14. How Can I Embrace My Family Secrets? With Dani Shapiro
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Every family has secrets, but some secrets can change everything we thought we knew about ourselves. At age 54, writer Dani Shapiro discovered that the father who raised her wasn’t her biological father. For over two decades, Dani has written memoirs mining her life for truths and understanding of what makes us who we are, including how this shocking revelation reshaped her own identity. This episode’s practice is about understanding that the past doesn’t define who you are today – you do.
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Resources from the show
- Listen to Dani’s podcast, Family Secrets
- Read Dani’s memoir “Inheritance” and her other memoirs and books here.
- Read “The Book of Awakening” by Mark Nepo.
- Check out the Insight Timer app for free guided meditations.
- Check out Gabby Bernstein’s The Universe Has Your Back card deck.
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Dani Shapiro & Claire
Hi, I’m Claire Bidwell Smith. Welcome to NEW DAY. Today’s guest has me thinking about teachers I’ve had, when I was in 10th grade, I handed in an essay to my new English teacher and titled, “Who I Am”. And she returned it with a note at the bottom that read, I choose an hour-long meeting with you, you are a real writer. I honestly don’t know if I would be where I am today we’re not for the way she took me under her wing after that. But then there are also the teachers we find out in the world. Sometimes they don’t even realize the impact they’re having on others around them. My guest today, Dani Shapiro has been one of those people for me, I kind of mentor from afar, the way that Danny has mined our life for truths and understanding about identity, and what makes us who we are, has been a source of inspiration in all of my writing. Danny is the author of five novels and four memoirs. The first three memoirs, Slow Motion, Devotion , and hourglass, followed a trajectory of self-discovery, beginning with the death of her beloved father in her 20s then her search for meaning in her 40s. And then a beautiful exploration of marriage with her longtime partner, Michael. But her fourth memoir took all of us on an unexpected journey. In the book Inheritance, Dani is living an idyllic writer’s life on a snowy farmhouse in Connecticut, with her filmmaker, husband and her college age, son. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was really good. And then at age 54, Dani found out through a genealogy test that the father who raised her wasn’t her biological father. And as you’ll hear in our conversation, suddenly her whole life and her identity changed.
I’m so happy to see you. It’s been a little while I’ve spoken to you during the pandemic, but it’s been a minute. So I start every episode by asking my guests how are you doing today? But like, really how are you doing?
Dani Shapiro 02:07
I love that question, especially during these times, because there’s always this pregnant pause, after you ask somebody how they are, like, none of us know how to respond to that right now. I’m actually pretty good. You know, because I’m a writer, a lot of my life did not change that much. Due to the last 18 months, I’ve had to develop some new muscles. But for the most part, the shape of my life is very, very similar to what it was before. And I think I also have this, this new way of thinking about life. You know, the old Jewish grandmothers used to say, you know, as long as you have your health, and I really kind of feel like, you know, I’m healthy, my husband’s healthy, my son is healthy, thank God, everybody’s thriving. And I’m just not really letting the little stuff get to me.
I love that, you know, I’ve known you for a long time, personally, and I know that you have a practice, a daily practice of spirituality of getting centered of meditation, does that help you weed away all of the little stuff that tends to gain our focus?
Oh, I can’t imagine life without that 20 minutes in the morning. It’s just an absolutely sacred 20 minutes in the morning, if I have to be somewhere very early in the morning, I will set my alarm and get up that much earlier so that I can start my day that way. And I suppose really what it does is it’s a kind of just inclining my mind in a direction of paying close attention and tuning in, you know, tuning into my body, tuning into my breath. And it’s very, it’s very clarifying.
I aspire to this; I’m listening to you. And I’m thinking about how every morning I’m waking up with a two-and-a-half-year-old in my bed and just absolute, like I had immediately into chaos. You know, it’s just, there’s no way around it for me. There could be this time later in my day. But that’s it gets difficult to carve that out later.
Dani Shapiro 04:18
I think so. And I should also say that when I had a two-and-a-half-year-old, I did not have this practice. I mean, even when my now 22-year-old is home, it’s hard for me to close my door and meditate. But I feel that way about so many things. I feel that way about working out. It gets harder and harder as the day goes on. Because the to Do lists just pile up and pile up. And I think the first thing that for so many of us is expendable is you know our own well-being.
