The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

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DEC 20-JAN 21 Issue
Books In Conversation

In Conversation: SUSAN SHAPIRO with Stephanie Siu

“After I tell my students to write about their obsessions, the rule is: you have to (metaphorically) follow your poetry.”

Susan Shapiro
The Forgiveness Tour
(Simon and Schuster, 2021)

Can you forgive someone who isn’t sorry? Should you? That’s what haunted popular New School writing professor Susan Shapiro following the perplexing betrayal of a trusted mentor after 15 years of friendship. In Shapiro’s candid, captivating new memoir, The Forgiveness Tour, she tries everything to move on: ghosting him, play-by-play analysis of their fights, even summoning a Yiddish curse for revenge. She stumbles on a “billion-dollar Forgiveness Industry touting the personal benefits of absolution,” but the skeptical journalist “fears it’s all bullshit.”

Desperate for wisdom, she interviews 13 people around the country who suffered wrongs that were never properly atoned, several who are former students like me. Mirroring models of effective apologizing, she searches for the elements of a perfect confession: acknowledgement of the offense, explanation for why it happened, proof of change, and reparation to repair the damage.

While she shares the advice of dueling rabbis from her Jewish background, The Forgiveness Tour encompasses wisdom from leaders in other religions. Raised agnostic in a Chinese-Buddhist family, I was struck by the poetic words of Sarvapriyananda, a Hindu Swami, who told Shapiro: “Holding onto anger is poison; forgiving is nectar. A person who sins will suffer from their own bad karma. An angry grudge is like lighting a fire that destroys the place where it’s lit. It burns your own heart first.” Then a physician gives Shapiro an illuminating diagnosis, “You’ve lived through more emotional cycles with [Dr. Winters] than anybody else. You trusted him, loved him, idolized him, felt betrayed, hated him, killed him off. Now you’re in mourning.”

Shapiro’s latest book paints a rounded picture of forgiveness through lenses both secular and spiritual—with an ending almost as satisfying as hearing “I’m sorry.” I caught up with the bestselling Manhattan author by Zoom to ask how the pandemic has changed her career, whether her journey to find an apology made her more forgiving, and why a book that took her 10 years to finally finish and publish seems so timely.

Stephanie Siu (Rail): The Forgiveness Tour is a first-person memoir, yet it also blends elements of investigative reporting, oral history, biography, religion, inspirational self-help, and service journalism. Did you intentionally set out to write a hybrid book?

Susan Shapiro: No. I decided to do a fast humorous sequel to Lighting Up (Random House, 2005) about my intense therapy with Dr. Winters, an addiction specialist. That was a speedy first-person project with an ending that felt triumphant: he helped me quit my bad habits and channel my obsessive energy into publishing funny books. At the end, I joked that the only thing I had left to quit was him. But it turned out, it wasn’t a joke. After I got rid of cigarettes, pot, and alcohol, he worried that the career leap of selling books in my 40s made me too happy, that I’d skipped the mourning and depression that usually set in after you give up long-term dependencies. It all hit me five years later, during our falling out. I’d hoped to keep my crazy comical voice, but The Forgiveness Tour kept adding darker, older, and more serious angles to my recovery saga. It needed more than my own story to give it any kind of universality or wisdom.

RAIL: Is that why it took 10 years from start to publication?

SHAPIRO: Yes, it was a hard book to puzzle out. It was much easier writing Five Men Who Broke My Heart (Random House, 2003) where I revisited some toxic ex-boyfriends, and in Lighting Up (Random House, 2005) where I gave up five toxic substances and every time I quit one bad habit, I’d instantly get hooked on something else. I wanted to emulate the antic year-in-the-life stunt memoirs like A.J. Jacobs’s hilarious The Year of Living Biblically (Simon and Schuster, 2007) and The-Know-It-All (Simon and Schuster, 2004), where he reads 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I read 18 books on varied views of forgiveness and wrapped my memoir around that. But it wasn’t enough. When my mentor wouldn’t admit he did anything wrong, I became obsessed with the notion of apologies. I kept debating whether you should ever forgive someone who showed no regret. I interviewed many people I knew, asking, “What’s the one apology you’re owed but never got?” Meeting leaders of different religions, I kept trying to pinpoint the idiosyncratic distinctions between their forgiveness theories. I didn’t expect my book would take a decade, or that the writing of it would be so painful that I’d feel ambivalent about putting it out there.

RAIL: But you’ve always been a confessional writer, spilling all your secrets in essays, memoirs, and novels, including several about this addiction doctor. What was different this time?

