A smart, funny, brave, and devoted pop culture acolyte, writer/comedienne/member of US Weekly Fashion Police (!!!) Wendy Shanker first won us over with her wise and witty 2004 book The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life, which explores the complex reality of being a healthy, plus-sized woman in a world that doesn’t always encourage self-acceptance.
Out today: Shanker’s new memoir Are You My Guru?: How Medicine, Meditation & Madonna Saved My Life, chronicles an intense eight-year period during which the author was diagnosed with a rare and debilitating autoimmune disease, Wegener’s granulomatosis. While holding down a demanding job, Shanker seeks relief and guidance from medical experts and healers representing a variety of traditions, from the hardcore pharmacological to the ancient Ayurvedic.
As Shanker begins to trust her own instincts about which therapies will work for her, she learns how to cope with the stresses of the disease and a hectic New York lifestyle — and discovers a thing or two about what it really means to heal. The narrative is laced with references to her ultimate guru, Madonna, as Shanker covers the topic of serious illness with the same forthrightness, attention to detail, and laugh-out-loud humor that made her first book such a refreshing read.
The delightful Shanker spoke with BreakupGirl.net about her memoir:
Who do you hope to reach with this book?
Um, Madonna. (laughs) I assume she’ll never even know it exists, but if it does cross her path, I hope she’ll get a kick out of it.
I wanted to write a book that would reach women who have an autoimmune disease — that’s about 30 million people — or are caring for someone who has an autoimmune disease. I want to give them something that they can relate to, or a window on their experience, even though chances are it’s a very different experience from mine, because no two people seem to have the same thing.
I also hope that the people who read and enjoyed my first book The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life will feel a connection with this book because, in a way, they’re both about body image. I mean, the first book was about body image in terms of weight, but this one is also about trying to create a connection with your body and not listen too much to all the voices telling you you’ve got a bad body and a wrong body and you’ve gotta fix the body. It’s about empowering yourself in the choices you make around your body just in terms of health, rather than weight loss.
That really comes through–it seems to me that the major epiphany of the book is the idea that we each have a responsibility for our own health–we can’t just blindly follow anybody–a doctor, a guru, a friend–but have to listen to our inner guidance.
How have you followed through with that, would you say? Are you still doing the different kinds of treatments?
Yeah, I’m still doing a little bit of everything. In the time of my life that the book covers, I end on a high note. In real life, just after the narrative of the book ends, I actually got very, very ill, much sicker than I was in the book, believe it or not. Then when I started writing, I started getting better again. So the last couple years have been a period of really significantly improved health and ability, and finally getting a sense of like–wow, maybe there’ll be these nice long windows of my life where I have a lot of options and I can do what I want to do and feel really good, and so my mission is when I’m not in a crisis, to keep going.
I want to keep exploring what else is out there, what else is working that I want to learn more about.
I’m still going to the Mayo Clinic twice a year and I still see more doctors than there are days of the week, and I just started seeing a new acupuncturist who I really like. I feel like it’s my job to take care of myself and so I try to do a really good job of it every day.
Is Dr. Turner [a major character in the book] still part of your team?
He is and I’m gonna give him this book in a couple weeks and I’m so scared! (laughs) He’s a very humble person and an excellent doctor. He knew I was a writer, and when I told him I was gonna do this book, he was like, “I don’t want anyone to know it’s me.” Not because he thought I would write anything outrageous, but he’s not one of those wannabe celebrity doctors who wants to do reality shows and to be on talk shows and all that stuff. I told him I’d try to disguise some of the signifiers of his personality and his practice, but it’s him. I hope that he’ll like it and not think I’m crazy!
Oh, no, I think you portray him very respectfully.
Oh, good. And then of course I was laughing about the Breakup Girl angle because, there’s this idea that finding all these doctors and building relationships with them is like dating. And there’s this moment when Dr. Turner totally broke up with me (laughs). That’s the part where I think he’s gonna be like, “You’re probably taking this a little too seriously.” But it absolutely felt like a breakup, like being rejected and then, you know, coming back to each other again and starting from a new place. He’s the hero in the book in a lot of ways, and certainly he’s a hero in my real life.
