Interview: Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, Author Of 'Promise Land' Despite being the daughter of a child psychologist and self-help author, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has spent most of her life recoiling from the self-help industry. But eventually, her curiosity got the best of her. She tells Fresh Air about self-help's high- and low-brow iterations and the ways the industry helped her address her fears.

Skeptic Takes A Tour Of Self-Help's 'Promise Land'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When I first started doing interviews on the radio it was thrilling to be able to talk with authors, but many of the authors I had access to were self-help writers on book tours. So I read a lot of self-help early on and some of those books really started to bother me - the ones that had simple formulas.

They promised results in 10 easy steps or 30 days to every goal - having thinner thighs, landing a spouse, having a great sex life in or out of marriage, starting a new life after the marriage ends, climbing the corporate ladder while dressed for success, and of course, finding inner peace.

So I was very interested in reading the new book "Promised Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture." The author, my guest Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, is the daughter of a child psychologist who's written about 40 self-help books, many self-published, none that became big sellers. She writes that even though she had recoiled from self-help her entire life, she 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 a very funny and observant book that takes an emotional turn when she starts writing about a tragedy in her family. Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a short reading from your book "Promised Land" with you doing that short reading, not me.


GROSS: So this is just a short take of yours on self-help.

JESSICA LAMB-SHAPIRO: Yeah. This is from the very beginning. 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.

GROSS: Where do you fit in?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Oh, gosh. Somewhere in the middle. I think when I started the book I was more to the hating self-help and thinking it was an exercise in futility. I think I forced myself to try to be more open-minded as I worked on the book and I came to see how it could be an opportunity for self-betterment and even for enlightenment.

GROSS: So I think that there's a lot of reality shows and infomercials that fall into the self-help category now. Would you agree with that?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: I would agree with that. People seem to be interested in self-improvement and so much of self-help is about buying things, so it makes sense that infomercials and reality shows, which tend to sell things, are part of that. And I think that that's one of the ways that it just seeps into our lives. Because you can be exposed to an infomercial in passing or watch a reality TV show and you might not think that you're engaging in self-help but you're still being exposed to a lot of the ideas and values of it.

GROSS: Oh, and as you point out, there's so many, like, shops and offices and stuff that you come in and there's just like little aphorisms all over the place about how you can improve your life and have a better attitude. What are some of your favorites?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: One of my favorites is first the image on the cover of the cat hanging from the rope - hang in there. That's something that I spent a lot of time thinking about. Because I'm really interested in the way that these messages are both completely meaningless but also once had a meaning and whether or not that meaning can be resurrected in any way or found again.

One day at a time is another one that I like because I think it has a lot of meaning but it's also lost a lot of meaning just through repetition. And it's so familiar to us. And also one of my dad's favorites was: Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Which, if you think about it, totally true, great idea, but when it's said to you every morning the way it was with me, it tends to kind of lose some of the meaning.

GROSS: Well, that gets to the larger point of how you ended up writing the book. Your father wrote self-help books. And when you were growing up you were even the child model for a self-help catalogue that he'd done. So would you mind describing the kinds of self-help books your father wrote?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Yeah. My dad is a child psychologist and he wrote mostly parenting books. And he was into something that became called play therapy. I don't know if you've ever said - there was a store right off of South Street for a while where we grew up in Philadelphia called Child's Work, Child's Play and he owned that store.

And he used to send me out onto South Street dressed as a clown with balloons to try to get people to come. Because South Street is the main drag so people didn't necessarily go to the side streets. So that was one of the many sort of humiliating experiences of my young life where I was involved in helping my dad advertise his products.

But they were all - you know, when my dad told me he was opening a toy store, I was so excited because I thought it was going to be Toys R' Us.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: And then it was this store filled with cooperative games and anatomically correct dolls and handicapped dolls. I had a frog, a stuffed frog, that was in a wooden wheelchair which was, like, the most uncomfortable thing to cuddle with.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: These were like barely toys.

GROSS: I'm laughing about it but these are probably great for people who want or need them. You know what I mean?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: No, absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: I mean, yeah. I mean, that was sort of the idea is that they were educational. But they were not fun, sadly, for me.

GROSS: So did you have friends who had toys like this?


GROSS: But you did? You grew up with these?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: I think my friends had a similar experience where I would say my dad owns a toy store and they would all be so excited and then they would come up and they would say oh. We've never heard of any of these games.

