Ten years ago, I tagged along with my father to a weekend conference on how to write self-help books. The conference headliner, Mark Victor Hansen, coauthored Chicken Soup for the Soul, one of the most popular and prolific self-help series of the twentieth century, and my father hoped to learn the secrets of his success. A child psychologist by training, my father had been writing self-help books for parents and children for over thirty years, but he had never created a best seller. In college, he studied playwriting, but after penning “several bad plays about the homeless,” he switched his major to psychology. Throughout his twenties, he worked as a therapist, but he never gave up on writing. When my mother was pregnant with me, my father began work on his first parenting book, Games to Grow On. By the time he was finished I was almost two years old.
On page 100 of Games, my father describes “The Perfect Child Game.” He instructs the reader to finish the following sentence: “I want a child who . . .” My father then shares with the reader that when he did this exercise with me in mind, he said, “I want a child who is respectful, listens to me, is happy, is free and creative, is bright, is warm and loving, has good values.” He continued, “If I had had more time and had thought about what I was writing, I probably would have put down the same things but reversed their order. I was surprised to see that concern about my little girl’s behavior occurred to me before anything else (by the way, she is very well behaved).”1
That was 1979. By the time we went to the conference in 2003, my father had written over forty books and workbooks and started a catalog that sold therapeutic books, games, and toys. Most of his books were self-published and sold through his catalog to schools and psychologists. Four of his books had been published by major houses, but he had never achieved the success of someone like Dr. Phil, a name I picked not at random but because my father particularly despises Dr. Phil (as do, incidentally, many others with Internet access, a facility with Photoshop, and access to a seemingly unlimited cache of devil-themed clip art). I often think of Dr. Phil as my father’s bizarro doppelgänger—a middle-aged, mustachioed psychologist who dispenses advice, but who has made a more prosperous living and is devoted to a pop psychology that my father not only disagrees with but feels is ethically irresponsible. My father would probably also point out here that he has more hair than Dr. Phil.
At the conference, my father and I witnessed a pedagogy more befitting a tent revival than a classroom. Mark Victor Hansen proclaimed; his congregants exulted, swooned, and wept. Coming into contact with their tumescent, vigorous emotion made me feel alienated, but I also felt pangs of jealousy. I didn’t have anything in my life that I felt as passionate about. Even though I had recoiled from self-help and its myriad incarnations my entire life, my interest was piqued. What voodoo made the self-betterment crowd, here and everywhere, so devout? I wanted to know why people liked self-help so much, what it meant to them, whether it worked; and if it didn’t work, why people still craved it.
It’s nearly impossible to live in the world and escape self-help. We are surrounded all the time by its bastard derivatives. In my local auto body shop, a yellowed sign hanging over the saddest couch in the world proclaims, WE CREATE OUR TOMORROWS BY WHAT WE DREAM TODAY. An e-mail in my in-box tells me to “take heart in this moment and know the best is yet to come.” A poster in my hardware store, of a kitten clinging to a tree branch, proffers three simple words: HANG IN THERE.
These axioms may seem like throwaway items, mental tchotchkes that people use to shield themselves from the routine horrors of daily life. They may go unnoticed by us most of the time, but they exist in our peripheral vision, and I am one of those people who believes that we ingest these things accidentally, and that they must have some niggling, if not profound, effect on our psyches, with the most unfathomable consequences. These aphoristic posters and bumper stickers and signs and calendars and pens and e-mails and T-shirts and coffee mugs contain small but constant assurances that the point of view of the universe toward us is not one of overwhelming indifference.
The use of self-help books is a form of bibliotherapy, the idea that a stack of pages between two stiff boards can serve as a therapeutic aid. Self-help books focus on topics affected by our psychology; a book on weight loss is a self-help book, whereas a book on computer programming is not. This can get confusing, however, when they appear together in series like The Complete Idiot’s Guide or For Dummies, and because they both use the formal conventions of how-to books.
Self-help is a concept vast and vague enough to include my father’s books and board games and sweat lodges and est (a therapy from the 1960s my uncle once tried, where people yelled at you and you weren’t allowed to use the bathroom; when I asked him if it had been helpful he said he learned he could hold his urine for a very long time) and Chicken Soup for the Soul and Marcus Aurelius and fire walking and Esalen and corporate retreats and tree hugging and addiction support groups and success seminars and self-esteem classes and aspirational calendars that remind you to be the star of your own life. Self-help is so simultaneously debunked, adored, and ignored that it’s possible to assign any meaning to it you desire. If you hate self-help, it is an exercise in futility that robs fools of their money and dignity. If you love self-help, it is a structure for self-betterment, an opportunity for enlightenment.
As you read this book, try to do something I myself could never quite accomplish: forget what you know, and how you feel, about self-help. Open yourself to the idea that it could be a useful, even necessary, social component; open yourself to the idea that it could also be deceitful and dangerous. Consider what could be beautiful, noble, or enslaving about aspirational living. Consider the possibility that your weird cousin who sends you affirmation-a-day calendars at Christmas may be on to something. Consider the notion that people who think the Omega Institute website is creepy have a point. Just because some self-help books don’t fulfill their promises doesn’t make the whole genre moronic and doomed. Self-help can be flaky, inarticulate, and illusory, but its longevity, its sheer consistency, suggests it might still have some value in our lives.
