Tag Archives: healing

Saving Herself – a Review of Are You My Guru? How Medicine, Meditation & Madonna Saved My Life by Wendy Shanker

Lynne Murray says:

Using humor to write about illness is rare because of the high degree of difficulty and in Are You My Guru? How Medicine, Meditation & Madonna Saved My Life, Wendy Shanker nails it.

I’ve never met Wendy Shanker face to face, but her writing makes me feel I know her. Her first book, The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life, addresses the topic of “how to live happily in your fat body,” taking the form of a ridealong with Wendy through the winding wilderness roads of futile dieting, arriving at an understanding that her body and life could be good at a larger size. Wendy is a fun traveling companion even on a rough road. It turned out that the road would get much rougher for her.

What the world in general did not knew when The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life came out was that Wendy had begun to suffer from severe health problems, struggling with a rare autoimmune disease. Now she writes about that experience in Are You My Guru?. Here’s her “trailer” for the book:

In our goal-driven culture, some people see the idea of accepting our bodies as they are in the moment as a form of giving up all hope of improvement. In Are You My Guru?, Wendy uses her admiration of Madonna’s music, attitude and physical and spiritual self-reinvention as a touchstone. She says:

Every body tells a story. Here’s my quickie interpretation of Madonna’s: The longer she’s been around, the more shit she has to take, the tougher her skin gets. Her body has become a missile-defense shield against criticism. At the same time, she’s a weapon. She looks like she could crush your head between her thighs while she’s prancing around singing “Holiday.” You don’t mess with Madonna. To me, she’s an example of unrelenting strength.

I also have a sick body. Not fabulous like Madonna’s; I mean literally sick. In 1999, I was diagnosed with a rare, vascular autoimmune disease called Wegener’s granulomatosis. At the end of 2003, it flared like Russell Crowe in a hotel lobby.
(Are You My Guru,, p. 1-2)

Conjuring up humor about sickness can get much trickier when the disease happens to be one for which medical science is still fumbling around looking for effective treatments. When the subject is possible death and permanent bodily damage there’s a fine line between painful things that can be laughed at and events that no one can or should laugh at. Wendy is far from the first to tackle this challenge. Betty MacDonald pulled off the amazing feat of writing a funny book about a year in a tuberculosis sanitarium in 1937-38 before the 1940s discovery of antibiotics. I laughed out loud reading The Plague and I, but that book is rarely spoken of compared to MacDonald’s more famous The Egg and I, her story of being a city girl who marries a chicken farmer. An long excerpt from The Plague and I, with side comments about the book and the author, can be found at Ragged Edge Online

In The Plague and I, MacDonald, divorced and using her maiden name of Bard, skewers the medical establishment of the 1930’s, which valiantly attacked and blamed the patients while struggling with limited success to treat their disease:

One morning the Charge Nurse said, “The night nurse reports that you do not sleep well, Mrs. Bard. Is something troubling you?” I said no, not any one thing. She said, “What kind of thoughts do you have before going to sleep?” I said with mistaken honesty, “I long for my children and I think about death.” She said with horror, “Death! Why Mrs. Bard, how awful!” Then quickly recovering and jerking herself down so that not a speck of revealing human being showed, she said, “We do not allow patients of The Pines to think about death, or other unpleasant things. You must have pleasant cheerful thoughts.” I said, “But I can’t have cheerful thoughts when I’m by myself. I hate to be alone.” She said, “It is better for you to be alone. You must have cheerful thoughts or I will report you to the Medical Director.”

For me, reading Betty MacDonald’s books in 1960 offered a window into a kind of pre-feminist rebelliousness, whether applied to the grubby realities of life as a chicken farmer’s wife or the tedium of a tuberculosis cure that—in the absence of magic bullets—amounted to isolation, resting, eating well and hoping that the body’s natural defenses would defeat the disease.

Wendy Shanker’s situation, with an immune system gone haywire and attacking her body, put her in a quandary only slightly better than that of a pre-antibiotics tuberculosis patient. Medical science has some treatments to slow down, if not stop, the damage from autoimmune disease. Yet none of these treatments qualifies as a “magic bullet” and each medication has its own side effects, as Wendy began to realize:

In my expert opinion—and I had the sneaking suspicion that I, indeed, was an expert on my own body—the meds weren’t fighting Wegener’s; they were fighting symptoms and side effects. It was time to stop treating symptoms and start treating the root cause of the disease, whatever it may be.
(Are You My Guru, p. 259)

In the absence of definitive strategies, many sufferers turn, as Wendy did, to the medically unfashionable pursuit of strengthening and balancing the body through alternative medical or spiritual practices. She got encouragement from many sources, including the knowledge that spiritual exploration has played an important part in the life of her idol, Madonna. Alternative medical and spiritual strategies by definition are not scientifically provable, and Wendy encountered some hostility from some of her doctors who framed it as a competition.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that the idea of using spiritual methods to work on physical problems seems very commonsensical to me as a practicing Buddhist of 40-odd years (okay, some of those years were very odd). The Buddhist view is that body and mind/spirit are two aspects of the same entity. There’s even a term for it: body and spirit are funi—“two but not-two,” like the two sides of a coin.