Absolutely. It is a constant struggle and practice for me to create that time to get centered and to just check in with myself. But it’s the thing that helps is the thing that matters. That’s the thing that gets me through it when I can do it. But I want to start by saying, you know, I’ve known you for a long time for about 10 years when my first book came out, and I reached out to you, and you were so gracious with me. And I’ve always looked to you as a mentor, as someone to aspire to so much of who you are what you write about, how you move through the world. But it was so shocking when Inheritance came out, and all of your books that you have novels, but you had several memoirs, nonfiction, and had been really investigating your life in such beautiful ways, you know, and they seemed like you were really probing into the depths at all times, and always had. And then this bombshell, after all those years of that, can you tell us a little bit about for anyone who’s not familiar, a little bit? And then and then what was that like?
Yeah, I had always written about secrets in all of my books. My novels, revolved around the corrosive power of secrets, my memoirs, all were kind of excavating, trying to understand, I would have told you that I grew up in a house filled with secrets, you know, my parents had secrets that there was just, you know, there was just this feeling in the air of everything that was unsaid, or kept hidden. But I had no idea as I write an inheritance, that the secret was me, that my father, who died when I was 23, that he wasn’t my biological father was not something that had ever, ever crossed my mind. Even though in retrospect, it’s plain as day that that was the case. But it wasn’t something that I could allow myself to enter. Why would I entertain that? I grew up thinking that my parents were both my biological parents that my father’s family, which was a very storied, very illustrious family, was very proud of my ancestors, proud of that lineage, proud to come from this world of people who had done a lot of good in the world, so to discover in midlife, that wasn’t the case, and that my parents had had trouble conceiving, and had gone to a fertility institute, back in the early 1960s. They’ve struggled for years to have a child. And in the end, they used a sperm donor. And so that one day, I’m bopping along in my life, you know, I’ve written nine books, and I’m a public contemplative. This is literally what I do with my life. And I find out that everything that I mean, on the most fundamental level of identity, I was not who I thought I was.
My mother is my North Star. And I just am trying to sitting here listening to you trying to imagine how I would even begin to wrap my mind around it if I found out she was not my biological mother. On one hand, I think nothing would change. She is my mother on undeniably, however, this whole everything you’ve built upon this whole idea, I mean, as writers, as storytellers like this narrative, the story that we hold, what happens when you found out, you took a simple DNA test, which I’m now terrified to do and haven’t done even though there’s one sitting in my closet for two years.
Dani Shapiro 08:33
That’s so funny. I can’t tell you how many people tell me that they have one and they haven’t taken it. I should say I had, I didn’t take a DNA test with any, for any reason, or with any suspicion, it was purely recreational. And it was just because my husband was doing it. And he asked me if I wanted to do it, too. So there was absolutely no, you know, thought about taking it. My journey, for really the past five years, since I discovered about my dad has really been a kind of reckoning with what does it mean that he wasn’t my biological father, you know, what makes a father, a father, what makes a mother, a mother? And initially, I was just destroyed and devastated. Initially, all I wanted to do was ask him, you know, Did you know, did you care? Did it affect anything about the way that you felt about me was a part of why you seemed sad a lot of the time, I had a million questions that I was never going to be able to answer. But ultimately, the journey really was over time and a lot of investigation and a lot of spiritual inquiry and a lot of soul searching to this place of, you know, a rabbi referred to my dad as your spiritual father.
And I loved that because I hate all the terminology, you know, adoptive father, social father, you know, biological, all these different kinds of like labels that we put on these things in our society, spiritual father feels accurate, spiritual father, even as I’m saying that to you at this very moment, I feel chills running up and down my body. And I know he’s with me. And that in some way, he and I were meant to, you know, go through this together. But I do come from another human being genetically. And that’s not nothing. You know, it’s not everything, but it’s not nothing. And so, all my life when I was constantly told that I didn’t look like my family, or I didn’t look like my parents, or I didn’t look like my ethnicity. I mean, constantly told that. And I had to really build a pretty solid edifice, or a kind of denial mechanism almost. Because when people would say that, to me, my response was to double down and say, like, what do you mean? What do you mean, I don’t look Jewish, I grew up kosher. I speak fluent Hebrew; I went to synagogue every Sabbath of my childhood.
