Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless

I’ve spent thousands of hours of my life reading self-help books and listening to self-help lectures. Overall, I’m ambivalent about the industry and the time I spent there. I think self-help helps some people and hurts other people. I do not find the time I spent there a major source of regret. There are far worse things to pursue than self-help. I have a brain that is half wide open and gullible and another half of my brain is critical and analytical. The latter half usually wins though I’ll try almost anything that is not dangerous.

Steve Salerno writes in this 2005 book:

* Compared to the possibilities in life, the impossibilities are vastly more numerous. What I don’t like to hear adults tell people your age is that you can be president or anything else you want to be. That’s not even remotely true. The truth is that you can run for president, and that’s all. . . . In our wonderfully free society, you can try to be just about anything, but your chances of success are another thing entirely.” —Marilyn vos Savant, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for Highest IQ, responding to a young person’s letter in her Parade column, March 2, 2003

* Never have I covered a phenomenon where American consumers invested so much capital in every sense of the word—financial, intellectual, spiritual, temporal—based on so little proof of efficacy. And where they got such spotty, if not nonexistent, returns. For more than a generation, the Self-Help and Actualization Movement—felicitously enough, the words form the acronym SHAM—has been talking out of both sides of its mouth: promising relief from all that ails you while at the same time promoting nostrums that almost guarantee nothing will change (unless it gets worse). Along the way, SHAM has filled the bank accounts of a slickly packaged breed of false prophets, including, but by no means limited to, high-profile authors and motivational speakers, self-styled group counselors and workshop leaders, miscellaneous “life coaches,” and any number of lesser wise-men-without-portfolio who have hung out shingles promising to deliver unto others some level of enhanced contentment. For a nice, fat, nonrefundable fee.

[LF: You could make a similar critique of psychiatry and psycho-therapy. Most drugs that psychiatrists prescribe have an efficacy only slightly above placebo while the dangers of these drugs are considerable.]

* One camp, Victimization, has eroded time-honored notions of personal responsibility to a probably irrecoverable degree, convincing its believers that they’re simply pawns in a hostile universe, that they can never really escape their pasts (or their biological makeup). The other camp, Empowerment, has weaned a generation of young people on the belief that simply aspiring to something is the same as achieving it, that a sense of “positive self-worth” is more valuable than developing the talents or skills that normally win recognition from others. Those in this second category tend to approach life as if it were an endless succession of New Year’s resolutions…

[LF: Whatever your perspective here on the self help industry, I think Dr. Phil’s question is the best one — how’s that working for you? This book is a polemic. It is a series of strident declarations by somebody with a strong point of view. Sometimes the author even has evidence for his views. I believe that approaches in one area of life won’t work in others and that what may work for one’s private spiritual work won’t work for other matters. For example, I would not want public policy run according to 12 step ideology and practice. I would want law enforcement to treat criminal behavior the same way as behavior whether or not some argue it comes from addiction. I understand most people can’t operate with different explicit approaches to different parts of life. They want an overarching approach.]

* Victimization held sway for more than twenty years, from the late 1960s through the 1980s.

* The twelve-step approach spawned an entire submovement—Recovery—that has profoundly influenced not just SHAM but society as a whole. The specific twelve steps are generally credited to Bill Wilson (the much-mythologized “Bill W.”), a salesman and contemporary of Dale Carnegie who in 1935 cofounded AA with a proctologist/surgeon, Robert (“Dr. Bob”) Smith. Wilson was an interesting character—among other things, an inveterate spiritualist who fancied Ouija boards and regularly conversed with the dead. After starting AA, Wilson and some of the organization’s early members codified the steps of Recovery in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. With minor variations in nuance as well as some adaptations to fit changing mores, the twelve steps have remained pretty much the same ever since, regardless of the specific problem being “treated.” All members of Recovery groups have engaged in the following twelve steps…

[LF: The twelve steps are not just “generally credited to Bill Wilson”, they were composed by Bill Wilson. AA was not co-founded, it was founded by Bill Wilson, and if there anyone else who came close to being a “co-founder”, it was Hank Parkhurst…. Most members of recovery group have not engaged in the 12 steps. Anyone can call themselves a member of a 12-step group. Groups such as AA won’t take donations above $2,000 in a year and will accept no money from outsiders. So twelve step groups are not a money-making racket. What other non-profits won’t take large donations?]

