On Erev Rosh Hashanah, about 50 people gathered in the Village apartment of writer Susan Shapiro (Overexposed; Speed Shrinking) to celebrate the publication of Wendy Shanker’s newest book, Are You My Guru? How Medicine, Meditation & Madonna Saved My Life. Shanker is probably best known for her first memoir, The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life, which described her struggles with her weight and her eventual acceptance of her size. But in this sequel, her newly beloved body strikes back: At 27, she is diagnosed with Wegener’s granulomatosis, a rare autoimmune disease that causes her body to attack her sinuses, lungs, and kidneys. Are You My Guru? narrates how Shanker clawed her way back to health with help from doctors, Eastern medicine, and her pop culture friends.
“Everything comes down to Buffy or Madonna,” she explained to me. “One of them said something smart about something. God speaks to you in the language you understand. Sometimes he speaks to me in Buffyverse and sometimes in Madonna language.” In fact, she used the singer’s songs’ names to title all of her chapters.
Not that Shanker was planning to listen to her iPod or sit at home watching Buffy DVDs the following days. She would be attending services at the East End Temple, listening to the sermons of Rabbi David Adelson, who according to her expansive definition of the term is also one of her gurus. “To me, a guru is a teacher,” she said. “A guru is somebody who takes you from a place of darkness to a place of light. You didn’t understand something and now you get it. Definitely, rabbis are gurus.”
Though Rabbi Adelson was likely preparing for the upcoming High Holidays, some of Shanker’s other teachers were present, including the astrologist featured in the memoir, Jenny Lynch, who was offering free readings. Since most of those present were writers of varying degrees of success, ranging from David Goodwillie, who recently received a good review from the New York Times for his novel American Subversive, to Shapiro’s New School students, I imagine that at least a few were asking Lynch to divine their publishing prospects.
It seemed that Madonna herself (the pop star, not the Christian saint) blessed the party. Mere hours before, Shanker’s close friend, Sam, was entering her office in Williamsburg when a large entourage approached her position. It was Madonna ‘n’ staff, scouting locations for a film. They asked to enter the building and have a look around. Sam sprung into action, racing up to her office and printing out the cover and first few pages of the book to give to her Madgesty, who thanked her and meticulously folded the.
Shanker, who had met her idol while working as Madonna’s talent liason at MTV, took the whole incident as an auspicious sign. Though Madonna tunes played through the evening, Shanker has yet to embrace her guru’s favored Kabbalah. “You know I have to wait one and a half more years until I’m 40,” she said. “I’m still a little too immature to study Kabbalah, but I have been doing some reading so I’ll be ready on my 40th birthday to write a check.” “Listen,” she added, “if you’re going to support something spiritual and strange it might as well be from your own.”
Are You My Guru? [Amazon]
Dvora Meyers is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn.