memoir · nonfiction

The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing- Adam P. Frankel

The New Books shelf strikes again! I’ve got a pile of reading challenge books waiting for me, but my library has a decorate-it-yourself felt snowman over by the New Books shelf, and so while I was waiting for my daughter to perfect her indoor Olaf, I foolishly turned around to examine the new books, and that’s when my eyes fell on The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing by Adam P. Frankel (Harper, 2019). A quick scan of the inside flap let me know that the book was, as I had inspected, about a family’s grappling with trauma after the Holocaust, and that was all I needed for it to go into my pile.

I knew better than to keep looking at that shelf, though. That New Books shelf is dangerous to my reading load!

Every family has its own secrets, but Adam Frankel’s family always seemed to have more than most. His grandparents survived the Holocaust and came to live in America, but how much of their trauma did they pass on to their children? How much through genetics, how much through behavior patterns? And how much of that trauma has reached Adam in the third generation? Often raising more questions than answers, Adam, a former Obama speechwriter, goes searching for answers and finds more than he initially bargained for. Suddenly, Adam’s not only looking for answers about all those family secrets, he’s tasked with keeping them, too- big secrets, the kind that are difficult, maybe impossible, to forgive.

Despite its absolutely heavy and often tragic storyline, The Survivors is a fascinating read, one that delves deeply into the question of epigenetics and what the effects of trauma are for subsequent generations. Were his grandparents’ experiences in concentration camps responsible for his mother’s mental illness or her inability to cope with stress? What do genetics really mean, anyway? I didn’t read the inside flap in its entirety and so the narrative took a turn I wasn’t expecting, one that brought to mind shades of Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance. Adam’s entire identity is brought into question, and his grappling with his sense of self and family history is intense, and intensely painful. That he was contending with so many issues while still successfully performing his duties as part of President Obama’s speechwriting team is impressive.

Fans of family sagas, family secrets, family history, and memoirs that wrestle with identity and the author’s place in the family story will find much to appreciate here. Although the tone is often heavy, Mr. Frankel’s writing style moves the story forward at a pace that never lingers too long on tragedy. This is a story of pain and secrets, of shining a light on that which has been hidden, and of having the bravery to ask questions and deal with the answers. I can’t imagine the amount of courage it took to not only write this story, but to put it out for the world to read. That’s a level of self-examination and honesty that I aspire to.

Beautifully written and well-researched, The Survivors would make an excellent book club selection, as there are so many layers to this story that it would encourage a great discussion (it feels a little terrible to say that, as this is someone’s life, but this is a book and a story that deserves to be read and remembered). There are mentions of violence and death- there are very few happy Holocaust memoirs, after all- and some mentions of sexual situations, but nothing is graphic, so this would be an appropriate and intriguing group read.

Memoirs that include revelations about paternity seem to be prevalent lately (this is my third in three months, along with Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance, as previously mentioned, and Sarah Valentine’s When I Was White); I don’t think that that’s a publishing trend so much as a coincidence and a sign of the times, with genetic testing kits being so readily available and trendy. I’m sure there will be more memoirs along these lines, but Adam Frankel’s traumatic family history and his writing talent, honed from years in the blood-stained battleground of modern-day politics, absolutely make this book stand out.

Visit Adam P. Frankel’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love- Dani Shapiro

The Unorthodox podcast strikes again! I was merrily listening along when the hosts began their interview with Dani Shapiro about her new book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love (Knopf Publishing Group, 2019) (link to this episode here; because of this episode, I also have a library copy of Adeena Sussman’s Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen cookbook on my couch right this very moment and it’s FABULOUS. Usually I find like two or three recipes TOPS I want to make in each cookbook I check out from the library, but this one, I found myself wanting to copy down so many recipes that it’s going to be worth it to buy the entire book. Highly recommended! Can you see why I enjoy this podcast so much????). I’d heard of the book before and kind of filed it away as another one in that growing genre of people who received surprising DNA test results. This interview, however, had me scrambling to hit the ‘want to read’ button on Goodreads, and I’m glad I did.

Dani Shapiro never felt like she fit in in her Orthodox Jewish family. Her blond hair and blue eyes made her stand out and had people constantly telling her, “You don’t look Jewish…” Beyond that, there was a feeling, a feeling that had her staring at her image in the mirror her entire life, searching for something she couldn’t name, couldn’t put words to despite being a writer. A DNA test done on a whim in her fifties revealed something she never expected: her father, the parent she’d been closest to, wasn’t her biological father.