SHAPIRO: Winters was so important to me. I wasn’t sure I should publicly confess my estrangement to a former student I loved and my head doctor. Therapy saved my life, marriage, and career; I highly recommend it all the time. I didn't want to share anything negative about the psychological process with a therapist who is an important hero in my life. Also, I see myself as a strong, together feminist who gives to charity, champions diversity, and helps my students and protegees. Did I really want to look bad, vain, weak, and falling apart? It’s like I was going on in the wrong direction.

RAIL: In one chapter, you wrote, “At 29, her youth mocked me. A time machine was suddenly transforming me into a distorted funhouse reflection of myself, like the actor in the Truffaut film ‘Two English Girls’ shocked by his image in the car window, yelling ‘I look old!’ I went from hip urban success story to pathetic, needy, middle-aged hair-dyeing wannabe.” Was that part of what made you so uncomfortable?

SHAPIRO: Right, that paragraph. It took me 23 years of writing to break into books. Finally, in my 40s, I felt so overjoyed and omnipotent, like I’d found God. Dr. Winters warned me I was like Icarus, flying too close to the sun. I loved doing book events with my mentors. Then I’d read and do panels with my former students—who’ve published more than 150 books in the last decade. But all of a sudden, I was the aging older teacher, falling apart, afraid I was over, feeling betrayed by a rival half my age. Who’d want to face that?

Also, I feared I’d sound crazy lighting a candle and chanting a secret Yiddish curse to extract revenge. And admitting that my mother used to say of her family line, “The Goodman women were witches.” I kept taking it out, but my critique partners put it back in and said, “that’s where I start liking you.”

RAIL: Taking your New School class, I published your first assignment, to write about your most humiliating secret, in the New York Times. Your book Byline Bible (Writer’s Digest, 2018) has helped thousands of writers like me sell their debut work. Did all the revealing essays and books launched by your students convince you to share the vulnerable side of your story?

SHAPIRO: Well, that prompt was inspired by my confessional poetry background, where my gods were raw, intense poets. In sixth grade I memorized Sylvia Plath’s Daddy:

I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do…

Growing up in polite, repressed suburbia, early on, I found solace in the blunt and bloody work by Louise Glück, Yehuda Amichai, Lucille Clifton, and Robert Lowell. I always quote Lowell’s line “I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.” As Arthur Miller advised, the only topics worth writing about are the unwritten, unspoken, and unspeakable.

After I tell my students to write about their obsessions, the rule is: you have to (metaphorically) follow your poetry. So even if you insist your pages are about one topic, if the strongest passages take you in a different direction, you have to go there. I trust the brilliant critics in my writing workshop with my rough drafts. They starred the lines that I hated and kept taking out and said “Go there.”

RAIL: Like in the New York Times piece you published where you advise students writing about personal struggles to “make me worry you’re not O.K.”?

SHAPIRO: Yes, why am I always so brilliant with other people’s lives? I’ve always been drawn to emotionally vulnerable narratives where the hero is about to fall off a cliff. There’s this counterintuitive rule I share with my students doing essays and memoirs: playing up what makes you likeable in real life (success, strength, self-assurance) can make you hateful on the page (where you don’t want to come across as boastful, elitist, entitled). On a literary level, confessional poetry is in my veins. So, in prose, I also strive to be raw and relatable, playing up drama, conflict, and tension, trying for a fiercely honest provocative page-turner. But on a personal level, I want to project a confident image.

RAIL: Was that your conflict with publishing The Forgiveness Tour?

SHAPIRO: Maybe it’s that I’m no longer a young, single, broke poet with nothing to lose. I’m a married, feminist author and writing teacher who has already chronicled overcoming struggles and self-destruction. At this stage, did I want to announce to the world: I’ve regressed back to a neurotic basket-case because of a melodramatic triangle with my male shrink? Especially since the events took place 10 years ago. Sharing other people’s intimate stories of forgiveness took the edge off of my pettiness, and felt like a good balance.

RAIL: You have lots of students in your book, starting with the accidental triangle between your doctor and the student who overstepped boundaries. Has that conflict changed how you engage with younger people?

SHAPIRO: Maybe a little. I love helping people in my classes, filling in what I missed from my own writing programs when I was in school. When students get clips, jobs, agents and book deals, I get a vicarious thrill. The New School has been awesome and generous in paying stipends to the publishing dignitaries who visit my classes. It can be amazing, giving someone permission and a map to mine their creative energies into external success. But when they get frustrated and can’t nail their dream, they can blame or resent me.

RAIL: Like the Haley character in your book?

