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Promise Land: My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture

Promise Land: My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture

3.0 4
by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro

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A witty, original tour of the billion-dollar self-help industry that explores our uniquely American devotion to self-improvement—even as the author attempts some deeply personal improvements of her own.

“In writing this book I walked on hot coals, met a man making a weight-loss robot, joined a Healing Circle, and faced my


A witty, original tour of the billion-dollar self-help industry that explores our uniquely American devotion to self-improvement—even as the author attempts some deeply personal improvements of her own.

“In writing this book I walked on hot coals, met a man making a weight-loss robot, joined a Healing Circle, and faced my debilitating fear of flying. Of all of these things, talking to my father about my mother’s death was by far the hardest.”

The daughter of a widowed child psychologist and parenting author, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro grew up immersed in the culture of self-help, of books and pamphlets and board games and gadgets and endless jargon-filled conversations about feelings. It wasn’t until she hit her thirties that Jessica began to wonder: if all this self-improvement arcana was as helpful as it promised to be, why wasn’t she better adjusted? She had a flying phobia, hadn’t settled down, and didn’t like to talk about her feelings.

Thus began Jessica’s fascination with the eccentric and labyrinthine world of self-help. She read hundreds of books and articles, attended dating seminars, walked on hot coals, and attempted to conquer her fear of flying. But even as she made light of the sometimes dubious effectiveness of these as-seen-on-TV treatments, she slowly began to realize she was circling a much larger problem: her mother’s death when she was a toddler, and the almost complete silence that she and her father had always observed on the subject.

In the tradition of Augusten Burroughs, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro illuminates the peculiar neuroses and inalterable truths that bind families together, whether they choose to confront them or not. Promise Land is a tender, witty, and wise account of a young woman’s journey through her own psyche toward the most difficult stage of grown-up emotional life: acceptance.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 11/04/2013
Through trial-and-error and historical accounts, Lamb-Shapiro fearlessly peers into the world of self-help culture, painting a sincere and hilarious picture of the personalities and ideas found in this field of self-promotion and discovery. Lamb-Shapiro, whose father is a child psychologist and self-help author, addresses her own difficulties in attempting to deal with the death of her mother—whom she never knew—and how working on this book led her towards closure. She tackles her own doubts and fears—of both the self-help industry and her own personal anxieties—admirably, detailing every hesitation and troubling encounter. The reader learns alongside the author of heartbreak within this form of therapy, with Lamb-Shapiro dissecting the reality of the field and its methods of attracting followers. Still, there are moments of wonder—does self-help really work and, if so, for whom? Regardless of the answer, Lamb-Shapiro’s journey through self-help culture fascinates and entertains, and as much as it also serves as a quasi-memoir, it excels. Teetering between believer and skeptic, she interweaves the history of self-help, introducing the movers and shakers of the business while providing intimate and moving stories that illuminate personal desires for support and guidance. Agent: Henry Dunow; Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency. (Jan.)
“Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has an unusual relationship to the self-help industry: her father is a child psychologist who has authored numerous books on the subject. Lamb-Shapiro’s inherent ambivalence is at the heart of Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture, in which the author immerses herself in the world of seminars, mantras, and self-improvement, all the while exploring the nation’s enduring fascination with perfection. By turns funny and sad, the book is, ultimately, a deeply personal story—and a really good read.”
“[Lamb-Shapiro] 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.”
New York Times Book Review
“A witty and enjoyably self-aware writer . . . Lamb-Shapiro’s talent as a storyteller is undeniable.”
"Promise Land is one of the best pieces of self-actualizing literature that I’ve read in a while. In order to achieve our goals, it reminds us, we have to remember to believe in ourselves. It’s not self-help, per se, but it certainly helped this self."
"There’s no shortage of books featuring “cultural history” and other quasi-sociological surveys of this terrain, but Lamb-Shapiro’s take is different. Part experiential journalism, part memoir, Promise Land is both funnier and more searching than detached forms of social commentary could ever hope to be."
The Chicago Tribune
“[A] jaunty, cannily written memoir.”
Dallas Morning News
“Lamb-Shapiro, who has written for McSweeney’s and The Believer, shines at fly-on-the-wall reportage.”
People (3.5 stars)
“Lamb-Shapiro, herself the loving daughter of an aspiring self-help guru, gives a funny yet surprisingly nuanced look at the legends and ideas of the self-help industry [ . . . ] she’s deeply sympathetic to the impulse that fuels the industry: I can be happy if I just change . . . something.”
The Week (Author of the Week)
"A memoir that's also an idiosyncratic history of self-help."
Maclean’s (Canada)
“Sharply observed, nicely nuanced, laugh-out-loud funny.”
Maclean’s (Canada)
“Sharply observed, nicely nuanced, laugh-out-loud funny.”
Daniel Smith
Promise Land is not only a raucous, engaging account of all the hope, despair, faith, fear, falsity, and truth that comprises America’s centuries-old obsession with self-improvement. It is also a deeply felt personal story about family, secrecy, and grief. Read it and you might just find yourself improved.”
A.J. Jacobs
“Here are two important self-help rules. Buy this book. Read this book. You’ll feel better about yourself and the world. Promise Land is funny but not sneering. It’s poignant but not maudlin. It’s smart but not pretentious. This is gazpacho for the soul, which I much prefer to chicken soup.”
Andrew Solomon
“With mordant wit and spectacular bravado, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro deconstructs not only the ludicrous self-help industry, but also the infinite personal vulnerabilities that it exploits. This is a knowing, insightful, and delightful book.”
Mark Binelli
“I can’t think of a nonfiction writer since David Foster Wallace as adept at pivoting from slapstick linguistic virtuosity to whip smart analysis to incomprehensible pathos—at times, all within the same paragraph! The druids of our contemporary self-help culture will need to write a new ‘Chicken Soup’ book to soothe their own souls if they accidentally read Jessica Lamb-Shapiro’s epic, hilarious Promise Land. Everyone else will just be delighted.”
Kirkus Reviews
The author's exploration of the world of self-help books and of her own childhood trauma. Early on in the book, Lamb-Shapiro recounts the time she and her father--a child psychologist and the author of multiple self-help books--attended a seminar for authors of self-help books led by Mark Victor Hansen, one of the authors of the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul series. In one sense, this chapter represents the book in a nutshell: an exploration of the culture of self-help, what it means to readers and how (and if) it helps, sorting out the wheat from the chaff. "As Americans," she writes, "self-help reflects our core beliefs: self-reliance, social mobility, an endless ability to overcome obstacles, a fair and equal pursuit of success, and the inimitable proposition that every single human being wants and deserves a sack of cash." Though not necessarily jaded, the author examines her subject with at least a wearied, cautious uncertainty. Through her father's work, she's been on the author/writer side of the equation long enough to be comfortable with pointing her finger at the snake-oil salesmen of the industry, and she takes a look at the seemingly limitless number of products and follow-up seminars one can choose to spend money on. Similarly, Lamb-Shapiro explores the world of The Rules, the late-1990s book/system for "Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right." She finds that, more than anything else, self-help has become an elaborate business with the aim of continuing to expand and make money from countless spinoffs and new products. The other narrative thread concerns the author's childhood trauma: Lamb-Shapiro's mother committed suicide when she was very young. As the author dissects these and other self-help systems, finding fault fairly, she also finds it seeping into her approach to grieving that loss and learning more about how her mother died. A brave, personal book in which the author discovers the best of the self-help industry, despite its many flaws.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Promise Land

