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January 21, 2020 by

A Change, Inked: Dani Shapiro Reckons With a DNA Discovery

In this excerpt from her acclaimed memoir, Inheritance, Dani Shapiro describes her process of healing, and creating a new identity based on the discovery she made when she took a DNA test online.


 

9780525434030Three of us—my husband Michael, our attorney, and I—sat on a bench outside a probate judge’s chambers in a nondescript suburban Connecticut courthouse. The long carpeted corridor was silent and empty, lined in paneled wood. We had brought all the paperwork, and I hoped it would be in order: birth certificate, social security card, driver’s license, and an official petition to the court.

Reflexively I reached up and touched my left shoulder. It was still a bit sore. Two weeks earlier and three thousand miles away I lay on a metal table in Los Angeles, in the sun-drenched studio of the tattoo artist known as Doctor Woo. It was my first tattoo. That there is a prohibition against Jews getting tattoos was something I was acutely aware of, and yet that was a part of it as well. It was subversive, rebellious. I’m half Jewish, half something else. Why not allow that, announce that—be that? I’m a hybrid, made of two sets of ancestors who would never have crossed paths or sprung from the same village. I had decided on my shoulder—not a hidden place, a secret spot that only those most intimate with me would see. My shoulder was visible, if I wished it to be.

The following afternoon, I had an appointment with Rabbi David Wolpe, the Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. I had long admired Wolpe for his brilliant and incisive thinking. I had already planned to wear a cardigan, to keep my transgression private. I was afraid he would judge me—I needn’t have been concerned. I would quickly come to realize that David Wolpe had no time to waste on antiquated propriety. “We all feel as if we’re other,” he told me. “Any thinking person knows we are other. Only you’ve actually been to the front lines of otherness. And you’ve come back with something to teach us.” As we sat in his quiet inner sanctum, he recited the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers, / And thrusts the thing we have prayed for in our face, A gauntlet with a gift in it.”                                                                                                                                

In that instant—my fresh tattoo hidden beneath my summer cardigan—I understood what the rabbi was offering. My newfound awareness was both gauntlet and gift. The choice wasn’t to see it as one or the other. It was to embrace it as both.

 

*

In Doctor Woo’s studio—a far cry from the hallowed halls of Sinai Temple—I explained my reason for wanting a tattoo to the artist. “Last spring I found out that my father was not my biological father,” I told him, keeping the story as brief as possible.

 I wondered how many stories he heard every day—reasons people have for turning their bodies into canvases, vessels, statements of identity. The young donor-conceived people I had recently learned about had desperately, fruitlessly searched for their biological fathers, until they settled for a series of numbers—the donor ID—inked into their arms as if to say: this is all I know of who I am.                                                                       

“I’d like a bird,” I told Woo.

“What kind of bird?” he asked.

His Instagram feed was full of birds: eagles, ravens, hawks. “I don’t want an angry bird,” I said.

Woo began to sketch on a piece of paper.

“Not a fierce bird,” I went on. “And not a hummingbird.” Michael had pointed out to me that hummingbirds hover.

I wanted one that soared.

“Maybe a swallow,” he said.

“Maybe. A sweet bird.” My eyes stung. “A free bird.”

On the table, as Doctor Woo began needling the bird into the front of my shoulder, I hardly felt a thing. It was as if I were floating, suspended somewhere in the in-between.

 

Uk’shartam l’ot al yadecha v’hayu l’totafot bein einecha. I heard the words of the central prayer V’ahavta as if they were being chanted beside me. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you on this day. Impress them upon your children . . . Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead. I had been raised with the powerful idea that we must show the world who and what we are. We must keep mezuzot on our doorposts, and men must wear yarmulkes on their heads. I closed my eyes as Doctor Woo continued to make me my own sign, incorporating tiny compasses, and two faint circles— hints of direction—around the swallow’s beak.                                 

