I knew Susan Shapiro, my former writing professor at The New School, as a generous, kindhearted mentor. Her powerful new book, The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology—which was ten years in the making—chronicles her long-term connection to her own New York guru, addiction specialist Dr. Winters. Yet their relationship wasn’t as sanguine as she’d thought. When she found out he lied to her repeatedly concerning one of her students, she felt betrayed and told him he owed her an apology. “I’m sorry for the imaginary crime you think I’ve committed,” he replied, making her feel like committing a real crime. His stunning lack of remorse motivated her cross-country exploration of the universal, confounding question: How can you forgive someone who won’t apologize?
In her quest to find the answer, Shapiro exposes common misconceptions about the billion-dollar “forgiveness industry.” She interviews doctors, leaders from different religions, and thirteen people who have suffered extreme wrongs never righted—all in the desperate hope of delineating the differences between their theories of forgiving in order to achieve true reconciliation. The resulting memoir is a deeply moving and ultimately profound window into the enigmatic landscape of hurting and healing the human heart.
I was delighted to talk recently with Susan Shapiro about her new book, the painful falling out that prompted her forgiveness tour, why she refused to give up on her memoir after a decade of rejections, and how writing is a way to explore human frailty and seek wisdom.
The Rumpus: The Forgiveness Tour starts with a funny yet painful emotional scene of you falling out with Dr. Winters, the addiction specialist who helped you to quit smoking, drinking, and drugs. When you found out he lied to you and wouldn’t explain or apologize, you seem to have completely lost it. Why couldn’t you get over it?
Susan Shapiro: Well, I’d been seeing him off and on for fifteen years. He’d not only helped me stop my toxic habits, but he encouraged my marriage to my amazing husband, fixed my work patterns so I could publish books, and tripled my income. He was a mix of my higher power, my sponsor, a father figure, a career and marriage counselor. Holding my hand through intense substance withdrawals, he told me I had to learn to “depend on people, not substances.” I decided to trust him, allowing myself to be very dependent, not easy for a Manhattan feminist, freelancer, and control freak. His deception floored me. My crisis management strategy became my crisis. Because he was my closest confidant, I couldn’t just sweep his deception under the rug. I felt a need to discuss and work it out with him like we always had. His inability to come clean or admit his mistake felt like a huge blockade in the middle of my head, heart, and life.
Rumpus: In your sleep-deprived delirium, did you really light a candle and put a secret curse on him for revenge?
Shapiro: Yes, my mother always said of her side of the family, “The Goodman women are witches.” She had these Yiddish curses that were the worst things you could ever wish on someone. My favorite translated to, “May your head grow in the ground like an onion.” I was so stressed and unnerved when Dr. Winters turned on me, I couldn’t eat or sleep. He wasn’t hearing anything I said or understanding my hurt. I couldn’t get through his bizarre defenses and felt powerless. So, I put a curse on him. Within hours, he emailed me to say he was in pain from kidney stones. I was amazed that the curse worked. And, I flipped out because I didn’t really want to hurt him. I just wanted him to stop my hurt with the apology I felt he owed me.
Rumpus: At first, The Forgiveness Tour reads like a first-person memoir in which you are telling your own story. But the included interviews with Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu leaders make it more journalistic, while the extensive profiles of other people struggling to forgive seem like oral history. And the wisdom from other doctors and psychiatrists adds self-help elements, too. Was the hybrid structure your original vision?
Shapiro: No! I started out trying to write a quick funny first-person sequel to my 2005 comic memoir Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved In Life Except Sex about my intense—and miraculously effective—addiction therapy with Dr. Winters. While quitting myriad addictions with him, he explained how my bad habits were getting in the way of my work and relationships, keeping me from selling a book for seven years. I’d been too controlling, unwilling to delegate any responsibilities to anyone else, not reaching out to more successful colleagues for help. He pushed me to ask two authors I knew for advice and they both recommended the same ghost editor, someone I hired to line edit my first book behind the scenes. That led me to an amazing Random House editor who bought three books of mine in a row. I was out of my mind with glee to finally publish hardcovers in my forties. But he feared the book deals made me too elated and excited and I was somehow skipping the difficult mourning stage that often comes after withdrawing from substance abuse. Five years later, after we fell out, the darkness and depression hit. I always tell my students that, despite your intentions, your writing sometimes takes you places you don’t want to go and you have to “follow your poetry.” I had to follow my own advice. There’s the rule with writing and love: “You can do anything as long as it works.” And the editor I trust most in the world finally told me the mix of genres worked.
