This is not a serious book. Jessica Lamb-Shapiro concentrates on self-betterment by a route that near the end of the book she admits is solipsistic, even narcissistic. Her gaze is entirely one of self-regard. The concept of civic life, to say nothing of politics, is entirely absent.
Near the end of “Promise Land” Lamb-Shapiro admits that she doesn’t know why she embarked on the project in the first place. It seems it had its beginnings as a research project, with diligent hours in libraries and the amassing of note cards. It moved from there to “a journey through America’s self-help culture,” with the author as an anthropological participant/observer. In consequence of her divided effort, the entire venture has a ramshackle quality, but one that often makes for amusing, distinctly light reading.
The voice is early Diane Keaton by way of Nora Ephron. For most of the book Lamb-Shapiro acts the ditsy, scatterbrained tourist in the many and varied precincts of self-help land, with her amassed accumulation of note cards on the history of self-help literature trailing behind.
Nevertheless, Lamb-Shapiro has interesting, frequently diverting, things to say on the entire history of her too large container labeled the “culture of self-help.” For example, the classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (1936 and continuously in print) comes up for particular deconstruction. She’s very good on the trite language and the banal thought behind the language of “self-help.” The term itself is a misnomer, since “self-help” relies entirely on gurus and a literature of guidance and “inspiration.”
She wades confidently, but always too superficially, through hundreds of self-improvement books, pamphlets, work-sheets, daytime television (Drs. Phil and Oz receive prominent treatment) all the way to those nostrums aimed at insomniacs peddled on TV at 3 a.m.
Her comments are often cleverly dismissive. In a single paragraph for example she registers est (Erhard Seminars Training) and Esalen and then neatly summarizes how all such operations work: You get people to take their clothes off and then you yell at them.
Lamb-Shapiro takes on America’s Self-Help culture for what is at first an unclear motive: She wonders why she either keeps searching out or rather casually visiting one self-help scheme after another; a weight loss robot, desensitization classes to overcome her serious fear of flying, a fire walking group, a grief camp, and more and more. On a number of these jaunts she accompanies her father who, although certified as a child psychologist, practices very little, and instead keeps traveling to conferences in the hope of learning the secret of the big score as a self-help expert.
She’s smart enough to understand that her targets are mostly small fry, little cons of empty promises for great health, wealth and happiness (if you follow this easy-to-understand rule,) get all your friends into the game (they’ll send money) and Oh, lest I forget, send the author a check.
But big fish as well as small are easy enough to demolish. In a lengthy first chapter she attends a conference led by Mark Victor Hansen on the topic of how would-be followers, her father included, could learn the secrets of building a successful self-help franchise modeled after the immensely successful “Chicken Soup” franchise built on the flagship “Chicken Soup for the Soul” blockbuster. Mark Victor Hanson feeds his passionate followers inspirational chicken soup, although it seems to me what they are getting is close to poisoned Kool-Aid.
Lamb-Shapiro gets into all this because her father is a distinctly a small fry in self-help land, a moderately unsuccessful purveyor of mostly self-published books and pamphlets. She “tags along” as he visits various conferences and workshops, setting up concession stands, laying out brochures, keeping track of receipts and money coming in (always too little). Jessica is the good daughter and her father is always the feckless member of the small-fry club of self-help entrepreneurs.
When Jessica was 2 years old, her mother died (probably a suicide) and the sad fact hangs as an unexplained pall over the entire book. It’s clear from the outset that Lamb-Shapiro endures terrific psychic pain. She’s at the mercy of neurotic tics and phobias, with a crippling fear of flying as perhaps the worst of these. She doesn’t know why she’s in such pain, although she rightly suspects it has something to do with the early death of her mother and she fears deeply that it’s all her fault. It’s that which drives her to seek out the help of “self-help.” In a sense, the tours through the self-help culture amount to self-medication.
Lamb-Shapiro is inordinately attached to her father, a very peculiar gent. Her attachment is understandable since he’s the surviving parent. Along the way she accumulates a stepmother or two. The first one, with children of her own, doesn’t like her much. Additionally, the father, feeling unfettered, in short order moves to France, then to Greece, then back to America with his new wife and dragging the toddling Jessica along. Then father and new wife divorce, “but because your stepmother adopted you she gets joint custody. In other words, your father gets to divorce her but you don’t.” Nevertheless, through all the chaos she remains loyal (and dependent) far into adulthood. Through boyfriends and breakups, from toddlerhood till adulthood, she’s always “tagging along” after her father. For better and for worse, he’s the man in her life. She cuts him an astonishing amount of slack.
Unlike the typical memoir’s trajectory of gaining from the experience of pain some measure of enlightenment, by the end of her story Jessica Lamb-Shapiro admits that she has in fact learned pretty much nothing at all. She still thinks whatever it is (her mother’s death, her inability to talk straight to her father) it’s all her fault. In fact, Jessica’s father has been quite the master at avoiding and deflecting from his daughter anything approaching truthful open communication. The final scene has Jessica and her father standing by the long neglected grave of her mother. They embrace, shedding tears, saying little. But I suppose the mute embrace is something.
Stefan Fleischer taught in the English Department at the University at Buffalo for 39 years. He now resides in Houston, Texas.
Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture – A Memoir
By Jessica Lamb-Shapiro
Simon & Schuster
224 pages. $25