Monday, January 12, 2015

Promise Land by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro

It’s January, the month for making resolutions to improve yourself. What do you think when you hear the term “self-help”? Do you want it? Do you fear it? Do you look down on those who need it? “All of us would probably like to be slimmer, smarter, richer, more popular, more successful,” notes Jessica Lamb-Shapiro in her book Promise Land (p. 207), in which she examines the self-help industry. Her father, Lawrence E. Shapiro, has written self-help books and raised her in an environment of positive thinking.

While working on the book, the author attended conferences, camps, and classes. She walked on coals and forced herself to fly despite her own fear.

Promise Land is humorous and a bit snarky, especially if you are at all skeptical of the self-help industry. If you are a particular fan of some of the books and franchises she mentions, like Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and the Chicken Soup series, you may not be quite as amused.  For example, she writes, “[t]he concepts in The Secret have been published in books that anyone can buy – and have bought, in the millions – for at least a hundred years. Furthermore, something you don’t know is not necessarily a secret; it’s just something you don’t know. For instance, I don’t know anything about rocket science, but that doesn’t make rocket science a secret.” (p. 123)

The author was considerably less snarky when discussing her own fear of flying and the self-help group she attended. I laughed along with her at some of the situations she covered, but others struck home with me. During an especially difficult time of his life, her father bought a diorama of a hospital room and spent time setting it up and playing with it at home. “I felt better,” he said. “It was a moment of epiphany. That was when I realized that toys could help people.” (p. 69) As a doll collector, I also believe that toys can help people.

The book did bring to my attention information I didn’t know or that hadn’t occurred to me. For example, the author quotes self-help author Martin Seligman, who points out that it is unusual “for people to have electric-outlet phobias or hammer phobias or chain saw phobias, even though those things pose actual dangers.” (p. 146) We are not most afraid of the things that are the most dangerous.

At times the author struck me as a bit lazy. She describes how The Sorcerer’s Apprentice section of the movie Fantasia made her anxious (p. 63). She remembers Mickey cutting a magic chair in half and the chair then multiplying.  In a footnote, she comments that her editor “thinks” it was a broom, not a chair, but neither the author nor the editor bothered to google it and find out? Maybe that’s laziness and maybe it’s self-indulgence, but I didn’t like it.

There is a thread of anxious melancholy running throughout the book. The author’s mother committed suicide when she was a child, at about the same age the author was when writing the book, and although the author has a close relationship with her father, they do not talk about her mother.  Her search for self-help brings her some closure.

Promise Land is a short book – just over 200 pages – and an easy read. If self-reflection and the subject of self-help interests you, I recommend it. It can be found at the Galesburg Public Library at 616.89 LAM.

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