Rumpus: So, you realized the best part of your memoir-in-progress was telling other people’s stories and you decided to do more of that?
Shapiro: At first, it wasn’t intentional or organized. My friends, colleagues, and students knew I was upset and asked what happened. Whenever I divulged what had transpired, someone would share their own story about being hurt or screwed over by someone who’d never apologized either. It seemed everyone felt they deserved an apology they’d never received from someone they couldn’t forgive. Most of the stories were very dramatic, which gave me a wider perspective. My fellow teacher Alison Singh Gee found a way to minimize her Indian mother-in-law’s racist slurs and antagonism and focus on the kindness she showed her grandchild. Kenan Trebincevic harbored a grudge against the Christian Orthodox Serbs who’d slaughtered other Bosnian Muslims and caused his family’s exile when he was twelve and spoke out about it twenty years later. Manny Mandel, a DC-based Holocaust survivor, never forgave the Germans and thrived in his life out of spite. Gary Weinstein, a Michigan man who forgave the drunk driver who killed his wife and his children, wanted to find a way to honor their memory. Of course, there was no comparison between any of these extreme stories and what I was going through. But I wanted to learn from Kenan’s transformation from victim to spokesperson for his people, Gary’s depth and compassion, Manny’s ability to compartmentalize and counterintuitive strength, and Alison’s ability to (as Confucius said) “Forget injuries, never forget kindness.”
Rumpus: You’ve said that it took ten years to complete and publish this book. Was it painful to write and revise? More than your other books?
Shapiro: It wasn’t painful to write the first version. After struggling for twenty-three years before I published my first hardcover and having quit so many toxic substances, I’m now addicted to writing, which I find to be joyful, blissful, and soothing. I’m also hooked on publishing and book events. Dr. Winters calls press my “new cocaine.” But getting out a rough draft was just the first step in a complicated labyrinth. Dr. Winters always told me to “hang out with people you want to be.” So, I have brilliant and very honest workshop critics I show my pages to twice a week. That’s been my process since I studied with sharp professors at NYU and worked at the New Yorker, my first job out of graduate school. It was exhilarating to have incisive readers share feedback. (Now, we’re Zooming.)
Yet with this memoir it was especially hard to hear criticism—and to know which to take. Some early readers hated the therapist and the student characters. Others felt a six-month falling out with a mentor wasn’t enough to hang a whole book on, or that a fight between a shrinkaholic and her psychoanalyst was too insular and New York-centric. Someone questioned whether, as an older bestselling author and popular writing professor now publicly clean and sober, I wanted to put out there that I’d had an emotional breakdown that threatened my sobriety. It was very difficult to revise, to make it work. Because therapy saved my life and I love teaching, I didn’t want to vilify a luminary therapist who’d been my hero, or a former student. I wasn’t going to play victim, especially because one of my rules of first-person writing is that you have to challenge, question, out, and trash yourself more than anyone else. But while I like to be humorously self-deprecating, I didn’t want to be self-denigrating. My challenge was to tell my own story but also find ways to weave in wisdom and gravitas.
Rumpus: Is this your most spiritual project?
Shapiro: I think so. Along the path of many revisions and rejections, it kept getting more religious. Some editors and agents hated the added Jewish and spiritual passages, fearing it might limit the story’s appeal, but it actually helped me find my audience, something all authors need to figure out. The book’s biggest supporters so far have been The Jewish Book Council (who published two wonderful pieces about it), The American Jewish Press Association (who gave me awards), Tablet (who excerpted it), The Jewish News, Jewish Boston, The Jerusalem Post, and Lilith (who covered it beautifully). An amazing online launch was hosted by Temple Israel in my hometown, for a Zoom panel with my rabbi-friend Jennifer Kaluzny and two people I’d profiled in the book, Manny Mandel and Gary Weinstein. My mother and my eighty-five-year-old photographer cousin Danny Brownstein Zoomed in with one hundred and seventy other friends and relatives I could see. So, that was very special. As a teenager I’d tried to escape the constrictions of traditional Judaism. My internal rule book came to be determined by confessional poetry, Bob Dylan lyrics, and psychotherapy. So, this was an unexpected reunion. It felt like coming home—but more comfortably this time, on my terms.
