What a courageous thing, Dani Shapiro has done, in excavating a life history. It’s easy and romantic from this side of the story to say that it looks like hers was a story meant to be told. That she was led into and through discovery with nearly cosmic guidance. And yet, the raw honesty she brings to the telling, suggests otherwise.
In this beautiful and intelligent memoir Shapiro explores the deep question what makes us who we are? What combination of history, memory and ancestry comes together to define us? And is that combination, as we might hope and believe, permanent? And what happens when it’s not as we thought.
Here, she takes us on her journey of discovery about her conception. It was not, as she had been told for her entire life, a simple conception between her mother and father. Instead, Shapiro learns that she was the product of a combination of parental love, infertility, desperation and burgeoning rogue science. As a result, Shapiro first tracks down the truth, then ponders for us the implications of this truth not only in her own life, but for a culture experiencing, for the first time, the long-term outcomes of artificial insemination (AI). She brings to the topic not only personal experience, but also scientific research, philosophical issues, and the instability of identity.
I woke up one morning and life was as I had always known it to be. There were 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 have lived - had crumbled beneath me, like the buried ruins of an ancient forgotten city.
And she writes beautifully the process of rebuilding this strange terrain which would create a new understanding of her identity. I can relate to that on one level. Perhaps those of us who have lost a significant partner can relate to the need to reorient our identity, cover uncharted territory, find a new North on our identity compass. But for us it is a pointing forward. For Shapiro it has been an archeological dig into the very cellular nature of her existence.
Everyone is begotten and points backwards, deeper down into the depth of beginnings. There was, and always would be, a groundlessness to the depths of my beginnings. That knowledge now existed in the place within me where all the secrets had once been stored and despite the occasional free-falls, felt like a new form of strength.
Reading it, I reflected on my own internalized compass:
My parents, my heritage, my ancestral health history, my name, my relationships, who I trust, who I know not to trust. All of this was tossed in the air for Shapiro like the proverbial fruit basket, and she examined each piece and its changing place in her landscape. That is courage.
She showed me what it means to work things out when our history isn’t what we thought it was - or even what we think it should be. She showed me how she faced the emotion and brought it to the page. She grappled with loss, shame, ethics, family secrets, legal concerns, religious history and reshaping faith.
She reinvented. I did not face the same circumstances she did. But, I could relate because after Roy died, I felt that I experienced a similar process. And I am encouraged by her story. I now have a new awareness about my being, standing with Dani and Pema Chodron who she quotes:
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-mans land.
That this experience happened to a writer, who is married to a journalist, is such a gift to me. It’s a gift because they had the combined skills and experience to bring a universal perspective to such a private story. Her willingness to share it so candidly is a gift to the world.