  • Ten years ago, I tagged along with my father to a weekend conference on how to write self-help books. The conference headliner, Mark Victor Hansen, coauthored Chicken Soup for the Soul, one of the most popular and prolific self-help series of the twentieth century, and my father hoped to learn the secrets of his success. A child psychologist by training, my father had been writing self-help books for parents and children for over thirty years, but he had never created a best seller. In college, he studied playwriting, but after penning “several bad plays about the homeless,” he switched his major to psychology. Throughout his twenties, he worked as a therapist, but he never gave up on writing. When my mother was pregnant with me, my father began work on his first parenting book, Games to Grow On. By the time he was finished I was almost two years old.

    On page 100 of Games, my father describes “The Perfect Child Game.” He instructs the reader to finish the following sentence: “I want a child who . . .” My father then shares with the reader that when he did this exercise with me in mind, he said, “I want a child who is respectful, listens to me, is happy, is free and creative, is bright, is warm and loving, has good values.” He continued, “If I had had more time and had thought about what I was writing, I probably would have put down the same things but reversed their order. I was surprised to see that concern about my little girl’s behavior occurred to me before anything else (by the way, she is very well behaved).”1

    That was 1979. By the time we went to the conference in 2003, my father had written over forty books and workbooks and started a catalog that sold therapeutic books, games, and toys. Most of his books were self-published and sold through his catalog to schools and psychologists. Four of his books had been published by major houses, but he had never achieved the success of someone like Dr. Phil, a name I picked not at random but because my father particularly despises Dr. Phil (as do, incidentally, many others with Internet access, a facility with Photoshop, and access to a seemingly unlimited cache of devil-themed clip art). I often think of Dr. Phil as my father’s bizarro doppelgänger—a middle-aged, mustachioed psychologist who dispenses advice, but who has made a more prosperous living and is devoted to a pop psychology that my father not only disagrees with but feels is ethically irresponsible. My father would probably also point out here that he has more hair than Dr. Phil.

