The Unthought Known: An Interview with Dani Shapiro
By Meredith MaranFebruary 7, 2019
Fortunately, Dani Shapiro was well equipped for both. The best-selling author of four memoirs and five novels, Shapiro’s life and work are fueled by a spiritual quest whose origins lie in her Orthodox Jewish upbringing. In her writing, and in the workshops she teaches at schools and spiritual centers around the world, Shapiro fuses the drive to write with the drive for a spiritual home. In Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, her most powerful work to date, she uses those tools to survive — and share — the earthquake of her truth.
“If my father wasn’t my father, who was my father?” she writes. “If my father wasn’t my father, who was I? […] I felt cut loose from everything I had ever understood about myself.” By the end of the book, Shapiro has come to some measure of peace with her new reality.
What if I had always known that the reason I looked different, and felt different, was in fact because I was different? It would be easy to fantasize that this would have been better. But we can never know what lies at the end of the path not taken. Other difficulties, other complexities would certainly have emerged.
Just before the launch of her multi-city book tour, in the midst of a deluge of pre-pub interviews with the likes of The Wall Street Journal and The Today Show, Dani Shapiro made time for an animated, forthright conversation with LARB.
MEREDITH MARAN: Inheritance has been called a genealogical mystery, a detective story, a meditation on the meaning of identity, a lived novel, a memoir. You’ve written in various genres before. Which genre did you feel like you were working in with Inheritance?
DANI SHAPIRO: I definitely did not feel like I was writing a novel. There’s nothing fictional about this book in any way.
That said, I employed the tactics of fiction as I have in my other nonfiction books. I wasn’t there for many of the scenes that I depict in detail. So when I portray my father on a train to Philadelphia, or I imagine my mother in the waiting room at the Farris Institute for Parenthood, which no longer exists, I’m imagining, not remembering, what the room looks and sounds and smells like, what the people in the scene are feeling and thinking and saying. But unlike writing a novel, I’m letting the reader know what I’m doing: fleshing out the things that happened, using what I know about the people and places involved.
I certainly felt I was writing a memoir. And yet it was a different experience from writing my previous memoirs. This is my 10th book. Writing it, I was confronted with all of my past writer selves, and all the books that writer wrote. Sometimes when I was working on Inheritance, I’d walk over to the bookshelf of my own books, pick up one of them, and start leafing through it. This is a horrifying thing for any writer to do! In my early novels, and as recently as in Still Writing (2013), I found passages about family secrets and lies, about snooping through my parents’ things. There were lines that now stood out to me, like this one from Still Writing: “What was I hoping to find? A clue. A reason.” I remember typing out those sentences, sending an email to my editor. With all my other books crowded around me, I had the sense that it was always leading to this.
I’d read those passages aloud and I’d think, “Oh my God.” On some unconscious level, I always knew. The psychoanalytic term, “the unthought known” — what we know but cannot allow ourselves to think — became my lodestar.
What was the writing process like?
I wrote the first 200 pages really quickly, as if I was on fire. I was writing for my life, in a way. Then I put the pages aside because I went on tour for Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage (2017). I didn’t look at what I’d written for two months.
When I came home, I picked the manuscript up again and took it to the cafe where I do a lot of my reading and writing. I started reading, and my heart sank. I thought, “This isn’t it. I’m not doing it.” Something wasn’t working.
In our first conversation about Inheritance, my editor had said to me, “This is your Year of Magical Thinking.” I love that book. I know it well. I remember thinking, “That makes sense.” She was speaking about spareness and structure. I didn’t go back to the Didion at that point. I felt I knew how to do it.
Months later, there I was with 200 pages that didn’t work. So I went back to The Year of Magical Thinking. I saw that Didion was not writing directly from the center of her trauma. She’d found a fulcrum, a place to write from that was not very far from that center — a place from which she could pivot away from the white-hot trauma of her husband’s death. She had the capacity to cast a cold eye, to retain her characteristic icy clarity.
Putting an experience like this — the emotions of this — into words sounds pretty daunting.
Trauma is inarticulate. I’ve come to believe that perhaps the only form that can handle the direct exploration of trauma is poetry. The nature of trauma is that it doesn’t allow a story to become a story. That’s why trauma victims have to tell their stories over and over again, which doesn’t exactly make for great literature.
