My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture
by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro
Simon & Schuster
$25.00 List Price
In Promise Land, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro recounts her efforts to conquer one of her multiple phobias by attending a support group called Freedom to Fly. The group’s course, led by a psychologist, met at the Westchester airport and culminated in a round-trip flight to Boston. Lamb-Shapiro secretly had no intention of boarding the flight, but she ultimately mustered the nerve, thanks in part to peer pressure and the charismatic leader. The decisive influence, however, was chemical rather than social. “I had often wondered if taking a pill would prevent me from thinking I was about to die on a plane or prevent me from caring,” she writes. “It was the latter.”
This qualified victory marks one of Lamb-Shapiro’s more successful forays into the world of instructional workshops and inspirational guidance. “I wanted to know why people liked self-help so much, what it meant to them, whether it worked,” she writes at the book’s outset, “and if it didn’t work, why people still craved it.” Her quest takes her to a wide and motley array of destinations: a conference on writing self-help books, headlined by the cowriter of Chicken Soup for the Soul; a seminar by a coauthor of The Rules, the retrograde ’90s guide to husband snaring; and a New Agey camp where she joins teenagers in walking on hot coals. Most chapters are anchored by Lamb-Shapiro’s first-person account of a self-help excursion, framed by cultural history as well as the author’s tragedy-tinged autobiography.
Promise Land is very much a book of the publishing zeitgeist—the gimmicky premise, the mash-up of genres—and risks coming