    At the conference, my father and I witnessed a pedagogy more befitting a tent revival than a classroom. Mark Victor Hansen proclaimed; his congregants exulted, swooned, and wept. Coming into contact with their tumescent, vigorous emotion made me feel alienated, but I also felt pangs of jealousy. I didn’t have anything in my life that I felt as passionate about. Even though I had recoiled from self-help and its myriad incarnations my entire life, my interest was piqued. What voodoo made the self-betterment crowd, here and everywhere, so devout? I wanted to know why people liked self-help so much, what it meant to them, whether it worked; and if it didn’t work, why people still craved it.

    It’s nearly impossible to live in the world and escape self-help. We are surrounded all the time by its bastard derivatives. In my local auto body shop, a yellowed sign hanging over the saddest couch in the world proclaims, WE CREATE OUR TOMORROWS BY WHAT WE DREAM TODAY. An e-mail in my in-box tells me to “take heart in this moment and know the best is yet to come.” A poster in my hardware store, of a kitten clinging to a tree branch, proffers three simple words: HANG IN THERE.

    These axioms may seem like throwaway items, mental tchotchkes that people use to shield themselves from the routine horrors of daily life. They may go unnoticed by us most of the time, but they exist in our peripheral vision, and I am one of those people who believes that we ingest these things accidentally, and that they must have some niggling, if not profound, effect on our psyches, with the most unfathomable consequences. These aphoristic posters and bumper stickers and signs and calendars and pens and e-mails and T-shirts and coffee mugs contain small but constant assurances that the point of view of the universe toward us is not one of overwhelming indifference.

    The use of self-help books is a form of bibliotherapy, the idea that a stack of pages between two stiff boards can serve as a therapeutic aid. Self-help books focus on topics affected by our psychology; a book on weight loss is a self-help book, whereas a book on computer programming is not. This can get confusing, however, when they appear together in series like The Complete Idiot’s Guide or For Dummies, and because they both use the formal conventions of how-to books.

    Self-help is a concept vast and vague enough to include my father’s books and board games and sweat lodges and est (a therapy from the 1960s my uncle once tried, where people yelled at you and you weren’t allowed to use the bathroom; when I asked him if it had been helpful he said he learned he could hold his urine for a very long time) and Chicken Soup for the Soul and Marcus Aurelius and fire walking and Esalen and corporate retreats and tree hugging and addiction support groups and success seminars and self-esteem classes and aspirational calendars that remind you to be the star of your own life. Self-help is so simultaneously debunked, adored, and ignored that it’s possible to assign any meaning to it you desire. If you hate self-help, it is an exercise in futility that robs fools of their money and dignity. If you love self-help, it is a structure for self-betterment, an opportunity for enlightenment.

    As you read this book, try to do something I myself could never quite accomplish: forget what you know, and how you feel, about self-help. Open yourself to the idea that it could be a useful, even necessary, social component; open yourself to the idea that it could also be deceitful and dangerous. Consider what could be beautiful, noble, or enslaving about aspirational living. Consider the possibility that your weird cousin who sends you affirmation-a-day calendars at Christmas may be on to something. Consider the notion that people who think the Omega Institute website is creepy have a point. Just because some self-help books don’t fulfill their promises doesn’t make the whole genre moronic and doomed. Self-help can be flaky, inarticulate, and illusory, but its longevity, its sheer consistency, suggests it might still have some value in our lives.

    Although individual self-help books can be simplistic, self-help itself is complex, contradictory, and hard to pin down. We resist lumping our own unique misery or transcendence with the dumb, hopeless problems of strangers; and at the same time we feel reassured that we are not alone. The concept appeals to our nationalistic notions of self-sufficiency; but the phrase “self-help” carries a stigma among intelligent, educated adults. I think this has something to do with the fact that there will undoubtedly come a time in every intelligent, educated adult’s life where they will be helpless and desperate, and this certainty is something we’d all prefer to ignore.

    When I began this project, I spent the first few years sitting diligently at the New York Public Library researching self-help books, visiting self-help groups, interviewing self-help purveyors. I amassed pages of notes, which I put into folders, which I put into files. I searched for a Definitive Stance. I began to think of self-help as an entity, an intractable adversary, an almost-being that had some type of relationship to me, a relationship that I was supposed to discern and describe. I wasn’t sure how this antagonistic plot was going to end, though it seemed there were limited options: one of us (me or self-help) was going to be revealed as the asshole, and for the sake of a happy ending I was rooting for self-help.

    Comprehending this world was less simple and straightforward than I had anticipated. No amount of pressure applied to stacks of self-help books, books about self-help books, or people who self-helped yielded any kind of satisfying clarity. Sometimes it seemed that the more I learned about self-help the more impenetrable it became. There were days when even the phrase sounded strange to me: “self-help,” I would mouth, as if, failing to wrap my brain around it, my lips would suffice. I was in a constant state of conflict, overwhelmed by paradox, and in search of a good fainting couch.