Trauma is recursive. I learned that when I wrote those first 200 pages. I was keeping up with the story instead of getting ahead of it. I was utterly consumed with what my parents knew and when they knew it. Every time I returned to that question, I was in the same place. The question was not evolving for me. I was in a disoriented place, grasping at straws. Literature requires a shape.
While writing Inheritance, I was also aware that in my other books, evoking empathy in the reader was almost a given. In my memoir Slow Motion (1998), my dad is killed and my mother badly injured in a car accident. In Devotion (2010), I write about having a very sick baby. Inheritance was different. The details of the story were so bonkers. For the first time in my life as a memoir writer, I had to consider what was universal about my story. I had to think, “What am I learning about identity? About what is it to be a family? About nature versus nurture? What is it to be a secret kept for an entire lifetime?” I kept those questions at the forefront because I wanted to write a book that anyone would be able to find themselves in.
Did you work with a therapist while you were writing Inheritance? If so, did she help you find that distance?
Discovering the truth about my family briefly drove me back to therapy. I had to see someone who already knew me, who knew the “before” of me, because the “before” was now sealed in a time capsule. I wanted to talk to someone who understood what I had believed about myself before the discovery, because I was in the process of reprocessing, re-remembering. So I went back to the therapist I’d seen before.
But, at a certain point, I found it wasn’t helpful to talk about it anymore. In therapy, I would talk, talk, talk, and not feel any better. What I needed to do to metabolize this information was to distill my experience into language.
At its core, this is a spiritual journey. I get understanding, depth, and solace from my daily meditation practice — which also changed dramatically with my discovery. I’ve been practicing yoga for 20 years. But after I learned the truth about myself, I couldn’t do yoga for two years. The body unrolling my mat felt like a body I’d been wrong about. I hadn’t actually known that body. I wasn’t ready to meet my new self on the mat. Now I’m back inside my practice, but it feels different.
Have you noticed any change in your sense of Jewishness since this discovery?
I don’t feel any less Jewish than I did before I found out that I’m biologically half-Jewish. I was raised Orthodox. I went to yeshiva. I’m fluent in Hebrew. Hebrew words, Hebrew prayers are part of my interior life in a way that fully formed me. I’m still Jewish. My son is still Jewish.
Since I learned who my father is, I feel explained. It was the story of my life that I was constantly being told how non-Jewish I looked. Now I finally understand that I look Western European like my biological father. It’s comedic, all the times I’ve been the keynote speaker at Jewish luncheons and galas and there would be this moment, seeing people in the crowd looking at me quizzically, like, really? It always bothered me that I didn’t look like I belonged. I didn’t ask why that was. I’d say, “This is what a Jewish girl looks like. Stop it.”
There’s total liberation for me in that now. Yes, I’m Jewish. In this horrendous ongoing wave of antisemitism rolling through our country and Europe, I definitely feel that it’s happening to my people.
There’s a wealth of factual information woven through the memoir. Clearly, you did a lot of research about assisted reproduction, your own family history, the meaning of family, the meaning of life.
Yes. From the moment I discovered who my father wasn’t and who my father was, I knew this would be a book, and I spent the better part of three years buried in researching and reporting it.
It’s really something to be able to take a life event — not an event, really; it is my life — and make something out of it. When I was starting work on the book, spending every waking moment attempting to find the language for what was happening within me, I asked my therapist, “What would I do if I weren’t a writer? How would I be metabolizing this? What if I had to go to work at some office every day?” She said, “You would have had a nervous breakdown.”
One thread that particularly tugged at my heart was your interviews with elderly professionals and family members, some of whom you barely knew, and the care as well as the thoughtful responses they gave you.
I felt an urgency around the reporting from day one. I was very aware that anyone who might still know anything about the circumstances of my existence would be very old or dead. People my parents’ age were in their 90s. So were many of the medical professionals who’d been practicing around the time of my conception.
I knew that talking with them was the only way to piece together the atmosphere of that time. Unfortunately, I hate to pick up the phone. I’m allergic to making phone calls, especially to people who might not want to hear from me. [My husband] Michael and I had a running joke that kept me making those dreaded calls. Michael would say, “Call her! She may be dead by Friday!” Turns out, my desire to know the truth was much greater than my fear of rejection.
Meredith Maran is a contributor to The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her last piece for LARB was a review of Jill Soloway’s She Wants It.
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