Novels, blogs, memoirs, articles, short stories, essays—Dani Shapiro is a richly versatile writer. And that versatility could be part of why Shapiro is so often dubbed a Writer’s Writer, an elusive title prone to interpretation, debate and even consternation—yet when it comes down to it, it’s something that seems to simply exist more in a knowing, a feeling.
As we launch this episode of Design Matters, we offer up the following quote collection, perhaps further proof of Shapiro’s status as a Writer’s Writer. Moreover, in the fields of her words, one finds wisdoms not only on the writing life, but cross-disciplinary lessons for creators at large—branding her (with apologies), a Creative’s Creative, an Artist’s Artist.
Here are 28 of our favorite Dani Shapiro quotes. (As always, the original sources are linked on the last word of each one.)
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
“I knew I wanted to be a writer before I knew that being a writer was possible. It’s easier to see in retrospect. I look back now at the girl I was—a voracious reader, the kind who reads beneath the covers with a flashlight, and an avid writer of letters that were full of fantasy and invention—[and] at the time I wondered if there might be something very wrong with me. I secretly feared that I was a pathological liar.”
“As a child, I couldn’t have defined—and certainly didn’t understand—the strange, witnessing quality that I brought to nearly all my experiences, as if I were taking deep, mental notes, reading a psychological and emotional Braille that seemed present in every situation. All was subtext. I internalized what I witnessed and then have spent my whole life trying to unpack it, to use it as my lens, to make sense of it.”
“I’ve come to believe that we all—each and every one of us—has a certain, central task of the psyche to perform while we’re here, alive on this earth. After all, it’s so unlikely to be here at all, born into this human body, on this grid, this place, this moment in time. Mine, I’ve come to think, is to become whole. To integrate a lifetime of complexity, challenges, secrets, luck, privilege, the inheritance of pain, of misunderstanding, the recompense of all the gifts I have been given with which to explore. I am a digger. I gnaw. I hope to come to know my own bone.”
“Writers are outsiders. Even when we seem like insiders, we’re outsiders. We have to be. Our noses pressed to the glass, we notice everything. We mull and interpret. We store away clues, details that may be useful to us later.”
“Earlier in my writing life, I was in love with language in a way I’m not now. If one simile was good, three was the best thing ever. I just loved riding that wave. Now the impetus is quite different, and it’s about finding just the bone of the story.”
“When you write fiction, characters and places become very real to you—and they’d better; you’re inhabiting a world.”
“The image I keep having is of this vast sort of field, where all my life as a writer I’ve been out there with a shovel, like, ‘OK, that spot seems really fertile. I’m going to dig there for a while.’ And there’s just this pile of dirt and this hole, and that’s a book. And then I do it again.”
“I tell students all the time that there is a kind of despair we feel as writers and artists that is not only useful, but necessary. It’s the second-to-the-last fathom, the murky, dark waters an artist must move through before reaching the very bottom, the place from which she can use all her strength and push up, up, up toward the surface. There’s light up there, but first we have to live in the depths.”
“I’m not so interested in what things are called anymore—fiction, creative nonfiction, memoir, lyric essay—except as they relate to the way that the reader reads the book. The reader picks up the book with certain thoughts: Now I have to suspend my disbelief, or, Now I don’t have to suspend my disbelief, because every word is true. Well, every word is never true. There is artifice and persona in everything.”
“I reject and am offended by the idea that this kind of work, [memoir], is confessional. There’s nothing confessional about crafting and shaping a story out of a lived life. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—the writer has to be able to transcend the life, to see it as if standing outside of it, in order to be able to make something of it. There’s something enormously satisfying and gratifying about crafting something, taking all that chaos and giving it shape.”
“Think of a ballet dancer at the barre. Plie, eleve, battement tendu. She is practicing, because she knows that there is no difference between practice and art. The practice is the art.”
“When I teach about the way memory works on the page, I will sometimes talk to students about a rookie writer mistake: You have a couple fighting, say, in a story, and then one of them goes into this long soliloquy-like memory in a way that would never happen in the midst of a fight. We don’t ruminate during a fight. Maybe in a bath, or driving a car, or as we take a walk. But not right smack in the middle of a dramatic moment. I’ll have my students try to follow their minds during the course of a day, just to see the way their minds work, the way our minds hop from thing to thing to thing. The internet mirrors that to such a degree you can actually see it. Show me your search history and I’ll show you who you are.”
“I’m sure I drove my publisher crazy asking to see version after version until the final typeset pages, because any discrepancy in white space would have made me insane. The white space itself is almost a character. It’s where the reader can stand and make certain connections for him- or herself.”
“Almost everything I’ve ever done in my writing life has been an accident.”
“I’m not sure self-doubt is an obstacle. It might even be a writer’s best ally. It seems to me that every really good writer I know is plagued by it. Confidence is highly overrated when it comes to creating literature.”
“I’m never quite satisfied. Satisfaction is death to the artist.”
“I’ve had a regular yoga practice for 25 years, and though for many of those years I would have told you there was little or no connection between my yoga practice and my writing life, I have come to understand that yoga and meditation serve to quiet my mind, and the best work comes from a settled mind. Our creative impulses, our histories, our imaginations, don’t only live in our minds, but in our bodies as well. The closer I am to feeling myself as a physical, sentient being, the more access I have to the stories that are within me and around me. If I’m stuck in a piece of work, the best thing I can do for myself is unroll my mat.”
“We are in the center of the stream. Much has already happened, and has formed the shape of our lives as surely as water shapes rock. Much lies ahead of us. We can't see what's coming. We can't know it. All we have is our hope that all will be well, and our knowledge that it won't always be so. We live in the space between this hope and this knowledge.”
“Years vanish. Months collapse. Time is like a tall building made of playing cards. It seems orderly until a strong gust of wind comes along and blows the whole thing skyward. Imagine it: an entire deck of cards soaring like a flock of birds.”
