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Author Dani Shapiro on the power and danger of family secrets

After taking a DNA test on a whim, author Dani Shapiro discovered that her beloved late father had not been, in fact, her biological parent. She had been conceived using a sperm donor, and as was common at the time, the real story of her conception was kept secret. Shapiro shares her humble opinion on why not knowing the truth can cause more pain, rather than less.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Genetic testing has become increasingly popular today. For about the same cost as a nice dinner, you can now find out where your ancestors came from or get answers to medical questions.

    It's easy to do. And, for many people, it's done on a lark, with no real expectation of a surprise.

    Dani Shapiro, however, experienced a much different outcome. Tonight, she shares her Humble Opinion on why family secrets should no longer be kept.

  • Dani Shapiro:

    On a winter night three years ago, my husband told me that he had decided to take a DNA test. He was curious. That's all. He asked me if I wanted him to order me one too. I wasn't curious.

    I knew exactly where I came from, but I said, sure. Why not? It seemed like no big deal. Prices had come way down. Families everywhere were giving each other DNA kits as holiday gifts.

    When my results came back, they revealed that my late beloved father had not been my biological father. In rapid succession, using nothing more than Facebook and Google searches, I learned that I had been conceived in an institute in Philadelphia, and that my biological father had been a sperm donor.

    Within 36 hours, I found that sperm donor, who had been a young medical student at the time. He was now a retired 78-year-old doctor, a medical ethicist. He was more than a little bit surprised to hear from me.

    A secret was scrupulously kept from me for 54 years. Secrets defined the world of infertility and reproductive medicine at the time, something that persists to this day. Couples were told to have sex before and after the procedure, so that they'd never really be sure who the father was, and to then to go home and forget it ever happened, to never breathe a word, not to family, not to friends.

    The child would never know. And what we don't know doesn't hurt us.

    Except that I believe that what we don't know absolutely does hurt us. I grew up with a powerful sense that something wasn't quite right. Things didn't add up. I didn't add up. I looked very different from my family, but that was only a small part of it. There were ways in which I simply was different. But I didn't know why.

    So I did what children do. I felt there must be something wrong with me. That feeling of wrongness permeated my life, even as I was able to thrive as a writer, marry, and have a child of my own. There was always a subtle disconnect, as if the wires were crossed.

    I wrote book after book, trying to understand why this was the case.

    We're living in a time when family secrets are tumbling out at a stunning rate. Easy, popular DNA testing along with the Internet makes it nearly inevitable that secrets involving family and identity won't make it to the grave. And that's a good thing, because no matter how high up on a shelf a secret is kept, it's still there.

    Just because it isn't spoken doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Quite the opposite. It's all the more powerful and dangerous for having been hidden.

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