In Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture Lamb-Shapiro walks the line between skepticism and belief, examining her own relationship with self-help culture.
When did your interest in self-help culture begin?
My father has been writing self-help books on parenting since I was a child, so for most of my life it was a subject that didn’t interest me. But when he signed up for a weekend conference with the author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, I was surprised. My father had published over 40 self-help books, but none had been a Chicken Soup–level success. It troubled me that this smart and accomplished man, himself a purveyor, was still vulnerable to the promises of self-help culture. All that he had accomplished was insufficient as long as improvements could be made. That dynamic in American culture—the interminable aspect of the American Dream—still fascinates me.
Your relationship with your father is very important to you. How has he reacted to your writing?
Early in my writing I asked him if there was anything that he didn’t want me to write about, because there was more than enough dark and painful material available. He said, “It’s your story; it’s not my story.” I offered him a copy to read during editing, and he passed. Now he has a galley, which I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read. I respect his right to not read or to take his time reading the book. I’m sure there are parts that will be as difficult for him to read as they were for me to write. That said, he’s very excited and proud that I wrote a book and that someone wanted to publish it.
How has writing this book changed you in regards to the idea of self-help?
The idea of and the practice of self-help are quite different. The idea is wonderful—the notion that we are self-sufficient, resilient, curious, and capable of improvement. The practice is more problematic. Self-help can be inspirational and useful, but it can also be inane and pernicious. Take fire walking. When people at self-help retreats walk on hot coals, they are told their feet won’t get burned if they “set an intention.” The real reason is simple physics. On the other hand, even if you understand the physics, it is still a challenging exercise, and an opportunity to interrogate your understanding of your own limitations, which is the basis for change.
In the end, what do you think self-help’s role is in our present society?
Self-help is a reflection of our aspirations, our fears, and our values. If you wander into the self-help section of a bookstore you get a good picture of where the culture is at any moment in time. On an individual level, I think it can offer comfort in difficult times. The trick is to strike a balance between relying on yourself and relying on others, so that you don’t disappear into a solipsistic black hole.