Although individual self-help books can be simplistic, self-help itself is complex, contradictory, and hard to pin down. We resist lumping our own unique misery or transcendence with the dumb, hopeless problems of strangers; and at the same time we feel reassured that we are not alone. The concept appeals to our nationalistic notions of self-sufficiency; but the phrase “self-help” carries a stigma among intelligent, educated adults. I think this has something to do with the fact that there will undoubtedly come a time in every intelligent, educated adult’s life where they will be helpless and desperate, and this certainty is something we’d all prefer to ignore.
When I began this project, I spent the first few years sitting diligently at the New York Public Library researching self-help books, visiting self-help groups, interviewing self-help purveyors. I amassed pages of notes, which I put into folders, which I put into files. I searched for a Definitive Stance. I began to think of self-help as an entity, an intractable adversary, an almost-being that had some type of relationship to me, a relationship that I was supposed to discern and describe. I wasn’t sure how this antagonistic plot was going to end, though it seemed there were limited options: one of us (me or self-help) was going to be revealed as the asshole, and for the sake of a happy ending I was rooting for self-help.
Comprehending this world was less simple and straightforward than I had anticipated. No amount of pressure applied to stacks of self-help books, books about self-help books, or people who self-helped yielded any kind of satisfying clarity. Sometimes it seemed that the more I learned about self-help the more impenetrable it became. There were days when even the phrase sounded strange to me: “self-help,” I would mouth, as if, failing to wrap my brain around it, my lips would suffice. I was in a constant state of conflict, overwhelmed by paradox, and in search of a good fainting couch.
Some of the groups and workshops I attended seemed useful and genuine; some didn’t. Some of the books I read I admired and enjoyed; some I didn’t. There was no truth waiting to be discovered. Eventually, I grew tired of searching, and that’s when I realized that I had been stalled at the threshold of something much more personal.
Self-deception is the most intractable deception. I had become preoccupied with whether self-help was good or bad. Why was it so hated or loved? What possible light could old philosophical tracts and etiquette books from ancient Greece or the Victorian era shed on current-day self-actualization? These are problems the mind clings to, to avoid the mind’s real trouble. Looking back, it is hard to believe I could spend so much time reading centuries-old self-help books and comparing them to contemporary advice literature, oblivious to the conspicuous direction in which the subject matter was taking me. Yet it took at least four years of wading through copious, unwieldy piles of self-improvement books before I decided to start looking at books on grief, and that was when it began to dawn on me, in the protracted and bovine way that a personal blind spot comes into view, that I was headed toward a very uncomfortable, awkward, and painful conversation with my father.
My mother died just before my second birthday. Instead of memories, I have photos, objects that once belonged to her, and other people’s stories. As a child, anytime I looked at a photo or tried on some of her jewelry, I found myself wanting more information. But despite my curiosity, I hated to ask my father about her. I noticed early on that whenever I asked about my mother he became very upset. I took his sadness as a sign that he didn’t want to talk; I also found it unbearable. Perhaps once a year the subject would come up naturally, at which point I felt intuitively like I could ask one or two questions. If I ever felt like my father was getting emotional, I changed the subject. Then I would wait another year. Talking about my mother was like looking at the sun; I knew I wasn’t supposed to do it, yet I kept sneaking peeks at it every now and then.
In the course of writing this book I walked on hot coals; took a class on how to find a husband; met a man making a weight-loss robot; explained autoerotic asphyxiation to my father; talked to over thirty aspiring self-help writers (one of whom told me I could call him Dr. Huggy Bear, which I very much did not want to do); learned how to write a best-selling self-help book; helped a friend make a vision board; sold mental health products at an Asperger’s convention; watched incredibly depressing suicide-prevention videos on the Internet; joined a Healing Circle; ate breakfast with over a hundred grieving children; and faced my debilitating fear of flying.
Of all these things, talking to my father about my mother was by far the hardest. My own ambivalence was the biggest obstacle to opening a door I’d kept shut, locked, and boarded up my whole life. A few years ago, I asked a researcher to find information about my mother, because it seemed easier than talking to someone, anyone, who actually knew her. The researcher’s name was also Jessica, which I found auspicious. She unearthed an obituary from a Washington, DC, paper and sent me a pdf. It was the first independent, hard evidence I had of my mother’s death. I was oddly elated. Of course it contained only the most generic information. The obit didn’t even say how she died, and must have been written by someone in my family, most likely my father. The researcher called the funeral home and was able to confirm my mother’s birth and death dates, information I hadn’t known—or maybe I had once asked about it and forgotten the answer.
“Your mother was born on March 27th, 1948, and died on July 27th, 1979,” the other Jessica wrote me. “Her funeral service was held on Sunday, July 29th. They couldn’t give me any further information, as I’m not directly related, but it sounds like they may have more information concerning your mother and possibly more about how she died.”