* If you’ve had little exposure to the twelve steps, you may be surprised at the religiosity of the foregoing.

[What religion exactly? I don’t see one. People from many religions and no religion at all work the 12 steps.]

* In truth, through the years, while the steps have remained fairly constant, Recovery’s “tone” has grown more secular, featuring greater emphasis on a generic “Power” and less overt mention of God per se. This is particularly true of twelve-step programs that originated in the antiestablishment 1960s, as God fell out of fashion and twelve-step impresarios understood that by hewing so closely to the old spiritual line, they risked alienating their target audiences. Some of today’s most “progressive” twelve-steps fudge the issue by arguing that the higher power is something that resides in a person’s untapped “spiritual consciousness.”

[LF: Depends on the group. There’s still plenty of God talk in the meetings and programs I’ve attended. A 12-step program that is so secular that it has no references to spirituality is rare.]

* Despite the twelve steps’ discussion of “defects of character,” the unmistakable implication was that alcoholics had a disease.

[LF: It was never considered in AA and environs a “disease” like cancer. It was considered a “disease” in the sense of a disorder. Does Salerno believe that the word “disease” only has one meaning that has never altered over time? But even if it was considered a disease like cancer, did that approach help people lead a better life?]

* Enter Thomas Harris. Pre-Harris, the tendency to excuse one’s own faults or blame them on others was seen as a character flaw in itself. The particular genius of I’m OK—You’re OK and the books it inspired was that such works broadened the context: Suddenly it wasn’t just alcoholics who were dogged by self-destructive tendencies they could not control or even fully explain. Victimization became socially permissible, if not almost fashionable in certain circles. (If you didn’t confess to being haunted by the demons of your past, you were “in denial.”) If Harris could be believed, almost all of us had something we needed to “recover from.” Thomas Harris took Victimization mainstream.

[LF: How many people have nothing to recover from? The past is never past, it is always present with us.]

* By extension, the message became Your needs are paramount here. It’s all about you.

[LF: For almost everybody throughout history, their needs have been paramount. The nature of human life is that most of the time, it is all about you. That’s the way people work. It has nothing to do with recovery programs.]

* Recovering a healthy sense of self entailed forsaking your excessive or unhealthy concern for others—for in the twelve-step universe, such excessive concern came to constitute the pitiable emotional quagmire of codependency.

[LF: That’s why a plank of all 12-step programs is service to others? As regards to forsaking excessive or unhealthy anything, that seems like a good thing to me.]

* Inexorably, such notions began to undermine clear-cut judgments about morality, since blame was being shifted from the people who transgressed to the people who (allegedly) caused the transgression. Even murderers sometimes ceased to be murderers and instead became victims of the conditions that made them murder. After a Jamaican immigrant, Colin Ferguson, shot twenty-five Long Island Railroad commuters, killing six, on December 7, 1993, Ferguson’s attorneys broached a novel “black-rage” defense, claiming that years of white oppression had driven him to the edge of insanity. Ferguson ultimately rejected the defense, decided to represent himself, and was convicted—but the case sparked ongoing discussions of black rage and its sociological effects, with the Reverend Al Sharpton and others insisting on the legitimacy of the concept.

[LF: Maybe concepts that help some people in recovery are not equally useful in jurisprudence? A concept that works in one sphere of life is not discredited by being harmful in other spheres.]

* The black-rage defense represented the mentality “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger had in mind when, long before George W. Bush, she ignited controversy by observing, “There is evil in the world, and giving it a different name doesn’t make it less evil.”

