Readers may need help coping with self-help

August 05, 1993|By Karen Mitchell | Karen Mitchell,Knight-Ridder News Service

Perhaps you're searching for a little summer reading, something in the way of "How to Get the Non-Addictive Safe-Sex Love You Crave While Your Sacred Inner Madwoman Does It All With Metaphysical Wolves Who Have the Courage for Intimacy."

Get thee to the nearest bookstore and have a peek at the section marked "self-help/psychology." This loosely defined, lumped-together literary genre embraces a wide range of books from just-plain-silly primers on how to hook a mate to heavily researched, scholarly tomes on Jungian themes in mundane lives.

The flow of current "help yourself" literature is often credited to earlier works, such as Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" (1962) and "The Cinderella Complex" (1981) by Colette Dowling. These consciousness-raisers were soon joined on the shelves by self-help efforts patterned after 12-step addiction recovery programs and by books dealing with childhood and sexual abuse.

Nicky Marone, a Boulder, Colo., author and raconteur whose latest book is "What's Stopping You? Overcome Learned Helplessness and Do What You Never Dreamed Possible" (Simon and Schuster, $11) relates the proliferation of self-help materials on book-shop racks to the popularity of psychology with baby boomers.

"Before the baby boom generation came along, if you went to see a counselor about your problems you were considered 'crazy,' so you often kept it a secret," she says. "Now people will announce, very casually, 'Oh, I have to see my therapist this week.' "

Self-help books, Ms. Marone believes, can complement issues that readers may be working on in therapy. Or, they can help those individuals who can't afford therapy to better understand their personal concerns.

"I think the impetus behind reading self-help books is noble," Ms. Marone says. "People want to end their suffering or learn something new or be better than they are."

Book purveyors and authors alike acknowledge that the majority of self-help books are aimed at women.

"Women in our culture have been told -- relentlessly -- that something's wrong with us," says Ms. Marone, whose first book, "How to Father a Successful Daughter," has been translated into eight foreign languages.

Everything needs fixing

"It's a bit of a generalization, but because women, and minorities, feel like there's something wrong with them all the time, they often don't think there's anything they don't have to fix," she says.

With a plethora of self-help/psychology books from which to choose, the potential reader needs to select carefully, cautions Ms. Marone.

"Some books are just capitalizing on people's loneliness and suffering, or on our less-desirable human traits," she says. "Then we get the exploitative titles about 'How to Marry a Rich Man.' The genre is like every other: First we get real art, then we get high-quality research translated out of academic journals, all the way down to the garbage."

Ms. Marone says a "new wave" of women's non-fiction may be heralded by two recently published books: Naomi Wolf's examination of our preoccupation with beauty and thinness, "The Beauty Myth," and "The Mismeasure of Woman," by Carol Tavris, which examines how society uses the male as the cultural norm, thus making it appear that females are either inadequate or the ones with "the problem."

Basically supportive of what she prefers to call the "self-aware movement," Ms. Marone cautions readers against falling into the "Hamlet syndrome."

"Hamlet's tragic flaw was that he couldn't take action," she says. "The self-aware movement is dangerous when it's all in your head, when all you do is read about it, when it's just mental masturbation.

"It gets scary sometimes to give advice to an abstract reader," says Ms. Marone.

Carolyn Zeiger has always believed in biblio-therapy, the therapeutic effect of reading books as a valuable adjunct to therapy.

Now she has written a book of her own -- well, almost. Ms. Zeiger, a Boulder licensed clinical psychologist, has recently completed "Doing It All Isn't Everything: A Woman's Guide to Harmony and Empowerment" (New Perspectives Press, $12.95). Her co-author, Denver management trainer Stephanie Allen, is Ms. Zeiger's sister.

In 1989, the siblings founded the Athena Group, a leadership training and consulting company promoting effective working partnerships between men and women. Much of the material in the book came out of the training that Ms. Zeiger and Ms. Allen have given to about 1,500 women.

Books vs. life

Janet Woititz, author of several best-selling "recovery" books, including "Adult Children of Alcoholics" and "Struggle for Intimacy," offers her opinion of self-help books.

"I think a 'self-help book' is an oxymoron," she says. "By that I mean that books can give us insight and an awareness that we're not alone and, probably, that we're not crazy, but I get concerned when people look to self-help books as a way of 'doing life.'

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