I mean, I’m very, very Jewish, and not actually being able to hear what they were, in fact, saying, which is that I really don’t look like I come from the part of the world that I ostensibly came from, and I don’t look like my father’s family. And it’s not just the way that I look. It’s also something kind of fundamental in my nature, I was quite different. from them, I am quite different. And I had to reckon with that.
And this seems to be a theme in the in the family secrets podcast, which was my quarantine binge, I would just walk my neighborhood over and over every day listening to that podcast. But it seems so often in the cases of the people that you speak to on the podcast, who also had uncovered family secrets, that there had been clues all along that it had been kind of right there all along, for so many of these people.
Dani Shapiro 12:07
You know, when I started family secrets, it was really very intuitive and organic. And it was because people heard what inheritance was about and started sharing their family secrets with me. And the stories were riveting. And the people who had uncovered family secrets, or been a family secret, or kept a family secret, we’re, you know, we’re so thoughtful and courageous. And these secrets really shaped their lives. But certain patterns really started to emerge very quickly. And one of them is just what you’re describing, where the feeling that someone would have on discovering something that was always there that they couldn’t apprehend, but was just kind of lurking in the shadows. The feeling when the lights turned on, was both shock. And yeah, completely. And I felt that there was no question from the moment that I realized what was going on. There was no question that it was true. And that it had always been true, and that it was always there. And it made it was like, you know, I mean, even things like family photographs of me with my parents, I cannot look at them in exactly the same way that I did before, because I actually look at them with more clarity now. But it was a real investigation that I had, a reordering really of everything that had come before.
I’m so curious. How long did that reordering take? I mean, how did you even are you settled with it now, were you settled with it when you began the podcast? What was that process like? I feel like it would have spun me out into just a complete existential crisis. What is life about? What are connections? What is family? Who am I?
Yeah, all of the above. And I have, I guess, a couple of different layers of answers to your question. I don’t think I believe in closure. When it comes to the really big things. It’s like grief, it assumes new forms. It comes up in the most surprising improbable moments. It can rise out of something sensory or out of being triggered in some way or something somebody says or an anniversary or whatever it is. I think that for the rest of my life, I will in some way or another once in a while be brought up short, like, oh my God, that’s my story. I still have moments where I’ll just like turn to my husband and say like, oh my god, can you believe it. And yet at the same time, the reeling, dizzying existential crisis of it all that lasted for a while. But you know, one of the interesting things that I learned, actually came from a conversation that I had with Bessel van der Kolk , the great psychologist who wrote the Body Keeps the Score. Bessel writes about and talks about the way that making meaning is one of the best ways that we have to work through trauma, and that the people who are traumatized, who aren’t able to make meaning from their trauma often suffer more profoundly than people who do and I thought, oh, well, that’s what I’ve been doing since I made my discovery, I started writing pretty quickly, because that’s what I am. And it’s what I do. And it’s the only way that I really know how to order my thoughts and my feelings.
Dani Shapiro 16:32
So I was writing and fully intending to write a book. I mean, it was like the story of my life, it literally. And then when Inheritance came out, it immediately started reaching a lot of people. And people who would come to my events, often were people who were touched by secrets, in some way or another, in one form or another. And it became almost like this movement, it was extraordinary. And I was traveling to city after city, I think, I think up until the pandemic, I had been to maybe 40, or 45 cities. And it was exhausting in a certain way. But it was also, I think, a way in which I was able to make my life experience and make my story mean, something that was greater than it and greater than me. And that was very healing.
That makes a lot of sense. I think I’ve worked in my life to do something similar, you know, to take all this grief and all this loss and to create something meaningful, something helpful with it.
You know, at first, when I realized, you know, and I, as I write about Inheritance, I do end up discovering my biological father, I find him, I meet him, he’s a lovely human being, you know, he doesn’t feel like my father to me, but he absolutely does feel like where I come from. And I have the great miracle and the great opportunity of being able to kind of close that loop and have that information and know something about just, you know, my nature. But you know, at first it felt like, I felt like a total freak, I felt like something that was kind of cooked up in a test tube. I felt like oh, eugenics applied to me. Like, I felt like, I just got even whiter. It’s not even I went from being like 100% Jewish to half of me having come over on the Mayflower, no shit. Like, it just was like, what, but in a way, the what of it is so magical, and so rich, and so strange, and so mysterious, that it actually feels kind of like, I am able to dance with it more. And I was never able to do that in my previous, you know, in my previous sense of my identity, there was always something stuck because it was stuck.
