Writer Dani Shapiro always wondered why she didn’t look like her dad – until a casual conversation with her mum let slip a shocking secret.
When Dani took a DNA test, she was shaken to the core to discover that the man she called Dad was not her biological father. Then she remembered a decades-old conversation
in which her mother casually mentioned that they’d had difficulty starting a family, and had visited a doctor at an institute in Philadelphia who practised artificial insemination. Armed with these scraps of knowledge, and with both her parents long gone, Dani and her husband Michael began a fact-finding mission, uncovering a ‘treatment’ commonly used in the late 1960s, involving mixing donor sperm with that of the intended father. But their search did not end there. If Dani’s father wasn’t her father, then who was? In this exclusive extract from her new book, Dani reveals what happened next.
* * *
I woke up one morning and life was as I had always known it to be. There were certain things I could count on. I looked at my hand, for example, and knew it was my hand, my face my face.
By the time I went to bed that night, though, my entire history – the life I had lived – had crumpled beneath me, like the buried ruins of an ancient, forgotten city. The DNA test revealed that my half-sister Susie and I were four-and-a-half generations away from a most recent common ancestor. We were not half-sisters at all – which meant that my father was not my father. That he was Susie’s father was without question: she had his eyes, the shape of his face. I, on the other hand, was pale-skinned, very blonde. All my life I’d deflected comments about not looking Jewish but I had no reason to question my biological connection to my dad. He was my dad.
I realised that my mother had let slip a small but salient fact about the circumstances of my birth on the second anniversary of my father’s death from a car crash, when I was 23 and Susie 38. ‘Your father and I were having trouble conceiving,’ she’d said. ‘He had slow sperm, I’d had several miscarriages and was in my late 30s. So I would go to Philadelphia, where they would monitor my cycle, and when it was the right time, your father would rush down for the procedure.
When Michael and I had used an ancestry website to research our family histories it had been just a whim. Now we needed to know more and used their DNA matching tools, eventually finding a match with the most likely sperm donor, a Dr Benjamin Walden*, medical graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. He had a website. It took three clicks to get there. An old man with white hair and blue eyes was standing at a lectern.
‘My God,’ I whispered. Time slowed to a near standstill.
He had my exact colouring. I saw my nose, my forehead and eyes. I heard something familiar in the timbre of his voice. The way he held himself. The pattern of his speech.
‘Jesus’, Michael said beside me. Ben Walden was gesticulating. He held both his hands in front of him, as if bracketing the air in parentheses – a gesture that I recognised as my own.
‘He even runs a Q&A session like you,’ said Michael. The man I knew as my dad for all those years – the man with whom I had shared a history, a culture, a home, an entire world – our bond was real and unbreakable. But I also now knew, in the starkest terms, what had been missing – mutual recognition. I did not come from him. I had never once looked into his face and seen my own.
My mind and body seemed to be disconnected. My body wasn’t the body I had believed it to be for 54 years. My face wasn’t my face. That’s what it felt like. But then, who was I? I met my best friend from college and when I walked into her apartment I realised that I was afraid that her feelings for me had somehow changed, that I was now unknowable to her. I stood in her living room, tears streaming down my face, and asked, ‘Do you still see me as the same person?’ and she looked at me – bemused but compassionate – and said, ‘You are the same person.’
It was easy to find Dr Benjamin Walden’s contact information. He had a blog, was out there in the world, a well-respected physician, a public speaker. So, I emailed and introduced myself with a link to my website and said, ‘I have reason to believe that you may be my biological father. I won’t write again, unless a) this makes sense to you and b) you’re willing to communicate with me about it. I hope you are.’
Days later Ben finally replied saying that my research might be correct and that he planned to have his own DNA test. ‘I imagine that you would be interested in some family history, especially medical history. If you let me know the questions you have, I’ll try to respond.’
But my mind kept returning to my parents. What had my mother and father known? Ben was the only person involved in my conception who was still alive. I was constantly aware of his very aliveness – his existence as he walked through his days, a person in the world. I allowed myself to get caught up in fantasies of meeting him. Would I ever look again at a photograph of myself, or my mother and father, without the eerie sense that our lives together had, from the start, been built on a lie? Would I ever look at myself and not see Ben Walden reflected back at me?
It was time to tell our teenage son Jacob. He was the only other person in the world for whom this discovery had genetic significance. All my life I had been giving medical history that was 50 per cent incorrect. But what was more stark and upsetting was that I had also been unwittingly supplying incorrect medical information for my only child. When he was stricken with a deadly disease as an infant – a seizure disorder so rare that its origins were unknown – I confidently told the doctors that there was no history of seizures in my family. But was that true? An entirely different genetic world existed now within me – and my son.
Telling Jacob that my father wasn’t his grandfather felt like I was undoing the work of a lifetime. Jacob reached over and took my hand once he understood. ‘Are you OK?’. His chair scraped back as he stood and came around the table to hug me – my beautiful boy, who wouldn’t exist if everything hadn’t happened just as it had. As I held him close, I kept reminding myself that everything I had built was unaltered. My new knowledge changed both everything and nothing. Jacob sat back down at the table and began cutting up his steak. He took a big sip of water, started to say something, then stopped.