[LF: “Evil” is a useful concept in some contexts such as when you share a transcendent moral code with your group. In other contexts, it is less useful. You don’t read a telephone bill the same way you scan a piece of poetry.]

* Under the rules of Empowerment, you were the sovereign master of your fate and could defeat any and all obstacles in life.

* David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values and the author of Fatherless America, told me, “There’s no question that one subtle change in terminology—replacing unwed with single before the word mother—altered the way society perceived the condition itself. It made out-of-wedlock pregnancy so much more palatable to a generation of women, and the nation.”

[LF: Salerno keeps using David Blankenhorn as the voice of wisdom in this book. Blankenhorn supports same-sex marriage, which does not seem wise to me.]

* Certainly SHAM’s debut in the 1960s coincided with a period wherein the nation began to make great strides in race relations, the glass ceiling, and other barometers of overall social health.

[LF: Really? By what metrics? By the metrics I know, such as crime rates and family functioning, it went steadily downhill. How are the newly defined “race relations, the glass ceiling” barometers of overall social health?]

* America today “feels like” a more enlightened place in which to live than America in 1960: We conduct ourselves with greater sensitivity to the feelings of those around us. We communicate more openly and productively with our spouses and friends. We’re better at raising our children—or, at least, we give a whole lot more thought to it than did our parents and particularly their parents, who raised kids by the seat of their pants, seldom sparing the rod.

[LF: I see mixed benefits here.]

* “In years past,” Blankenhorn told me, “getting married was more of a selfless act. You did it in order to build something bigger than you—a family—and to be able to give what you could to the children of that union.” That’s all changed, he said: “People today go into a marriage expecting to a far greater degree to have their own needs met. Instead of giving to the marriage, they want much more from the marriage. And often what they want is unrealistic.” It’s hard to see such mental turnabouts as anything other than a consequence of SHAM-bred “insights.” Indeed, it may not be coincidence that the greatest jump in American divorce, postwar, came between 1975 and 1990, a fifteen-year period that roughly corresponds to the most feverish SHAM activity.

* As a direct result of all this coupling and uncoupling, 45 percent of American children today live in “nontraditional households.” One child in three is born to an unmarried mother. The figure in 1960 was one child in twenty.

* To understand the larger consequences of divorce and illegitimacy, consider just this one statistic: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 72 percent of incarcerated juveniles come from single-parent households.

[LF: Salerno does not understand that correlation is not causation. He blames imprisonment rates on divorce and illegitimacy. Perhaps there are other ways of understanding this that are more useful and accurate.]

* If self-help is so effective at what it’s supposed to do, then why is there so much evidence that Americans, and the society they inhabit, are so screwed up?

[LF: Most Americans do not read books on self-help. A better question is what is the effect of self-help teachings on those who buy and practice them as well as on society as a whole.]

* “Titans in the field may preach self-reliance, but the self-help industry thrives on repeat business.” —New York Times

[LF: If people find something that works, why would they not come back for more of it? If we begin with the supposition that human nature is not good, then we are walking uphill to build a good life and to do this we need fuel. Most religious people, for example, feel the need to regularly gather with their co-religionists. Does this discredit their religion? That’s bizarre thinking. Also, most people who buy a self-help book don’t work the book according to its instructions. Probably fewer than 10% do. So if you sell people a program in a book and they don’t work the program, is that your fault?]

* RICHARD CARLSON. Today, all but the most avid Carlson fans probably wouldn’t know the name, but there’s no forgetting his signature book: 1997’s Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff . . . and It’s All Small Stuff. It wasn’t the first time anyone said it, but Carlson elevated the bumper-sticker banality to a cultural rallying cry. The holder of a PhD in psychology, Carlson had written more than a dozen modestly performing self-help books before he scored big with Small Stuff, which enjoyed a stunning two-year run on best-seller lists. No dummy, he followed it up with Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Women, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff at Work, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Teens, The Don’t Sweat Affirmations, and The Don’t Sweat Guide for Couples. In 2003 he tried something different: What About the Big Stuff?

