Tom Tiede is a cranky old man whose pet peeves would fill a menagerie.
A retired journalist who admits to 60, Tiede can't stand baby boomers, whom he contemptuously calls "Booms" and describes in overheated prose as "the first New World narcissistic class to have about it the full whiff of the armpit." He has no time for psychotherapists or for obtaining "professional help," since, after all, "'professionals' are merely people–they are as mystified by relationships as everyone else (except when they write books)." The Bible, religious belief and Christianity all attract his scorn. And he views lawyers as a special evil, "Jack Kevorkian in better suits."
But, as the full title of this self-indulgent rant suggests, Tiede hates self-help books most of all. And he's not shy about expressing his antipathy. "Self-improvement books are narcotics in ink," he declares in "Magic Bullets," the chapter that opens Self-Help Nation. "You'd do better selling crack than leafing through massifs of fix-up advice." In such books, he writes, "the inspiration is usually overestimated, the promise is usually broken." And, as for you, dear reader: "If you are simple enough to buy a self-help book, you may be congenitally programmed to fail."
Such grandiose overstatement is Tiede's favored mode of argumentation. But where's his evidence? It's at least conceivable that having the humility and motivation to buy a self-help book is a good sign–an index of readiness for self-examination and change. It's no accident that most self-help books are geared toward–and purchased by–women, who are eager (sometimes overly so) to modify themselves as society demands. Many such books try to assist women in dealing with the type of man Tiede represents in caricature–someone who is loath to seek any help at all.
In picking on self-help books, the author has chosen a target as wide as, well, America. And he's clearly right about a few things: The wave of self-help books has become tidal, flooding an oversaturated market. As a group, these books are too frequently banal and repetitive–not only of one another but of an author's own previous works. The literature of self-help seems to propagate as if dosed with fertility hormones, spawning endless second helpings of Chicken Soup and an infinity of Mars/Venus encounters. Many self-help books are mawkish, right-wing in their outlook and repressive toward women. Others are New Agey, naïve, imbued with religious hokum or just plain unhelpful.
But still… One can concede that most of these books are rather less than literary masterpieces, yet be grateful that the genre exists. While denouncing such obvious targets as Dr. Laura and M. Scott Peck, Tiede gives short shrift to the reality that self-help books, not unlike the therapists and gurus who write them, run the gamut from brilliantly insightful to pedestrian and worse.
Tiede belongs to the discredited "chin up" school for battling depression and life's other woes. He freely admits to being "not competent or well read regarding psychology," and his ignorance shows. He's unable to recognize the sound tenets of cognitive psychology when he stumbles on them, and he rejects the use of guided imagery in controlling pain. He scoffs at the idea of sex addiction, is disdainful toward all the 12-step programs (ignoring their proven track records) and is especially nasty about Overeaters Anonymous.
In the chapter "Lonely, Old, or Fat," Tiede unleashes contempt not just for self-help books but for those who need help in the first place. In a section called "Butterballs," he accuses diet writers of taking advantage of what he calls "the glutton's reluctance simply to buy fewer groceries." As for sexual dysfunction, here's Tiede's advice from his "Sex" chapter: "Lighten up a tad. Sex is meant to be hilarious, not serious. If you can't grin while you grind, you don't get it." It's hard to imagine a man winning many hearts with that credo.
What has happened to make Tiede so self-righteous and intolerant? Perhaps he was simply born that way, and never tried to change. While Self-Help Nation is not a memoir, it does include some personal stories that suggest Tiede's mounting bitterness. He tells one about taking a man to court for assault in Georgia and losing the case. At first, he says, he was deeply distressed by the outcome. "I was forsaken by the system," he writes, "and I was as much as labeled a liar in the verdict." Later, he says, he put it out of his mind. The moral of the tale: "Have faith in yourself. Go your own way."
Then there is the little matter of his journalistic career. Tiede boasts of having reported from over 100 countries and of winning numerous awards but complains that the profession has changed from the idealistic days of his youth. It is, he says, "a business that has just become a business." No argument there. He writes: "I gave it up because it gave up on me and because I no longer cared that it did. Disillusionment does that. Sour regret makes it worse." There's an interesting story here, begging to be told. But Tiede remains vague on the specifics of his departure from the profession. He tells us only that as the owner of a weekly newspaper, he "upset the balance of power in the neighborhood. And…was thoroughly discredited by those in charge of The-Way-Things-Are."
How does any of this relate to the social problem allegedly posed by self-help books? Even Tiede feels impelled to ask this question in the midst of his digression. It's the same culture that is at fault, he replies unconvincingly.
The most telling autobiographical hint Tiede drops is about his own "toxic" father, a term he borrows from the very books he disdains. "We passed the years of my youth without engaging in a full conversation," Tiede writes in the book's most moving passage. "We did nothing together except eat…. When he died, my grief concerned the waste of his life." Powerful stuff–but Tiede slides away from it too quickly. Introspection discomfits him. No wonder self-help books are anathema.