‘What? You know you can ask me anything.’ His hand raked through his hair. ‘So, just wondering – does this mean maybe I won’t end up bald?’
Michael and I burst out laughing. My father and grandfather had heads like cue balls. I hadn’t known it had even occurred to Jacob that it was hereditary. Ben, on the other hand, did indeed have an excellent head of hair.
* * *
Ben had briefly been a sperm donor as a medical student and I discovered that my parents would have in all likelihood been told that they were undergoing ‘treatment’ for my father’s low sperm count, but not that this treatment meant mixing donor sperm with that of the prospective father’s. At first Ben was unwilling to meet me, out of respect for his own family. But then he changed his mind, writing, ‘It may well be the right thing for both of us to bring more of a sense of reality to our human connection.’
* * *
Michael and I parked outside the Italian restaurant I’d chosen. I was in a state of high alert. Was I going to risk alienating Ben by asking questions about what he remembered about that time? And what about his wife Pilar? I wondered what it could possibly be like – married for 50 years, retired, with three grown children – to discover that your husband had another child. She was a doctor’s wife and they were dedicated congregants of a local church. My news must have rocked their world – and yet they had come around to deciding to meet us.
We sat in the car watching the entrance to the restaurant. I had considered wearing something of dad’s to keep him close to me. But I didn’t want him at the table with Ben. I didn’t want him hovering there, stricken, sorrowful. It felt like a betrayal of one father, meeting my other father. And if my dad had known – had always loved me, as I knew he did, in full recognition that I wasn’t his biological child – then that, too, would make this day fraught beyond measure.
Before I could summon up the courage to go into the restaurant I saw an older couple walking slowly towards us. I opened the car door. I saw them seeing me. There was no going back. We moved towards each other.
‘Ben,’ I said holding out my hand. ‘Hello, I’m Dani.’
His eyes crinkled as he smiled. Both of us were flushed bright pink. Michael and Pilar were now standing slightly apart from us.
A passer-by might take us for a family.
Ben took an awkward step towards me and said, ‘Would it be all right to give you a hug?’
We were seated, as I had requested, at a secluded corner table and there was something I had promised myself I would say as soon as I had an opening to cut through the polite chitchat. ‘I want to thank you. You didn’t have to do this.’
‘It had just never occurred to me that I might have biological children out there,’ he replied. ‘I donated for a short while and honestly never thought about it after I finished medical school.’
Ben was letting us know that he hadn’t been prolific. That I was not in a situation where I might have hundreds of half-siblings. Which of course was the very scenario about which he and Pilar must have been most terrified. In time I will question how a medical man could ignore the obvious link between sperm donation and the possibility of fathering children he didn’t know about. I will think of the three of them – my mother, father, Ben – all burying the consequences of their actions so deep. But not on this day when I wanted to absorb as much as possible. Who knew if we would ever be together again?
Pilar asked to see a photo of my son Jacob. I scrolled through my phone. Pilar inhaled sharply when she saw him and passed the phone to Ben. After he studied the photo he picked up his phone and handed it to me: ‘I put this album together thinking I might show them to you – ancestors, family.’
Before I had a moment to digest what I was seeing, Michael’s phone began vibrating. It was Jacob. I panicked. ‘Take it outside.’ I didn’t want Ben to feel pressed or railroaded. But Ben stopped him and Michael handed me the phone. Our boy’s face filled the screen. I turned the screen to Ben and he took it from me and looked at his grandson. ‘Hi Jacob – how’re you doing? It’s good to meet you.’
In the architecture of extraordinary moments – so many instances that were inexplicable, beautiful – watching a 78-year-old man meet his 17-year-old grandson on FaceTime felt sacred. Something loose within me had settled. Even if we never saw each other again, at least they would have acknowledged each other.
None of us wanted to part. As we walked them slowly towards their car, Pilar said, ‘Our daughter Emily is interested in knowing you.’
‘I’m interested in knowing her as well,’ I answered ‘but I didn’t know if it would be OK.’
In our remaining moments I let Ben and Pilar know that I would be near them during my book tour the following spring. This seemed to be a relief to all of us – the idea that we would be able to get together again. ‘We’ll come,’ said Ben.
Then we hugged again, only this time without awkwardness. Only a sense of having been visited by some kind of grace.
It took my parents five years to have me, their only child together. Five years punctuated by miscarriages and trip after trip to Philadelphia as my mother approached 40. In those years my father’s younger brother and his wife had four children. One of the most important mitzvahs of Jewish law is ‘Be fruitful and multiply’.
In the months to come (indeed, I suspect, for the rest of my life) I will hear stories of people who have searched for their sperm donors – their biological fathers – all their lives. When those searches have failed, some have had their anonymous donors’s identification numbers tattooed on their bodies, a way of marking themselves with their only clue. I have been luckier.
So, on the night after I first met Ben, I sat alone in my office – on the same chair where less than four months earlier I had discovered the truth about my paternity – and I wrote him a note of thanks. Only I signed this one, ‘With love’.
*Name has been changed
This is an edited extract from Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love by Dani Shapiro, published by Daunt Books, price £9.99. To order a copy for £7.99 from 16 June, call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.