“I am—and I think most writers are—an introvert, but one who has become decent at extrovert behavior. I’m most connected to myself when I’m alone in a room, moving my hand across a page. That’s when I feel most like me.”
“When I walk into a bookstore I feel surrounded by my people, my tribe. The booksellers, the customers, and all those books on the shelves—they are my church, my temple, my religion. I never feel alone in a bookstore.”
“Reading is an exercise in empathy. To read is to enter another world in a way different from any other art form. The reader is actively participating, activating the pages of a book simply by picking it up and beginning. We discover through reading that we are less alone, as the inner lives of characters on the page become accessible to us. No matter how foreign or different a life experience might be, the writer is always saying to the reader, and the reader to the writer, ‘Me too. I’ve been there too.’”
“As a teacher of writing I also tell my students that if you show me a writer’s oeuvre, I will show you that writer’s obsessions. Theme is just a fancy word for obsession. If you read my body of work, you’ll know that I am consumed by questions about secrets in families, the power of the unsaid. And, of course, time and memory.”
“Writers have a collective purpose. Especially now, with the internet creating so much noise and speed in all of our lives, writers—by the very nature of what we do—are forced to slow down, and perhaps in so doing, we form a counterweight to the culture of instantaneous reaction.”
“Everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.”
“On my tax returns, I still pause about whether to write novelist, memoirist, writer, professor. I’m not sure whether this is truer for women than men, but I think that possibly shame enters into the psychic sphere of people who are doing things that are so out of step with the rest of the world.”
“As for the idea of retirement—I don’t know what to think. Writing is hard. So hard. And perhaps after a lifetime of grappling with the page, it might feel good to just … stop. On the other hand, at least at this point in my own life, the thought of not writing fills me with dread, because it is the sole instrument through which I come to know my own mind. Without it, I think I might be babbling somewhere in a corner.”
“Sometimes I think I have organized the inner crowd. For a brief, breathtaking moment, I feel completely whole. I understand that I am composed of many selves that make up a single chorus. To listen to the music this chorus makes, to recognize it as music, as something noble, varied, patterned, sublime—that is the work of a lifetime.”
Debbie Millman: Our genes have a story to tell but it may not be the story we want to hear. A few years ago, on a lark, the novelist and memoirist, Dani Shapiro, had her DNA analyzed by a genealogy service. One of the things she learned, her father was not her biological father. Dani discovered she simply wasn't who she thought she was. Thus began her quest to uncover the secrets of her family and to reimagine her own story. You can read all about it in her new book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. Dani Shapiro, welcome back to Design Matters.
Dani Shapiro: Thanks, Debbie. It is so great to be here.
Debbie: Dani, in preparing for our interview today, I not only read your remarkable new book. I also reread the transcript of our previous interview in 2014. And I was struck by the first question I asked you in that interview. I wanted to know if it was true that when you were two years old, you were the Kodak Christmas poster child. And of course, you told me you were. And at the time, the notion of a little Orthodox Jewish girl appearing in a Christmas ad seemed, well, unusual. And it was. And it wasn't, as we'll discuss. But I also asked you about something you had written in 1998 in your memoir Slow Motion. You stated this.
I spent my early life surrounded by silence, thinking my thoughts, dreaming my dreams, inventing a self out of thin air. I had no one to reflect this back to me.
And Dani, in some ways, you start Inheritance with this version of your younger self. And I'm wondering if you could read several excerpts over the course of this interview today. But if you could start with a portion of the introduction.
Dani: Of course. Amazing to take that quote from Slow Motion.
Debbie: It's kind of amazing.
Dani: It just gets amazinger and amazinger. Okay.
When I was a girl I would sneak down the hall late at night once my parents were asleep. I would lock myself in the bathroom, climb onto the Formica counter, and get as close as possible to the mirror until I was nose to nose with my own reflection. This wasn't an exercise in the simple self-absorption of childhood. The stakes felt high. Who knows how long I kneeled there, staring into my own eyes. I was looking for something I couldn't possibly have articulated, but I always knew it when I saw it. If I waited long enough, my face would begin to morph. I was eight, 10, 13. Cheeks, eyes, chin, and forehead. My features softened and shape-shifted until finally I was able to see another face, a different face, what seemed to me a truer face just beneath my own.
Now it is early morning and I'm in a small hotel bathroom 3000 miles from home. I'm 54 years old and it's been a long time since I've been that girl. But here I am again staring and staring at my reflection. A stranger stares back at me. The coordinates. I'm in San Francisco, Japan town to be precise. Just off a long flight. The facts. I'm a woman, a wife, a mother, a writer, a teacher. I'm a daughter. I blink. The stranger in the mirror blinks too. A daughter. Over the course of a single day and night, the familiar has vanished. Familiar belonging to a family.
On the other side of the thin wall, I hear my husband crack open a newspaper. The floor seems to sway. Or perhaps it's my body trembling. I don't know what a nervous breakdown would feel like, but I wonder if I'm having one. I trace my fingers across the planes of my cheekbones, down my neck, across my clavicle. As if to be certain I still exist. I'm hit by a wave of dizziness and grip the bathroom counter. In the weeks and months to come, I will become well-acquainted with the sensation. It will come over me on street corners and curbs, airports, train stations. I'll take it as a sign to slow down. To take a breath. Feel the fact of my own body. "You're still you," I tell myself again, and again, and again.
Debbie: Dani, what had you just found out and how did you discover it?
Dani: I had just found out that my father, who I had adored and who had died when I was 23 years old and who I had spent much of my life trying to piece together, back together again in some way through my writing book, after book, after book. I had just found out that my father had not been my biological father. And the way that I found that out was pretty much pure accident. My husband was interested in doing one of those commercial DNA tests. And he asked me casually if I wanted to do one too. And the prices had just dipped below $100. And I was like, "Sure." I wasn't ...There was very little curiosity. I just ... I'm haunted by the fact that I could easily have said no. But I said yes. And then when my results came back, they told a very different story then. The one that I had absolutely known. More than believed. Known. Never had any reason to question for 54 years.
