In Conversation: Author Dani Shapiro ‘83, MFA ‘89 and President Cristle Collins Judd

A full house turned out on Saturday, June 8 for a conversation between President Cristle Collins Judd and author Dani Shapiro ’83, MFA ’89. A highlight of the College’s Reunion weekend for alumni, the event provided an opportunity for the audience to learn more about Shapiro, her work, and her experience writing her most recent bestseller, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, which received outstanding reviews from The New Yorker, The New York Times, Newsday, and Bookforum, to name just a few. The discussion took place in the Donnelly Theatre at the Heimbold Visual Arts Center and was open to the public.

The author of five memoirs and five novels, Dani Shapiro is a New York Times bestseller whose work, both fiction and non-fiction, is known for intimately and artfully addressing family dynamics and the unraveling of family secrets.

“Sarah Lawrence was exactly the right school for me,” said Shapiro at the start of the session. She said she always wanted to be a writer, but didn’t know if it was feasible. However, professors—including Grace Paley and Lindsay Abrams—“modeled that life for me” and steered her into the MFA writing program.

In the course of the conversation, Shapiro discussed her trajectory as a writer, the writing process, her reasons for penning memoirs, balancing her personal and professional life, navigating social media as a public persona, and the experience of writing Inheritance, which led to a discussion about the bioethical issues raised by the popularity of “recreational” DNA testing.

Shapiro said identity and family history have always been overriding themes in her work, but she never understood why they were so important to her until she had her DNA analyzed in 2016, on a whim. The results revealed that the man who had raised her, and whom she had loved dearly, was not her biological father; her parents had resorted to fertility treatments and insemination with donor sperm to achieve conception, a fact they had kept from her during their lives.

This fact, said Shapiro, showed her that it was she, herself, who had been the family secret that she had obsessed over for more than 50 years. Inheritance relates how, following the revelation of her paternity, she navigated the sudden toppling of what she thought of as her history, ancestry, and identity. “This is THE story of my life,” she said, “the story that, at this point in my life, I feel that I was born to tell.”

During the Q&A portion of the talk, Shapiro took a variety of questions from audience members who were moved by her book, many of whom were grappling with issues of identity. Among them were four sisters who, in middle age, only recently found one another thanks to DNA tests, and none of whom ever met their biological father, leading Shapiro to speak passionately about the need for donor registration in the U.S.

Shapiro concluded the session by commenting on why she believes the truth of one’s identity is worth knowing: “There is something that is so profoundly liberating about knowing the truth and then speaking the truth and shaping the truth into something that becomes coherent and that allows one human being to connect with another, or a writer to connect with a reader.”