Self-Help Gets Its Comeuppance

By Meg Williams 01/07/14

She surveyed the landscape of our culture's addiction to self-help. Now Jessica Lamb-Shapiro talks to The Fix about her new book Promise Land, and why the story of self improvement is so personal to her.

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Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture, published todayis an immersive journey into our culture's addictive quest for perfection. Jessica Lamb-Shapiro spent years researching the topic—walking on hot coals, eating with over a hundred grieving children and, most terrifyingly, attending a seminar by one half of the authors of The Rules. Promise Land provides a useful overview of the history of self-improvement, along with a witty, experiential take on current trends, culminating in a surprising catharsis. The Fix recently met with Lamb-Shapiro near her New York apartment, where she discussed her research, what she's learned about the industry and how to take the good from the bad.

The Fix: Throughout Promise Land, you immerse yourself in the self-help movements you are documenting. Which did you find to be the most useful?

Lamb-Shapiro: One was the fear of flying workshop because I actually had a fear of flying. Things that weren’t targeted to my problems didn’t have much effect on me. I flew after the workshop. The other thing was reading the books on grief and going to this grief camp, which was actually for children. It’s amazing how much you can benefit just watching someone else go through something without even going through it yourself. When I was growing up my family didn’t talk about that kind of stuff so for me to see a little kid talking about it was really moving and shocking. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience where you, as an adult, can’t do something, and you see someone very young do it. If children can do it, I can do it. You admire them for their bravery, and it seems almost magical.

The Fix: As the book progresses it becomes increasingly personal. When you started the book did you intend that?

Lamb-Shapiro: That was actually something I was trying to avoid. Not completely consciously. I knew that my mother had killed herself. It struck me as something that was kind of interesting. But I didn’t want to exploit it, so I kind of kept it a secret when selling the book. I didn’t want to tell my agent. I had this weird paranoid fear that if people knew that about me they would make me write about it—like tie me up in a basement and say 'now write about your mother who killed herself!' I felt like that’s all that people would want to know about so I was really resistant to it. And I think I was also resistant because I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t feel like I had permission from myself to talk about it. So I really convinced myself that it wasn’t relevant and it didn’t matter. It took me such a long time—like three or four years—to come around. That’s sort of what the prologue is about, it’s about missing the obvious. It was obvious to everybody but me. I did ultimately put the book ahead of myself like, well if the book needs it I’ll do it for the book. Finally, I was telling this to a friend and he just looked at me like I was the stupidest person on earth. Like yeah, obviously you should write about it.

But there are lots of people with lots of opinions, and basically anyone can write a self-help book. Anyone can say any kind of crazy thing they want. 

The Fix:   When you were growing up you didn’t talk much about your mother’s death with your father. But when you did talk the language of therapy and self-help was a way to perform the action of talking while hiding behind the things you were saying. Can you dissect this a little? 

Lamb-Shapiro: It took me a while too, and it happened to me so don’t worry. It’s a very subtle thing, which is why I think that I missed it. It’s on a very intuitive level. I guess you just know when you’re being honest, and when you’re not being honest. Things like the 12 Steps or anything that has a repetition component or a script component, they can have meaning but they can also not have meaning. It can also just lose meaning. It might just be something that you say. I think the language is so important because it provides structure and framework. It invites people in. Again it’s just one of those really slippery things where you have to really police yourself and ask yourself all the time, am I just repeating a script? Am I saying something that is meaningful to me? Am I using this language to communicate? Or am I using it to hide? For me that’s where I feel the danger is.

Because once you learn something, you can just parrot it. And that’s how it worked for me. My father was a psychologist; we had all these toys and games. There were all these books with these slogans—“I’m ok, you’re ok.” And sometimes we even used to use them as jokes. My dad would say to me, “Are you ok?” and I would just go “I’m ok, you’re ok.” The more general they are, the more meanings they could have, the more personal they could be, and the more distancing they could be. I do this very unconsciously. I wasn’t trying to distance myself. It just became such a part of my landscape. I did want to hide. I didn’t want to reveal sadness. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. This language was just there as this really convenient mask. Because I was speaking in the language of therapeutic terms, it just kind of gave the impression I was being open, without actually being open. When a kid runs into their room and slams the door, that’s really obvious to the parent that that kid doesn’t want to talk. When a kid talks in therapeutic terms, it’s like “I’m talking to you as a way of not talking to you.” I really didn’t realize this until I wrote the book and started talking about it. I also thought I was being really open back then. I could have questioned earlier why I didn’t feel the things I was saying.

The Fix:  It seems like writing this book allowed you to have more critical thoughts about your experiences in a way. In the beginning of the book, you quote the psychologist William James who was a real proponent of reasoned thinking. How did he influence you?

