I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional
by Wendy Kaminer
Iconoclastic and unsparing, Wendy Kaminer slaughters the self-help movement. In the most hilarious book not in the humor or fiction section, Kaminer excoriates those who assume reason causes our problems. Where is this "reason" destroying everything? I have no idea and neither does Kaminer: "Assaulted by sound bites, slogans, gossip and anecdotes that take the place of serious ideas, I never feel surrounded by rationality."
Self-help movements, she argues, are a bizarre mix. Some extol salvation by willpower alone while others recommend submission and helplessness. A few mix both power grabbing and helplessness. Gurus mix false humility and know-it-all self-confidence, peddling a combination of folk psychology and wish fulfillment.
Kaminer blasts salvation by faith and grace as permissiveness mongering. Evils are not inevitable or for the best. This is not the best of all possible worlds. Omnipotent, all-good Gods would not tolerate great evils. Religion, mixed with more important things, can produce great value, but not in individuals preoccupied with religiously correct faith. Many consider good works anathema.
Self-helpers often believe individual conversion is the only route to change the world, an enormously popular belief because it means we need not know how the world works or do anything about it.
Self-help language is unclear and unspecific--full of fuzzy, feel-good generalities. Platitudes and old ideas are packaged as new, secret methods. No matter who you are, magic techniques will make you rich, happy, and powerful. Feel-good rhetoric, allegedly, makes problems disappear. Hybrid Utopian-spiritual-communitarian-deterministic ideologies attract many. Gurus promote the spiritual evolution of the human race. Boring, specific, accurate language is a sign of the devil, that is, reason. Self-help reading itself is too often "a way out of thinking" rather than a spur to thinking. Self-help buyers talk about freedom, independence, and intuitiveness, yet seem dependent and have little skill at improvisation.
The victims of dysfunctionality are often apolitical, writes Kaminer, yet their love of lofty, ill-defined language sends some right into the waiting arms of political demagogues, the masters of euphemism and indirection. Despite the upbeat rhetoric, self-help depresses Kaminer. She claims survivors of the Cambodian genocide laugh more often than self-pitying self-helpers.
Kaminer's work is a bit dated. The submission fad is history, except in tribal religions. Kaminer does not use research to support her arguments. Her mixture of take responsibility exhortations and Abbie Hoffman ultra-liberalism perplexes. Worth reading.
—Book review article by JT Fournier, last updated July 5, 2009