And yet Tiede himself can't refrain from offering advice, much of which amounts to: "Be like me." His formula for resolving life's crises involves a mix of self-reliance, sex and the modest consumption of alcohol. (Tiede confesses he might consider suicide "if I lost the use of my dick.") He calls his approach a "frontier philosophy" and knows that it is "in large part obsolete." Still, had he taken his own premises, or his target, more seriously, he might have advanced a more compelling argument. Instead, he reaches awkwardly for humor through exaggeration in what he must imagine is a Swiftian mode–while noting, bizarrely, that he likes to think of himself as Billy Crystal. In truth, he's neither Swift nor Crystal-line. Tiede is more like a poor man's Art Buchwald, windier and with bursts of bad poetry. In Self-Help Nation, he operates in high-curmudgeon, high-dudgeon mode, lightened only by his few anecdotes and fewer still stabs at reasoned analysis. Although he preaches an Emersonian self-reliance, his tract is more Hobbesian in nature: nasty, brutish and short. But not short enough.
In his blanket dismissals, Tiede, the self-declared pioneer, misses far more interesting territory than he stakes out. In the issues they tackle and the advice they give, self-help books hold a mirror up to society–reflecting changing and even contradictory notions about gender, sexuality and power, as well as values such as thinness and wealth. Even if some admonitions strike us as silly, understanding the context that produces them may be illuminating.
Take, as one case in point, a 1996 book that Tiede briefly attacks: The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider. For weeks, The Rules ruled the airwaves and relentlessly infiltrated conversations wherever single women congregated–this despite its essential lack of originality. Yet another in a series of backlash tomes that promised to show benighted single women the way to the nirvana of marriage, the book called for a return to a 1950s dating sensibility that prized old-fashioned courtship.
Among the book's most debated dictums was the rule that a woman should avoid calling a man and should only "rarely return" his calls. Even zealous Rules girls–and many previously liberated women did acquire the zeal of the convert–found this admonition a tad severe. Wouldn't not having his calls returned quench the ardor of even the most fervent postfeminist pursuer? Most men, when queried, declared this rule a form of rudeness, and few women I knew were brave enough, or foolish enough, to follow it.
One could criticize The Rules (which quickly spawned Rules II) on two interrelated grounds: pragmatic and ideological. Even if following the Rules resulted in the closing of a marriage deal, what sort of a man would a woman get? And what sort of relationship would she have signed up for? Perhaps the type envisioned in the latest cultural sensation, Laura Doyle's The Surrendered Wife, in which critical, controlling wives surrender power to their husbands to improve their marriages. Fein and Schneider, guarding their franchise, will offer their own take in a book slated for June publication, The Rules for Marriage: Time-Tested Secrets for Making Your Marriage Work.
I know of no controlled double-blind study analyzing whether the Rules approach is the most effective in today's marriage market. But there is anecdotal evidence that The Rules touched a nerve within high-powered, assertive women who felt that their own dating strategies weren't working or were leaving them too vulnerable. Even if some of the book's nostrums had a retrograde quality, the dual notions of holding back and holding men to tougher standards made sense. If nothing else, Rules girls would discourage the ambivalent, the unmannerly and the insincere before they managed to cause much harm. Then, too, there was the permission the book gave weary women to let go of the pursuit, to resume the traditional passive stance that had, after all, taken so much energy to abandon in the first place.
Most relationship-oriented books put the onus for change on the woman. But Tiede is wrong when he suggests that the literature of self-help embraces the myth of human perfectibility. On the contrary, it generally encourages women, and men too, to forsake the search for perfection, in both self and others. Psychologist Judith Sills described the task in 1984 as How to Stop Looking for Someone Perfect and Find Someone to Love.
In the mid-1980s, when the bulging middle of the baby-boom generation reached their 30s, psychoserious romantic advisories tumbled from the presses and quickly became bestsellers. In 1985, Robin Norwood used the addiction model to describe Women Who Love Too Much, and Drs. Connell Cowan and Melvyn Kinder published Smart Women, Foolish Choices. A year later, Dr. Susan Forward and Joan Torres stepped up to the plate with Men Who Hate Women & The Women Who Love Them. The fundamental culprit in all these advice books? Not so much bad men, but the female bugaboo I began to call LOSE–lack of self-esteem.
In the wake of these depressing, woman-blaming tomes, one book deliberately took a different tack. Published in 1987, Men Who Can't Love: When a Man's Fear Makes Him Run From Commitment (And What a Smart Woman Can Do About It), by Steven Carter and Julia Sokol, may have been responsible for introducing the term "commitmentphobic" into mainstream discourse. The book identified a counterintuitive phenomenon: the tendency of many men to break and run just as a relationship becomes closer and deeper. And it provided an understandable explanation: the fear these men feel of being trapped into commitment. The book also let women off the hook, at least initially. "The reason so many women get involved with these men is not because they have some subconscious desire to punish themselves," the authors tell us. "It is because so many of the men they meet have this problem."
As description, the book is a veritable bible of ambivalent male behavior–even if, as prescription, it falls short. Beyond the quick fix of withdrawing, women are left to puzzle how to go about changing the steps in what another indispensable author, Harriet Goldhor Lerner, has called "the dance of intimacy." Carter and Sokol seemed to recognize this problem in their gender-neutral 1993 sequel, He's Scared, She's Scared: Understanding the Hidden Fears That Sabotage Your Relationships.
I could go on. I warrant I've spent more hours than Tiede, too many, contemplating such subjects. But my point is made: Self-help books distill, promote and, more rarely, even initiate cultural trends. They are deserving of careful, if not necessarily respectful, attention in a book that purports to be a work of social criticism. Providing that sort of analysis is a task that Tiede doesn't manage or even attempt. If he cares, there's probably a self-help book somewhere to assist him.