Debbie: Now you found this out by comparing the results to your half-sister who was your father's daughter from a previous marriage. Someone that you had not particularly been close to.
Dani: What happened was that when my results came back from ancestry.com, the commercial testing place that I used, first of all, they showed a percentage at my ethnicity. What made me up. That didn't really make any sense.
Debbie: You were 52% Ashkenazi, right?
Dani: 52% Eastern European Ashkenazi. Whereas I would have imagined that I would've been close to 100%. Both of my-
Debbie: Right. I'm 98.something%.
Dani: Right, right. Well, that's what you would expect. Both of your parents are Eastern European Ashkenazi then you're gonna be. And my husband whose both of his parents are Eastern European Ashkenazi, when his results came back, he was at 88%. I mean, it was pretty high.
Debbie: Somebody went out of the tribe.
Dani: Something happened somewhere along the way. But when I first saw the 52% I actually thought, maybe that's what it's like. Maybe there's a long history of diaspora and pogroms and maybe this is just what it is to be Jewish. Maybe we're all half Jewish. But then a couple of things happened. And one was that a first cousin appeared on my page on ancestry.com. And that first cousin was a total stranger.
Debbie: A period T period.
Dani: A period T period. Just initials. And it was a blue icon. They do blue for boys and pink for girls. That's all I knew. I knew that it was a man. And I knew I saw these initials. And still, I gotta tell you, Debbie, nothing about this really raised alarm bells for me, such was my absolute certainty that I was who I had always thought I was. So it was my husband who suggested that I reach out to my half sister. And I had remembered that she had done her own genetic testing. So I did. And she sent me her kit number and there's a site where you can actually compare two DNA files side by side to see what the relationship is. And as I write in the book, it took a fraction of a second. It took something like 0.4538ths of a second for the results to come back in. And the results showed that we were not related.
Debbie: Your father died in a car accident when you were 23, as you mentioned. And your half sister was 38. Your mother had died many years ago as well. You were all part of a large Orthodox Jewish family. Your grandfather was a founder of the Lincoln Square Synagogue. One of the country's most respected Orthodox institutions. Your uncle had been president of the Orthodox Union. Your grandparents had been pillars of the observant Jewish community both in America and in Israel. Though you're not a religious person now, you, like me, have a strong spiritual connection to our heritage. And in less than, as you said, one fraction of a second, there would now and forever be a before.
And you describe it in the book and I'm wondering if you can read that section as well.
Dani: I woke up one morning and life was as I had always known it to be. There was certain things I thought I could count on. I looked at my hand, for example, and I knew it was my hand. My foot was my foot. My face, my face. My history, my history. After all, it's impossible to know the future. But we can be reasonably sure about the past. By the time I went to bed that night, my entire history, the life I had lived, had crumbled beneath me like the buried ruins of a long forgotten city.
Debbie: Dani, you wrote a book before inheritance. Before you knew anything about your DNA, titled, Hourglass, which is a memoir about time, memory, and marriage. In it, you describe seeing a photograph of yourself as a child on a vacation with your parents. And in Hourglass you write, on a glistening white beach, I am a little girl beaming with unbridle joy on the lap of her father. A deeply tanned young man, who looks to be at home in the world. I stare at the photo of my beautiful lost father and the unself-conscious child whose whole self presses against him with the ease of knowing how absolutely she is loved. What is it like now rereading your work and knowing that what you knew to be true then is different now?
Dani: I have so many thoughts about that. First, one of the most stunning things to me about the last couple of years as I have sort of pieced my way bit by bit through this discovery, which really has to do with reordering my history, is how much I knew in a way without knowing. And my work is just littered with clues.
Debbie: It really is.
Dani: It's crazy.
Debbie: I have to say. Your memoir has ... So this is really an extraordinary rethreading.
Dani: Yeah. And there's ... The information is there. It's like my unconscious. My first novel, which has been out of print for years. And I don't think you've read it. And no one should really read it. It was just I was learning how to write kind of in public. But I went back and looked at it. And there was this moment in the first chapter where the main character ... It was a very autobiographical novel. So the Dani character, whose name was Lucy Greenberg. Lucy's dad is putting her to bed. And instead of telling her fairy tales, he tells her stories of the Greenberg family history.
And in the novel, I use a story that my father or maybe my aunt had told me about their childhood. And in the story, it's right before Passover. And they are going to deliver meals to poor Jews around New York City. And they go to deliver a meal to a Rabbi who's fallen on hard times. And Lucy's father gets out of the car and races over to the Rabbi's doorstep to leave the food. And the Rabbi opens the door. And Lucy's father is very upset that the Rabbi's opened the door because it's not a mitzvah. It's not a good deed if you're seen doing it. So Lucy's father turns around and says, "You shouldn't have seen me." And the Rabbi says, "Who are you? Wait, I know who you are. I would know that face anywhere. You're a Greenberg." And Lucy's father puts her to bed. And she lies there in the dark. And she thinks, "That's how I wish that I would be known. I would be like to be known by my face. Wherever I go in the world, I would like people to be able to point to me and say there goes a Greenberg."
Dani: I wrote that novel when I was 26, 27 years old. I knew on some level that was inaccessible to me. And I was trying to puzzle it through all my life. So to go back to your question, I now look at that photograph with layers and layers of feeling. In one way, I feel that absolutely my father absolutely adored me and that was one of the saving graces of my life in a life that I might not otherwise have survived. I also spent a lot of time as a writer trying to understand his sadness. Because one of the things that's remarkable about that photograph was that he really was so joyful. That it was a joyful photograph. There's not a lot of those, which is why I think it stayed with me.
But one of the things that I've done in my life as a writer has been to try to understand and unpack the sources of his sorrow. And one of the more painful and complicated aspects of this discovery was to realize that I think his inability to have his own biological child with my mother was a source of that sorrow. Knowing, assuming that he knew, knowing that I wasn't his biological child I think was a piece of ... What's interesting about it is that it reorders all of the things that I thought about both of my parents. All the narratives I supplied about both of them, that's all still true. It just wasn't the whole truth.
