

Here is the excerpt that will haunt me:

The deaths are a reflection of the cruel passage to adulthood for many young girls in Guatemala, a journey often marked by poverty, violence and desperation. The nation has one of the highest child pregnancy rates, and the homicide rate for women is among the worst in the world.

“To be a girl in Guatemala is a risk, it’s been this way for generations,” said Marwin Bautista, an under secretary in the Ministry of Social Welfare who oversees the group homes.

I posted previously about the fire, here, here, here, and here.

“Tragic” can’t begin to describe the fire and, undoubtedly, the reality of the girls’ lives before the fire. Sadness, outrage, despair. No word suffices.

Photo credit: NY Times, Daniele Volpe

 

 

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