In Promise Land, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro recounts her efforts to conquer one of her multiple phobias by attending a support group called Freedom to Fly. The group’s course, led by a psychologist, met at the Westchester airport and culminated in a round-trip flight to Boston. Lamb-Shapiro secretly had no intention of boarding the flight, but she ultimately mustered the nerve, thanks in part to peer pressure and the charismatic leader. The decisive influence, however, was chemical rather than social. “I had often wondered if taking a pill would prevent me from thinking I was about to die on a plane or prevent me from caring,” she writes. “It was the latter.”
This qualified victory marks one of Lamb-Shapiro’s more successful forays into the world of instructional workshops and inspirational guidance. “I wanted to know why people liked self-help so much, what it meant to them, whether it worked,” she writes at the book’s outset, “and if it didn’t work, why people still craved it.” Her quest takes her to a wide and motley array of destinations: a conference on writing self-help books, headlined by the cowriter of Chicken Soup for the Soul; a seminar by a coauthor of The Rules, the retrograde ’90s guide to husband snaring; and a New Agey camp where she joins teenagers in walking on hot coals. Most chapters are anchored by Lamb-Shapiro’s first-person account of a self-help excursion, framed by cultural history as well as the author’s tragedy-tinged autobiography.
Promise Land is very much a book of the publishing zeitgeist—the gimmicky premise, the mash-up of genres—and risks coming off as clichéd. But Lamb-Shapiro’s authorial presence rescues it from that fate. Her approach to the material is skeptical but not cynical; her personal disclosures feel generous rather than exhibitionistic; and she writes in a mordant, deadpan voice with impeccable economy and timing.
She presents wry dispatches from the assorted subcultures she explores, and in her telling they range from the gauzily mystical to the shamelessly mercenary. “We don’t get burnt. We get kissed,” says the adult who initiates nervous teens into the ritual of fire walking. “Don’t hop all funny. Don’t run. Anybody with a stroke or who has difficulty walking please do not do this. Let’s sing.” After attending the Chicken Soup conference, Lamb-Shapiro received e-mails for years from the cocreator, Mark Victor Hansen. “Very few topics are not within his purview,” she reports. “‘Jessica, are you a healthepreneur?’ reads one subject line.”
Lamb-Shapiro also delivers some trenchant appraisals of the self-help industry’s allure. Here, for instance, is how she evokes the promise of the turn-your-life-around best seller:
Buying a book can make you feel better because it makes you feel like you are in control. I have started, it says. . . . Most of the self-help books I bought for research were secondhand, and were heavily underlined and annotated for the first twenty pages.
Unspooling through the book is also the thread of a memoir, centered on the long-ago suicide of Lamb-Shapiro’s mother. Her account is mostly matter of fact and free of self-pity, which imbues the handful of nakedly emotional moments she describes with that much more poignancy. Looking at an apparently happy picture of herself and her mother on the beach, “the photo takes on an ominous cast. Sometimes I look at that picture and I can’t help thinking, You stupid baby. You don’t even know what’s coming for you. You’d better wise up.”
Still, for all the book’s pleasures, Lamb-Shapiro’s analysis, like her shifting narrative focus, sometimes feels scattered. Promise Land also suffers from the author’s failure to convincingly define her subject. Self-help in her reckoning includes such wildly divergent phenomena as the harsh injunctions of The Rules; a “vision board” purported to turn wishes into reality; a camp that helps kids cope with grief; and a sign in her local auto-body shop reading, “We create our tomorrows by what we dream today.” Self-help seems, in short, to be everywhere and nowhere—a concept so broadly construed as to be nearly meaningless.
Of course, Lamb-Shapiro is far from alone in this imprecision. Latter-day versions of the self-improvement gospel have spiraled out in two directions. On one hand, the term refers to a certain belief system of cheerful self-reinvention and the conquest of psychological traumas—-call it the Oprah ethos. On the other, it refers to any material offering personal guidance of any sort. The seeming ubiquity of self-help may owe as much to this semantic creep as to the triumph of a coherent category.
The term itself hovers around a telling ambiguity. Is the self of the prefix primarily the provider of the help in question, or its beneficiary? Some critics, assuming the former, lament an intensely individualist American culture of self-reliance, which tends to sidestep or deride support from communities or government. Others, assuming that the self under renovation is primarily the recipient of therapeutic help, deplore our rampant consumerist obsession with self-improvement.
But much of what we think of as self-help is steeped in a different sort of American tradition, reflecting neither narcissism nor rugged autonomy. This is what Lamb-Shapiro perceptively calls “the pleasures of the imperative.” And this feature, I think, goes a long way toward explaining both the appeal of self-help and the scorn it incurs. Being told what to do offers deep solace even as it infantilizes. Lamb-Shapiro notices these effects coming to the fore at the conference for aspiring self-help writers, but the same principle applies to many of the other events she attends and books she reads. “I had been told what to do, wear, and eat for the last two hours, and it brought me a kind of comfort,” she writes. “It was no accident, I thought, that the last time I had this little responsibility for my actions I had braces on my teeth, a bona fide mullet, and someone to cook me dinner every night.”