SHAPIRO: Exactly. She was really talented and I wanted to be encouraging. Yet she was impatient, wanting to publish books and live with a successful husband in a huge Manhattan loft with no money, work, or relationship problems, in her 20s. At one point I tell her, “I know you want my life. I want my life too.” Meaning that it wasn’t easy and isn’t as glamorous as it appears externally. I didn’t marry until 35, or sell a hardcover until I was 43. It took me so long to figure myself out with therapy. I still work 50-hour weeks and get rejected all the time. Luckily, out of the 25,000 students in my classes and seminars over three decades, I’ve only had complicated connections with a few. I remain wildly optimistic and still get totally jazzed when people publish powerful work from my classes—which happens every day. I feel like my job is to make it less difficult for younger writers who come after me. I’ve become what was missing in my early career. But to do that well, I have to better balance getting students excited with being brutally honest about how many hours—and years—it usually takes, to keep expectations in check.

RAIL: Speaking of students, I loved your funny parody of Zoom teaching in The New Yorker. Was it hard to switch your work life to remote?

SHAPIRO: That was a case of my classes teaching me. After the editor spoke at my classes and panels, my former student Nicole Whitaker published some hysterically funny Shouts & Murmurs. I had this idea but—as my comedy writer husband says—I’m too literal-minded. Nicole’s much funnier and more whimsical. So that was a fun collaboration.

RAIL: Has the pandemic changed your whole schedule?

SHAPIRO: Not really. I’ve been writing by day and teaching by night since 1993. I have been pleasantly surprised that my online students have published so many important essays and opinion pieces—even more lately, because they’re living through so much drama and trauma in 2020. They’re fulfilling the promise that “Writing is a way to turn your worst experiences into the most beautiful.” Now editors and agents from all over the country can Zoom in, which is incredible. I got jealous that all my students were freelancing for this fantastic editor from Wired who spoke to my class, so I wound up pitching him a piece about the whole online teaching phenomenon.

RAIL: What’s the downside to living on the computer for you?

SHAPIRO: Well, I have 100 students a term and thousands of former students who stay in touch. Since I still cold call and email editors, agents, and subjects, for good karma, I try to answer everybody who contacts me. But I need boundaries. I’m Zooming four nights a week. With regular classes, everybody just handed in a hard copy of their papers Monday nights, when they were due. Revisions were due the next week. Something about email makes people send me work at 3 a.m., then send three revisions and four more emails commenting on what they sent. By the time I’ve responded with notes back, 10 students have already quickly revised and resent their papers. So, my new rule is: email me your assignment only once a week, in one computer file, right before or after class. Then there’s a 48-hour moratorium on emailing me. Unless an editor says, “Yes, I’ll publish this if you revise it.” Then I’ll help—that happened 30 times last term. But only if they emailed me at night, not 8:42 a.m. Monday morning. If I don’t make strict parameters, I’m sent revisions and questions 24 hours a day, making it impossible to finish my own work. As Dr. Winters taught me—I have to wake up and use my best energy to get my own writing done (“A page a day is a book a year”) before I help anyone else. “An unhappy person has nothing to give,” he used to warn. “You'd get more from a happy stranger than someone close who is unhappy.” He was right. When I get what I need, I’m more giving.

RAIL: Where do you get the inspiration to be so prolific?

SHAPIRO: Growing up in a big conservative family in Michigan with a physician father and three brilliant, science-brain brothers, I could never get a word in edgewise. I was the only girl, the lone lefty, the artistic black sheep who was overly sensitive. I adore my parents, siblings, and old Midwest classmates and neighbors (including a lot of Trumpers). But they could be condescending, sexist, and dismissive of different views. Hearing, “Shut up, you’re stupid, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” stayed with me. Now I’m so glad they were mean because it fueled my strength, my wanderlust (as in “get me out of here”), and my desperate need to be heard. As they say, “Writing is a way of talking without being interrupted.” I’m still making up for lost time. Therapy really helped.

RAIL: You have this wonderful line that “If you pried, I bet everyone felt emotionally bruised or betrayed by someone close who’d never showed any remorse or an explanation.” The experts and victims you consulted span multiple countries, religions, and situations. When did you realize how universal the need for forgiveness was?

SHAPIRO: While writing the book Dr. Winters was a father figure I was dependent on for 15 years. When we locked horns and didn’t speak, I was despondent. Whenever I shared what happened, friends, students, and fellow writers would wind up telling me similar stories of being betrayed by someone close, to console me. The stories were mind-blowing and inspiring and it made me realize that everybody has had this problem: What do you do if someone you love hurts you but refuses to apologize or explain their actions? Recently, it seems like every family in the country has a rift that involves hurt feelings and misunderstandings. My students have been publishing pieces about racism, xenophobia, domestic violence, homelessness, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Every day now, politicians like Biden and Bush are asking us to let “our better angels prevail.” Even Dave Chapelle, hosting Saturday Night Live, was saying, “We have to forgive each other.” It took me decades for my 15 minutes of hitting the zeitgeist.

