It’s not fair to lump self-helpers in with cultoids. I know this. Yet it’s hard not to notice that most self-help books, like most cults, do aspire to the level of religion. Read me carefully, their authors intone, voices heavy on the apostolic reverb, and I will show you the true path. Want a promotion? Better sex? Respect from your peers? Follow me and we’ll go there together. The threat of quitting these programs in midstream is like the threat of quitting Rogain: You’re back to square one, and that spiritual bald patch is beginning to take over your inner rain forest.
There is a funny flip side to my mistrust of the self-help industry, however. Like a lot of atheists, I secretly want to believe. My life is fucked up in a number of minor ways that don’t seem beyond repair, and when I’m reading self-help books — usually after an editor orders me to write a piece like this one — I often find myself genuinely (and humiliatingly) jazzed by them. I catch myself taking their advice and making little goal-oriented lists for myself: Write that novel! Exercise, you tub of lard! Call your poor Aunt Doofus in Ohio more often! Quit sleeping till noon! Don’t whack off so goddamn much! This enthusiasm lasts about a day. By then I’ve sunk back into a slough of despond and have ordered enough greasy Chinese take-out to medicate myself into the millennium.
What’s worse, an American male is often puzzled, right down to his gonads, about whether he’s really a man at all. Pale creatures of suburbia, we feel a pang while watching that “Seinfeld” episode where George and Jerry decide that they’re not men at all — they’re boys. Maybe that’s why we’re so bizarrely riveted, at 3 a.m., by the sight of Anthony Robbins striding a sound stage and explaining how to, in his words, “Wake up and take control of your life!” The last time I caught one of Robbins’ smarmy late-night success-a-thons, I was reminded of something Martin Amis wrote, in his book “The Moronic Inferno,” about Ronald Reagan’s performance at a 1979 campaign stop: “Watching him talk, his off-centred smile, his frown of concentration, his chest-swelling affirmations, you feel moved in that reluctant way you feel moved by bad art — like coming out of ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ denouncing the film with tears drying on your cheeks.” I’ve never cried while watching Anthony Robbins — just kill me if you come across me this way — but I know of what Amis speaks.
To read a pile — almost any pile — of self-help books is to be plunged into a sea of, as Amis might put it, really bad art. The world that unfolds is almost completely bare of respect for ideas, language, subtlety, ambiguity. But my reactions to the five books discussed here surprised me. I found myself responding to them in the way I respond to bad movies — that is, I developed a strong preference for straightforward hack work over overblown, “sensitive” cheese. I cheered Kentucky basketball (now Boston Celtics) coach Rick Pitino’s Boy Scout Handbook-like exhortations, in his current bestseller, “Success is a Choice,” to “establish good habits” and “learn from role models.” At the same time, I scorned New Age guru Keen’s efforts to lead me on a “soulful quest” or a “heroic journey,” as well as touchy-feely Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson’s stories about how he pumped up his team by covering the locker room walls with Lakota Sioux artifacts. Call me old-fashioned.
Keen’s and Jackson’s books are part of a relatively recent trend in self-help books for men. Influenced by Joseph (“The Power of Myth”) Campbell, Native American spirituality and Eastern religion, they’re written in almost direct response to the win-at-all costs, Vince Lombardi mentality that fills many of the “success” handbooks aimed at men — books with such heartwarming titles as “The Business Secrets of Attila the Hun.” Keen and Jackson write as much about friendships and relationships as they do about eviscerating the other team. Like Steven Seagal wearing black leather and trying to save the environment in the 1994 movie “On Deadly Ground,” they want to be sensitive and kick a little ass.
Keen’s message, when you strip away the hokum about the “pilgrimages into self,” is about staking out what he terms a New Virility — about stepping back from your job and your relationship and pondering what you really want out of life. American men haven’t learned the joy of solitude, he writes, and he suggests getting away from it all for a while and getting in touch with (inner and outer) wildness. While you’re sitting around the campfire, he gives you little mental jobs to do, such as taking the following mental quests: “From False Optimism to Honest Despair,” “From Cocksureness to Potent Doubt” and “From Having the Answers to Living the Questions.” If you can manage all this without knocking over the Coleman stove, all the better.
Jackson’s book, “Sacred Hoops,” covers some of the same ground (he approvingly quotes everyone from Carlos Castaneda to William James), but he’s more concerned with teamwork than personal journeys. Jackson sounds nothing like your typical NBA coach — certainly nothing like Pitino or Pat Riley, other coaches who have written gung-ho self-help tomes. “Love is the force that binds teams together,” Jackson coos, sounding like Barry White in sweat pants. “Winning is ephemeral.” We hear a lot about how he has come to “balance my masculine and feminine sides” (with a little help, one assumes, from friends like Dennis Rodman). He gets his players into meditation and visualization, and tries to teach “aggressiveness without anger.” These practices have probably helped the Bulls. Then again, it can’t hurt that Jackson can visualize Michael Jordan as his Plan B.
