Susan Shapiro on Betrayal and Forgiveness

Susan Shapiro is the award-winning writer of over a dozen diverse books, including The Byline Bible, Barbie, and Five Men Who Broke My Heart, to name a few. She’s written so many articles it’s hard to count and on topics so wide-ranging it makes one’s head spin. Shapiro is prolific and bold — it seems there’s no topic that’s off-limits or that doesn’t pique her curiosity. She has written candidly for the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and a plethora of other publications about everything from why we should teach grad students to make a living to her struggles with addiction. In a society that’s uncomfortable with too much intimacy, and that encourages people (especially women) to keep their innermost struggles and opinions under wraps, Shapiro’s writing is a breath of fresh air. 

After the ongoing successes of her two prior memoirs and recently published, widely acclaimed writing guide, Shapiro has kicked off 2021 with The Forgiveness Tour. This brave new memoir explores how, and whether, to strive for forgiveness and closure. Finding herself in a moment of crisis after a betrayal by her trusted therapist, Shapiro challenges the common wisdom that we must forgive to forget. Maybe, she thinks, the forgiveness industry is full of it, and we can move on sans absolution. In conversations with spiritual leaders and lay-people of all stripes, she explores her own challenge with forgiveness, as well as that of others. 

Q: How did the process of writing your riveting, spiritual new memoir The Forgiveness Tour differ from your previous funnier memoirs, Lighting Up and Five Men Who Broke My Heart

A: I intentionally tried to make Five Men Who Broke My Heart and Lighting Up hip, hilarious and edgy. The first drafts took six months each and the feedback I heard early on was “this rocks.” Sex and the City was on TV, I was 40 and freelancing for women’s magazines, newly married to my own awesome nice Jewish Mr. Big. I’d sold these two sexy books to a wonderful editor at Random House after struggling for twenty years, so I felt triumphant. Since it was about the same addiction doctor as the hero of Lighting Up, I first envisioned The Forgiveness Tour would keep my crazy comic voice and be a fast, furious and humorous sequel. But that didn’t happen. It kept getting deeper, darker and more religious. It took ten years to finish and publish. It was a struggle from start to finish, though critics I trust have told me it’s worth it, that I came away with something wiser and more inspirational. 

Q: Throughout your new memoir, you recall your recovery saga with Dr. Winters, your addiction specialist. Was part of the immense hurt you felt when he lied to you connected to your previous dependency on him?

A: Yes! After I quit cigarettes, pot and alcohol, he worried that the career leap of selling books in my 40s made me too happy. He was afraid I’d skipped the mourning and depression stages that often set in after you give up long-term toxic habits. Since my father was a conservative doctor in Michigan who hated my work and Dr. Winters loved and encouraged it, he became a mentor and paternal figure. He read each project and told me how great they were and that he knew they’d get published and when they did, it felt like magic. What’s that Tom Robbins’ line “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” I used to call Dr. Winters the WASP rabbi I’d confess to weekly with intense devotion.

But five years later, the rough side hit me when he lied to me. During our falling out, Vatsal — the Hindu-born doctor I saw — told me “when you build a man up inappropriately, he has to fall.” But in this case, I was the one who plunged into confusion without Dr. Winters. Luckily, I didn’t relapse on any substances. But I was not in a good place after losing my guru of 15 years. That’s why I was so desperate for wisdom. 

Q: You write that students have always walked you home from class and confided their problems to you. Did anything change with your forgiveness tour? 

A: I was told I was a better writer and teacher in that vulnerable headspace. It made me more empathetic. And I shared my motivation for the memoir with all the people I interviewed for the book. So they knew I was coming from a place of pain, trying to intellectualize and puzzle out forgiveness, to crawl my way out of hurting. So maybe I was easier to open up to than, say, an investigative journalist doing a third-person expose. My heart was on the line too; I had skin in the game. 

Q: What’s the difference, to you, between forgiving and excusing bad behavior?

A: In analyzing the billion dollar forgiveness industry that promotes radically forgiving everyone everything, I make it clear that I think that’s bullshit. I give examples of many people, like the Holocaust survivor Manny Mandel, who thrived without forgiving. And I share the example of Sharisse being pushed to forgive her abusive father, who tried to rape her again. I  also quote experts who delineate four elements of a good apology, which include taking responsibility for what you did, explaining why you’ll never do it again, atoning and offering reparation to fix the damage. I think each story is nuanced, and it’s up to the individual to decide whether someone is offering a defective selfish apology or is really repenting and really changing. 

Q: Does the pandemic and political contentiousness make it harder to forgive?

A: No, just the opposite. With so many losses and everyone going through a hard time, I think it’s easier to forgive people you care about. More than 400,000 Americans have died, so many have lost relatives, friends, jobs, homes. I’ve found the crisis is giving some people a much better perspective. You can do classes, therapy,  weddings and shivas online. 

Q: As a self-proclaimed workaholic, I can only imagine that your life is still full of projects in progress. What are you working on these days?

A: I  have two upcoming books I’m working on. I wound up coauthoring the memoir of  Kenan Trebincevic, the Bosnian Muslim war survivor I write about in Forgivneness Tour. It was called The Bosnia List and came out from Penguin in 2014.  It did well and we’re now finishing a middle grade novel on his immigration story called World In Between, out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2022. And I’m doing a sequel to my writing guide Byline Bible which is called The Book Bible: How to Publish Your Manuscript – No Matter What Genre – Without Going Broke or Insane which comes out in 2022. I’m also freelancing by day and teaching great Zoom classes and seminars at night, so yes keeping busy, “as if achievement were redemption,” to quote a poet friend. I still think it is. Or at least—there’s worse things to be addicted to.