Forgive and Remember: A Conversation with Susan Shapiro




WHAT WOULD YOU DO if the person who hurt you most refused to say they were sorry? Could you forgive anyway? Best-selling author Susan Shapiro explores this universal question in her intriguing, insightful, all-too-relatable new book The Forgiveness Tour, out this past January.

In her often-hilarious previous memoir Lighting Up (Random House, 2005), Shapiro, a New School writing professor in Manhattan, chronicled her successful therapy with “Dr. Winters,” a brilliant addiction specialist who helped her give up cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. He became her sponsor, teacher, father figure, and higher power. By the end, the only thing she was addicted to was him. Now, she adds a darker twist as her new book picks up five years later, when she’s devastated to learn he’s lied to her repeatedly.

Confused and enraged, Shapiro lit candles, hexed her shrink with Yiddish incantations — then felt guilty when he got kidney stones. She hated being so angry but couldn’t let it go. Desperately searching for guidance, she read dozens of books on apologies and atonement and researched the billion dollar “forgiveness industry,” which promotes radically forgiving everyone everything, but found it was bullshit. To replace the guru she sorely missed, she sought out her childhood rabbi, a beloved female reverend, a Muslim chaplain, a Hindu-born psychiatrist, a Jungian astrologer, and friend’s swami, among other luminaries, each adding a unique perspective to her question: without any remorse, does he deserve forgiveness?

Still unresolved, Shapiro embarked on a cross-country journey to interview victims of catastrophic traumas, such as genocides and hate crimes, which they overcame through various methods ranging from reparations to spiritual transcendence. She realized her feud with Dr. Winters, however upsetting, was comparatively trivial, a narcissistic wound. Yet she still couldn’t get over it.

The Forgiveness Tour offers a deeply personal, painful experience that inspired a fascinating exploration of forgiving, with an ending that surprised everyone, especially the author. After devouring the book in one sitting, I had the pleasure of picking Shapiro’s brain over email. We discussed the psychology of forgiveness, the method of madness behind her new memoir, and how writing is a way to make something important from your pain.

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SARA-KATE ASTROVE: I found The Forgiveness Tour captivating and was interested to hear it took you 10 years to write. Why so long?

SUSAN SHAPIRO: I originally saw it as a light, quick, fun sequel to Lighting Up, which was subtitled “How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except for Sex.” But after trying to chronicle my falling out with my mentor, the book kept getting weirder and more complicated. So I’d put it away and then do more interviews and try again. I didn’t want to say anything negative about him or about therapy — since it saved my life.

Why did you decide to interview 13 other people about wrongs they experienced that were never atoned or righted? 

Every hurt was different, and I wanted to depict that nuance in the book. My colleague Tom Reiss, a history buff and Pulitzer Prize winner for The Black Count, blurbed my 2014 memoir The Bosnia List, which I co-authored with Kenan Trebincevic, a Bosnian refugee who escaped brutal ethnic cleansing. After Tom read the first draft of The Forgiveness Tour, he suggested that I interview Kenan and Manny Mandel, a Holocaust survivor friend, and other people with gravitas on their takes on forgiveness, for a more serious scholarly approach. It added a deeper and wiser level to the story.

Did interviewing those who found the strength to forgive after severe traumas help you process your experience? 

Yes, hearing other people’s sagas definitely inspired me, though of course I wasn’t comparing their stories to mine in any way. I was trying to learn from people who’d been through so much worse. I was also moved by the wisdom shared by leaders of different religions.

What is the spiritual significance of forgiveness? How do faiths differ?

When I lost Dr. Winters, who’d been my guru and WASP rabbi for 15 years, I needed other wisdom. From the interviews I did, all religions seemed to grapple with questions of wrong, right, sin, atonement, forgiveness, and redemption. Yet every spiritual leader I spoke with had a different outlook and theories they shared. To paraphrase very briefly, Jesus famously said on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing,” which implied a blanket forgiveness. Yet on the other hand, a reverend pointed out, they also had strong views that unrepentant sinners went to Hell based on God’s judgment.

Judaism and Islam both appeared to be on the same page about the importance of repentance before any kind of absolution. Buddhism and Hinduism and Confucianism had larger overviews involving karma and doing good in the world, regardless of whether the person who wronged you could see their error.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about forgiveness?