If you can put up with their straight-out-of-Santa Fe verbiage — Keen and Jackson don’t write purple prose, they write turquoise prose — there’s nothing inherently fallacious about anything these well-intentioned men have to say. And I find that I more resemble them in temperament and inclination than I do, say, Anthony Robbins. But whenever someone tells me they’re going to help me improve my soul, I shift my wallet to the front pocket and run like hell. It’s what a Roman Catholic childhood will do to you.
Reading books by basketball coaches, it’s hard not to pick up on some cheap irony in advice such as love can win you a championship (Jackson) or hard work can make you great (Pitino). All the love and sweat in the world didn’t help me — a very slow, very white and moderately short guy — make my high school varsity team. I imagine that women and minorities feel something similar when they push themselves in other areas only to find that, through no fault of their own, doors have been closed in their faces. This isn’t to suggest that love and hard work aren’t admirable traits; only that it can help to be 7-foot-1 and have arms as long as Olympic vaulting poles. Dogged persistence only pays off if you’ve chosen your goals and strategized wisely.
The success of books like Jackson’s and Pitino’s (and those of millions of other sports figures before them) makes you wonder: What is it about sports coaches that exerts such a pull on the masculine imagination? James Dickey dug around in this question in a great — if slightly blustery — poem called “The Bee,” about a father whose young child, frightened by a sting, is about to run onto a busy highway. Trying to get there in time, the father mentally calls out to his old Clemson backfield coach, Shag Norton, who exhorts him to get the lead out: “God damn/You, Dickey, dig.” Dickey’s narrator continues: “Dead coaches live in the air, son/Live in the ear/Like fathers, and urge and urge. They want you better/Than you are. When needed, they rise and curse you/They scream when something must be saved.”
The problem with idolizing most of these gifted screamers is that so few of them have lives that are actually worth emulating. Take Pitino, whose “Success is a Choice” is as good a 10-step program to crank up your career as any. (As a public service, here are his 10 steps, in order: Build Self-Esteem; Set Demanding Goals; Always Be Positive; Establish Good Habits; Master the Art of Communication; Learn from Role Models; Thrive on Pressure; Be Ferociously Persistent; Learn from Adversity; Survive Success.) Yet his family barely gets a passing mention in his book. He dresses like a slick, fussy salesman. He seems about as deep as a TV anchorman. He cites Pierce Brosnan as a potential role model. Do I really want to be like this man? Yet I found that his boilerplate, Franklin-esque advice (early to bed, early to rise, etc.) rang more true to me than anything Keen or Jackson had to say.
I’ve always been an admirer of Franklin’s “The Autobiography,” a self-help essay couched in the form of a letter to his son. Franklin can sound a tad stuffy at times (“I never went out afishing or shooting; a book, indeed, sometimes debauched me from my work, but that was seldom, snug, and gave no scandal …”), but his work is so full of wit and wordplay, good humor and good sense that it’s just about irresistible. It’s everything a book of advice should be.
I hadn’t seen an epistolary self-help narrative like Franklin’s in bookstores for a while, so I couldn’t resist picking up Charlton Heston’s new foray into the genre, “To Be a Man: Letters to My Grandson.” Having just spent a terrifying hour with this book in my lap, I have just a small amount of my own advice to dispense: Should you ever meet Heston’s grandson, Jack — who is damned cute, if the book’s multiple photos are to be believed — a few years down the line, be prepared to flee. Because granddaddy’s been pumping the poor kid with bile, if not yet actively supplying him with sidearms.
“To Be a Man” takes wild and gratuitously vicious swipes at dozens of targets, from gays and feminists (aka the “Amazons at N.O.W.”) to Hillary Clinton and public assistance. A typical passage reads thusly: “Somewhere in the busy pipeline of public funding is sure to be a demand from a disabled lesbian on welfare that the Metropolitan Opera stage her rap version of ‘Carmen’ as translated into Ebonics.” I won’t even get into Heston’s zeal for handguns. “To Be a Man” may be the most aggressive and mistrustful book aimed at children that’s ever been published.
Now that I’m a few weeks away from becoming a father myself, I’ve been thinking about the kind of advice I’d like to pass along to my own child. I’ll probably be tempted to say something like: “Son, if you feel a ‘fire in the belly,’ take an antacid.” Or: “If you’re tempted to ‘awaken the giant within,’ keep Timothy McVeigh in mind.” But what I’ll really say is this (to borrow a phrase from Ben Franklin): If you’re going to debauch your life with books, why not make them real ones?