GROSS: So...

LAMB-SHAPIRO: And didn't want to play them.

GROSS: So when you are growing up, did your father practice the parenting advice that he gave in his books?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: I think he did. Because he was really into playing as a means of talking about problems and - but in a sense, we didn't actually do that. We just played the games. We didn't necessarily - we played them almost kind of ironically. Like my dad knew that they were a little silly and that I thought they were a little dumb so he didn't really engage with me in the serious way that a therapist using the game might engage with a child who was the patient.

We just sort of played them sort of for fun, which was a little bit futile because they weren't that fun.

GROSS: Give us an example of one of those games.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: There's a game that was probably the most famous of the games he carried in the 1970s, which is not saying much, and it was called the Ungame. Which already, just from the title, you can tell that it's not fun.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: And it's billed as a game to aid family communication. So you would pick cards and, you know, it sort of had all the trappings of the game like there were cars that you would pick and there was a board but that was about it. You know, you'd sort of move in spaces along this board but along the way you would have to answer thoughtful questions about the relationships in your family.


GROSS: I can't say I ever played that when I was growing up. I don't think games like that existed when I was growing up.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, you missed out.

GROSS: Yeah. It was like Clue and Monopoly.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Yeah. Except with feelings.

GROSS: Yeah, right.


GROSS: So how did you decide that you actually wanted to write a book about self-help?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: It came about completely by accident. I mean, I think if you had asked me 10 years if I wanted to write a book about self-help I would've said that's the last thing I want to write a book about. And maybe it's an illustration of the ways that your unconscious can sort of lead you towards things that you need to talk about. My dad told me one day that he was going to a conference for self-help writers and the whole idea of this just sounded very strange to me.

It was going to be 600 people in Atlanta who all wanted to write self-help books and it was being taught by a very famous self-help author who had been very successful in a way that my dad never had been. He had published books and he had self-published books, but he had never reached that mass market appeal that some of the names that you've heard of. People have TV shows. You know, he never reached that level.

So I think he thought that maybe there was something, some secret to success that he didn't have that he could gain from going to this weekend conference. And it was only a weekend so, you know, no big deal either way. So he asked me if I wanted to go. And, you know, when I was a kid my dad and I used to do stuff like this together. We would put a bunch of his games in this van we called Big Blue.

It was a big blue van. And we would drive down to a convention where there would be therapists and we would try to sell them, you know, the cooperative game. So it was, like, not that different from things that I did with my dad as a child. So it in no way seemed strange. When I got there, I realized how strange it was. It was a huge conference - like I said, 600 people. And within two hours, people were crying. They were doing really strange things like drawing smiley faces on each other's index fingers and saying, I see that's you. And there was a real revival, religious quality to it that completely took me by surprise. You know, I think that because I, I had sort of had this peripheral relationship to self-help, but I had never really read a self-help book and I had never been to any kind of conference like that. I was completely blown away by, like, the level of emotion and investment that people had that I couldn't really connect to. And I think the thing that seeing emotion at this conference was sort of what led me to write an article about it and then from the article came the book.

GROSS: You wanted to understand why this was happening?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Yeah. I just found it so strange.

GROSS: So what's some of the advice that the famous self-help author was giving to the self-help authors and would-be self authors who had paid to attend the seminar - the kind of advice that was moving them to tears?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: A lot of it was just inspirational stories. He told the story of how he had come to be a self-help author. And the classic narrative of an inspirational story is that somebody starts from a very low place, you know, they've lost their job, they have no friends, everybody in the neighborhood had died. I mean sometimes it's really that extreme. And then they have an idea and they put in some hard work and then they achieve an amazing goal. And I think that in a way we're really hard-wired to respond to that kind of story, we just project ourselves into that situation and it just immediately makes you feel hopeful about your own potential and your own situation. So I think that just by telling us the story of his success, everybody got really excited about the idea that they could replicate that success.

And then he told us a bunch of other stories, like the story of how "Rocky" was made. He told us that Sylvester Stallone wrote "Rocky" in three days. He told us that it was turned down by every major Hollywood producer. He told us that some - someone wanted to cast Robert Redford as Rocky, which just shocked people. Everybody was like, oh, no.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: Really? People were so horrified by that idea - that he sold it for no money on the condition that he could play the lead. And then he said, like literally, at the end of the story, did you know that David fought Goliath with only one stone? So he literally went from one inspirational story to another one that we are all familiar with. And people at just got, they were just getting so excited and so pumped up by hearing, you know, oh my god, it's Rocky, it's Sylvester Stallone, but like he started out with nothing and it could have gone so wrong. And I think this kind of thing just really made people feel very hopeful about what they could achieve.