* DEEPAK CHOPRA. A decade ago, Chopra’s beatific face was everywhere. An endocrinologist endocrinologist by trade, Chopra has been a key figure in the New Age movement since the mid-1980s, but he launched himself to the top of the heap with his 1994 SHAM classic, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. Over the next few years the uncommonly versatile guru weighed in on everything from astrology to preventive medicine to spiritually enriching golf. He also sold teas and spices, soothing music, and assorted wellness products, and ran a pricey health spa in California. A powerful literary agent told me that Chopra simply spread himself too thin and “burned out his audience.” Still, his books continue to sell rather well, if not at the level of The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.

JACK CANFIELD. Together with his coauthor/editor Mark Victor Hansen, Canfield, a motivational speaker and self-styled godfather of self-esteem, conceived what Time magazine eventually would label “the publishing phenomenon of the decade” for the 1990s: the endlessly segmented Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, now with seventy-two books in print in English alone. Notable recent entries include Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul, and Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul.1 The original book’s manuscript was famously rejected by thirty-three publishers during its first month of circulation alone before tiny Health Communications picked it up. Sales of Chicken Soup books have leveled off somewhat from their initial peaks, but the brand has become an industry in its own right.

ROBERT FULGHUM. Fulghum is the one-hit-wonder author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (1988), a sweet but forgettable paean to minimalism about which the brilliant social critic Wendy Kaminer wrote, “Only people who die very young learn all they need to know in kindergarten.” For a time the book made Fulghum a superstar on the SHAM circuit; he got deals for several subsequent books, none of which quite matched the success of the first.

* Schlessinger’s holier-than-thou persona has taken some serious hits since the spring of 1998, when Talkers magazine, a trade publication covering talk radio, ranked The Dr. Laura Show number one on the airwaves, surpassing even the mighty Rush Limbaugh. In those days an estimated 250,000 listeners tried to get through on her show each week, while another 20 million tuned in to shake their heads over the woes of those who did. Schlessinger’s clout and cachet were such that in 1997, when she opted to sell the ownership of her three-year-old syndicated show, Jacor Communications ponied up a staggering $71.5 million.

* Schlessinger also turned out to be a woman with a morally undisciplined history. She had a habit of stealing the hearts of older authority figures, not all of whose hearts, and other physical paraphernalia, were technically or legally available. While in college in New York she met a dentist, Michael Rudolph, who became her first husband. A few years later she left Rudolph to answer the siren call of Los Angeles. One day in 1974 she phoned Bill Ballance’s radio show and got on the air. A zesty bit of byplay on the relative merits of divorce and widowhood, which Ballance allowed to go on for an unheard-of twenty minutes, led to a weekly slot on his show. It also led the still-married Schlessinger to his bed. (Decades later, at the height of the flap over the nude photos, Ballance gibed that his pet name for her should have been Ku Klux, since she was “a wizard in the sheets.”) Still later, while teaching at USC, Schlessinger met the very married Lew Bishop, who had three dependent children at home. Exit Ballance, enter Bishop. By some accounts their affair was messy; when USC did not renew Schlessinger’s contract, Bishop walked away from his tenured professorship in neurophysiology. He walked away from his wife as well, and he and Schlessinger lived together without benefit of matrimony for at least eight years before making it official in 1985. Bishop became Schlessinger’s business manager, though he showed less enthusiasm for tending to his erstwhile family’s business: His former wife had to go to court to extract child support from him. Further, his relationship with his children deteriorated after his marriage to Schlessinger, who, associates say, sought a clean break from Bishop’s past life, and thus his kids.

