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A book to help wade through self-help industry

bookIn The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need: Repress Your Anger, Think Negatively, Be a Good Blamer, and Throttle Your Inner Child (ISBN 0-465-05486-2), renowned neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall turns a jaundiced eye to the world of self-help books.

With humor and verve, he takes aim against the prevailing platitudes of the self-help gurus — “high self-esteem is necessary for success,” “we need to let out our inner-child,” “a positive attitude is the key to achievement,” and so on — and hits a bull’s eye most of the time. Here is a book both for those addicted to self-help philosophies and for a society some writers now describe as the “therapeutic culture.”

In his approach to self-help philosophies, Pearsall asks readers to develop what he calls “contrarian consciousness.” By this he doesn’t mean that we must oppose an idea simply because it emanates from the self-improvement shelves of our local bookstores, but that we should ask questions of these philosophies, that we should approach them asking for facts and data. Pearsall himself follows these guidelines throughout his study, again and again bringing forth research, statistics, and data that refute or call into question many of the major ideas of popular self-help philosophies.

Pearsall also gives readers solid, firm advice on how to approach self-help books and schools of thought. In the chapter titled “Developing a Contrarian Consciousness,” he lists a score of ways to approach these ideas. He reminds readers, for example, that the endorsements by celebrities of a particular book are often meaningless, that many so-called therapists, counselors, trainers, and coaches don’t know anything about psychology, that it is dangerous to read and then follow the advice of only one author. He plays fair with this genre by telling readers at the end of the list that they should keep looking at self-help books because they often contain some good ideas, but that those same readers should always consider a careful and contrarian approach to the advice they find there.

Once he has laid out his ideas concerning the contrarian consciousness, Pearsall spends the remainder of his book focusing on the myths created by various self-help movements and by pop psychology. In downgrading the effect parents have on the lives of their children, for example, he cites the studies of researchers Robert Plomin and Denise Daniels, who studied hundreds of siblings and who wrote that “two children in the same family are on average as different from one another as are pairs of children selected randomly from the population.” (Speaking as a parent, this research, with which I was already vaguely familiar, was comforting). In his chapter on aging, in which he addresses our obsessions with youth and with looking and staying young as we grow older, Pearsall again refutes many of the false beliefs we may have regarding the elderly. He cites studies showing that most old people are not sick people, that 90 percent of the very old do not live in nursing homes, and that almost half of those older than 85 have no disabling conditions. Contrary to what we hear in the news, we are not, Pearsall tells us, on “the brink of geriatric Armageddon.”

Perhaps the strongest point in The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need has to do with “codependency.” This word, recently minted, has largely negative connotations. The husband who continues to support his alcoholic wife is regarded as a codependent, the mother sheltering her drug-addicted daughter is accused of being a codependent. In his “Epilogue,” Pearsall takes on counselors like Fritz Perls, who stressed the “free and fulfilled self” and “self-actualization” while attacking, or best ignoring, the idea of community, family obligations, and our dependence on others. Pearsall counters Perls’ “Gestalt therapy prayer,” which begins “I do my thing, and you do your thing,” by reminding us that we can instead “choose to put one another before ourselves, and that always helps everyone and, ultimately, the world.”

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Readers looking for a beach book for June might want to try Stephen Hunter’s The Third Bullet (ISBN 978-1-4516-4020-5, $26.99), where we again encounter retired sniper Bob Lee Swagger. In this latest novel, weapons expert Swagger is called out of retirement to investigate a new theory regarding the third bullet that killed John F. Kennedy. Pitted against him is an even older man, the gifted CIA veteran Hugh Meachum, who was, it soon becomes apparent, involved in that long-ago assassination.

The “Meachum” sections of the story, told in the first person, give us a more-closely drawn portrait of a villain than is customary in such novels. As we learn details of Meachum’s involvement in Kennedy’s death, bearing in mind, of course, that he is a fiction, we gain insights into this rogue CIA agent’s misplaced patriotism. To remove Kennedy, he believes, will be to remove the involvement of the United States in Vietnam. Meachum fails to foresee that Lyndon Johnson, whom Meachum believes will focus on domestic issues rather than foreign, might nonetheless follow Kennedy into the quagmire of war in Southeast Asia. 

Hunter, who is a gifted suspense writer with a deep knowledge of guns and shooting, once again brings his talents to The Third Bullet. Swagger fans won’t be disappointed.    

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