Despite still being Jewish according to Jewish law (a fact that she didn’t seem quite able to summon in those first hazy days of shock), Dani’s entire sense of self is upended, her entire childhood come into question. Her mother had made allusions to a fertility clinic years ago, and along with a comment from the woman who she once thought of as her half-sister (but with whom she’d never been close), she realizes that she was conceived using donor sperm. With her journalist husband’s help (and the help of one of his colleagues), she’s able to narrow down the family of her donor, and then the donor himself, all within a number of days after the initial discovery, something close to miraculous in terms of how searching for donors usually goes). Emails are exchanged, tentative at first, one step forward, two steps back, and then a meeting is planned. Dani must come to terms with who she is and how her identity has been altered, and what it all means.

This is a doozy of a story, and according to Dani’s Unorthodox interview, it’s not hugely uncommon (I think she mentioned that the statistics are something like one in every two hundred-and-something cases reveals unexpected parentage). The popularity of DNA testing for ancestral origins has blown the door wide open on family secrets previously thought to be un-sleuthable, and while her parents had both passed on by the time her story came to light, I imagine that every day there are difficult conversations being had about this very topic. Dani’s education and connections to people able to aid in her search gave her a major advantage in being able to advance in the mystery of her paternity, and to begin putting the pieces of her life back together after having it all upended. She’s aware of this and doesn’t take it for granted.

Dani must also reckon with what her parents knew, if anything, as well as the religious community she grew up in: was this a secret both parents hid from her? Did one parent know and not the other? Did everyone know but her? As nearly everyone connected to this story is either dead or in their 90’s, it’s nearly a race against time to fill in the blanks this explosion has made in her story. She does seem to make peace with it in the end, and for that, I’m glad. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and the stories others tell us about where we came from and how we came to be are so important in shaping our images of ourselves, and having your entire story erased in one swoop has the potential to be emotionally devastating.

In the end, Dani Shapiro is able to find comfort in the abiding love of the father who raised her. I do wish she had spoken more to the fact that family isn’t necessarily only blood ties, that there are many ways to make a family and that biology is just one of them, that biological paternity (and maternity, for that matter) doesn’t make or break a parent’s relationship with their child. That wasn’t necessarily the focus of this book, as it centered more around the secrets her parents might or might not have kept, but leaving it out disappointed me a little, as so many families are built and flourish on ties that have nothing to do with biology (including mine!). Oversight? It’s possible, and it’s also possible that this just wasn’t her focus, so I’m willing to let that go.

I can’t help but compare this to When I Was White by Sarah Valentine; there are definite similarities, though the writing styles are very different. Both women are highly educated, both always felt out of place and had people make constant comments on their appearance when they were young. Both had strained relationships with their mothers. Both had their sense of self and self-image rocked when they received the news that their heritage wasn’t exactly what they thought it was. I’m sure the two women would have a lot to talk about and find a lot of common ground if they ever found themselves in the same location. If you’ve read both books, I’d love to hear what you think!

And of course, I can’t bump one book off my TBR list without adding another; after logging Inheritance on Goodreads, I combed through Dani Shapiro’s other published works and added Devotion to my list. There’s no such thing as a TBR down to zero. I’ll just keep repeating that to myself.

Have you done DNA ancestry testing? I have, and it’s pretty fascinating. I’m going to have to haul my laptop to the library one day (or many days) and make use of their Ancestry.com subscription. My mom’s family likes to talk about how Italian they are (and they have an Italian last name, an apparently uncommon one at that), but I’m not at all Italian (and just a tiny bit Sardinian, along with a smattering of Spanish and Portuguese; my mom and her older sister are nearly identical, my dyshidrotic eczema comes from that grandfather, and I look exactly like my dad’s side of the family, so everything’s kosher there, pun intended), so I’d like to be able to track down how that side got to the US, since no one seems to know. (The other side, I know; my great-great grandparents emigrated from Norway, and I still have family over there, including a third cousin!). This kind of testing has opened up a world of fascinating, and sometimes surprising, information for people, and Inheritance is a great example of this.

Visit Dani Shapiro’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.