* Schlessinger has reinvented herself whenever she deemed it expedient. This is most noticeable in her outlook on religion, or the lack of same. Brought up in what she describes as an “inter-faithless” marriage, she admits to living her early life in “secular” fashion. Schlessinger and her son Deryk, her only child with Bishop,3 embraced Judaism in 1996. Two years later the family converted to Orthodox Judaism, aspects of which she cited freely in rendering her moral pronouncements. Jewish organizations, including the National Council of Young Israel, honored her for her religious stances. But on August 5, 2003, Schlessinger opened her show by announcing that she would practice Judaism no more. In a series of introspective descants over the ensuing month, she explained that she felt frustrated by the effort she’d invested in following the Jewish faith, and openly chafed at her shabby treatment at the hands of fellow Jews. She even hinted at increasingly warm feelings toward Christianity, a move that—some insiders say—might enable her to reverse the attrition in listener base she’s suffered in recent years.

* Vickie Bane, similarly paints her as an obsessive-compulsive narcissist whose concern for others is limited to what they can do for her, and whose will to win can be almost frightening. There was, for instance, her mostly one-sided feud with Barbara De Angelis, a fellow talk-therapist. After De Angelis beat out Schlessinger for a coveted time slot, Schlessinger apparently embarked on a sub-rosa campaign to undo her. Derogatory information on De Angelis somehow found its way to the desks of personnel at the radio station that employed them both. Companies who interacted with De Angelis began receiving anonymous calls informing them that De Angelis wasn’t actually a doctor and therefore should not be described as one on the air. Even years after De Angelis left the station and Schlessinger inherited her time slot, the bad blood reportedly continued, at least on Dr. Laura’s part.

Does radio therapy even work? Surprisingly, some in psychiatric circles vote yes. They voice qualified support for the idea that radio shows can provide value to people who are already 98 percent of the way toward a momentous decision and just need that final pat on the back—or kick in the butt—from someone they respect. Also, a radio shrink like Dr. Laura may represent a worthwhile form of shock therapy for a caller who does, in fact, inhabit a world of alibis and denial. Hurd concedes, “She has a bullshit detector unlike anything I’ve ever seen. That’s a very useful quality for a psychotherapist. She pays very close attention to contradictions in what people are saying, and confronts them on it.” Unfortunately, says Hurd, there’s a huge difference between recognizing a problem and fixing a problem. He believes that in her rush to reduce even the most complex behavioral issues to words like slut, Schlessinger “does her callers a disservice.” Hurd adds, “I would never say, ‘Kick your husband out.’ I would say, ‘What would happen if you kicked your husband out? What would happen in the short run, and what would happen in the long run?’ A therapist’s job is to help people think.” Making matters worse is that many people who call radio shows are nowhere near that defining moment described above. On the contrary, they’re in obvious distress, struggling with major complicated dilemmas that seem insoluble to them. The radio format seldom allows for long-form calls, and Schlessinger is historically impatient with callers who don’t cut to the chase, at times to the extent of chiding her screener for giving a forum to callers whose questions were too vague or multifaceted. If Schlessinger tolerates such calls at all, she’ll generally seize on a subjective vision of the caller’s distress and bulldoze forward with her verdict regardless of any added context or embellished character studies that emerge as the call proceeds. She’ll interrupt callers at will, bullying them until they commit to positions that, surely in some cases, do not represent their true reasons for calling.

[LF: It is primarily an entertainment medium and her show should be primarily judged on that basis. Salerno keeps using Dr. Michael Hurd, author of Effective Therapy, as the voice of wisdom in this book. Psychological judgments are incredibly subjective. The same person could go to five different psychiatrists and get five different diagnoses. There are no blood tests for a psychiatric diagnosis.]

* First of all, “Dr.” John Gray is not a medical doctor but a PhD—and a questionable one at that. In recent years multiple sources and reports have challenged Gray’s credentials. He received his doctorate in 1982 from Columbia Pacific University, a nonaccredited correspondence college that California’s attorney general once described as a
diploma mill. The state later fined the school and ordered it to shut down. The professional therapist societies to which Gray belongs, the American Counseling Association and the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, both require PhD’s—real ones—for membership. They’ve avoided comment on the Gray situation. This makes Gray’s counseling centers a particular matter of concern to some of his credentialed colleagues, one of whom likens the vast counseling network to a house of cards. “To talk about his ‘certification procedure’ “—a short course designed to produce entrepreneurial John Gray clones—“seems a little odd when the head guy himself isn’t certified,” the psychiatrist told me. Gray’s master’s and bachelor’s degrees aren’t from conventional institutions of higher education, either. They’re from the Maharishi European Research University in Switzerland.

