Susan Shapiro, a professor of writing at the New School in New York City, has mentored thousands of students over her long career. Her generosity has contributed to her reputation as a notable literary citizen. She’s also a prolific writer, who by her own description has written “fourteen books that her family hates.”
Shapiro recently answered questions over email about her new book, “The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology.” The book highlights the falling out with “Dr. Winters,” her longtime therapist, whom she credits with weaning her off of cigarettes and alcohol. The book is the latest addition to Shapiro’s confessional memoir oeuvre, which includes her debut, “Five Men Who Broke My Heart,” and “Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex.”
Why did it take you 10 years to write and publish “The Forgiveness Tour”? Was it the longest stretch of time it’s taken you to write a book?
Publishing my first novel took 13 years from start to finish. Instead of a book launch, it got a “book mitzvah.” “The Forgiveness Tour” was complicated. I’m a shrinkaholic who loves my students, and Dr. Winters saved my health, life, marriage and career. So I didn’t want to publish anything negative about him, or a student, or therapy. He’d been my mentor for 15 years. I needed to find other gurus to help me reconcile with him without an apology. I called my family rabbi, Joseph Krakoff in Michigan, who had important lessons to teach on forgiveness, as did Moshe Pindrus, an Orthodox rabbi I knew in Israel, and Elizabeth Maxwell, an Episcopalian reverend I worked with at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen.
Then a colleague who is a historian read my co-authored book, “The Bosnia List,” which told the story of Kenan Trebincevic, a Bosnian war survivor, and a first draft of “The Forgiveness Tour” that focused on not being able to forgive Dr. Winters since he couldn’t apologize. He suggested I interview Kenan, who couldn’t forgive the Serbs who murdered so many Muslims and never apologized or atoned for it. I also had many conversations with Manny Mandel, a Holocaust survivor friend who received an apology from Germany and war reparations. That took everything to a deeper, heavier, more complex level. I was so fascinated by the wisdom these luminaries shared, it sent me on a journey to interview others who had survived traumas, who had important messages about apologies and forgiveness.
You also explore the question of whether or not someone who doesn’t apologize can be forgiven.
I was obsessed with that question: Can you forgive someone who doesn’t apologize? Everywhere I went, I asked friends and colleagues to tell me the one apology they deserved but never heard. I interviewed hundreds of religious leaders, doctors, authors. I tried to choose a diverse range of stories that each had something new to teach. I interviewed five former students who’d published my first assignment to write three double-spaced pages on their most humiliating secret. We’d already worked together on pieces that revealed traumatic experiences like surviving war, racism and homophobia, family abandonment, sexual abuse. There was a trust and intimacy. Two fellow teachers also had memoirs out, so I mined material I already admired.
Can you share highlights of what you learned during your six-month estrangement from Dr. Winters?
A Hindu-born psychiatrist told me, “There’s something missing in the story that will unlock the mystery,” and offered the metaphor: “A commuter was enraged when a woman in an SUV stopped abruptly to get something in the back seat, almost causing an accident. Similarly, there is something you don’t know about your mentor’s life that will shed light on his insensitive actions.” It turned out that something tragic had happened to his family. “I’m so sorry, I had no idea,” I wound up telling him, apologizing myself.
You explored what Judaism has to say about forgiveness. What Jewish concepts did you take to heart?
I share the four elements of a good apology: acknowledging the offense, explaining what happened, expressing regret and offering reparations. I quote Rabbi Krakoff, saying that in a Jewish apology, you have to be in the same situation again and act differently to show you’ve learned from it. In his hospice work, he asks people on their deathbed to recite the prayer: “You are forgiven. I forgive you. Please forgive me. I love you.”
A Hasidic friend also taught me that forgiveness can be difficult and you can’t expect it to happen immediately. That’s why Jewish law requires a person to offer a heartfelt forgiveness three times. If the injured party won’t forgive, the sinner is forgiven and the non-forgiver has to seek forgiveness for not forgiving.
Were there people you interviewed who felt forgiveness was not warranted?
Yes! Manny, the Holocaust survivor, never forgave the Nazis and thrived out of spite. Kenan never forgave the Serbs who killed his people but empowered himself by becoming a spokesperson for his people. A woman I interviewed was extremely hurt that her girlfriend of 26 years dumped her without explaining or saying she was sorry. She eventually found ways to move on by herself—including yoga, finding a new reverend and church and writing a memoir.
I always say, “Publishing well is the best revenge.” A student actually took back the apology she was forced to give her abusive father as a teenager since he tried to assault her again. I found that very poetic and inspiring. People ask if writing the book made me more forgiving. It didn’t. There’s a whole billion-dollar forgiveness industry that preaches radically forgiving everyone everything. I think that’s bullshit. Hurt, atonement and forgiveness are very individual and nuanced. I did learn how important a good apology is, and I do that much more often.
What other projects do you have in the works?
I’m working on a sequel to “The Byline Bible” called “The Book Bible: How to Sell Your Manuscript—No Matter What Genre—Without Going Broke or Insane.” That fits in well with these five-week online classes I’ve been teaching on pitching newspaper and magazine editors, and how to sell your first book. I just finished editing a new coauthored book with Kenan based on the story of our memoir, “The Bosnia List.” It’s a middle-grade novel called “World in Between: Based on a True Refugee Story,” coming out in July. We’re planning to throw another “book mitzvah” for this Muslim Jewish tale of healing.