GROSS: So this gets to exactly what one of the things that makes me uncomfortable about self-help, it takes the person who is the exception that proves the rule and makes the exception that proves the rule, the rule. In other words, like, this person had an exceptional experience. They wrote something with no experience, everybody turned them down and then they had this huge success - which means that you can do that too. But the point is, what makes that story exceptional is that very few people who get turned down finally get accepted like that. You know, it's not the typical story; it's unlikely it's going to happen to you.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: That's definitely true. It's just illogical that everybody can achieve greatness. That's the - the whole idea of greatness is that it's not achieved by many people. And yet, these inspirational stories just encourage us to think well, I might be that exception. So even though logically, we know that we can't all be the exception, it's just sort of enough hope to hang onto. And I think in some ways we do all feel that where the exception. You know, we live life completely subjectively through our own experience and we all feel that we're unique and special, and so that just appeals to that wish that we have to be unique and extremely successful.

GROSS: And I want to point out something else that bothers me about a certain type of self-help book or self-help approach. And you mentioned in the book that the leader of this self-help seminar for self-help writers said, don't be a tire kicker. If you're a tire kicker, you won't get anything out of this. And my problem with that is, like a lot of self-help books tell you don't be skeptical about the advice I'm giving you because that skepticism is going to stand in the way of your accomplishing what you want to do. But you're reading some of these books and you're just filled with skepticism and, you know, turning it off means approach this uncritically, and why would you approach anything uncritically like that? You know, you should be - I don't...

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Yeah, I completely agree with you.

GROSS: Yeah.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: I mean that is a huge problem that I had with it. And if you think about it, it's really genius, because it basically blaming you if it doesn't work.

GROSS: Exactly.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: And so it's not saying, you know...

GROSS: Exactly.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: ...if this doesn't work, I guess I had a bad idea. It's saying no, if this doesn't work, you didn't try hard enough and you didn't do well enough. So in a sense, it becomes a completely closed system.

GROSS: Like if you don't believe in me, that's your flaw.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Exactly. Like only you can fail; the system can't fail.

GROSS: Right.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: And so, in a weird way, I respect it evil genius, but I don't think it's particularly fair or thoughtful.

GROSS: My guest is Jessica Lamb-Shapiro. And her new book is called "Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the culture of self-help. My guest is Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, who is the author of the new book, " Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture." And she approaches a lot of self-help culture really skeptically - even though her father has written maybe 40 self-help books, none of which are very famous. But she grew up with self-help culture and she skeptical of it, at the same time, really understands and respects that it's very helpful to a lot of people and some of it was even helpful to her.

Give a lot of money to be made in self-help, and not everybody gets to that point. Like your father wrote a lot of self-help books. He never became a self-help guru.


GROSS: He never - like he said, he never had the TV show; he never had a big bestseller. But for the people who do, it's very lucrative. Can you just give us a sense of the amount of money that you think the person who led the self-help seminar for self-help authors made at the seminar?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: My dad and I talked about this and we came up with a figure of $200,000. We were sort of calculating the admission's fees of everybody. And then, part of why this was so lucrative, so everybody paid $1,000 to be there, so that's 600 people. But then at the seminar, they were also selling us more things. So they were selling at more programs and there was some sort of special insider program that you could do within that was $10,000. And there was another one that was even more access to him, you know, private conversation with him that was $15,000. So neither my dad and I are particularly good at math, but we sort of guesstimated that it was around 200,000 for one weekend, which is a pretty good haul.

GROSS: That's pretty good.


GROSS: You went to another self-help seminar by a famous author, and it's about how to find and marry a man.


GROSS: Where were you romantically in your life at that point?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: I believe I was single. I can't exactly remember.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: But, yeah, I'm pretty sure I was single.

GROSS: So you could've used some advice? What did you feel like you wanted any advice?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Yeah. I could've used some advice. You know I'm...