That sometimes it’s better not to forgive and you can thrive out of spite.

I love that. Funny how a therapist would be so unwilling to analyze himself. So did spite motivate you to write the book? 

Well, Joan Didion said writing “is a hostile, aggressive act.” But for me it was more like the transformative promise I tell my students, “Writing is a way to turn your worst experiences into the most beautiful.” There’s a difference between scrawling anger into a notebook and revising, typing, and trying to craft something helpful from my pain. And publishing is a different impulse. I think some of the stories and wisdom people shared with me seemed poetic and wildly illuminating and lit a fire in my brain I tried to capture and share on the page. One of the best reviews I ever received called Lighting Up “a mind-bendingly good read.” I hoped to recreate that.

Are there any offenses that don’t deserve forgiveness?

Yes. Kenan Trebincevic, who was exiled from Bosnia for being Muslim during the Balkan war’s ethnic cleansing campaign, never forgave the Serbs who slaughtered his people. They have yet to apologize or make reparations for their victims, and the country is still divided and in disarray. Manny Mandel, the Holocaust survivor in Washington, DC, never forgave the Nazis for what they did, and he thrived because of spite. And though Germany did officially ask forgiveness from the Jews and give war reparations, there’s a rise of neo-Nazism in the country now. On a more personal level, Sharisse Tracey has written about how she was pushed — by a Baptist counselor — to forgive her father for raping her. She attempted to, but then he tried to do it again. So it could be argued that it’s safer and healthier to not forgive but find other ways to move on in your life.

What is the emotional payoff for the forgiver?

Well, in the case of Gary Weinstein, a Michigan jeweler who forgave the drunk driver who killed his wife and two children in a car accident, he wanted to find a way to move on with his life. And he also wanted to add to the important cultural conversation about forgiveness, which he has done. It made him an activist and in some ways honored the memory of his wife and two children. Unlike Kenan’s and Manny’s story, in Gary’s case it was an accident. The drunk driver apologized, was publicly punished, is in jail, paid reparations, and is never allowed to drive again. Gary saw the driver’s alcoholism as a disease and knowing he couldn’t hurt anyone again helped.

What are the nonverbal ways people express forgiveness in the absence of an apology?

Alison, an L.A. journalist I interviewed, was able to forgive her mother-in-law without a clear apology based on how much she loved her granddaughter. Sharisse was helped by her mother’s willingness to read, edit, and let her publish everything she wrote about the rape her mother didn’t protect her from.

How did you ultimately forgive your mentor? Did understanding his personal situation and what he was going through at the time help enable you to pardon his mistakes?

Yes, I was able to forgive him, based on 15 years of his kindness. I wasn’t sure whether I could stay connected to him without an apology. But then he did wind up saying he was sorry and explaining what happened, which I found mind-blowing. And then we wrote a book together about addiction recovery, which I think did good in the world — and it became a best seller for two weeks! So that seemed to be proof that forgiveness can be fruitful.

How did your mental health change after you’d made peace with the situation?

When I saw how liberating and transformational Dr. Winters’s apology was, I went on a forgiveness binge myself, apologizing to everyone I’d inadvertently hurt.

How do you tell someone you’ve forgiven them?

It depends. Sometimes you don’t have to tell someone you’ve forgiven them; you do it in your head for yourself, and you can just move on without them in a way that makes your life better. Other times, like in my case, you can try to talk it out.

Is it ever beneficial to tell someone you forgive them even if you haven’t?

I don’t think a fake apology is helpful to anyone. Although in certain circumstances, for example with family members, it’s probably better to move on and not dwell on past animosity. My Michigan rabbi, Joseph Krakoff, who does hospice work, tells people dying that the best way to leave the world is to tell their families the prayer, “You are forgiven. I forgive you. Please forgive me. I love you.”

What is your advice for someone struggling to get over a grudge? 

Well, I’m still a big fan of psychotherapy, which helped me with sobriety, work, and marriage. If someone is stuck or can’t get what they want in the world because of past animosity, I highly recommend seeing a therapist, mentor, teacher, or religious leader to work through their hurt and resentment. Or take my online class and write about it! Publishing well is the best revenge.

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Sara-Kate Astrove holds her BA from Tufts and MFA and PhD from the New School.

 

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