Debbie: Do you think that if he did know that he was sad? Not because you weren't his biological daughter, but because of this secret between you that he wasn't allowed to tell you or that you weren't supposed to know? As if there was something that would dilute the profundity of your love, which is clearly and through all of your memoirs, the relationship you had with your father was nothing short of profound. The fact that you're not his biological daughter doesn't change the profundity of that love. And so I was thinking as I was reading the book and knowing from your previous books the relationship that you've had with him was that sadness having to bear this lie.
Dani: I think certainly that the sadness was in part in trying to kind of stuff that secret so far away that it didn't even exist anymore. But secrets don't really behave.
Debbie: No they don't.
Dani: They don't fall in line when you try to shove them away. And I think too that there was shame and trauma surrounding the way that my parents conceived me. And that that carried over. So there was something that was unsaid. I don't think he laid awake at night and thought, "I wonder whether Dani should know, or whether I should tell her, or even we're doing a wrong thing by not telling her." I don't think so. But I think it acted upon him in different ways. I also think that he was a religious Jew and there is that all important ... Back to mitzvahs, the all important be fruitful and multiply. And I think that there was something in there for him that he felt. That he would've felt because he would've been conditioned to feel it. I don't think it affected his love for me one iota. But I do feel that it was a source of great complexity for him.
Debbie: And we're talking about a time in our history and our culture where these practices were seen quite differently and there was some shame involved. And I remember as a little girl, my parents got divorced when I was in I want to say fourth grade maybe? And I was teased about it. That was something shameful. And there was a girl in my class that was also adopted. And she was teased for that. I mean, kids can be really cruel. And there was something wrong with us because of this. And so at that time, I can see internalizing some shame at not being able to conceive a child.
Dani: Well, in the solitary nature of it, I was conceived in 1961. And the world around reproductive medicine was hidden. It was lawless. It was all secret. And parents were told go home and pretend it never happened. Never speak of this again. It was extremely complex. And I think all of the societal norms around it in my research. I mean, I read everything that there was to read while I was writing Inheritance. And there was, I believe, a Time Magazine cover. And the cover line was artificial bastards question mark. And also, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee's play was opening on Broadway that year and it depicted a childless couple as a couple of people who were just monstrous to each other and yes-
Debbie: Misfits, and outlaws, and outcasts. I mean, the whole notion of identity back then was so misunderstood. I know you saw the recent documentary Three Identical Strangers about three identical brothers who were separated at birth and studied in an effort to understand nature versus nurture, which now is just even beyond cruel. It's abuse. And it seems that the 1960s through the 1980s were times of truly unimaginable and unethical practices that are only really coming out now.
Dani: Well, the child was the goal. And therefore the child was an object. It was essential that parents, and doctors, and everyone involved in the process not think beyond the success of a birth and giving these parents a child. And on the one hand, all of that is great. It's wonderful for parents who want to have a child to be able to have a child. But it moved away from any thought to what it would mean to strip a child of her identity.
Debbie: And you found out, again, before the actual DNA, some of the bread crumbs that you are able to go back and piece together in crafting what could've happened. Because both of your parents were dead and the only piece of information you had was A period T period. But after the second anniversary of your dad's death, you bring your mother to one of your readings after one of your books had been published and casually introduced her to a friend of yours who happened to come from Philadelphia. She then very nonchalantly tells you both that, "Oh, Dani was conceived in Philadelphia," which you had never heard before. So what happened at that point?
Dani: Well, I think back now and I'm so incredibly thankful that that conversation took place because otherwise I would've been left with the most massive mystery. So-
Debbie: I mean, talk about if that hadn't happened, then that haven't ... I mean, it's just one series of serendipitous accidents that led you to being able to understand your history.
Dani: That is right. That is right. I mean, I think of it almost as a kind of fate or karma or I don't know what. Because it was so unlikely that I would ever have been able to piece all this together. Yeah, so I was in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence. It was the second anniversary of my father's death. And I remember that because I didn't want my mother to be alone that night. And so I brought her with me to Sarah Lawrence and I introduced her to my friend, Rachel. And Rachel told my mother she was from Philadelphia. My mother said that I was conceived in Philadelphia. And I said, "Mom, what are you talking about? I've never heard that?"
Debbie: Like Love Shack?
Dani: Like wait. Was there a nice hotel? You went away for the weekend? And she said, "Oh, you don't want to know. It's not a pretty story," which kind of tells you everything you need to know about my mother. But later that night, I was driving her home back to New York City. And I said, "Mom, you cannot just say that about my conception. What happened?" So she told me that my father and she had had trouble conceiving me. And that they went to an institute. That was the word she used. In Philadelphia, where there was a world famous doctor who helped them with this procedure. And I said, "Well, what was the procedure?" And she said, "Artificial insemination." And so I was driving along thinking, "Well, that is really weird." That is a weird thing to find out about yourself is that you were conceived by artificial insemination but-
Debbie: In your 20s.
Dani: But it was very clear to me from what my mother was saying that it was my father's sperm that was used. She talked about calling my father on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, where my father worked as a trader. And that he would come racing down to Philadelphia when they would pinpoint the moment where she was ovulating and they would do the procedure. She was very clear about that.
Debbie: Back then it was always assumed that infertility was caused by the woman. The wife, not the husband. But the doctor that your mother had found looked at sperm specimens for low motility and poor morphology. And that is how your mother found him. And I find it so interesting how sexist the reproductive healthcare was back then.
Dani: Oh, this doctor, or scientist rather was reviled in the medical community because he studied male infertility. In the world, at that time, it was always the woman. And I actually believe that my parents originally went to him not because they suspected that my father had slow sperm. But because he was meant to be good at helping couples have babies. And he would've as a matter of course then checked my father. I'm pretty sure that they would've gone thinking it was my mother. She was older. Very much older. In those days, I mean, she was 37, 38, 39 years old. She was almost 40 when she had me. So that's old in 1961. And he would've looked at my father's sperm under a microscope. Very simple procedure to do. And he would've seen that there was no way that this couple was gonna have their own baby. So that's what I suspect happened.
Debbie: And at the time, infertility institutions would mix sperm.
Dani: That was one of the stranger-
Debbie: You found that out from your half sister initially, right?
Dani: Right. So after I dropped my mother off that night back in 1988, I went home and I called my half sister. I wasn't disturbed. I just was puzzled. I wanted to talk to somebody about it who might know something more than I did. And I mostly was curious about whether my half sister remembered or knew that my parents had had trouble conceiving me. And my half sister, who is a psychoanalyst and should be noted, said to me, "Yeah, I kind of had a sense that they were having trouble conceiving you. I remember opening the refrigerator and seeing glasses of ... Containers of urine in there." She remembered that. She said, "But you really want to ... You might want to look into this further because there was a practice back in those days of mixing the husband's sperm with donor sperm."
And at the time, the way that I received that, because my half sister and I did have a kind of complicated relationship and I really did think she kinda wished that I had never been born, I remember joking around with friends of mine and just say, "Analyze that. Does she actually hear what she's saying to me? What she's saying to me is dad's all mine. He's not yours." I felt like it was a fantasy or a wish of hers that she was expressing. Didn't take it all that seriously, but it registered. And so I don't remember exactly how long later, but not more than a couple of days, I was with my mother again and I brought it up. And I said, "Mom, I heard that there was a practice back in those days of mixing sperm. Is that possible?"
Debbie: And what did she say?
Dani: She didn't blink. I mean, if you say mixed sperm, mixing sperm. It is such a crazy idea that if you've never heard it before, you register it.
Debbie: Oh, my eyes popped out of my head when I was reading. I'm like, "What?"
Dani: What? Exactly. I mean, you don't just take that sort of is a matter of course. She did. She was completely emotionless. Her expression did not change. And she didn't miss a beat. And she said, "Absolutely not. Can you imagine such a thing? Can you imagine that your father ever would've agreed to such a thing? It would've meant that he wouldn't have known that his child was Jewish." Which later, my husband who spent many years as a investigative journalist and these pieces of the puzzle kept on kind of falling into place for us. At one point, my husband said, "First of all, she didn't answer your question. She asked another question. Second of all, wouldn't know that his child was his."
Debbie: Right. And third of all, you're Jewish if the egg is Jewish. And if you're mother's Jewish, you're Jewish. It doesn't matter who the husband is or who the father is or who the sperm belongs to, frankly.
Dani: Right, right. In terms of Jewish law.
Debbie: Yeah, we both were brought up Orthodox. That is something you are taught from the beginning.
Debbie: You describe how for so long you, despite not knowing any of this, you had felt this certain kind of otherness. And you read a little bit about that in the introduction. And a longing that you experienced up until you met your husband, Michael, and had your son, Jacob. And you describe the longing as vast, wide, and was a constant interior ache. In the subsequent research you did for your book with donor conceived people, particularly those whose origins were not disclosed to them, who described the longing in the same way. And you said that they have a sense of being trapped on the other side of an invisible wall. Separate, alone, cut off, and worst of all, not knowing why.
Aside from the obvious, is there a psychological reason for this? Is there some sort of underlying way of knowing about ourselves that you think is evident here?
Dani: In adoption literature, there is this term that I came across that I think applies here as well, which is genealogical bewilderment. And that sense of things that we take for granted ... If we believe that we are a part of a biological family, we take for granted that we have mannerisms, or look alike, or traits skip generations. And certainly there are parents and children who don't look similar to each other. You wouldn't pick them out of a line up. But there is something that's there in the biology that's real. And if it's not there and it's unknown that it's not there, which is really an important point. Sort of essential. It's not that it's not there. It's that it's not known that it's not there. And so the child grows up. I mean, I grew up turning that feeling of otherness, shame, confusion, being on the other side of that wall, not fitting in, not belonging against myself. Because I had no reason to feel that way as far as I knew. I didn't understand why I was in this kind of fog of pain and why I felt other. I certainly wouldn't have had any language for that. But it completely formed my childhood and my life even as a young woman, I think.
Debbie: Your sense of this was so strong. You found yourself snooping through your parents' things over and over when they weren't home. What do you think you were looking for?
Dani: Well, that's the thing is that I didn't know what I was looking for. But I knew that there was something that I didn't know-
Debbie: You needed to find.
Dani: I was compelled by the sense that there was something that I needed to find. Which of course I never found.
Debbie: You describe what happens next. And I'm wondering if you could read a little bit about what you considered.
Dani: What next? I couldn't imagine what might come next. I am a spinner of narratives. A teller of tales. I have spent my life attempting to make meaning out of random events. To shape stories out of an accretion of senseless chaotic detail. As a writer and a teacher of writing, this is what I do. What if I might begin to suggest to a student? How about but I had been dealing within the confines of a known world. I am not a fantasist. I have never been particularly drawn to mysteries of the who done it variety nor scifi. A hint of magic realism interests me, but there are limits to my suspension of disbelief. What never fails to draw me in, however, are secrets. Secrets within families. Secrets we keep out of shame, or self-protectiveness, or denial. Secrets and their corrosive power. Secrets we keep from one another in the name of love.
Debbie: Dani, I find it so incredibly compelling how so much of your work over your career centers on secrets. And you discover that a secret is now the centerpiece of your life. I mean, talk about hitting the jackpot for a memoirist. Not to be flip in any way. But there is some incredible irony to the fact that this happened to someone that has spent most of her adult life examining what it means to be alive.