GROSS: Was this purely like a research exercise or were you hoping to like get some good advice?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Yeah. You know, it was mostly a research exercise. But I was actually in high school when this book came out. And for some reason something about it really appealed to me. I was too embarrassed to buy it, but it just held kind of a promise. I guess what appealed to me was the idea that you could manipulate other people to doing what you wanted.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: That held a lot of appeal. And I just thought, you know, I kind of want to read this book and see what the secret is - even though I also kind of didn't believe that that kind of thing existed. So 10 years after that, I think maybe it still held a little bit of that appeal. You know, in a way, the more outrageous or rare the promise is, the more you sort of want to believe it. I don't know exactly why that is, but I found that.

GROSS: So what was some of the advice you were given about how to find and marry a man?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: I mean it was basically to play hard to get. Then it was extremely specific about how to do that. One thing that stuck out from the advice was that, you're only - if a man calls you you're never supposed to call a man. If a man happens to call you, you're only allowed to talk to him on the phone for 10 minutes.


GROSS: Excuse me.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: It actually suggested you, you set a timer. And I was thinking like what happened after 10 minutes, let you just hang up? You like pretend there was a fire?


LAMB-SHAPIRO: So that was a really strange advice. And then you basically have to keep up appearances that you're this perfect woman. So you always have to wear makeup. You always have to look nice. You know, you should have plastic surgery if you need plastic surgery. You know, I mean just sort of present - they said, one of the things that made me laugh was that they said that if a man comes over to your apartment, you should hide things like dirty bathrooms, medications, and self-help books, including this self-help book.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: So it was weird that they were sort of acknowledging the shame of their own enterprise, but it didn't seem to bother them at all that that was just part of, you know, you want to seem like somebody who doesn't use self-help book, and that's just part of the whole mirage that you're presenting of the perfect woman who is extremely aloof and that supposedly, will drive men wild.

GROSS: OK. What bothers me about that is that it's giving the man off the power.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Where do you want to start?

GROSS: It seems like it's giving the woman the power because it's telling her you can't see him on the nights. And you won't let him see you on these nights; you won't let him talk to you for more than 10 minutes. But the whole thing is by giving the man the power to judge whether he wants or not. It's not about whether you want him and whether you - when do you want to see him? How long do you want to talk? That's irrelevant. It's all about getting him to do something and to have a positive evaluation of you.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Right. And the something is getting married.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Right.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: It definitely seems to be mostly about getting married and...

GROSS: When he could see how horribly you look without makeup and that you could talk forever. Not just a minute.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: Right because they - what bothers me about that is that you then would have to keep that to sign up for a lifetime, which just sounds exhausting...


LAMB-SHAPIRO: ...or your marriage would just immediately be revealed as a lie because all of a sudden there you are, you know, wearing sweatpants and no makeup and reading self-help books. And the guy is like, you know, who did I marry? So neither of those scenarios seem like particularly hopeful to me.


GROSS: Did you try any of this?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: You know, every once in a while I would think that I should, but I really don't have enough self-discipline myself to act like that. You know, when I went to the seminar, I was already breaking a lot of the rules that they had set forth. I was wearing sweatpants, they were covered in dog hair. I was not wearing makeup.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: And I didn't really think about this because it is always how I dress, you know, I work from home. There's really no point in getting dressed. Sometimes I wear my pajamas all day. But once I got there, I was in a room full of like impeccable women - hair done, nails done, lipstick, great clothes, high heels, and then I really felt like a slob. But despite that, I really did never make the effort.

GROSS: Jessica Lamb-Shapiro will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, author of the new book, "Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture." She's the daughter of a child psychologist who's written about 40 self-help books, many self-published, none became big sellers. She writes that even though she recoiled from self-help her entire life, she 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 crave it.

It's easy to mock self-help approaches when they're dealing with problems that you don't really have, or you're not really looking to self-help to solve. But you went to one self-help class for a genuine problem, and you really wanted help with it. And I'm referring to a fear of flying class. You have a phobia about flying. It would be great, I'm sure for you, if you were able to fly to places without that much anxiety, or if you were even able to fly to places.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: Yeah, I mean, I actually love traveling, so the fact that I wasn't flying was a serious obstacle. I have a lot of friends that travel. They were always inviting me on really fantastic vacations, and then sending me pictures of, you know, their time in Greece and the beautiful beaches.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: It was really difficult for me, you know, to feel so afraid. Because at that point, to me, it was a choice between going to Greece - which I wanted to do -or dying, which I really didn't want to do.