Migratory birds have internalized compasses; they use earth’s geomagnetic field—along with light, stars, and other cues—to guide them as they fly. For the rest of my life, I wanted a visual reminder that now I had my own internalized compass. I knew what and who I was. Now, the map was mine.                                                     

            *                                                                

The judge at the Probate Court of the State of Connecticut was finally ready to see us. We all sat around a conference table, and my attorney distributed his prepared documents. The judge, wearing a suit, asked me to raise my hand and recite an oath. Then he asked why I had petitioned the court to change my given name.                                                    

“Because I hate it,” I said. “Because no one can pronounce it or spell it. Because I’ve never answered to it.” Which wasn’t entirely true, of course. I had painful proof that I once had answered to it.       

I signed the papers in front of the judge, county clerk, my attorney, and Michael. The document was then stamped with an official seal. An undoing. The little girl with the unpronounceable name who stared and stared at her face in the mirror, trying to understand what she was seeing, was finally a grown woman who knew who she was and where she came from. Daneile was the name that had been handed me along with so many other mysteries of my existence. But I didn’t have to be stuck with it. This was something I could let go. 

“Your name is now legally Dani Shapiro,”said the judge. “Just like that?” I asked.

Somehow I thought it would take longer to unravel something that had identified me for a lifetime. I hadn’t understood that at that very moment, my given name would fall away, fly off like the swallow on my shoulder. Two weeks earlier I had reclaimed my body. Now I was reclaiming my name. Later, I will change all of my documents of identification save one. My birth certificate will remain the same. Daneile, daughter of Paul. In Hebrew that would be Daniela bat Pinchas. That piece of history, more true than not, can never be altered.                                                           

From INHERITANCE by Dani Shapiro. Copyright © 2019 by Dani Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Anchor Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.”

 

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January 16, 2020 by

Recreational DNA Testing & Its Uninvited Consequences

This past season, thousands received gifts of DNA testing kits from services like Ancestry.com and 23andme. Tens of millions of these kits have been sold, and their DNA results logged in to massive databases, creating an exponentially expanding web of genetic information.

For some people, personal or family history has been obscured by intertwined forces of persecution, migration, genocide and loss, sometimes followed by assimilation or just losing track of our relatives. So people buy the kits both to answer unresolved questions about origins and to get a greater sense of belonging. they may get more than they bargained for—upending their lives and sense of self, even completely reconfiguring families.

The kits are enabling dramatic revelations, even as they add pop-up warnings when offering to connect people to unknown biological relatives. Take a look at recent headlines that repeat the words “shocking” and “bombshell” over and over again: “With genetic testing, I gave my parents the gift of divorce,” was one in Vox, written by a biologist who discovered a hidden half-brother. “23andMe revealed that my daughter is not mine,” a letter-writer told a financial advice columnist. “My ancestry test revealed a genetic bombshell,” one article in NYPost declared. “I took a DNA test and unlocked a family bombshell, completely by accident,” is the subhead for an essay by an ABC news correspondent who located two brothers for his adopted dad.

Yes, people are reuniting with birth families, long-lost cousins, adopted siblings—but they are also discovering less savory things, and they are not prepared. “The era of family secrets is over,” science journalist Libby Copeland told Lilith (see sidebar).

Writer Dani Shapiro, who has vividly chronicled her complex relationship with her Orthodox Jewish family, is one such person. Recreational DNA testing threw her life into turmoil. At first, when the tests she’d gotten on a whim came back, she wasn’t concerned by her unusual results. “I say puzzled—a gentle word—because this is how it felt to me,” she wrote in her 2019 memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love.

Ancestry told Shapiro that she was only about half Ashkenazi, and the rest of her makeup was a European mishmash. She was unfazed, considering it just a bit “odd.” Only later, when Shapiro used Ancestry’s tools to compare her genes directly to those of her half-sister Susie, did she realize something shocking: she and her sister aren’t biologically related. At all.

