New book explores accepting 'sorry' to survive

A deep dive into traumatic relationships and forgiveness.

BOYS RECEIVE blessings from Swami Nitya Gopal Ji Mahar, a Hindu holyman in Allahabad, India. The author received guidance about how to forgive from a Hindu swami. (photo credit: REUTERS/JITENDRA PRAKASH)
BOYS RECEIVE blessings from Swami Nitya Gopal Ji Mahar, a Hindu holyman in Allahabad, India. The author received guidance about how to forgive from a Hindu swami.
New York journalist, author and university lecturer Susan Shapiro had been a drug addict, alcoholic and heavy smoker back in the early 1990s, when she first became a patient of the psychotherapist she calls Dr. Winter in her book, The Forgiveness Tour. Over the course of 15 years he weaned her off all three and kept her clear of them, and also of other forms of addiction.
“Susan’s personality was so addictive,” he wrote in the best-seller Unhooked that they co-authored years later, that “she could get hooked on carrot sticks.”
In fact he had to take action at one time when she became addicted to diet soda.
 “To stay clean,” he’d told her when she first consulted him, “you have to trust me.”
And so she did, her dependency on him growing stronger year by year. He became her sage, sponsor and higher power.
“While I relinquished my toxic habits,” she writes, “he revamped my existence, pushing Aaron [her fiancé] to propose, helping me land more teaching gigs and book deals in my 40s, tripling my income.”
But he knew her for what she was. As she herself confides: “Once when I asked why he called me his most taxing patient, he told me: ‘You have a chronic anxiety level connected to a hyperactive mind… There’s no rest or rhythm. It’s all high-pitch.’”
The Forgiveness Tour is the product of that personality. It has its origins in the devastating effect on Shapiro when she discovered that her guru, Dr. Winter, lied to her, and subsequently refused to apologize or express any regret. She very nearly went out of her mind at the sense of betrayal she felt, and the burning pain of not receiving the apology or explanation that she felt she was due.
“I found myself screaming arguments with him in my mind,” she writes, “reliving our fight in panicked nightmares, even lighting a candle and chanting a secret Yiddish curse to exact revenge.”
Totally unconvinced by the advice on all sides of the healing effect of forgiveness, she felt that without an apology from Dr Winter, she would never be able to forgive him. So she decided to embark on an odyssey to learn how others who had suffered insult or injury or worse had dealt with the one who had wronged them. The Forgiveness Tour is Shapiro’s account of what she learned from 13 people who shared their stories with her.
She seeks, but is unsatisfied by, the advice of her one-time rabbi and most of the religious leaders she consults. She talks with victims of genocides, sexual assault, infidelity, cruelty and racism. One man meets with the drunk driver who killed his wife and children. A woman somehow reconciles with her mother, who stayed married to the father who raped her. Another woman spends years apologizing to her son for faults that were not hers but his wife’s.
Shapiro’s journey took some nine months in all. In the book she provides each chapter with a wise quotation or aphorism. Chapter 16 is prefaced by a quotation from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace: Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner (To understand all is to forgive all).
In the event, this became the key to the resolution of Shapiro’s agony. She meets an Indian psychiatrist, and over a series of sessions unburdens herself to him. He tells her that she is in mourning for the Dr Winters she had trusted, loved, idolized, felt betrayed by, hated and killed off.
“It will be intriguing to learn the last chapter,” he says.
Shapiro responds: “What if we never speak again?”
“This is not the end,” he says. “There is something you don’t know about Dr Winter’s life that will shed light on why he hurt you.”
It is at this point that she seeks an interview with an eminent Hindu swami. Perhaps she is ready for what he has to say in the 15-minute telephone conversation she is allowed.
“Holding on to anger is poison,” he tells her. “Forgiving is nectar.”
“Even when anger is justified?” she asks.
“An angry grudge,” he said, “is like lighting a fire that destroys the place where it’s lit. It burns your own heart first.”
Shortly afterward she receives an email from Dr Winter.
“I’m sorry, Sue,” he writes. “I never meant to hurt you.”
They arrange to meet, and she learns some devastating truths about him that enable her to understand the events that had so affected her. Finally, when she knows all, she is indeed able to forgive. Their reconciliation is so complete that they agree, there and then, to collaborate on the book that was later published as Unhooked and became a New York Times best seller.
The Forgiveness Tour not only explores a vital area of human relationships. It also looks deeply and sympathetically into the troubled lives of some real people who, despite suffering traumatic experiences at the hands of others, have managed to survive and, in many cases, to forgive. Susan Shapiro has produced a remarkable volume that will undoubtedly bring insight and comfort to many. 
By Susan Shapiro
264 pages; $18.99