GROSS: I mean, I just, you know, so I was, like, you know what? I'll give up Greece, because I'd rather live.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: But that was just the sort of the underlying thought of the fear, was, like, I will die if I get on a plane. And it was just that stark. So going to this class was actually really helpful for me. Part of it was desensitization. We would meet at an actual airport every week, and we would talk for about an hour and learn about flying and why it works, and that information was really helpful. Sometimes a pilot would come, and he would tell us exactly what pilots do and what all the funny noises are.

They even had a handout that was, like, seven pages long of all funny noises on a plane and all the explanations for the funny noises, which just gives you a window into how people who are afraid of flying think. We're very vigilant people.

So, you're just sitting there, waiting for something to go wrong. And so you hear a noise, and you're, like, what's that? What's that? Is that the plane failing? Is that the engine failing? You know, and we all have very active imaginations, so it's not hard to imagine that you're in a dangerous scenario, when basically all they've done is, like, turn the engine on. And when the pilot would come, we would just barrage him with the most insane questions. I mean, the ones that I asked didn't sound insane to me. Everybody else's sound insane.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: But, you know, like, well, how do you know that wings can fall off the plane? The pilot almost didn't know what to say, because to him, it was such an absurd question. But he was very patient and very kind with us.

GROSS: I should mention the question about the wings falling off was not your question.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: That was not my question. No...


LAMB-SHAPIRO: I had gone to an earlier class, and I had experienced this before, where there was sort of a hierarchy or fear. I mean, you would think that class full of phobics would be sympathetic to each other, but for some reason, all of our fears about flying were very specific.

And so I was afraid of turbulence, and anything related to turbulence, I took so seriously, and I would just be so sympathetic to that person and I would just eagerly await the pilot's answer. But then some people were afraid of the wings falling off the plane. And I just thought, well, God, that's dumb. Like, why would that ever happen? Or some people just thought, well, the plane might just fall out of the sky. And I would just look at them like, well, that's crazy. Why would that happen?

And there was another woman who thought we were going to run out of oxygen, like, she just felt like that there wasn't enough oxygen in the plane. Again, that was not one of my fears, so I just thought - and I could tell the other people who didn't feel that fear feeling the same way. We were just looking at each other, like, God, you're crazy. But, you know, when it came around to our fear, turbulence, it was like, yes, that is very serious. That is a total threat.


GROSS: One of the goals of the class that you took to overcome the fear of flying was to convince you that your fear is irrational. You're more likely to die in a car accident than have something go wrong when you're flying. But did you find it helpful to know that your phobia was probably irrational?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: I did. I found that really helpful. And, you know, even though everyone else's phobia sounded irrational to me, it took me a while to really believe that my phobia was irrational. Because one thing that happens with phobias is that you have a logical brain, and your logical brain understands the statistics and you don't think people are lying when they cite those car-crash-versus-plane-crash statistics. But your body reacts in this physiological fight-or-flight way.

So part of you thinks, well, why am I sweating and feel like I'm going to pass out if there's no danger? So there must be danger. And so a lot of it is kind of trying to battle between your logical brain and your irrational nervous system. They're sort of in conflict with each other. And so I think the more information that you can give your logical, rational brain, the better chance it stands to sort of defeating your crazy amygdala, which is the part of your brain that is making you feel nervous.

GROSS: So, did this work? Did you fly, and can you flying now?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: I did fly at the end of the class, which was a shock to me. I did not think that that was going to happen. After that, I didn't fly for a while. I think I got a little bit phobic again, but then recently, I took a trip to Paris. And I did take some...

GROSS: Yay. Bravo.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: It was very exciting. I did take some medication. But, I mean, I couldn't even fly with medication before. I was too afraid to make a plane reservation. So that was - and that was a lot easier than it used to be. So I feel, in some way, that the class was definitely a success for me.

GROSS: It must have been interesting in the class when you flew with a whole plane load of other phobic flyers.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: I was actually terrified of that, and I didn't end up going on that flight. I ended up going on a flight the next week. I sort of chickened out on that flight. Part of my thing was, like, I just thought, you know, I could see the news headline, like...


LAMB-SHAPIRO:, "Group of Fearful Flyers Dies in Plane Crash." You know, it just seemed too tempting to the universe. So I really did not want to fly with other phobic people. I also just thought, on some level, like, you know, some of them I thought were little bit more fearful than me. They seemed to have other fears. There were some agoraphobia. Some people were afraid of driving, as well. So I kind of thought like their fears with transfer onto me, in some way.