He’s definitely the male lead.
Yeah, he’s the male lead. If this were a Hollywood movie, I’d have to hook up with him in the end.
Who would you cast as Dr. Turner? George Clooney, maybe?
George Clooney would be good – I’m thinkin’ maybe John Hamm ‘cuz my guy is tall and lanky, too.
Dr. Lanky, the lanky man!
One of the beautiful points that you make in your book is “God speaks to you in a language that you understand,” and you have these wonderful illustrations of that. In the years since you’ve written the book, has your concept of God and faith changed? Is it still eclectic and ecumenical?
Yes. You know what I think has happened, even since I wrote the book? I have had some real, special, spiritual, I-understand-the-world-and-the-universe kind of moments, where that window opened up and I got a sense of what’s in there. I’m still operating from the place of the mantra–one of many, but the mantra continues to be–“faith, not fear.”
And whenever I’m in a place where I can feel all the reasons why this isn’t gonna work, and everything that’s gonna go wrong and what can’t we do, I really try to circle back around and say, “Ok, you’re choosing fear, but we’re going with faith, not fear. “
So I think my spiritual study…I wanted it to be a little bit more guided. I wanted to not just be like “well, this is what I think,” but to actually be in more classes, and to talk to more teachers, and to go on more retreats and read more books. I had a gut understanding of my spiritual path, but I wanted some formal spiritual training. So that’s where I am. And it’s still Jewish plus goddess plus Buddhist plus new age; it’s still a grab bag of things, but I do feel like I want more ritual and more…
More structure, maybe?
More structure, yeah!
It sounds like your approach to spirituality is similar to your approach to physical healing–you advocate being responsible for it, and looking for what works for the individual person.
Yes! And, of course, now that the book is coming out and I’ve been telling people about it, you know, everybody’s like, “You’ve gotta come to my church, we do this thing where we, blah blah blah…” Or, “You’ve gotta talk to my guru, he’s from Korea and he’s so interesting…”
It’s like the world of it just opens up and-–it’s cute–it’s almost like there’s a secret handshake of people who are going to meditation classes, or have a little altar in their house, or go to shul on Friday night, you know, it’s like, “I do that!”
You mention in your book this internal voice of the “mean girl.” I’m sure the mean girl never completely goes away, so how do you deal with that voice when it comes back?
The mean girl voice doesn’t go away. The good thing, though, about the mean girl is that she still retains that kind of 16- to 17-year-old-life-experience tone in her voice. Every day, it’s just easier to shut it down.
And there are two levels of mean girl-ness. That mean voice was always in my head about my weight, and then when it cropped up in terms of my health–“you’re not doing enough, and you’re not trying hard enough, and maybe you just wanna be sick.” And I feel like, “Seriously?”
There’s times when it’s almost a little helpful: “Are you sure? Should you really be staying out ‘til two o’clock tonight when you know you’re gonna pay for it tomorrow?” But that’s a slightly different voice from the mean girl, that’s maybe a voice of reason who’s a little bit louder than mean girl is.
Do you think this book would make a good screenplay?
Hell yes! (laughs) I want it to! I want it to.
I just went to see Eat, Pray, Love–you know, there’s some reference points which feel similar to me–and when I thought about my own story, and whether it could be a movie, I was like: yes, but it can’t have Julia Roberts. (laughs) It has to be some unknown person, because I think that when you’re talking about stories that are about searching for identity, or a sense of self, it’s really hard when you have a super-famous person there. “Oh, Kate Winslet, really? Don’t worry, girl! It’s gonna work out!” So I would love to find some curvy, sexy, smart ‘lil lady who could pretend to be me.
And a cameo by Madonna, of course.
If Madonna’s in it, she has to come down in a bubble, like Glinda the Good Witch. Or, it could go through the Hollywood system and then it would be like Queen Latifah, moves to Jamaica and falls in love with LL Cool J.
I like it. I’d go to that movie.
I think it was a movie!