And in all of my guests whether this question ends up being in our interview or not, I’ll always say do you wish you hadn’t found out? I’ll ask at the end do you wish you hadn’t known is too painful, is too shocking, whatever it is not one single guest who said yes, I wish I hadn’t known because there is a way in which it’s simply liberating to know the truth. And if we don’t know the truth about ourselves, and we don’t know that we don’t know. We’re carrying around this kind of invisible burden. There were so many things about me as a young woman, as extremely hot mess of a young woman, you know, as like really looked up hot mess in the dictionary and there I was, and I never understood like, why did I have to be such a mess? Why did I have to put myself through so much pain and trouble. And I actually feel like I was dragging something behind me that I didn’t know, you know, on a level as fundamental as who am I and where do I come from? And we can’t drag that around and have that not become something that shapes us. So knowing it is so freeing.
Dani Shapiro 20:50
How do people move through that when advice you have for someone who’s in the throes of this who has just found out something? Or is reckoning with some family trauma? How do you do this? I mean, it’s so depending on the family and the trauma. But I think when people discover that there’s been some kind of really huge secret in their life, or that’s been kept from them, a feeling that can come upon us is of not being whole, because there was a being somehow false, like, there was something that just wasn’t true or that wasn’t known. And I think there’s very much an impulse to turn against oneself. There’s a lot of anger often, and where to put that anger, especially if there isn’t any place to put that anger, if the people who kept the secret are gone, or don’t cop to it, or aren’t interested in having a dialogue about it, whatever it is. And so there can be a lot of really negative toxic feelings. And I think, to understand that it is a trauma. You know, I didn’t like thinking of it as a trauma, because I didn’t want to be traumatized. And I think it’s also a hallmark of trauma, to underplay the trauma. You know, whatever it is, it’s like, well, this happened. But it could have been that, you know, like, really, at every level, like people having the most horrific trauma, still finding a way to say, yeah, but it wasn’t that other even worse thing, to disavow it, to not disavow it and to, to own it, to hold it to understand that it really is real, and to surround yourself with people who understand and are empathic, because very often with these secrets, there will be some people who have the response of what’s the big deal? What difference does it make, you’re still you, that happened so long ago, be grateful for all of the many gifts that you have in life, I could go on. And it doesn’t. And many of my guests also really contend with that, with people who just say the wrong thing, even in a well-meaning way. So you know, a support system. And an understanding that it really is something that you’re going through even if it’s invisible.
You might sense when we were talking about what is memory and identity, it’s just that when you really dig into those things, and when you discover the inconsistencies, it must feel like there’s nothing to hold on to. And so I would imagine that, for a lot of us, we probably start to grab onto anything, the wrong things to hold on to, that impulse to just hold on to something, anyone, anything, is probably at the root of a lot of toxic behavior. But coming back to that idea of feeling comfortable with uncertainty, feeling comfortable with the not knowing of like feeling comfortable with not having firm memory or identity seems to be what we have to come back to, which is again at practice, right?
Dani Shapiro 24:14
Yeah, the word that just came to me as you were saying that is it’s a path. You know, like I discovered that the path that I thought I was on was different, shaped differently, took a sudden turn, but it was my path. It wasn’t some new path. It was the path that I had always been on that I might never have discovered, had I not taken a DNA test, but I’m so glad I did. Because it’s mine, you know, it’s my path. It’s sort of like, in a way during these last, you know, nearly two years of reckoning as a world that we have been going through. I remember at one point I was speaking with my friend, Elizabeth Lesser, who is a great thinker and writer and founder of the Omega Institute, she’s so wise. And she said, in a very loving way, but these are our times, you know, we don’t get to pick and choose what times we’re living through what times our children are growing up in, these are our times, these are the times we were born into, and it suddenly kind of reshaped my thinking into these are our times what a gift to be living through these times. You know, all times have within them great challenges and hardships. These are ours and so that’s how I feel about this knowledge of mine now is that this is my path. And it was always there.