I ended up showing up at the airport that morning, but there was some sort of messiness with the flight. It got canceled, and then we were able to get on another flight. And I just thought - it didn't take much, and I sort of chickened out and went home. But then I felt really badly about it, because I didn't want to fly. So I ended up going back the next week with another person from the class. It was just the two of us and a woman who had been a counselor in the class. And that was a really good experience.

But it was funny, you know, we just - we went - we flew to Boston. We had a bagel. We came back.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: It's, like, flying just to fly. We just were going nowhere. That was - I mean, also going to the airport every week without bags. We were wearing name tags and we're on this big group, like, I can imagine what the people at the airport thought we were doing. But they were all staring at us, like, who are these people?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jessica Lamb - Shapiro. She's the author of the new book "Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture."

Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about self-help, and what is good about it and what's really annoying about it. My guest is Jessica Lamb-Shapiro. She's the author of the new book "Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture." And her father is a child psychologist who's written a lot of self-help books, although they never reached the kind of fame that some self help books and self-help authors reach. So for this book she went to various self-help seminars, read like the history of the self-help genre.


GROSS: And so let's talk a little bit about the history of the self-help genre. What are some of the classics that you went back and read - that you actually found pretty interesting?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Well, I have to say the history of the self-help genre is the thing that really made me feel like it was worth writing about. I just found it so fascinating and just the fact that - I mean I basically was able to trace it back to ancient Egypt. And so I thought this is something that's been with us for so long, like it must be important. So...

GROSS: What was it - what was the ancient, like, you too can become a pharaoh.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: Actually, it wasn't called that, but that was the message because it was a pharaoh that had written this book of advice for his son.

GROSS: Really?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Yeah. So basically he was saying to his son, you too can become a pharaoh, and other people read it. I suppose maybe they also wanted to be a pharaoh. So, yeah, amazingly accurate guess.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: There were some ancient Greek texts, the Stoic philosophers, Seneca. Marcus Aurelius wrote a book called "Meditations," which actually, I mean it's a book of philosophy, but it's sold in the self-help section. You know, there's a way in which philosophy tells us how to live our lives and self-help books tell us how to live our lives, so you know, we tend to think of philosophy as a really lofty territory and self-help books as a really ridiculous lowbrow territory. And I think that the language that they use and some of the ideas reflect that but, you know, there's some base level where they're kind of trying to do the same thing, which why something like ancient Greek philosophy can be sold in the self-help section.

So Marcus Aurelius wrote this book called "Meditations," and Stoic philosophy - if you're not familiar with it - it really reminded me of don't sweat the small stuff - which is a completely, again, this is a good illustration of sort of highbrow/lowbrow. You know, Marcus Aurelius has this really poetic language, but his message is more or less, don't sweat the small stuff. Whereas the Richard Carlson book "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff" - which was a huge bestseller, you know, in a sense has the same message but it just doesn't sound good, it sounds kind of silly, it sounds kind of offhand. But I really loved Marcus Aurelius's book because his basic point was, we're all going to die, and that was kind of his answer to everything. So, are you having a fight with your neighbor? Doesn't matter. We're all going to die. Did you lose your job? Doesn't really matter. Your boss is going to die and you're going to die. Were all going to die.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: And it was kind of, I was thinking, god, this is so depressing. But, you know, in a way it was also, did make me feel better and it does kind of put things in this perspective of like, life is much bigger, and it goes on and, you know, don't worry about having a fight with your neighbor because life is very ephemeral. And he would say, you know, here are some of the quotes: Remind yourself constantly of all the physicians now dead. Love that.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: Hippocrates killed the ills of many, but he himself took ill and died. Yesterday, a drop of semen, tomorrow, a handful of Spicer ashes. That really puts it in perspective.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: And this is just very to the point: Very soon you will be dead.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: So this was kind of entertaining for me in a weird way because I have a strange that the humor. But, you know, when you think about it, it makes a kind of sense and it does have the ability to make you feel better - in a really depressing way.

GROSS: Well, no, I understand exactly what you're saying. I mean there is something strangely liberating about thinking that life is brief, it ends, you're just, you know, a speck.


