In the years after my mother passed, my father never spoke of her death. Instead, he often gave me and my sister (14 and 16 at the time) self-help books for our birthday and Christmas presents. Titles included The Courage to Be Yourself: A Woman’s Guide to Growing Beyond Emotional Dependence, and See Jane Win: The Rimm Report on How 1,000 Girls Became Successful Women. I read all of them, along with How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Road Less Traveled, and countless others from this genre, which lined my father’s bookshelves, and he avidly read himself.
I read and absorbed the books, but mistook my father’s silence for a lack of understanding. Only years later did I realize that my father keenly observed and understood the struggles my sister and I faced as motherless teenagers, but he couldn’t speak to us directly about them. My father has always been painfully silent man, rarely communicating about the small details of our daily lives, let alone the overwhelming pain that created a huge chasm in our family. Instead, he relied on the wisdom of self-help authors to solve our problems for us.
Though being able to help yourself is a critical skill in life, urged by my father’s reliance on books over personal interaction, I took the lesson that I need to fix my own problems, rather than go to others for help. As a teenager, I developed the belief that life’s answers are found in the guidelines outlined by psychologists and self-help experts, rather than interacting with people.
The benefit of self-help is that we discover ourselves through the process of self-exploration. Self-help and other forms of healing that I’ve explored, like therapy and meditation, have enabled me to grapple with my pain and grief in bite size chunks. It has given me the tools to understand complex emotions and deal with life’s natural ups and downs. At its best, self-help can empower us to handle life’s challenges in real-time, with our own inner resources, rather than following formulas dished out by self-help gurus by rote.
Continuing in my family tradition of reading self-help books, I recently picked up Jessica Lamb-Shapiro’s new memoir Promise Land – My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture, in which she seeks to uncover why the self-help industry has become so pervasive in American society, as well as take the reader on her personal journey of self-discovery.
Her story resonated with me. Lamb-Shapiro’s mother passed away when she was two years old; my mother died when I was a teenager. Her father, a child psychologist, had the singular ambition of penning one self-help bestseller in his lifetime. My father was a surgeon and devotee of self-help and personal development. He aspired to be a psychiatrist because he wanted to help people overcome their mental afflictions, but then found that undertaking too daunting and decided to specialize in surgery instead. Even as a medical student in Saigon during the Vietnam War, he devoured self-help books; they were not readily available in Vietnam at the time, but he ended up contacting a French publisher that sent him books chapter by chapter.
Lamb-Shapiro’s father seems very much like my own father – a kind, thoughtful, and perhaps misunderstood man, who is unable to articulate the depths of his feelings. Lamb-Shapiro’s mother committed suicide, a fact that her father kept secret from her for years simply to protect his only daughter. Perhaps, through his own quest to write a popular self-help book, Lamb-Shapiro’s father chose to escape his own reality for the illusory world of self-help.
Despite my reliance on self-help books over the years, lately I have started to ask the same questions that Lamb-Shapiro explores in her memoir. Lamb-Shapiro writes, “Self-help’s rules can be comforting. They promise us control, a defense against loss. Even self-help’s inherent isolation sidesteps potential rejection. The best thing about self-help is that it frees you from needing other people; the worst thing about self-help is exactly the same.” As a self-help devotee, have I overlooked the personal relationships that are also critical to the healing process? There’s a risk that by indulging in self-help we might buffer ourselves from real feelings and relationships where healing, love, and vulnerability occurs.
At the start of Lamb-Shapiro’s memoir, she admits that actually talking to her father about her mother’s death was the most difficult part of her self-help journey. Appropriately, by the end, Lamb-Shapiro and her father together visit her mother’s grave on the 30th anniversary of her death. They embrace each other, comforted by their very human relationship.
I, too, have searched for years to uncover my mother’s stories and secrets, and to recover from her loss. My father, who possesses more wisdom than any self-help book I’ve read, has the answers to many of the questions that remain in my mind. Although I am not quite there yet, I know that I should buy a plane ticket to visit my father to continue to build a real relationship with him, instead of spending money on more books. Ultimately, this is where I believe this is where self-help should lead us – to the loving arms of human beings and to the healing we find in our relationships with them.
Christina Vo is a writer in San Francisco (christinavo.com).
Image: Old Books by Howard Hodgkin (2006)