Blonde since childhood, Shapiro had fielded her share of comments her entire life about not being Jewish-looking, even being told she would have been useful under Nazi rule as someone who passed as Aryan. Suddenly, as she began to unravel the results, the lightning bolt hit. “It had taken 0.04538 seconds—a fraction of a second—to upend my life,” Shapiro wrote.

Inheritance takes a deep journey through Shapiro’s sleuthing about herself, and her family, and the history of assisted reproduction. Her discovery enabled her to understand the truth at last about the man she had loved, lost in a car accident, written about and for, and considered her father: he wasn’t, at least not biologically. “It wasn’t so much my future that was being irrevocably altered by this discovery—it was my past,” she wrote later in the book.

Another woman whose life was upended by digital gene sleuthing was Alice Collins Plebuch, whose interest in data, and in learning about her dad’s heritage—he was raised in an orphanage—fueled her desire to test. Journalist Libby Copeland reported on Plebuch’s story in a long piece in the Washington Post, and the story began like Shapiro’s: she found out, unexpectedly, that she was about half Jewish. This revelation unnerved her, especially when some digging revealed that her proudly Irish family were not secret converts from Judaism anywhere in the history she could find.

Just as Dani Shapiro kept investigating her own results by comparing her genomes to the DNA of family members, so did Alice Plebuch; it turned out, painfully, that her cousins were not her genetic cousins—just as Shapiro’s sister was not her biological sister. A long, painstaking (and emotionally draining) search, with many relatives helping, led her all the way up to some twist of fate in the hospital the day her father was born: something had happened there. Something had switched.

But dead ends ensued after this. Then, one day, a new “genetic match” on one of Plebuch’s non-DNA-linked cousins led them to a woman who had always thought she was 100% Jewish. But she completed an ancestry kit, and it told her she was half Irish. Her father was born in the same Bronx hospital as Plebuch’s. Together, these two women received one of the most shocking answers you can imagine, worthy of a soap opera.

Alice’s story—a personal detective story with implications for all of us—forms the backbone of Copeland’s forthcoming book, The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives and Upending Who We Are, a read which explains the genetic science, and the stories, behind the phenomenon. Because it is a phenomenon. And for families that decide to test their genes recreationally, strange results are only a piece of the puzzle: “Genetic testing gives you the what, but not the why,” Copeland wrote in her initial Washington Post article about Alice.

In other words, for every odd-seeming set of genetic results, there may necessarily be a secondary level of sleuthing that can reveal uncomfortable truths, tear down family legends, and help find long-sought answers. Dani Shapiro describes this phenomenon of unexpected test results as a “tidal wave” and an “epidemic.” On book tour, Sharpio told the Guardian, “In every audience, there is a significant number of people who have discovered family secrets of their own: adoptees who were never told; donor-conceived people who never knew… older men—not my usual kind of reader—who have been anonymous donors…”

Copeland, who has continued to seek out and amplify DNA discovery stories on social media, agrees, telling Lilith that this technology is changing the social fabric, rapidly. In her initial piece about Collins, she wrote. “The same technology can cleave families apart or knit them together…it can bring distantly related members of the human family together on a quest, connecting first cousins who look like sisters, and solving a century-old mystery that could have been solved no other way.”

Even as people continue to take advantage of seasonal sales to gift these kits, the number of warnings about them is growing. “Why DNA testing kits shouldn’t be on your holiday shopping list,” one December article on the website Qz implored, reminding readers that the companies, even those who have vowed to respect privacy, can renege in the future. The Pentagon has taken the step of urging military personnel not to take these DNA tests for fear of surrendering data that could be used against them.

But even if a consumer resists such kits, it may be too late. “Even if you don’t choose to test, you are actively opted in by the fact that someone else within your circle of relatives probably already has,” Copeland told Lilith. As Shapiro told the Guardian about her unusual book tour audience: “Science is going to force us into a place where there can’t be these secrets. But right now, we’re dealing with a tidal wave.”

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