LAMB-SHAPIRO: Right. Exactly. Don't sweat the small stuff.

GROSS: Don't sweat the small stuff. Right.


GROSS: So we've been talking about self-help and like why you wrote the book and the self-help genres that you explored, the books that you read and so on. And you enter this very skeptical of self-help, even though your father is a self-help author, among other things. But at some point you realized that there was something in your life that really needed addressing in addition to your fear of flying, and that is that, you know, your mother died when you were about to turn two. She was born in 1948, died in 1979. And you never really knew exactly what happened and your father always seemed very reluctant to talk about it. At first you thought that she died in a car accident and then as you got older, you realize that it was suicide and that she jumped off a bridge. But then maybe it was while you were writing this book that you learned...

LAMB-SHAPIRO: No. It was before.

GROSS: It was before that - that you learned how she really died. I'd like you to tell what you learned about how she died and tell us the impact that that information had on you.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: I later learned that she had jumped off more of an overpass into a park. The difference for me being, something about the water - just that the body would disappear and, you know, with hard ground, that just seemed so much more violent. And that was very upsetting for me to hear. But it was also just upsetting to think that I had pictured it wrong for so many years. I mean it was maybe 15 years that I was sort of in my mind picturing her jumping off a bridge, you know like the Golden Gate Bridge or something. And it's not like I thought about it often, but when I did think about it, that's how I thought about it. And then I got this new information that that's not actually the specific way it happened. And so I think it was the fact of it was upsetting, the image was very upsetting, but also the fact that I hadn't known just made me feel like I didn't, like I still didn't understand this thing. You know, not that it's completely understandable anyway, but it was just really disturbing to me to have envisioned it one way and then to find out 10, 15 years later that I had envisioned it completely wrong.

GROSS: I know somebody who committed suicide by jumping out of like a fifth or sixth story window. And I found that, I thought about that a lot when I was reading your book. I found that to be just a particularly upsetting form of suicide to learn about, because it seems self-punishing in a way that not all suicides do. Like, if you take pills maybe you're feeling sick for a little while. I don't know this from experience, so I might be wrong.

But it's always struck me as somebody who has not tried to take her life, that pills can be a kind of quiet way of checking out but if you jump off a fifth story window or a bridge onto hard pavement, then it seems so self-punishing. You have this time to think for a couple of seconds as you're going down and maybe second-guess yourself.

And then you have to think that there's going to be at least that moment of impact when it's really going to hurt. And what if you survive, even if it's just a few seconds and you're lying there on the pavement in agony? I just really can't comprehend how somebody would choose that as a way of taking their life. And I'm wondering if you had thoughts like that too about how self-punishing it is.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: I did. I mean, I basically can't watch any kind of TV show or movie where somebody jumps out of a window. It's just too upsetting for me. And I've also had that thought about, you know, it seems like pills or even like a gunshot, it would be so immediate, but with falling you might have this moment where you might change your mind and it would be too late.

And sometimes I think that and I just get the most fearful feeling. You know, it's also very public. You know, I don't know what that means to the person doing it, but it seems to have a different meaning than doing something at home in private. Yeah, those are...

GROSS: Right. Because somebody's going to find your broken body. There might be a crowd gather around your broken body.


GROSS: They will see it and it will be very upsetting for them to see it.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, I think that people who commit suicide are not in their right mind, so I think it's hard to apply the kind of logic that we might have right now.

GROSS: I think that's a really important point. Yes. I'm glad you said that.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: You know, who knows what they're thinking and what kind of logic it is. And it's basically a kind of crazy state. But, yeah, you can't help but be in our position and wondering about those choices. And it is very hard to understand.

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Jessica Lamb-Shapiro and her new book is called "Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture." Let's take a break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us my guest is Jessica Lamb-Shapiro. We're talking about her new book "Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture." Her father is the author of many self-help books - they're not famous books - he's a child psychologist. She grew up with self-help culture but she approaches this book with a lot skepticism and humor, although there are aspects of self-help culture that she thinks are actually very useful and effective.

One of the fears that you had since your mother committed suicide in her early 30s you might too. And you, you know, we're talking about self-help. That's what your book is about, it's kind of like your really ambivalent relationship with self-help. And you actually read a self-help book that you found really helpful. And I want you to tell us about that book and how it helped you.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: If I could try to explain the fear first, because it was so strange.

