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Pondering the self-help books written during the 1990s

Sun., Jan. 2, 2011

Those released before 9/11, before two wars, before the Great Recession

In 1993, Susan Powter wrote the self-help book “Stop the Insanity,” filled with advice on changing “the way you look and feel forever.”

Powter had closely cropped silver hair and a killer body. The book detailed her journey to success.

“Lose a little weight, gain some strength, and your whole life will change,” she wrote. “You can accomplish things you never thought possible.”

Powter’s best-seller was on top of a box of books recently returned to me by a friend. I’d loaned this friend my self-help collection nearly a decade ago, when she was navigating rough emotional waters.

In my late teens, I started reading self-help books and for the next three decades, I passed them to friends and family like sacred texts.

From “Codependent No More” to “The Cinderella Complex” to “Fat is a Feminist Issue,” the books circulated, friend to friend, woman to woman.

I often gave self-help books as Christmas gifts, in anticipation of my friends’ New Year’s resolutions.

In the 1990s, my home library exploded with books filled with advice from women writers on how to change the way you look and feel forever.

Self-help books by men filled those same shelves.

I was a huge fan of M. Scott Peck, God bless his road-less-traveled soul, and Deepak Chopra, who my husband, not a self-help type, nicknamed “Six Pack.” And I liked Ram Dass and Wayne Dyer, modern mystics who worked the New Age circuit.

Through most of the 1990s, the economy rocked. The budget deficit morphed into a surplus. Even the decade’s name – the 1990s – had a take-charge ring to it.

In the 1990s, my friends and I – and sometimes the entire country – believed in the power of change through self-control and hard work.

You can change your body. You can change your destiny. You can even change your soul.

Then, Sept. 11 happened. Around the same time, the newspaper business started its decline and journalist friends here – and throughout the country – lost their jobs, foreshadowing the downsizing of the rest of the economy that arrived later.

My friends and family members grew older. Some struggled with chronic illnesses, of body and mind, illnesses so complex that no amount of hard work and willpower could cure them.

Many of the self-help writers I admired hit their own life snags. Peck confessed in his book “In Search of Stones” that he’d cheated on his wife their entire marriage. They later divorced.

Peck also suffered with Parkinson’s disease, dying from that, and pancreatic cancer, in 2005.

Powter went bankrupt. Ram Dass had a stroke. Dyer had a heart attack; his wife left him.

Five years ago, when I turned 50, I stopped with the self-help books.

Stopped reading them. Stopped gifting them. Stopped hoping to someday write my own.

But writers have not stopped penning them.

Some recent best-sellers include “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard,” “Life Is What You Make It: Find Your Own Path to Fulfillment” and “Master Your Metabolism.”

The writers of these best-sellers still believe that individuals can control their lives through sheer effort and willpower, can change forever the way they look and feel.

I’ve lost the belief. It’s both a relief and a mourning.

However, I don’t regret the dozens of self-help books I read in my younger years.

They helped me, and some of the friends I foisted them on, better understand the time and place we dwelled in then.

I’d still recommend Peck’s books, for instance, especially his “People of the Lie” which explains the origins of everyday evil as well in 2011 as it did in 1983.

But the only self-help book I’m qualified to write now, were I so inclined, would be a slim volume titled: “I Don’t Know, but Thank You for Asking.”

I don’t know, for instance, what to call the era we’re in now. The early 2000s? It sounds tentative, the way most people my age – former take-chargers – now approach each day.

In this tentative era, I collect self-help sentences, sometimes from people I interview, sometimes from prayers, sometimes from informational signs that unwittingly convey wisdom.

Here’s a sampling:

“Unasked-for advice is criticism in disguise.”

“Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”

“Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger.”

And just today, I saw the deeper meaning in this gem, posted above our newsroom microwave:

“Please don’t use the popcorn button … It’s too powerful.”

Happy New Year.

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