Rumpus: In an effort to protect your sanity and sobriety, you ended your therapeutic relationship with Dr. Winters and vowed you’d never speak to him again. Yet ghosting him didn’t end your distress. Did you ultimately need to forgive him before you were able to write with clarity and compassion about what transpired? Did researching the other religious outlooks on forgiveness help you get there?
Shapiro: Absolutely. Dr. Winters had been my guru for so long that it was confusing when we were estranged. I was desperate to unravel our feud, which led me to search for different kinds of guidance and wisdom. I’d called him “the Wasp rabbi I’d confessed to weekly with religious devotion.” Looking for new metaphoric rabbis, I wound up circling back to my old real ones, my family Rabbi, Joseph Krakoff, an Israeli rabbi friend Dr. Moshe Pindrus, who’d also quit smoking with the help of Dr. Winters, and Jennifer Kaluzny. At the time I was teaching a writing workshop at Holy Apostles soup kitchen (for thirteen years) with the Reverend Elizabeth Maxwell, who was very compassionate and explained to me the Christian attitude towards atoning and forgiving. And Dr. Vatsal Thakkar, a Hindu-born psychiatrist I saw, offered illuminating new ways to view what happened and forgive. Ironically, the moment I did forgive Dr. Winters in my mind, he emailed with a true apology and explanation that blew the lid off of all the forgiving theories.
Rumpus: Why was simply ignoring or ghosting the person who wronged you an ineffective method?
Shapiro: Usually it’s quite effective and one of the methods Dr. Winters taught me. Going through addiction therapy, he immediately told me to stay away from anyone smoking, toking, or drinking if I was serious about quitting. And to “hang out with people I want to be,” which rearranged my social life. I swapped loud, crazy, parties with drunks and potheads for readings and book panels where nobody drank, smoked, did drugs, or even ate. But in the case of Dr. Winters, I wasn’t finished with him yet. We had more to explore. In fact, after I quit therapy with him and we reconciled, we went on to publish an addiction book together that, in his words, “did good in the world.” It even became a New York Times bestseller (for two weeks). Maybe this memoir took so long to finish and publish because I wanted a happy, inspiring ending that could help others, too. It certainly proved how fruitful forgiving and reconciling could be.
Rumpus: After studying forgiveness from so many opposing angles, what’s the most valuable lesson you learned?
Shapiro: Well, aside from the fact that there’s never a one-size-fits-all forgiveness plan, I liked the Hinduistic perspective of psychiatrist Vatsal Thakkar. He suggested I search for a larger view and shared a metaphor: “A commuter was enraged when a woman in an SUV stopped abruptly to get something in the back seat, almost causing an accident. He didn’t know the driver’s infant was choking. Similarly, there is something you don’t know about your mentor’s life that will shed light on his insensitive actions.” That was prophetic. When I learned what really happened, I was shocked and wound up saying “I’m so sorry” to him.
Rumpus: How amazing! Now that the saga of Dr. Winters seems complete, are you working on any new creative projects?
Shapiro: Yes, I spent the pandemic in my apartment, finishing two other books and Zoom teaching. World In Between is a novel based on a true refugee story that I coauthored with Kenan Trebincevic—whom I’d interviewed in Forgiveness Tour—coming out in July. And my new writing guide, coming out next winter, is The Book Bible: How to Sell Your Manuscript—No Matter What Genre—Without Going Broke or Insane. It took me until my forties to break into books. They say you should teach the class you wanted to take and write the book you wanted to read—so I did. I’m still making up for lost time.
Photograph of Susan Shapiro by Dan Brownstein.