By Mary Montaut
This is the age of psychobabble, when almost any kind of problem may have a Therapy to solve it: Pet therapy, Colour therapy, even shopping is sometimes described as therapy, though I notice that so far no one has called having a meal in an expensive restaurant ‘therapy’. It is not surprising to find that books on therapy regularly top the lists of best sellers and provide material for chat-shows. The huge consumer demand for books of this type seems even to justify all the babbling. There is real interest, there are real fears, among the public at large and they are obviously willing to part with a few pounds quite frequently, to find out about the latest therapy fad.
There is, however, nothing new about this desire for self improvement. The first real “self-help” manual must surely have been Samuel Smiles’ book, which was actually called Self-Help. It came out in 1859 and in that one year it sold over 20,000 copies – an instant ‘best seller’. Like its descendants today it offered a method of self-improvement, of hauling yourself up by your own bootstraps. This depended entirely on your own moral commitment to succeeding. Smiles warned his readers not to be “daunted by difficulties, but conquer them by patience and perseverance, and above all, (to) seek elevation of character without which capacity is worthless and worldly success is nought”. If the reader followed the steps set out in the book, prosperity would surely come. The book is now notorious as an example of smug Victorian materialism.
Much the same kind of promise is held out by the writers of today’s best-selling self-help manuals too. Robin Norwood tells us at the start of Women Who Love Too Much, that the “work in this book will require years of work and nothing short of your total commitment.” Louise L. Hay recommends the reader to study every chapter of You Can Heal Your Life for several days and to repeat after her the ‘affirmations’ they include several times a day. If you stick to it, they imply, the rewards are sure: “you can change from a woman who loves someone else so much it hurts, into a woman who loves herself enough to stop the pain.” (Women Who Love Too Much). “DISEASE CAN BE HEALED, IF WE ARE WILLING TO CHANGE THE WAY WE THINK AND BELIEVE AND ACT! (You Can Heal Your Life) It doesn’t take a particularly sceptical reader to realise that these assertions are more pious hopes than promises. With the exception of the Bible (and maybe other books of holy writ), very few books have been the constant companions of their readers for the lengthy periods these writers require. So, the fault will always be with the reader, if the changes are not achieved.
In fact it is noticeable that many of the self-help books on therapy make what I can only call, unusual demands on their readers. For instance, the reader must not expect to benefit unless the author’s instructions on how to read are obediently followed. “It is important that this book be read from front to back. Were later chapters read before the first chapters … the reader would not only miss the full significance of the later chapters, but would assuredly make erroneous conclusions.” (I’m OK – You’re OK – a practical guide to Transactional Analysis, Thomas A. Harris, 1967 – over 850,000 in print!) Even the authors of thrillers would not presume to instruct the reader like this. In the next example, the writer tells the reader that the only way to benefit from the book is to put its instructions into practice: “… be sure to try it out in your own experience and with others, or your knowledge will only be ‘academic’.” (Using Your Brain – For A Change, Richard Bandler, 1985.)
Sometimes the writers take a more liberal line, like Gael Lindenfield in Managing Anger (1993): “With regard to the practical work (in this book), I feel this should be undertaken step-by-step, in the order which I have suggested … (but) feel free to alter and experiment creatively with any of my ideas and exercises. Never forget that this book is intended to be a self-help resource and not a Bible!”
But, even in this more liberal form, it seems that the tone of these authorial instructions is didactic. The “self-help” label has in fact, very little to do with any reader’s “self”; the writer envisages the reader as a pupil. And like other teachers, these writers insist that their instructions be followed, or the hoped for ‘change’ will not be achieved. The reader, like the perfect school pupil, should be a tabula rasa, a blank sheet upon which the writer may inscribe his or her system. Of course, no such reader and no such pupil ever existed, and yet – in spite of the clear warnings, millions of hopefuls rush out and purchase these books.
Perhaps an even more striking example of the author’s warning being completely ignored arises in the case of Arthur Janov’s famous book: The Primal Scream (1970). He devoted a whole page at the end of this book to warning the reader away from putting any of his ideas into practice: “Primal therapy is offered only at the Primal Institute, Los Angeles, California. It is dangerous when practiced by untrained persons … Primal Therapy has been service marked and may not be used by anyone not associated with the Primal Institute, nor may one use the term ‘Primal’ in association with any word or phrase connoting therapy or counselling …”
It is hard to square this warning with the invitation which concludes the preface: “This book is an invitation to explore the revolution they began.” And yet, Janov plainly means both. He wants his ideas, his practical method, to be known – and at the same time, he does not feel he can trust so powerful a therapy in any hands he has not personally trained. He has no idea at all who his reader could possibly be. Unfortunately, his attempt to trade-mark the words “Primal Therapy” could also be interpreted as revealing that the “help” he claims to be offering to a world in pain is none other than ‘self-help’ – he’s helping himself.