Dani Shapiro 26:04
And it now, you know, it’s like a friend of mine. When I first told her about my discovery about my dad early on, she burst out laughing when I told her and she said, it’s like, you’ve been training your whole life for this. And I thought about that. And I thought I think that’s right. I mean, I think in some way, all of that digging that you were referring to, you know, all nine books, you know, five novels and four memoirs, you know, Inheritance, my fifth memoir, why I didn’t set out, I didn’t set out to write memoirs, I was never gonna write memoir, I was always just, I was a novelist. I mean, I’m back to writing fiction. Why, why all these memoirs, it was like, I knew, and so the knowing but not being able to put my finger on it, I am so much more comfortable being able to put my finger on it.
In wrapping up, do you think there are more shifts coming? And do you feel like you’re prepared for them? Or you need to prepare? Or what do you think is ahead?
You know, I could never have foreseen this. Right? I could never have foreseen the last five years of my life, which I’ve had, you know, many challenges and many extraordinary gifts, I think that this will continue to unfold. And who knows, in what ways. I tried to kind of hold my hands open, and, you know, be in some kind of state of receptivity for whatever, for whatever comes next, but not to, I think the pandemic has also taught all of us that plans are fantasies, you know, plans are fungible. And it’s allowed me I think, to insert myself much more deeply into the present, which is our greatest challenge as human beings, all of us to actually be, you know, in the present, just having this conversation right now, just, you know, looking out the window at this moment, just, you know, being with our children, or, you know, petting our dogs or, or in a moment of profound sorrow, whatever it is being completely with it. And I think these years have taught me more about that than all of my previous years before.
There was so much in this conversation that I want to think about, this experience of the path you’re on changing completely, is one that I think all of us have had at some point or another, when the very thing that makes us who we are is taken away, how do we sit still in the present moment of not knowing who we will become next? And how do we flow with our own changing identities, athletes who suffer permanent injuries, mothers who lose children, finding out that you’re not your father’s daughter? I like what Dani said about trying to hold her hands open and be in a state of receptivity for what comes next. Easier said than done. But that’s why it’s called a practice, right? Speaking of practice, this week, I want you to consider your own identity. What are all the parts that make up who you are? Is it your job, your family, the place you live in? Now, think about who you are when you take all of those things away. Someone suggested to me recently that I consider who I am without the context of grief. I couldn’t really do it at first. Grief touches every part of my life and how I move through the world. But the more I sat in contemplation over this idea, the more I was forced to bring myself to the present moment. And what I found there was a sort of peace and a relief at not having to be the thing I always think I am. So ask yourself, who are you? Where do you come from? Who would you like to be? Write it down. Maybe it’s a letter to yourself. Maybe it’s a bullet point list, you can look back on from time to time.
Maybe what you find when you peel back all the layers isn’t what you thought, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. As Dani said, she never could have foreseen the many challenges and many extraordinary gifts that came with her own identity shift. For more of Dani Shapiro, I highly recommend her podcast Family Secrets, in which a different guest reveals a family secret each week. It was my quarantine obsession, and it’s never boring. I also recommend all of Dani’s books. And if you really want to do a deep dive on how our identities shift over time, read all of her memoirs in the order of when they were published. Dani also loves and recommends Gabby Bernstein’s the universe has your back card deck. Mark Meepo is the book of awakening and Insight Timer for guided meditations. As always, thank you for listening. Next week the tables are turned and I’m on the other side of the mic as Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Lemonada co-founder and host of the podcast Last Day interviews me about how to deal with our darkest stuff during the supposedly curious time.
NEW DAY is a Lemonada Media Original. The show is produced by Jackie Danziger, Liliana Maria Percy Ruiz and Erianna Jiles. Kat Yore is our engineer. Music is by Hannis Brown. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer, Lily Cornell Silver and Claire Bidwell Smith. NEW DAY is produced in partnership with the Well Being Trust, The Jed Foundation and Education Development Center. Help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms, or find me at clairebidwellsmith.com. Join our Facebook group to connect with me and fellow NEW DAY listeners at facebook.com/groups/newdaypod. You can also get bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada Premium. You can subscribe right now on the Apple podcast app by clicking on our podcast logo and then the subscribe button. Thanks for listening. See you next week.