Lamb-Shapiro: William James is really interesting. I think of all the people I’ve ever read, he’s the most open to new ideas. You can just see it through his writing—he’ll try anything; he’s just such a genuine, inquisitive person. In the beginning of my search I was more on the negative side against self-help. I thought a lot of the books were silly. I had that whole stereotype against the self-help movement. But when I read that quote, I felt like it was saying to me, don’t prejudge. I think I originally had a snobbish argument against self-help—it’s not intellectual enough; the language is clunky. Just the fact that he said it was stupid to act that way got my attention. Oh, I’m the one being stupid! I’m thinking I’m smarter than all these people, but in fact what I’m doing is more stupid that what they’re doing. I almost got converted by that quote. It made me rethink my whole plan. And I juxtaposed it with that other snarkier quote because that was really more where I was coming from at first. It showed a prevailing attitude about self-help. I just want to make people aware of what side of this equation they’re on.

The Fix: And you also write about the Chicken Soup for the Soul stories as types of parables in that they try to influence the reader’s behavior. What does this say about human nature that we really enjoy and seem to need these stories?

Lamb-Shapiro: My immediate answer is that we’re lost, that we don’t know what the hell we’re doing the farther we get from these organized systems of religion. One of the reasons religion exists in the first place is to explain the world. Can we sleep with each other’s wives, is that cool? Can I punch you in the face? I don’t know. If you take someone and they’re raised by wolves, they don’t know any of this stuff—it’s not intrinsic, it’s not inherent. Someone has to come along and say don’t do that. Then there are other things that aren’t as obvious, like the more complicated questions. I think we just so inherently need structure and we also just love stories. It’s kind of a chicken or egg thing—do we love stories because they provide structure or vice versa? I think those two things come together in such a way that we always crave stories, we always crave lessons, and meaning, and structure. For example the Bible is just a perfect vehicle for that as well as ancient myths. They’re all morally instructive, they’re all good stories, they all have a point. And the point is about you and what you should do and what you should not do. That’s what really interests me about self-help so much is that it’s just part of the story telling culture.

The Fix: In regards to The Secret, a book that promises the reader she can "manifest" very specific things in her life, I remember your friend tried making a vision board with all sort of pictures that embodied her very specific goals. How did this work out for her? Did it work? 

Lamb-Shapiro: My friend had this vision board in her house and she would look at it and really did start making choices that were different choices. She quit her job, she started this bike trip. I mean, I was totally against it, but she’s fine, she’s alive. She doesn’t have a relationship, but she went on a date. Which she hadn’t gone on a date in so long. So to me it’s just such like an interesting question because then do you say, it worked? Maybe, you could say that. I don’t think it worked in the way that it was promising to work. Which is that something magic happened. But you know I think that it was some kind of useful exercise. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out—she might end up broke or with a flat tire in Kansas.

The Fix: You attended “The Rules” dating workshop where they taught you how to “get men” by lying to them basically. It seemed really manipulative! To both women and men. Kind of saying deception is the right way.

Lamb-Shapiro: The question of manipulation is an interesting one. So much of self-help is about self-control: don't drink, don't eat too much, exercise, work hard, etc. The Rules advocates a large amount of self-control, but the purpose of it is actually to control others. It's manipulation through withholding. It's kind of genius, but that doesn't make it moral or a good idea. I have not used any of their dating advice. Although it may "work," it seems doomed to fall apart eventually, unless one plans to mount a performance of perfection for the rest of one's life. That sounds exhausting to me, so I tend to take the opposite approach by front loading every objectionable facet of my life history on the first date. That's also a bad tactic; I don't recommend it. In fact, it's another kind of subterfuge.

The Fix: In self-help culture, sometimes lay people are elevated to the level of expert on living, on addiction, on any number of issues. When researching the book, did you find this troubling at all? 

Lamb-Shapiro: Lay people don't know much. Theoretically, we all have access to common sense, and these programs can help a lot of people so that can't be discounted. But there are lots of people with lots of opinions, and basically anyone can write a self-help book. Anyone can say any kind of crazy thing they want. And occasionally people die, occasionally bad things happen. Those stories usually make the news. For example, that self-help author James Ray came up maybe a year ago. In a sweat lodge, he was doing some sort of Native American-like ceremony during a self-help retreat. People were in the sweat lodge, and some people were complaining that they were too hot, and they felt dizzy. And he was like, you just have to work through it. It's just in your head. And then one or two people died. And some of the people still in there after the deaths were saying that Ray was discouraging people from leaving even though they were telling him they did not feel well. Now they are dead. That's not good. He's not a doctor, he's not a native American, obviously he didn't know what he was doing. 

Meg Williams is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about Boston's Mayor, Marty Walsh.

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