All this takes place within the first third of the book, so I’m not giving much away. At any rate, the true drama of “Inheritance” is not Shapiro’s discovery of her father’s identity but the meaning she makes of it. In many ways, the knowledge comes as a relief. Her parents’ relationship was fraught; her mother suffered from borderline personality disorder, and her father was depressive. She always felt out of place in her birth family, as if on some level she knew she didn’t belong. Relatives, friends and strangers commented that she didn’t look Jewish; once, when she was a child, a family friend (who will eventually be Jared Kushner’s grandmother) ran a hand through her platinum hair and remarked, chillingly: “We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.” When Shapiro comes upon a YouTube video of her biological father — a man with her features and coloring, who even gesticulates the same way she does — the resemblance is more than astonishing; it’s consoling. “I knew in a place beyond thought that I was seeing the truth — the answer to the unanswerable questions I had been exploring all my life,” she writes.
The discovery that Shapiro carries a stranger’s genes has profound implications for every aspect of her life, from the photographs of supposed relatives that line the walls of her house to the need to revise her medical history. (“How could I explain that my father was no longer deceased?” she wonders at the doctor’s office.) It also leads her to investigate the early days of artificial insemination, in which she finds more than a tinge of eugenics. Farris is quoted in an interview as saying that he saw “nothing wrong in trying to bring children of fine quality into the world”; his donors were the “best material that Philadelphia medical schools can offer.” Couples who used donor sperm were advised to have sex before and after the insemination, to intentionally introduce an element of ambiguity. It was simply assumed that their children would never be told. No one seems to have worried about those children growing up with inaccurate medical histories, much less a pervasive sense of unease in their own skin.
Shapiro’s account is beautifully written and deeply moving — it brought me to tears more than once. I couldn’t help feeling unnerved, though, by the strength of her conviction that blood will out, which leads her uncomfortably close to genetic determinism. “Our lifetime of disconnection, finally explained,” she writes of her lack of kinship with the woman she believed to be her half sister. Donating sperm, she believes, is “the passing along of an essence that was inseparable from personhood itself”; on a visit to the California Cryobank, the nation’s largest donor sperm repository, she wonders about the “millions of souls” within its vials. But by all accounts, many children of sperm (and egg) donors grow up fulfilled and content, nurtured by the love of the parents who raise them and uninterested in seeking out their biological relatives — who, when found, often turn out to be a disappointment. And for many children of unhappy families, genetic bonds aren’t sufficient to maintain connection to parents who are abusive or neglectful.
“Neither of my two fathers could ever be entirely mine,” Shapiro comes to realize. Indeed, no one’s parents can ever be entirely one’s own; they have histories and secrets of which we know nothing. And among the mysteries of adulthood is the way parents and children, once apparently inseparable, can part like amicable lovers: still fond, but no longer close. As the song goes, it’s love — not genes — that will keep us together.