Making sense of self-help

By Julie Lasky / New York Times News Service

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro began writing her new book, “Promise Land” (Simon & Schuster; $25), as a way to make sense of the immense body of self-help literature, from the dawn of religion to modern home management. Wildly funny, it takes a few dark turns as well.

Lamb-Shapiro, 36, recently discussed some of them on the phone from her weekend house in East Chatham, N.Y. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)

Q: “Promise Land” is a story about self-help that evolves into one about mourning. Your mother committed suicide when you were not quite 2, and the facts of her death were only gradually revealed to you. When and how did you learn those stories were connected?

A: I was about halfway through the book, and I basically had no idea that the book was going in that direction. I had structured it as different genres of self-help: dating, weight loss, parenting. I had a chapter on grief, mostly because I wanted to do something serious in addition to lighter topics, but I was not thinking of it in a personal sense.

As soon as I started reading books on grief, they started resonating with me. It dawned on me that my experience with my mother, and the fact that my father and I couldn’t talk about it, were extremely relevant to what I was writing. And my own capacity for self-deception was really shocking. One reason why I’m not sure self-help books can help is because on some level we’re all deluded.

Q: About a year after your mother died, your father remarried and you traveled around Europe for a year, finally settling in Paris. Did that rootlessness shape your attitude toward homes and home life?

A: It shaped it a lot. When you’re moving around, you don’t have a lot of toys and clothes, but one thing I did have was a bag shaped like a house and a collection of Smurfs that were in the bag. Every time we went to a new hotel room, I would set it up as a little scene. Just that action gave me stability. We’re in a different country, but this house is still here.

Later, we came back and my father divorced that woman, and I was in joint custody between the two of them. Just being in two homes and going back and forth really affected me. At 16, my grandmother bought me a car, and I thought that was my home. I kept everything in it. When I went to college, it was the first time I didn’t have to move around, and I was so happy to have a dorm room.

Q: Which came first, the mood boards interior designers use to communicate ideas to clients, or the vision boards self-help practitioners make so they can define and accomplish their dreams?

A: I never made that connection before. I have no idea which came first. I think vision boards have been around for 20 years at least. They’ve definitely gotten much more popular in the last 10 years.

Q: In your book, you persuade a friend to make a vision board. Have you ever done one yourself?

A: No, I didn’t think I could fully invest in it. I thought it was almost like a Ouija board: I wouldn’t be able to not influence the result. Just like a vision board in interior design, it’s a way of organizing your brain in a visual way, which is helpful for people. I’m more of a list-maker myself, but I thought about making one several times because a lot of the things on my friend’s board came true.

Q: Did your friend go on that cross-country bicycle trip?

A: Yes, she built her own bike and did a short leg of that trip. She quit her job. She’s got more time for writing. I’m very confident that it’s because she made different choices, not because the universe delivered in some way. But she said it was helpful psychologically to have the vision board around, just to remind her of the big picture and where she was going.

Q: In the end, you come down against self-help. You write, “Positive thinking can look an awful lot like old-fashioned denial.” Would you recommend any self-help books?

A: I would definitely recommend — and have recommended — books; I mean, I read so many. Anytime someone was telling me about a problem they had, I resisted the urge to say, “You should read this one.” I didn’t want to seem pushy.

Q: What characterizes the books you liked?

A: They were not closed systems. Each one spelled out that everyone is unique and their experience is unique, and that the information should not be followed to the letter; it wouldn’t work the same way with every person. Also, they allowed the reader to take what was useful and reject what was not useful.

Q: And the least-helpful books?

A: The least helpful didn’t allow for different points of view. They said if you didn’t do one part of the book, then the whole thing would fail. They were extremely rigid.

Q: Authors like the women who wrote “The Rules”?

A: They were always saying: “Don’t read other books. Don’t tell other people about this book. Don’t tell your therapist.” Those demands made me think of a cult: “You can’t leave, and you can’t tell anyone about it.” That kind of thing makes me feel very nervous and suspicious.