    Some of the groups and workshops I attended seemed useful and genuine; some didn’t. Some of the books I read I admired and enjoyed; some I didn’t. There was no truth waiting to be discovered. Eventually, I grew tired of searching, and that’s when I realized that I had been stalled at the threshold of something much more personal.

    Self-deception is the most intractable deception. I had become preoccupied with whether self-help was good or bad. Why was it so hated or loved? What possible light could old philosophical tracts and etiquette books from ancient Greece or the Victorian era shed on current-day self-actualization? These are problems the mind clings to, to avoid the mind’s real trouble. Looking back, it is hard to believe I could spend so much time reading centuries-old self-help books and comparing them to contemporary advice literature, oblivious to the conspicuous direction in which the subject matter was taking me. Yet it took at least four years of wading through copious, unwieldy piles of self-improvement books before I decided to start looking at books on grief, and that was when it began to dawn on me, in the protracted and bovine way that a personal blind spot comes into view, that I was headed toward a very uncomfortable, awkward, and painful conversation with my father.

    My mother died just before my second birthday. Instead of memories, I have photos, objects that once belonged to her, and other people’s stories. As a child, anytime I looked at a photo or tried on some of her jewelry, I found myself wanting more information. But despite my curiosity, I hated to ask my father about her. I noticed early on that whenever I asked about my mother he became very upset. I took his sadness as a sign that he didn’t want to talk; I also found it unbearable. Perhaps once a year the subject would come up naturally, at which point I felt intuitively like I could ask one or two questions. If I ever felt like my father was getting emotional, I changed the subject. Then I would wait another year. Talking about my mother was like looking at the sun; I knew I wasn’t supposed to do it, yet I kept sneaking peeks at it every now and then.

    In the course of writing this book I walked on hot coals; took a class on how to find a husband; met a man making a weight-loss robot; explained autoerotic asphyxiation to my father; talked to over thirty aspiring self-help writers (one of whom told me I could call him Dr. Huggy Bear, which I very much did not want to do); learned how to write a best-selling self-help book; helped a friend make a vision board; sold mental health products at an Asperger’s convention; watched incredibly depressing suicide-prevention videos on the Internet; joined a Healing Circle; ate breakfast with over a hundred grieving children; and faced my debilitating fear of flying.

    Of all these things, talking to my father about my mother was by far the hardest. My own ambivalence was the biggest obstacle to opening a door I’d kept shut, locked, and boarded up my whole life. A few years ago, I asked a researcher to find information about my mother, because it seemed easier than talking to someone, anyone, who actually knew her. The researcher’s name was also Jessica, which I found auspicious. She unearthed an obituary from a Washington, DC, paper and sent me a pdf. It was the first independent, hard evidence I had of my mother’s death. I was oddly elated. Of course it contained only the most generic information. The obit didn’t even say how she died, and must have been written by someone in my family, most likely my father. The researcher called the funeral home and was able to confirm my mother’s birth and death dates, information I hadn’t known—or maybe I had once asked about it and forgotten the answer.

    “Your mother was born on March 27th, 1948, and died on July 27th, 1979,” the other Jessica wrote me. “Her funeral service was held on Sunday, July 29th. They couldn’t give me any further information, as I’m not directly related, but it sounds like they may have more information concerning your mother and possibly more about how she died.”

    She gave me the phone number; I never called.

    1. It’s true; I am very well behaved.

  • Meet the Author

    Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has published fiction and non-fiction in The Believer, McSweeney’s, Open City, and Index magazine, among others. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She lives in New York City and Columbia County, NY.

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    Promise Land: My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Funny, informative and poignant. 
    mshoni More than 1 year ago
    I used to be an aficionado of self-help books. Working in a bookstore put all of them at my fingertips and I looked to them to make my life better. Needless to say, they didn't change my life completely, but I have picked up wisdom along the way that I find useful. Lamb-Shapiro takes on America's "pull yourself up by your bootstrap" culture by exploring some of the most popular books and seminars out there. Having grown up with a child psychologist father meant that she was already well-versed on the subject, but she wanted to go deeper and see what people are spending so much money on and why. Do these books, retreats, and seminars make us happier, improve our relationships, and increase our (self) worth? What comes to light as she makes this journey is that while her father has made a career of helping people discuss their feelings and trauma, the two of them have never broached the subject of her mother's death when Lamb-Shapiro was a toddler. I really enjoyed her foray into the world of self-help, especially The Rules seminar (which was hilarious), and I also liked being a voyeur into the healing of the author's own experience.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    How do you read the book that you buy?
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    It takes forever to load to read make it go faster now