Dani: Well, it's irony, but it's also inevitability. In terms of the language of this, from very early on when I would say this happened to me, I realize that's not true. It happened before I was born. I discovered it. And so it was always forming me. I mean, my friend, Hannah Tinti, wonderful novelist, when I told her, I was sitting with her one evening having a drink, and I told her fairly early on what was going on. And she burst out laughing, which was just about the most wonderful response that I could've had. And then she wrote to me the next morning and she said, "I was walking my dog and I was thinking about your story." And I thought, "She's been in training for this her whole life." And then I heard the theme music from Rocky kind of going through my head. Which, by the way, takes place in Philadelphia. But really, it had this absolute inevitability to it once it started to unfold.
Debbie: Did you ever have any doubts about writing about it?
Dani: No, Debbie. I mean, I started jotting down notes almost instantly. The feeling initially was I need to remember how I'm feeling. And I'm in so much shock that I'm not sure that I will remember what I'm feeling. And I want a record of this. And then the other sense that I had very early on was that anybody who might know anything about this was gonna be very old. That I was dealing with contemporaries of my parents, or contemporaries of the doctor at the institute, or contemporaries of anyone who was involved in reproductive medicine in the early 1960s or the late 1950s. They were gonna be in their late 80s or in their 90s. And my husband and I started having this joke between us where I wouldn't want to pick up the phone and call someone because I don't like doing that, especially if they don't want to hear from me or I think they might not want to hear from me. And my husband would just say, "He may be dead by Friday." And I would pick up the phone because my desire to know was greater than my fear.
Debbie: You articulate what it is like to be in shock in a very powerful way. You stated that this type of shock is something you can't know until you experienced a few of them. And you quote Nabokov from Speak Memory and ask, "How do you examine a diluted mind when one's only resource is a diluted mind?" Did you have the sense as you were going into this investigation that not only might you not find the information that you were looking for, but the information that you might find might not be the right information.
Dani: Oh yeah. From very early on, the sense of is it going to be possible to learn anything? I didn't want to construct a new false narrative. And as a writer, I have kind of broken up with narrative in my last couple of books. Devotion, and Still Writing, and Hourglass are all nonlinear narratives. And then suddenly there was this story. That was just a Story with a capital S.
Debbie: Well, it's sort of a thriller. I mean, I was reading it and couldn't put it down because I needed to know what was gonna happen next.
Dani: I love that. I learned something interesting about writing and maybe about human nature in general when I started writing because Inheritance is my 10th book. And I began working on it from the very center of this shocked, traumatized place. And I thought as I was working away that I was kind of on track and writing the story as it was unfolding. And then I had to put the manuscript down after I had about 200 pages because Hourglass was coming out and I needed to go on book tour. And so I didn't look at inheritance for a couple of months. And when I came back home and I picked it up again and I started reading it again, my heart sank.
Dani: Because it wasn't good. It wasn't good. I threw it all away.
Debbie: Are you kidding?
Dani: Oh, I'm not. I started over again. And the realization was I had written from the present moment before. I had kind of made a specialty of it. Learning how to kind of use my life as a laboratory to explore ... Whether explore marriage, or explore a spiritual crisis, or explore the creative process. But those were not traumatic events. And this was writing from trauma. And what I realized, I think poets can. I think that only poets can write directly from trauma and-
Debbie: Why is that?
Dani: Because so there's a moment in the book where I quote Bessel van der Kolk-
Debbie: I was gonna say, I had a feeling this was gonna come.
Dani: The great psychiatrist and researcher about trauma.
Debbie: Nobody understands early childhood trauma like he does.
Debbie: Or trauma just in general.
Dani: Yeah, it's true. Bessel said it is the nature of trauma that it doesn't allow a story to be told. It's why I think after trauma, people try to tell the story again, and again, and again, and again, and again because they're trying to form it into something, control it, and create something that will be sort of solid and have edges. But trauma itself doesn't work that way. And so also, in my experience, trauma comes back to the same questions over, and over, and over again. So for me, the question what did my mother know? What did my father know? It came back to the same place each time without the question deepening, or developing, or changing, or becoming sharper in some way. And that doesn't make good literature. So I had to find the place from which to tell the story that was a half a step away from the trauma. And I reread Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking and I realized that she was telling the story of her husband's death and her grief from about six months beyond the moment of his death. And it allowed her to have a fulcrum from which she could move toward that moment, move away from it, bring in philosophy, and journalism, and theory, and thinking that would be impossible for the traumatized mind to do.
Debbie: She had ... Actually and I can see, there's a similar way of not letting yourselves off the hook in both books where you're very critical of your own limitations as you're going through this. And critical's probably not the right word and limitations isn't probably the right word. But there's a self-awareness that is necessary for a story like this I think to feel manageable.
Dani: Yeah. I mean, the way I think of it is showing the seams. Showing the seams of the story as the story is being made. And that was something that I was conscious of doing because once I finally found it ... And it was the moment that you had me read at the beginning of our conversation, that's when I found it. The many, many moments of my childhood of staring at my own face in the mirror and realizing all of a sudden, oh, that's what I was doing. That's what I was doing. My face made no sense. So I was looking for what was behind it even though I couldn't have told you that.
Debbie: You initially felt that your paternal grandparents, and your aunts, and your uncles, and cousins were floating away from you like dozens of life rafts as you put it. Did you feel that they wouldn't accept you anymore or that they wouldn't love you? Were you worried that they might not think you were Jewish and then that would be ... In very Orthodox families, being Jewish is of utmost importance.
Dani: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Part of it was more metaphysical than that because most of them were gone. And it was my relationship to them as my ancestors that I realized had been so important to me, there was some way in which coming from that family made me feel that I was tethered to the earth. They were grounding for me. It was very much magical thinking. But a sense of safety and being from this family. And I had always felt other in the Shapiro family because I looked so other. And also because my mother was not ever really ... They didn't accept her, she didn't accept them. It was not a close relationship and I was her daughter. And so it wasn't so much that I felt anybody was going to turn their back on me. There certainly was a moment when I went to see my father's 93 year old sister because I-
Debbie: Is that Shirley?
