February 1, 2002
need help, there is no question about it. Listen to this: I am thirty-two years old and I've had fewer serious girlfriends than my twenty-one-year-old cousin. The longest relationship I've had expired after two years - managing to survive that long only because I convinced myself it wasn't a 'real' relationship. I'm a wimp when it comes to emotional distress, I'm unrealistically - one might say disproportionately - picky, I'm more afraid of rejection than I am of being alone, and that's not even a third of the list.
Let me now state that my pressing need for assistance had little to do with my decision to research the relationship self-help genre. Let me also admit that I've always hated self-help books, especially those aimed at the lovelorn. Until a few weeks ago, however, I had never read one. I knew of them, I just hadn't as much as browsed through one. I recognized some of the more trendy premises. I'd heard the titles, and even the names of a couple of the authors, and I relegated it all to the same dank hole in my mind reserved for astrology, daytime television, People Magazine and teenage cheese-pop groups.
Curiosity finally led me to the library (I couldn't bear the thought of wasting money on actual purchases) - curiosity to find out if these books were really as bad as I imagined them to be, and also, yes, to quell a minute yet pesky doubt that I might be missing something. I read five books: The Rules (by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider), which sucks; The Boyfriend Test (by Wendy L. Walsh), which also sucks; Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives, and its companion volume for guys, Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives (both by Dr. Laura Schlessinger) - I still can't decide which one sucks more; and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (by John Gray, Ph.D.), which sucks head and tail above the rest.
I did promise myself I would try to offer a few positive words about each one, but that was before I read them. I now believe that my generous use of the words 'genre,' 'premises,' 'treatise,' 'insight,' and 'evidence' will have to suffice insofar as praise goes. On the other hand, though my principal goal was to write a full critique of these books, I soon found myself deflated by the lack of challenge. I was up against fluff so weightless that Jupiter's gravity wouldn't hold it down. Any attempt at serious review would be a big waste of time. There I was, preparing for intellectual debate, and I instead got bogged down in a mushy, surreal, out-of-brain experience. I'm still sticky all over from the final exhortation in the introduction to Mars & Venus: 'May you always grow in wisdom and love. May the frequency of divorce decrease and the number of happy marriages increase. Our children deserve a better world.' And may the Force be with us.
A hardcover edition of Mars & Venus is 286 pages short, the paperback version of Stupid Things Women Do runs up 232. Both books redefine the art of writing the same thing over and over again. At least Dr. Laura pretends she's hammering her point home, whereas Dr. Venus is so high on his own stardust he doesn't even realize his record broke on page six.
But I exaggerate. These treatises do offer some variety, even if mainly in the form of self-evident statements, trivial observations galore, and evidence that never failed to leave me underwhelmed. Among the insights offered by The Boyfriend Test, I feel compelled to share these gems: 'A real relationship is so daunting that it's downright scary,' or, even more brilliant, 'Whether you're eighteen or eighty, preparing for first dates is a fun challenge.' Mars & Venus is replete with orbit-weakening disclosures, but this one stands out: 'Just as communication is the most important element in a relationship, arguments can be the most destructive element.' And then there's Dr. Laura's edict: '…it's a universal truth that some of the smartest women do the stupidest things.' I wonder if it applies to men as well.
When the authors of The Rules set out to share their time-tested secrets for capturing the heart of Mr. Right, they also made sure to run a few field tests. Throughout the book I had the pleasure of meeting every one of their annoying imaginary friends and reliving the downs (when they didn't follow The Rules) and ups (when they did) of their quests for the ring. Every single rule is supported by anecdotal evidence of the most inconsequential caliber: 'A woman we know who followed The Rules is now married to a wonderful man who doesn't try to get rid of her to go out with the guys.' Reaching for the next echelon of credibility, the girl behind The Boyfriend Test soothed my concerns when she explained that, in her attempt to have healthy relationships, she 'bought enough self-help and relationship books to merit stock options with my local bookstore.' Books she then proceeded to quote ad nauseam and which are fully credited in her - get this - bibliography. (No, it has not escaped me that I am guilty of much the same crime.)
Not satisfied with sharing every other letter from her bubbly listeners, Dr. Laura fortifies her proof about our stupid behaviors with an occasional reference to obscure statistics and never-heard-of academic journals. The following sufficed to establish that Suppressed Anger Kills: 'According to an article in the Medical Tribune News Service, 'suppressed anger may increase the risk of death from heart disease or cancer. Married women who suppress their anger are at the highest risk of premature death.'' It would not surprise me to find out that the same journal reported an equally persuasive link between reading self-help books and some prolonged and painful manner of death.
There has always been a gulf between my ideal relationship and the real ones, between the ways I'd like to behave and the moronic things I end up saying and doing. I say 'I'll call you,' though I never will, or I say 'I love you,' because I wish I did. I congratulate myself for not cheating, yet I don't ask myself why I want to cheat so badly. I follow her up into her bedroom when I had every intention of remaining at the door. I buy her flowers not because I want to, but because I should. I watch myself drifting away from her, knowing why and still unable to explain.
I think my relationship predicaments are too damn complex to be fixed by the generic, one-size-fits-all solutions offered by self-help books. Not to say that I don't often recognize my behavior in the laments of others, or that I'm so special I can't distill a single lesson from the most poorly-written, commercial excuse for a book. I simply don't subscribe to the shotgun approach to problem-solving. The last thing I want to do after four hours lugging it out on the couch with my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend is rush home to read up Mars & Venus, chapter 7, 'Women Are Like Waves,' to see if there's an explanation for what she meant when she said I'm not ambitious enough and I take up too much space. And I don't call her up a week later to ask for forgiveness and, by the way, would she mind reviewing chapter 11, 'How to Communicate Difficult Feelings,' next time she decides to break up with me?
