Best-selling author Wendy Shanker opens her latest memoir, Are You My Guru? How Medicine, Meditation and Madonna Saved My Life (Penguin, September 2010), with a comparison of sick bodies. Her own--as a person living with a rare autoimmune disorder--and Madonna's--as a person who "could crush your head between her thighs while she's prancing around singing 'Holiday.'" From the first page she lets us know that Madonna provides "an example of unrelenting strength." But over the next couple hundred pages, and in a recent interview, the 38-year-old Shanker proves herself a contender for that title.
Just as her first book, The Fat Girls' Guide to Life, was hitting the shelves, the plot for her latest effort hit her smack dab in the face. Literally. She fainted and hit her head, waking up to an injury she describes in her book as "a vagina" on her face. The fall comes as a result of a disease she's first diagnosed with in 1999, Wegener's granulomatosis.
"The timing was cosmically not on my side," Shanker tells BUST recently from her Manhattan apartment. "Some people would say it was the universe telling me something. I think I have to dust myself off and try again."
Spanning the years between 1999 and 2006, Shanker grounds readers in the era by opening various chapters with moments in pop culture history. Brad and Jen. The South Beach Diet. And of course, Madonna trivia.
Shankar covers her experiences with a variety of doctors and healers--"there's surgery and there's smells and there's gunk, but I'm very entertained by that visceral stuff"--as she's simultaneously trying to promote her body image book. Despite the title, her encounters with Madonna are a bit more removed. Through her work in television she does meet her, but it's more the Material Girl's attitude that gets her through.
"When you're looking for a doctor or healer, whether it's to cure cancer or help you get through a common cold... you need to express yourself and you can't worry too much about what anybody thinks," she says.
Shanker also is inspired by Madonna's incorporation of the spiritual into her life and work, "her ability to persevere and evolve and defy and get to the next step. Her choice to get beyond the physical and explore the spiritual, and try to integrate both elements into her day-today life."
And this is one of the book's most thought-provoking elements. We know that modern medicine isn't always effective. But taken to its logical conclusion, much of the hype around New Age healing would have you believe that it's all a matter of self-determination. This can be very confusing for consumers of healthcare, especially in the midst of a crisis.
"There are diverging points of view," she says. "If you believe hard enough and you work hard enough on your mental state, you can manifest good things in your life, ergo, if you don't get what you want, it's really probably your fault."
Much of the struggle in the book involves grappling with this dichotomy, because it's a philosophy that Shanker herself long espoused. "I'd hear people talk about stress and think, whatever wuss!" As her health fluctuated, her perspective had to change.
"It was really hard in the midst of all this to stop telling myself that if I wasn't getting healthy it wasn't because I didn't love myself. I didn't have control of the universe. At least not enough to change the results of a blood test. There's a physiological action in my body, [so] while stress isn't something I have control over, I really have to avoid being in jobs where people are yelling at me. I used to think that was fun. And I liked to do the yelling."
Despite the title, this does not read like the story of someone running from thing to thing to find what will save her. True to her idol, Shankar reinvents herself. Once she begins to see herself as "CEO of her own body," she approaches her treatment differently. She continues to see her doctors, but tests out ayurveda, astrology and even Rabbi Schwartz's healing pigeons. Through it all she keeps a sense of humor, and meticulous notes.
She now describes being at the other end of this era as if coming out of a deep sleep. "I keep hitting on 27 year old men," she jokes. "I was working an MTV thing and I'm talking to this guy, and I think there's some chemistry there. Then he leans over and says, so, 'Where are all the little honeys around here?' And I realize he doesn't mean me. It's been a wakeup call to try to shuffle back into my own generation."
Nonetheless she says she's "looking and hopeful." Having been through these dark places on her own, she's not as vulnerable. "Which in a way is troublesome," she says. "The next adventure is, so who do I open up to?"
This is exactly the quality that makes reading her so compelling. What we see along with her vulnerability is her tremendous strength. She's not beaten by her illness or the fact that her life isn't exactly how she pictured it.
"It's one of those fate versus free will conversations. Someone once gave me this metaphor, fate is the fence around your property but what you do on your property is up to you."