Dani: That's Shirley.
Dani: I decided to tell her what I had discovered mostly because I thought maybe she knew something and I wanted to know if she knew. And that was a very, very hard thing to tell her. And she was remarkably loving. I mean, it was one of the most loving afternoons. One of the most loving encounters I've ever experienced.
Debbie: That was the first time I cried. In reading the book, I cried three times through this book. And that was the first.
You and your husband, Michael, go on a fact finding mission through ancestry.com and ultimately through this first cousin A period T period are able to figure out who your biological father might be. It took you 36 hours to find your biological father. Some people spend decades. It took you 36 hours to find your biological father and his email address. You almost instantly write him a letter. Despite urging from experts that there was a right way and a wrong way to go about doing something like this. But you write about how you weren't feeling careful or methodical. In fact, you were feeling quite the opposite. You describe yourself as feeling wild and reckless. And you sent an email right away.
Dani: There was just this ... I felt it was in that moment about a kind of moving forward for me. A momentum. I was in so much pain about discovering that my dad wasn't my biological father and that I had been betrayed and lied to for my entire life. That for a while there, everything that I did was about taking action. If I was taking action, then I felt that I might survive this.
Dear Dr. Walden, I'm writing to you about something that may come as a shock and will certainly feel like it's fallen out of the clear, blue sky. My name is Dani Shapiro. And I'm a 54 year old novelist, memoirist, wife, and mother of a 17 year old son. I live in Litchfield County, Connecticut. I recently took a DNA test as nothing more than a lark. I have always believed my parents to be my biological parents. But now I have reason to believe that you may be my biological father. I won't write more unless A, this makes sense to you, and B, you're willing to communicate with me about it. I so hope you're willing.
Debbie: And he didn't write back. And then you wrote again. This time he responded. You had a few volleys back and forth and you asked if the two of you could meet. Tell us what happened then.
Dani: Initially he wrote back. He's a very thoughtful person. And I also want to say that by answering me initially, he didn't have to do that. He could've ghosted me, he could've lied to me.
Debbie: Well, he deleted it first.
Dani: I later found out that he deleted my first email like it was a hot potato in his inbox. And it was when I wrote to him a second time that he fished it out. And he lives on the other side of the country. I told him that I would be happy to fly to the Pacific Northwest for a cup of coffee. That I just wanted to have the experience of meeting my biological father. And he initially wrote saying I need some time to process your request and I'll get back to you in a couple of weeks. He has been married for 50 years. He has three children. Very close knit family. And I knew that he was processing a lot of this with his family. His wife of 50 years had never known that he had been a sperm donor when he was a young medical student. And after a couple of weeks, I received a letter from him and it was a really hard letter. It didn't sound like the rest of his communication to me. And in it, he pretty much said I had been given a guarantee of anonymity by the institute where I donated as a 22 year old medical student. And you have been able to learn a little bit about me and I have been able to learn a little bit about you. And that's where we're gonna leave it. And this is gonna be my final communication.
Debbie: How did you feel, Dani?
Dani: I felt some combination of rage and devastation. The rage I think came from a sense of powerlessness and I felt like, is this it? And up until that point, I had felt that if I could know a couple of things for sure, that I would be okay.
Debbie: Like what?
Dani: Medical history. And knowing where I came from. And I had both of those things. But I still felt that I wanted more. I wanted to know ... I wanted the reality of it to settle in. And I didn't know how to make that happen because to spend 54 years in one story, in one narrative. This is my mother, this is my father, this is who I am, this is where I come from. And then to have that unraveled and not be able to put that back together again, it felt important to me. I think I would've survived. But it felt important to me. And the anger I think came from a place of your relying on the decades old promises of a de funked institution as your moral high ground here. That just felt like really, we're kind of in this together. We're all in this together. The idea of having responsibility for this thing that in fact did happen. There are very few things in life that you can't take back. And one of them is having a child.
Debbie: Yeah [crosstalk 00:48:13]
Dani: Even if it's as a sperm donor and you had this idea that you were never gonna know anything about any possible biological children.
Debbie: And then he changed his mind. I was struck by the notion that your husband, Michael, had been certain all along that he would change his mind. Where did that sense come from in Michael?
Dani: Michael's sense was that more would be revealed. I don't know that he actually thought that Ben would change his mind. I think he thought there might be other half siblings. That more would happen. I actually felt somewhere within me a sense that he would change his mind. Which is why I did not write back to him. I did not respond. I did not say I'm sorry, or will you reconsider, or I understand, or-
Debbie: That took a lot of self-control.
Dani: I did this thing that I've never done before in my life about anything which is that evening, I opened a file on my computer that I titled imaginary responses. And I just started writing responses to him whenever I felt like it that I knew I would never send, but I needed to get off my chest. But there was a sense that his voice in that last letter didn't feel like his true voice. And it's a very bizarre thing to say that about someone who is a perfect stranger. And yet, I felt that on some level, I knew him. Which is, again, a very strange feeling. But I did feel it. And I thought that he might come around.
Debbie: The sections of Inheritance that recount your meaning, your biological father, and his wife, and their family are beautiful and heartbreaking. And you write in Inheritance about how this experience resulted in you becoming a student of trauma. And you write that it is the nature of trauma that when left untreated, it deepens over time. And you see this particular trauma is in many ways your inheritance. You inherited this trauma. How your parents' tortured pact of secrecy was as much a part of you as the genes that you inherited. How do you feel about that now?
Dani: A friend of mine, the writer, Elizabeth Lesser, said to me early on in this journey of mine, "When you get to the other side of this, you will be free." And at the time, I thought, "Well, let's just see if I'm gonna get to the other side of this." But I knew that there was truth in what she was saying. And I think that what I feel more often than not these days is that there's freedom in all of this knowledge that I now have about what formed me. That I spent my whole life not having.