RAIL: So, having been through this journey, are you more forgiving?

SHAPIRO: I’m more conscious of the need for full-fledged apologies on both sides. I say I’m sorry more—and better—when I feel I’ve done something wrong. I try to be generous but also selfish at the same time. You can’t make it as a freelance writer in Manhattan if you’re a pushover. In Lighting Up, Dr. Winters taught me how to be more ruthless business-wise to be successful. For example, I decide in advance what work I need to get done each day and don’t pick up the phone or answer emails until I’m finished. Nobody is allowed to come by without calling first. I avoid bars and most parties. When a friend, colleague, or former student email me writing they expect me to read and edit (like every day), I’ll send a flier for my next class or seminar, or recommend a ghost editor they can hire. I limit the pages and word counts of what I’ll go over during the semester to one piece per student a week, with a final deadline of the end of the class. I don’t look at anything past then. I can’t leave it open-ended. A lot of Dr. Winters’s wisdom helps me protect my time and energy.

RAIL: Do you now believe that any offense could be overcome even without a heartfelt apology?

SHAPIRO: Not really. I learned that often, when we’re in the fire, we can’t see the whole picture that might explain where someone is coming from. Based on 15 years of his kindness, I did decide to forgive Dr. Winters, regardless of whether he could apologize. But I wouldn’t have stayed connected to him if he hadn’t explained what was going on and changed. Ironically, he was the one who taught me to give up toxic substances and people, be more self-protective and “lead the least secretive life.” Luckily, he’d sort of taught me how to protect myself against him.

RAIL: Are there times where you feel it’s justified for people to hold onto anger and not forgive?

SHAPIRO: Yes, many. In the book, Kenan Trebincevic speaks out publicly against the Christian Orthodox Serbs who murdered more than 100,000 of his Muslim countrymen during the Bosnian War and never officially offered remorse or reparations. Sharisse regretted forgiving her father because his apology turned out to be fake—and dangerous. Manny Mandel, the Holocaust survivor, never forgot, never forgave, and had a great life out of spite. After being dumped by her girlfriend of 26 years, Kate found ways to thrive without an apology, explanation, or forgiveness. In the interviews, I offer many nuanced angles for dealing with hurt when an offender shows no remorse.

RAIL: The Forgiveness Tour is just one of your upcoming books. What else are you working on?

SHAPIRO: World In Between is a middle-grade novel based on a true refugee story I wrote with Kenan, my coauthor for The Bosnia List. That comes out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July. Now I’m finishing a sequel to my writing guide The Byline Bible that I’m calling The Book Bible: How to Sell Your Manuscript—No Matter What Genre—Without Going Broke or Insane (Simon and Schuster, 2022). I hope by the time that comes out in 2022, we can do book events again. I miss book events. I’m going through withdrawal.

RAIL: I was moved by the ending of The Forgiveness Tour, which seemed a kind of epilogue to the 2016 Salon essay that launched your book and won an ASJA award. Do you feel grateful for this traumatic experience since it sparked that understanding between you and your father?

SHAPIRO: Not really. One of my class rules is “the first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice.” My father kept pushing me to go to law school or medical school (when I was 50!). But we were on a good path. What changed was that Dr. Olaf Kroneman, one of the physicians taking care of him when he was sick, was an aspiring writer. Olaf emailed me in 2016 and said that my father told him all about his daughter who was a bestselling author of great books and an acclaimed writing professor known for helping people get published. I called my father and said, “Why didn’t you ever tell me that?” Dad said, “I am now. You stuck to your guns and became a big success. I’m so proud of you.” So that kind of made my life. Then a former student, who is now an editor, published Olaf’s first essay, which thrilled my father. That was cathartic.

RAIL: Since your book about your falling out with Dr. Winters is getting rave reviews, are you glad it happened? Do you agree with Nora Ephron’s line that “everything is copy”?

SHAPIRO: I joke to my students that “publishing well is the best revenge.” But it can be complicated. While working on our co-authored project, I got injured physically, tearing two ligaments in my lower spine. It took a long time to heal. The book wound up becoming a New York Times bestseller, so I’ve wondered about the trade-off and the price of success—at least for me. Why couldn’t I achieve that without killing myself? When a friend told me, “You need to be less extreme,” I laughed and said “No problem, I’ll just get a lobotomy.” I love Adrienne Rich’s poem about how our wounds come from the same place as our power. I do feel very lucky and grateful lately. And if The Forgiveness Tour does good in the world, then it was all worth it.


Stephanie Siu

Stephanie Siu is a contributor to The Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

All Issues