[Paleopsych] Book World: Snake Oil

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Snake Oil

    Reviewed by Chris Lehmann
    Sunday, July 10, 2005; BW06

    How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless
    By Steve Salerno
    Crown. 273 pp. $24.95

    The distinctly American phenomenon of self-help is an affront on many
    levels. It insults our sense of moral proportion, turning petty
    grievances into cosmically unappeasable plaints of the spirit, to be
    resolved only when an elaborate (and usually quite expensive) set of
    affirmations is unleashed or an inner child is at last quieted. It
    offends our intelligence with its vapid narcissism, hymning the
    claustral wonders of the self while spouting undigested tracts of
    pseudo-mystic wisdom from East, West, North and South. Not least, it
    aggrieves our ear for well-turned language, with its irritating
    catchphrases (this or that gender being from Mars or Venus, "chicken
    soup for the soul," "I'm OK, you're OK"), clunky coinages (Gestalt,
    transactional analysis, self-actualization) and neologisms (creative
    visualization, codependency and, for that matter, the very term
    self-help, which misleadingly suggests a can-do independent spirit in
    a market awash in gurus and hucksters preaching our dependence on

    The decades-old self-help industry is, in short, a plump, inviting
    target for a sharp takedown, detailing its origins, follies and
    suspect claims. Unfortunately, Steve Salerno's SHAM, which draws its
    title from a rather ponderous author-coined acronym for "Self-Help and
    Motivation," is not that book. More accurately, it is perhaps a third
    of that book, since Salerno, a former business reporter, is fixated on
    the notion that, as his sensational title suggests, self-help gurus
    rarely deliver on their claims to be healers of the wounded American
    body and soul.

    This is not a trivial charge, of course, but, intellectually speaking,
    it's the least interesting feature of the sprawling self-help
    industry. All sorts of things in contemporary culture don't work yet
    continue to draw millions of people, usually on a repeat-business
    model: fad diets, pyramid investment schemes, faith healing, the
    two-party system. P.T. Barnum's immortal dictum about the regular
    birthing of suckers is a keystone of the American consumer economy.

    Nevertheless, Salerno presses a single-minded brief against the
    practitioners of self-help on the grounds that they consistently fail
    to deliver the goods promised in their come-ons. To seal the
    indictment, he describes his own moment of clarity, which came to him
    during a stretch in a satellite wing of the self-help business, as an
    editor on a Men's Health-affiliated books program at Rodale Press, a
    "vast better-living empire." After he had looked over a few marketing
    surveys, Salerno reports, "one piece of information . . . stood out
    above all others and guided our entire approach: The most likely
    customer for a book on any given topic was someone who had bought a
    similar book within the preceding eighteen months ."

    This was all well and good, Salerno reasoned, for Rodale's regular
    gardening or Civil War titles, but when it came to self-help, a
    different standard should apply: "Many of our books proposed to solve,
    or at least ameliorate, a problem. If what we sold worked, one would
    expect lives to improve," and repeat business to evaporate. Instead,
    Salerno writes, "failure and stagnation are central to all of SHAM.
    The self-help guru has a compelling interest in not helping
    people."Armed with this obvious truth, Salerno provides a series of
    uncomplimentary thumbnail profiles of self-help leaders, from the
    Oprah-branded disciplinarian "Dr. Phil" McGraw to the corporate
    cheerleader Anthony Robbins. Often enough, he yields damning, or
    simply entertaining, background material -- for example, radio scold
    Dr. Laura Schlessinger's penchant for poaching the mates of others (in
    addition to her well-documented dalliance as a nude photo subject).
    But just as often, Salerno overreaches and recites material that is
    either simply irrelevant -- as when he tells us that investment guru
    Suze Orman had "a serious speech impediment" as a child -- or nobody's
    business. Referring to Orman, for instance, he writes that she "has
    never married -- a bit odd for a woman who spends so much time talking
    about balance in life."As SHAM continues on its determined path, it
    becomes clear that the book is anything but "the first serious exposé"
    of the self-help movement touted in the publicity materials. It is,
    rather, a kitchen-sink broadside, in which Salerno pins all sorts of
    evils on the industry. For example, in the movement's well-documented
    rhetoric of guiltlessness, he sees the very foundations of Western
    morality giving way: "We have the Recovery movement to thank for the
    fact that nowadays the people who criticize wrongdoers are sinners,
    while the wrongdoers themselves are simply 'human'. . . . Recovery's
    bedrock assumption -- that you're not evil or venal, you're simply
    exhibiting symptoms -- lays the groundwork for an amoral view of life.
    It explains why today's society goes to extraordinary semantic lengths
    to separate the criminal from the crime."This is all a bit much --
    especially since the only proof Salerno offers for this grandiose
    claim concerns a sensational legal defense mounted by Rosemary Heinen,
    an embezzling executive at Starbucks, who said she suffered from
    "impulse control disorder." Salerno also fails to mention that the
    defense didn't work: Heinen was convicted and sentenced to a four-year
    jail term in 2002.

    That is the problem with much of SHAM : It is less a considered
    argument about the self-help world's many excesses than a long train
    of can-you-believe-this-crap anecdotage. The outrages are all real
    enough, but the reader wants some sustained explanation of why they
    keep occurring, and why this country, an alleged capital of Emersonian
    self-reliance, churns them out in such enormous quantities. But that
    would mean extending Salerno's argument beyond its self-imposed
    historical limitations. According to him, self-help kicks off with the
    emergence of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 and gathers real momentum
    with the publication of the transactional analysis bible I'm OK,
    You're OK in 1967, whereas most serious students of this strain of
    therapeutic belief, such as the cultural historian Donald Meyer,
    locate its roots in the late-19th century New Thought movement.

    Explaining the deeper sources of self-help's appeal also would involve
    hazarding some argument about the nature of the American self to begin
    with -- as Christopher Lasch did in his masterful critique of human
    potential (as it was then called) in The Culture of Narcissism (1978).
    That book, together with Meyer's landmark 1965 study, The Positive
    Thinkers , would be the best place to start reckoning with the bigger
    questions raised by our national romance with self-help. SHAM misses a
    great opportunity to follow up on those questions, and that is,
    indeed, a shame. ·

    Chris Lehmann is an editor at Congressional Quarterly.

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