[Salerno focuses on whether or not self-help leaders are credentialed. He pays next to no attention to whether or not what they teach works for people. Re John Gray, whether or not a university is accredited says nothing about whether or not it is any good. Accreditation is a bureaucratic process and some of these processes are more challenging and prestigious than others. Some people and groups don’t want to bow to the bureaucracy. That doesn’t mean they lack merit. On the other hand, seeking credentials is a decent heuristic for finding competence in some fields.]

* He was once married to the irrepressible Barbara De Angelis, the same radio host who became involved in a feud with Laura Schlessinger. De Angelis is another self-proclaimed sexologist; she came to the field after being, among other things, a magician’s assistant to Doug Henning. She was wife number one for Gray; he was husband number three (of five, to date, including Henning) for her. De Angelis’s contributions to the SHAM oeuvre include the optimistically titled How to Make Love All the Time and Are You the One for Me? Perhaps Gray and De Angelis found their own answers to the latter question during some function at Columbia Pacific University, where De Angelis received her doctorate as well.

[LF: John Gray has a gift for describing male-female differences. Salerno gives him no credit because Salerno only wants to tear down these gurus.]

* The ex–cabaret songstress Marianne Williamson has been a key figure in SHAM’s Spiritual Division ever since Oprah, the éminence grise of self-help, embraced Williamson’s 1992 book, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. For thirty-nine weeks the book sat atop the New York Times best-seller list, and three of her next eight books reached that same lofty perch. At the height of her appeal, Williamson acquired the nickname “Mother Teresa for the ‘90s,” joining Deepak Chopra and unreconstituted psychic Sylvia Browne as the anointed leadership of the New Age.

* Williamson has been honest about the drug abuse and heavy drinking that preceded her spiritual rebirth.

* Even for some industry insiders, the unswerving fidelity of Williamson’s sizable base constituency can be puzzling, since her books are so repetitive, and she spends so much time blithely stating the obvious…

* But the final, fatal flaw in Williamson’s dialectic is its attempt simultaneously to sell idyllic notions of community and unconstrained personal development. Plainly, these cannot coexist unless all of the individual members of any given society just happen to aspire to the very same goals. And lest we forget, Williamson is a staunch one-world cheerleader, so this accidental brotherhood of men and women would have to apply among individuals not just in America but also across international borders.

* Though Dr. Michael Hurd generally likes the way McGraw engages his guests and “draws them out,” he recoils from McGraw’s abrasive way of rousing to a finish. “You have to realize, it’s about showmanship,” Hurd told me, “but therapy shouldn’t take a backseat to showmanship. People shouldn’t get beat up in the process.” Hurd and other critics wonder whether those moments—which, indisputably, make for great television—send McGraw’s guests home with a profound sense of shame and embarrassment rather than lay the foundation for progress on whatever issues they had to begin with. Criticism in this vein may be somewhat naive, in that shows like McGraw’s, notwithstanding the patina of professional integrity, are more about theater than therapy; they provide viewers with a slightly elevated, SHAM-inspired twist on the likes of Jerry Springer.

* “McGraw is a harsh, charismatic man of high intelligence and higher self-regard,” one of his (unauthorized) biographers, Sophia Dembling, wrote in a July 2004 column for the publishing-industry Web site Mediabistro. His seldom-mentioned first wife, Debbie Higgins McCall, agrees. She told me that during their marriage, which lasted from 1970 to 1973, McGraw insisted on being informed of her every move, even requiring her to phone him before she left the house—this, while McGraw himself was leaving the house to see other women, she alleges. As recounted by Debbie, McGraw’s response at being confronted about his infidelities is particularly intriguing, as it represents an ironic harbinger of what would become, decades later, one of Dr. Phil’s signature lines. “I told him I knew he was fooling around on me,” Debbie told me, “and instead of denying it, he basically told me that’s how things are, and I needed to just get over it.”