GROSS: Sure. Yeah.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: And maybe it was because there was so much about suicide itself that I didn't understand that it seemed to be this world of crazy logic. And that made sort of anything possible. So I had this fear that something might happen to me when I was around the age my mother had been when she killed herself that would cause me to do the same thing.

You know, by accounts that I had heard, she was not a depressive person and it had kind of come on suddenly after a car accident. And so I just thought, you know, what if that happens to me? And in fact, I did get hit by a car. And her sister called me and said, you know, well, we wanted to make sure you're OK because, you know, your mother killed herself after her car accident.

And I just, like, almost hung up on her because I was so frightened. You know, it just really scared me. And I think she was well meaning but that was maybe not the right thing to say to somebody who just had a head injury. And, you know, it wasn't something that I thought about a lot but it just was this kind of feeling I had and it just felt like a premonition.

And when I read this book there was information in it that told me that 90 percent of women whose mothers kill themselves have the same fear that they will somehow just be led to kill themselves. And as soon as I read that, I felt better. I mean, just knowing that. I thought 90 percent, that's like almost everybody. You know? Like that just made me feel like it was a normal thought to have and if it was a normal thought to have then it wasn't a premonition.

And then it just completely went away. And so that was a way in which I found that self-help books, just through giving information, could be so valuable. Because, you know, again, it wasn't something that I spent all my time thinking about. I thought about it pretty rarely but, you know, it was a little bit of a death sentence hanging over my head in a sense. And to have that fear alleviated was a great feeling.

And just the fact that it happened so quickly with that information I found pretty amazing.

GROSS: So normalizing a thought that you thought was really kind of aberrant and also predictive of what would happen, normalizing that was really helpful.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: It was really helpful. I mean, I think because it was so aberrant that was why I thought it was predictive. And also, I didn't tell anyone about it because, A, I didn't want to upset anyone and also I just thought, well, this is a crazy thought. But in some ways the fact that it was a crazy thought made me think it was true.

GROSS: Right. So this book was really helpful. At the same time, you were really turned off by the book jacket copy. And I want to read a line from that which you quote in the book. That the book is a courageous journey into the heart of a woman's most profoundly life-altering passage. And I have this problem too, that, like, when writing turns a really kind of serious, complex thought or feeling into something that sounds like a real cliché.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Ugh. It drives me crazy.

GROSS: Yeah. Because you feel like, no, no, this thought really means something. This thought matters. But once you package it into the cliché it's like it takes all of the meaning, all of the life, all the complexity out of it.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Yeah. No, absolutely. And, I mean, the cover kind of had that sort of wistful, soft focus, you know, mother-daughter picture and I just - I hated everything about that book. In fact, I had it for about three months before I would even open it. I almost just resented its existence. So it was pretty funny to me later on that it did end up being helpful to me.

GROSS: So now I'm going to do something really horrible.



GROSS: You ready? OK?


GROSS: Don't take this the wrong way.


GROSS: I'm going to quote a line from your book jacket, OK?


GROSS: This is really horrible. I'm sorry.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: I did not write that copy.

GROSS: I know. I figured you didn't. This is not how you write.


GROSS: But with all due respect to the person who wrote your book jacket copy, OK, "Promised Land" is a tender, witty, and wise account of a young woman's journey through her own psyche toward the most difficult stage of grownup emotional life - acceptance.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Oh, my god. I know.

GROSS: Yeah, I know.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: It kills me. It really does.


GROSS: But that...


LAMB-SHAPIRO: That is really hilarious.

GROSS: Had you read it? I mean, did you have that reaction when you read it yourself?

LAMB-SHAPIRO: I did. I did. You know, part of me understands that there's a fair amount of the book that's just marketing and, you know, if that's what the people want, that's what the people should get. And, you know, the funny thing is it's not untrue.

GROSS: Well, that's the thing. It's not untrue.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: It's just not the way that I would put it.

GROSS: It is not. Yeah.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: So that was sort of my way - and also, by the time this happened I was so much more sympathetic to the ways in which different truths could be expressed because, again, that's not untrue. So I felt like, well, it's still true. It's getting expressed in a way that's not necessarily the way that I would express it but, you know, that's OK.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. I've really enjoyed this.

LAMB-SHAPIRO: Oh, thank you so much. It was an honor to be on the show.

GROSS: Jessica Lamb-Shapiro is the author of the new book "Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture."

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.