People must exist who swear by The Rules, or who never turn off the bedside lamp before grading the unsuspecting drooler passed out beside them on The Boyfriend Test. There must be those who find inspiration in the interplanetary sagas of Dr. Venus or who are so caught up in their miserable, abusive relationships that they just have to hear Dr. Laura ram it down their throats in full, condescending stereo. I can almost see why. The allure of step-by-step recipes and predigested conclusions - no matter how bland they might be - is difficult to match, especially in moments of desperation.
I've been desperate too. I once stood for fifty minutes in front of a mirror with my eyes red and my chest pounding in my ears, asking myself why and why and why until I forgot the question. I've lain in bed wondering if I could manage to spit out an 'I'm sorry, my fault, my stupid, stupid fault,' before she fell asleep. I've listened to that song, louder every time, louder and louder, until my roommate stormed in, ejected the CD and threw it to the birds. I have prayed for an answer and I have been tempted to try anything - but anything for a real solution, not a miracle.
Mars & Venus packs more miracles per thousand words than the Bible. In the annals of emotional healing, never has so much love and compassion been so suddenly!, immediately!, and totally! bestowed upon humans, and in particular on the fortunate participants in John Gray's otherworldly seminars. After attending one such love fest, the impartial galactic guru writes, 'Maggie was so relieved. Her anxiety and confusion immediately disappeared.' Apparently, 'Maggie had discovered a secret that few women know about men.' Few that is, except for Dr. Laura's faithful followers. A 'happy mom,' for example, wrote the good doctor to inform her that 'After listening to you, my twenty-three-year-old daughter opted for marriage instead of their living-in arrangement.' And Jeff, a regular listener, sent this fax after a narrow escape from a woman who turned out to be a liar and a major fake: 'Of course, I made this decision [not to sleep with her] based on the sense given to me by 'Mother Laura.'' While Mother Laura stops just short of promising eternal bliss, others are less shy. The Boyfriend Test, for example, 'can change the world. (Or just as importantly, the world of one woman - you.)' The Rules, however, tops them all with Rule #33: 'Do The Rules and You'll Live Happily Ever After.'
The stench of reality is hard to find in these books; no whiff of failure, of less-than-satisfactory results (unless you forgot to follow The Rules), or of a solution that didn't apply to every case. Instead, my nostrils itched from the sugary bouquet of beauty-salon morality. No one excels at regurgitating today's pop dogma as Wendy Walsh does. Her knee-jerk responses and hallelujah refrains (Go for it, girlfriend!) do little to bolster her already puerile 'expert Wendy opinion' in matters such as sex: 'Don't sleep with him for at least six weeks. In these times of herpes and AIDS, this is an acceptable amount of time.' (I guess before AIDS it might only have been two weeks.) Mars & Venus doesn't so much lack realism as much as it portrays its own insidious version of it. Underneath its marshmallow crust Gray's book offers a sexist and retrograde strain of values, most of them beyond the scope of my ability to discuss without popping a vein. I can't remain composed about a guy whose advice on sex is that men should wash beforehand and that women should really try to enjoy it.
I mean, shouldn't women wash too?
'Self-help' is a stupid term for a category of books. Perhaps it should be called 'book-help' or 'written-help,' or 'instruction manual,' or 'guidelines.' To me the term self-help should imply no help from anything or anyone else, when in practice it implies 'help' from someone who knows nothing important of me or my ex-girlfriends or the two women I'm chasing right now. Self-help is all about lowest-common-denominator relationships and homogenized lessons. There's a reason schools don't teach relationships - and it's not that they're waiting for the right textbook.
When I'm feeling pessimistic I decide that no amount of help, self- or otherwise, will fix me. It scares me that I keep making the same relationship mistakes. I look at the relationships among my relatives, or among my friends, and few of them seem to learn much either: not from first-hand experiences, nor from watching their parents or their friends, movies or television… certainly not from self-help books.
One thing I have learned from reading these books is that I don't really hate self-help books. Hate is too strong a term. It would be more accurate to say that I reject the premise (I use the word 'premise' generously) behind them. They're missing the point. And it's not just that the books I read are so pathetic - though I must concede that I chose easy targets for this article. Even an intelligent self-help book, which must exist, would still miss the point.
In the end, it's not a matter of help, of needing it or getting it. My problem is an unwillingness - a lack of readiness - to change. I know exactly what my issues are, more so than I often care to admit. Plus, I know what I need to do about them. Reading books - smart or dumb - about cardboard cut-out people and their index-card relationships isn't going to bring me any closer to relationship nirvana. In the true sense of self-help, I'm the only one who can help myself.
In her introduction to Stupid Things Men Do, Dr. Laura recounts the joke about the three kinds of men: the ones who learn from books, the ones who learn from observation, and the ones who feel compelled to piss on the electric fence. On my optimistic days, when I'm feeling happy and lucky, I decide I do indeed want to fix myself up. Then I think about all the relationship blunders I've made and all the ones I have yet to make, and I prophesize for myself a life of fun-filled, electrifying moments.
The Rules, Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, Warner Books, 1995
The Boyfriend Test, Wendy L. Walsh, Three Rivers Press, 2001
Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, HarperPerennial, 1994
Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Cliff Street Books, 1997
Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, John Gray, Ph.D., HarperCollinsPublishers, 1992
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