There’s an element of suspense in Wendy’s journey and I won’t spoil the ending for you. As she goes from an “Oh, my god!” moment of diagnosis to a succession of, “Omigod, omigod, omigod” medical emergencies, alternative healing treatments seem like a slender reed to help pull her out of such a quagmire. But when all the combined forces of current medical wisdom can offer no “cure,” what’s a girl to do?

Are you my Guru? gives her answer to that question. The book goes beyond telling her story of learning to live and cope with an illness that won’t go away. She provides a Resources section at the end, but what I found most empowering about the book was her aim to encourage readers: “I wrote this book to save you time and angst whether you have an autoimmune disease or love someone who does.” (Guru, p. 281) I love her advice to become the expert on your own body and what works for you. Go Wendy!

Off-Kilter: Memoir, Healing, and Linda Wisniewski’s Story

Lynne Murray says:

I forget where I read about this method to aid in healing from trauma but it has always seemed to me to be extremely sensible. The formula is: “Tell people about what happened to you. Do it over and over again. Each time you talk about the experience, it will lessen some of the pain.” A friend who had suffered a childhood of abuse and neglect told me that when he read Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford’s memoir of a childhood at the mercy of her adoptive mother, movie star, Joan Crawford, he recognized a moment akin to one he went through as a child when he decided, “I will survive this—and escape it.”

I thought about abuse, escape, memoir and healing as I read Linda Wisniewski’s beautifully written memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace With Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage. This autobiography is justifiably compared with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, one of the best-known memoirs of the last twenty years, although Wisniewski describes emotional rather than physical starvation and emotional chill rather than the literal fear of freezing to death that McCourt endured.

A Time Magazine article describes Frank McCourt’s young life:

What kept McCourt alive then, and would make him as a writer, was his humor and his love of words. “In reality, our life was worse than Frank wrote,” said McCourt’s brother….Malachy. “Insane outbreaks of laughter saved us.” McCourt once said that as a child he dreamed of being a prison inmate in the U.S., for the food and warmth. Instead he became a hospital inmate: he caught typhoid at age 10 and spent three months well fed in a well-heated hospital. The hospital also had a well-stocked library. It was there that he read his first lines of Shakespeare and began a lifetime as a devoted reader.

For Wisniewski, her curved spine became a visible manifestation of a childhood where she could only silently absorb the verbal abuse of a hostile father and the criticism of her distant, self-effacing mother. Wisniewski felt devalued long before the scoliosis diagnosis at 13 classified her as damaged and unworthy.

I have moved through my life off kilter. My left side curves inward. On my right, I have no waist; my right side goes straight up and down. My left shoulder is lower than my right, and my left hip is higher than the right hip. I am about two inches shorter than I would be if I didn’t have scoliosis, a side-to-side curvature of the spine. When I sit, I often feel like I am about to tip over to the left. My spine is curved into a C-shape between my shoulder blades so that no matter how straight I stand, I look like I am slouching.

When I grew up in the 1950s, for some reason I have yet to understand, “having good posture” was a big deal. Perhaps because posture was so often discussed by the nuns who taught at my school, I thought that “good posture” was like having “good morals.” I stood as tall as I could, but by the time I was in eighth grade, my back was visibly curved.

I felt inadequate and even guilty. I thought, surely, if I tried hard enough, I’d be able to stand up straight. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said, “Don’t slouch, Linda.”

As the best memoirs do, Wisniewski uses evocative details to transport the reader to the pleasures of playing on sidewalks in the 1950s upstate New York neighborhood where she grew up. Her family’s Polish, Catholic culture encouraged embracing, even inviting pain and suffering. I couldn’t help but think that her experience must have been more difficult to transcend because the abuse was internalized.

As a grown woman with educational and personal accomplishments her mother could never have understood, let alone attempted, Wisniewski describes finding physical communion with the buried creativity her mother was never able to express in the act of sewing:

The feel of the tissue paper pattern, the placement of the pins attaching it to the fabric just the way I watched her do it. The chop, chop of the scissors taking me back to the kitchen table that was her cutting board.

Using the broken yardstick she inherited from her mother, now carefully mended. “The yardstick resembles my life; it has broken parts. Nothing has been a straight line from here to there.”

In recent years the internet has helped foster a kind of grassroots self-healing movement of memoir writers, from freeform groups such as story circles to the more formal and/or commercial. Memoir coach Jerry Waxler reviews Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a harrowing description of a violent rape that police told her she was “lucky” to have survived, seeing as how earlier victims were murdered and dismembered. Waxler points out the value of writing in making sense of traumatic events.

Writing breaks down the walls that isolate you from others and it also breaks down the walls that separate you from your own experience. So by telling your story, even about something that makes no sense, in a way the story itself makes it feel more organized, more like it fits in with the way the world works. Look to the storytelling to incorporate these events into your life and keep going.

I firmly believe that writing about our lives is therapeutic in and of itself. Memoir writing provides a framework for going over disturbing life events without being overwhelmed by them.