* Tony Robbins uses science as if it existed solely for his convenience in making the points he wants to make. He’ll offer up blithe correlations between technology and disease or caffeine and breast cancer, as if they were unimpeachable medical truths. He condemns meat and milk, strongly implying that you can’t reach maximum potential if you’re still chained to those vestiges of old-style food consumption. Then there’s that whole bit about the energy frequency of foods, which simply does not make sense, because frequency is a measure of oscillation or vibration, not energy.

* …the happy little community of Robbins World occasionally displays signs of unrest. You see it mostly on the discussion boards he provides for dedicated disciples, if you check often enough. Recently people have complained about management censorship: the sudden disappearance of posts and threads that voice displeasure with any of Robbins’s materials or the long-term efficacy of his programs. In 2001 some fans were dismayed to learn that Robbins and his wife, Becky, had divorced; after all, many followers had bought his books and tapes on the surefire steps to a lasting marriage.

* ICF’s own site features a link to a Washington Post article, “A Coach for Team You,” about the large numbers of people who “are skipping the shrink and hiring a life coach instead,” as the article’s subtitle put its. If large numbers of Americans with serious psychological problems are consulting coaches instead of qualified therapists, clearly there’s more to be concerned about than just what it wastes in dollars.

* MICHAEL FRANZESE…has carved out a comfortable niche as a Mob turncoat. As a bookmaking honcho in the Columbo crime family, back in 1986 he was ranked number eighteen on Fortune’s list of “The Fifty Biggest Mafia Bosses.” But he ended up in prison, where he says he found God; Vanity Fair dubbed him the “born-again don.” Since 1996 Franzese has been a fixture on the lecture circuit and at camps run by pro sports teams, who pay him to warn athletes about the dangers of gambling and other addictive, untoward behaviors. Franzese may be best-known for the 1997 pay-per-view special he produced, Live from Alcatraz, which featured top rappers and other celebrities in an effort to raise money for antidrug campaigns.

* the Recovery ethic strongly implies that a genetic predisposition exists for whatever ails us.

[LF: And that is wrong how? We don’t know.]

* Recovery’s bedrock assumption—that you’re not evil or venal, you’re simply exhibiting symptoms—lays the groundwork for an amoral view of life. It explains why today’s society goes to extraordinary semantic lengths to separate the criminal from the crime.

* “Women appear to feel pressure to adhere to sex-role expectations, which is to say, to be more relationship-oriented and less promiscuous,” Fisher told me. But she underscores that if her survey can be believed, only women’s attitudes differ from men’s—not their actual appetites or behaviors. To the extent women “differ” from men in their sex drive and proclivity for libertine behavior, Fisher concludes that it’s because of social expectations, not genetic code.

[LF: That’s absurd. Men have bigger sex drives on average than women because they have higher testosterone levels.]

* Susan Allan is the founder and director of the Divorce Forum, a Santa Barbara–based counseling agency and a popular Web site on matters matrimonial. When I asked Allan why we have so much divorce today, she gave a simple answer: “We have more divorce because marriage isn’t based on unconditional love.”

[LF: Marriage has never been based on unconditional love. It doesn’t exist (with rare exceptions, such as by parents for young children).]

* The result of that campaign—the rethinking of America’s grade-school system in a way that undercut its commitment to quality education—offers one of the clearest and most instructive lessons in how SHAM’s failings can hurt us all.

[Salerno is an idiot for thinking American schools are bad. When sorted by race, American schools are doing an excellent job. To the extent that America has an education problem, it is primarily because of bad students, not bad schools.]

* It’s been observed that there are two ways to guarantee high scholastic performance. The first is to expect a great deal from students and implement systems that force them to live up to those expectations… [Second:] Simply set expectations so low that no one fails. And tell kids to be happy with the results.