And so ... Or there was another moment and I write about it in Inheritance where a Rabbi friend says to me, "Can you accept the two tributaries? Can you accept your father and Ben Walden as you're coming from both of these men," which is the truth. That's the truth of the matter is that I am someone who is made of three people. My mother, and the father who raised me, and the biological father who provided my being able to be here. But the nature and the nurture of all of that is what made me me. And so I inherited the trauma, but I also inherited a pretty amazing constitution from my biological father, actually. From he comes from just this line of constitutionally very, very solid people. I never understood why I was so constitutionally in great shape. It didn't make any sense given the parents that I came from. And yet, there it was. And that's nature. And then the nurture of it, as we were talking about earlier was this father who loved me and was had a very, very loving, very capacious heart.
Debbie: You write about how trauma and gratitude aren't mutually exclusive. How are they intertwined?
Dani: I think the moment that you're referring to is that sometimes what happens, I think both with adoptees and with people who discover that their donor conceived is a sense that well you should just be grateful that you're here, aren't you? You're here. It's all ... You got good genes, you had a good life, it's all good. And that is true, but it's not the only truth. And I think if I can generalize, I think in this country especially, one of the things that we do is we want to just kind of define and have our emotional lives be ... Especially when it comes to complex questions, be one way. So grateful. Hashtag grateful. Yay.
Debbie: If only everything was just that dimensional.
Dani: Right? And so the idea that I can feel gratitude, immense gratitude. I feel that this is miraculous, actually. I feel now that it's like my super power. That I have at this point in my life hopefully with a bunch more life left to live, this knowledge, and awareness, and desire to understand more about the human condition and have kind of gone to the front of the human condition in certain ways. And I'm an artist so I get to explore that and that's thrilling to me. It's almost like it doesn't even matter that it's my story. It's just a great story. But at the same time, it's more complicated than that. And it always will be. And that dizziness that I describe at the beginning, I still feel that. I felt it walking here today. Just all of a sudden. Like, whoa. That expression, the rug gets pulled out from under me. We use that expression all the time, but that's actually what happened. It was kind of a groundlessness to that. And I am at my best when I just embrace the groundlessness.
Debbie: You said that your notions have certainty have changed. In what way?
Dani: Well, I guess it goes back to narrative. I just wrote a book in which in the end, i will never have all the answers. Early in the story, an elderly Rabbi that I went to talk with who knew my family said to me, "Well, what story would ease your heart the most?" And I said, "The true one." And I was still at a point where I thought I'm going to ... There's gonna be a box with a lock. And I'm gonna open it. And there are gonna be papers in there. Or there's gonna be somebody who says to me, "This is what your mother told me or this is what your father told me. This is how it happened." I'm not gonna get to have that. So the only way I think to contend with that is to embrace that sense of uncertainty. And also, the awareness that we all really are living in that place. I just got to have kind of a more of a good, hard look at it than many people do.
Debbie: You state that it is a measure of true adulthood that we are able to imagine our parents as the people they may have been before us. How do you see your parents now?
Dani: This has given me significantly more empathy for my parents. Even as I have found that their withholding the truth from me was ... It's a bitter pill to swallow. However, imagining ... I think imagining our parents as who they were before us is something that we don't tend to do. Children of parents, however old we are, are pretty sort of solipsistic in that experience. Your mother's your mother. Your father's your father. That's who they are to you. They're not people other than that. And I really had to imagine my parents and their struggle, and their desperation, and their fear, and their love for each other, I think, at the beginning, and their willingness to do anything, whatever it took to have a baby. I thought a lot about the fact that they didn't choose to adopt. And I think my mother really, really, really wanted to be pregnant. She wanted to have that experience. She wanted to give birth. And I think my father got on board for that, even though it was really a very complicated and very hard thing to do at the time.
And so thinking about them ... Several times in the book, I imagine them as who they were before me. And in the writing, that was some of the most, in a way, lovely kind of parts of writing it was thinking about getting as close as I possibly could using my imagination, and my memory, and my sense of them to who they were when they walked into that institute in Philadelphia and what got them there.
Debbie: Dani, I have one last question for you and then I'm hoping you'll read one more short passage for us. My question is this. You ask yourself this question several times in the book. Who was I without my history? Who was I without my history? What did you discover?
Dani: I think that what I meant at that point was the history that I had always known. So when I look at photographs of my childhood ... We talked earlier about that photograph of my dad and me. Or if I look at a picture of my mother, and my father, and me. Or if I look at a picture of myself as a little girl and it should be noted, I look almost exactly like my biological father. There's the sense of having to reorder it, right? And yet at the same time, there is a freedom in being able to sit or stand in that groundlessness of in a way it's like my history up until June 30th of 2016 was sealed on that day and it became everything that I had understood about myself up until that point. And that became a sealed pod. And for a while, I think what was that if I could draw it, I would've envisioned myself as sort of floating in the ether outside of that pod. And I don't feel that way now. I feel like I'm starting to build a new history. That has its own ground. And within that, there has to be a willingness to live in uncertainty, to live in not knowing, and to make meaning out of all that, which is everything that I've tried to do my whole life and just what I'm continuing to do now.
Debbie: Will you read one last passage for us?
Dani: But then I was born. And whatever sequelae there might have been to the unorthodox methods surrounding my conception vanished into the ether of magical thinking. If it wasn't thought, it wasn't so. If it wasn't spoken, it hadn't happened. Except its secrets. Particularly the most deeply held ones have a way of leeching into everything surrounding them. A psychoanalytic phrase, the unthought known, became my instrument of illumination as I poked and prodded at my history with my parents. The psychoanalyst who coined it, Christopher Bollas, writes, there is in each of us a fundamental split between what we think we know and what we know but we'll never be able to think.
Debbie: Dani Shapiro. Thank you so much for sharing so much of your stories with us. And thank you for joining us today on Design Matters.
Dani: Thank you, Debbie. Such a pleasure.
Debbie: Dani's new book is titled Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. For more information about Dani, you can go to www.danishapiro.com. This is the 14th year I've been doing design matters and I like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.