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 them).

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 expose" 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.

The self-help phenomenon has gripped America for decades.