[LF: People achieve in academics and life in large part due to their genetics.]

* One year, the story goes, Mrs. Daugherty found herself confronted by a class full of sixth-graders who were so clueless and intractable that she suspected many of them had learning disabilities. So one day, while the principal was off the premises, she broke a hard-and-fast rule: She looked in the file where student IQ scores and other relevant data were kept. Daugherty was amazed by what she found: Most of her students had IQs in the high 120s and 130s—near-genius level. One of the worst offenders had an IQ of 145. Mrs. Daugherty did a great deal of soul-searching that night. She concluded that the blame for their conduct and lackluster performance was hers and hers alone; she had lost this class of brilliant minds by boring them with low-level work. So she began bringing in difficult assignments. She upped the amount of homework and inflicted stern punishments for misbehavior. By the end of that semester, Mary Daugherty had engineered a 180-degree turnaround: Her class was one of the best behaved and most accomplished in the entire sixth grade. Impressed—and, frankly, stunned—the principal asked Mrs. Daugherty how she had managed such a dramatic turnabout. Haltingly she confessed her secret raid on the IQ files and how it had changed her approach to teaching the class. The principal pursed his lips, smiled, and told her not to worry about it. All’s well that ends well, he told her. “Oh, by the way,” he whispered as she turned to retreat to her classroom, “I think you should know: those numbers next to the kids’ names? It’s not their IQ scores. It’s their locker numbers.” One reason Jaime Escalante and Mary Daugherty remain exceptions is that social pressure makes it difficult to hold kids accountable for actual learning.

[LF: Salerno embodies a trait he berates in those in self-help — he publishes a ton of opinions on things he knows little. What credentials does Salerno have for critiquing the self-help industry? None. I don’t care. I don’t think a reader needs to. A reader can judge Salerno’s book on its quality, just like any self-help guru should be judged on the quality of his work rather than on his credentials. Credentials show that you’ve managed to navigate a bureaucratic procedure, and generally speaking, smarter and more disciplined people have more success doing this than dumber and undisciplined people.]

* Among the key players at the landmark California Self-Esteem Conference was Jack Canfield, who went on to write and edit the homespun, best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul series.

* AA has consistently opposed attempts to assess its core beliefs and methodologies. So invested is the organization in its own socio-spiritual approach that it has issued repeated critical statements on chemical interventions, like the drug topiramate, that appear to show promise.

[LF: So AA has the power to stop research into drugs such as topiramate? That’s absurd. How does AA’s purported opposition to attempts to assess its core beliefs and methods have any reality? Obviously it did not interfere with Salerno’s ability to do just that.]

* We also have SHAM to thank for the fact that alcoholism is regarded as a full-fledged disease. This forces companies or their insurers to assume billions of dollars in treatment costs and to look the other way when marginal employees relapse time and again.

[LF: Regarded by whom? Obviously not by Steve Salerno or Wendy Kaminer? So those not in SHAM are without agency? They must submit to whatever SHAM decides? Because AA has such a huge lobbying arm? It has Congress in its pocket?]

* An estimated 19.4 million Americans suffer from alcohol or drug abuse, says NESARC. Further, according to Hazelden, a nonprofit agency that offers addiction services and data, the typical substance abuser incurs twice the health-care costs of a nonaddicted employee, is three times more likely to report for work late, and is five times more likely to file a worker’s compensation claim. He or she is more likely to steal from his or her employer and be involved in, or cause, workplace accidents. As Joseph Hazelwood demonstrates, the addicted worker’s subpar performance may compromise the safety, productivity, and morale of fellow workers, as well as endanger the health and well-being of citizens outside the company.

* If the various SHAM doctrines can exert so much influence in fields dominated by well-credentialed professionals who are expected to depend on science and hard research to guide them, what happens when they infiltrate other areas of American life in which they have far fewer obstacles to overcome?

[LF: How weak are those who oppose these doctrines then?]

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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