In contrast to this, there are quite a lot of self-help books with an overtly feminist agenda. I will use Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue (1978) as an example. The cover of this best seller claims that it is ‘The self-help guide for compulsive eaters” and its subtitle is, “How to lose weight permanently – without dieting.” The deliberate linking of the word ‘feminist’ with issues that perpetually occupy the pages of women’s magazines (weight, diet), is a political move. Anyone who buys this book in the hope of finding a list of easy-to-follow instructions is bound for disappointment. It’s full of feminist analysis of the social pressures on women. The author acknowledges this many times, as well as putting it clearly in the title: “It is likely that everyone will come to the group with the expectation and desire that participation will produce dramatic and instant weight loss. While it is hard to banish such thoughts, it must be emphasised that weight loss is not the immediate goal …” And yet, the sub-title promises a “how-to” approach. Even here, the book which has been written out of Orbach’s radical and ground-breaking work with women’s groups, and which expresses a clear political motive, nonetheless falls into the trap of the best-seller – apparently promising you your heart’s desire. However good and useful the ideas, however effective the groups (and it is clear that Orbach, Janov, Harris and probably even Louise L. Hay have been remarkable therapists), the “self-help manual” trades in illusions.
Orbach herself concludes: “Compulsive eating is an individual protest against the inequality of the sexes …” and that is not an issue that is going to change just because a particular reader loses or does not lose some weight.
It seems to me that there is a fundamental confusion underlying the very idea of a self-help book on therapy. Helpful and vital though books may be, they are not able to form any kind of “therapeutic alliance” with a reader, however hard the writer may try. “… make this book part of your life. You – and it – are worth it!” (You Can Heal Your Life) Instead, the reader naturally comes to the book with the confidence of complete anonymity. Though the author invites, persuades, threatens, or reasons with you to “help yourself”, as a reader your independence is inviolate. Fortunately, as every teacher knows, it is one thing to tell your pupil something, quite another to be heard.
The teacher talks, the therapist listens. Even books with spaces for “your own personal lists” cannot listen. I am reminded of the clear distinction that Melanie Klein made, when she was disputing with Anna Freud about how to analyse young children: “… it is impossible to combine … analytical and educational work …”, a point upon which Alice Miller has expanded greatly in her book, For Your Own Good (1983), where she goes so far as to claim that all “teaching” relationships tend to ignore or belittle the person being taught. Unless you are happy in that role, it seems unlikely that a book on self-help therapy will do more than provide you with some ideas. Nevertheless, I take Bell Hooks’ point when she says: “Since I have consistently used self-help literature to work in areas of my life where I felt dysfunctional, I have tremendous respect for this literature, whatever its limitations. For those among us who cannot afford therapy, or who have had endless hours of therapy that just did not work, it helps to have these other guides …” (Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Recovery, Bell Hooks 1993)
And perhaps that explains the fact that so many of these books become best sellers; if any of them really worked, and could read the heart of the reader, reflect it back and change it, the great quest for a more satisfactory “self” would be over. The reader would become the book.
Bandler, Richard: Using Your Brain – For A Change, 1985, Real People Press, ISBN 0-911226- 27-3.
Harris, Thomas A; I’m OK – You’re OK, A Practical Guide to Transactional Analysis, 1967, Harper & Row.
Hay, Louise L: You Can Heal Your Life, 1984, Eden Grove Editions, ISBN 1-870845-01-3.
Hooks B: Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Recovery, 1993, Turnaround Press.
Janov, Arthur: The Primal Scream: Primal Therapy – The Cure for Neurosis, 1970, Dell.
Klein, M: Love, Guilt and Reparation and other works, ed. H. Segal, 1988, Virago, ISBN 0-86068-965-4.
Lindenfield, G: Managing Anger – Positive Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Emotions, 1993, Thorsons, ISBN 0-7225-2715-2.
Miller, A, For Your Own Good – The Roots of Violence in Child Rearing, 1983. Virago, ISBN 0-86068-899-2.
Norwood, R: Women Who Love Too Much, 1985, Arrow, ISBN 0-09-948230-4.
Orbach, S: Fat is a Feminist Issue, 1978, Arrow, ISBN 0-09-938830-8.
Smiles, S: Self Help, 1859.