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Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless Paperback – September 26, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

You! Yes, you! Are you addicted to self-help books? Do you require "empowerment" to reverse your "victimhood"? If so, relax—you're far from alone. The Self-Help and Actualization Movement (the titular SHAM) is, according to Salerno, an $8-billion-a-year industry that depends on legions of repeat customers. Salerno presents a carefully researched—and devastating—exposé on SHAM's predatory and fraudulent practices and its corrosive effects on society. As former editor of Men's Health magazine's books program, Salerno knows the terrain from the inside. With judicious delight, he exposes the grandiloquent bluster and blithe hypocrisy of Dr. Phil (who, psychologists say, shames rather than helps his guests) and Dr. Laura (the preacher of family values who didn't know when her own mother was murdered), among many others. He cites examples of junk science, such as Tony Robbins's talk of "the energy frequency of foods," and charges that untested alternative medicine draws people away from proven medical treatments. In addition to detailing the raw facts, Salerno excels at pinpointing the self-abnegating strategy the self-help industry employs: namely, tearing you down in the name of building you up. And the positivity yields questionable results in any case. The self-help industry should not be dismissed as "silly but benign," says Salerno, and he documents how it has undermined psychology, education and health care in this blistering critique. (June 28)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

The all-caps title is an acronym that expresses Salerno's assessment of what it signifies, the Self-Help and Actualization Movement, which he subdivides into the camp of victimization and the camp of empowerment, both of which excuse inaction. The movement fosters victimization by telling adherents they can't escape their pasts, and empowerment by exalting attitude (e.g., self-esteem) over achievement. Salerno keeps both camps in mind as he dissects the checkered--especially in terms of qualifications--careers of SHAM stars John Gray, Dr. Laura, Marianne Williamson, Suze Orman, and in their own chapters, Dr. Phil McGraw and Tony Robbins, both creators of lucrative SHAM empires by copycatting lesser entrepreneurs' wares. Salerno asks why, if SHAM programs and treatments supposedly solve their purchasers' problems, SHAM enterprises thrive on repeat customers, and why the proposed next step, should program or treatment fail, is always more of same. In the book's sobering second part, Salerno powerfully argues that SHAM does real harm through its influence on love relationships, schooling, and health care. A wonderfully lucid, angeringly cogent polemic. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Crown Forum; Reprint edition (June 21, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400054109
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400054107
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (114 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #790,240 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

458 of 510 people found the following review helpful By Susan Wise Bauer on June 25, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I bought SHAM after reading the glowing PW review. It's true that Salerno's tone is "blistering," but his arguments are so lousy that the I couldn't help thinking to myself, "Yes, but...." (and I'm no friend of self-help movements, believe me).

When Salerno is following the money, he's excellent. (Who knew that Hooked on Phonics, a program unceasingly promoted by Dr. Laura, was created by one of the partners in the company that owned Dr. Laura's show?) His chapter on Sportsthink and the corporate world is also worth reading. But when he tries to prove that the self-help movement has caused various other social trends (this occupies most of the book, unfortunately), he relies on vague assertions and rhetorical overstatements. "Politicians and their operatives also saw the possibilites here [in self-help theories]," he writes. "They stirred the pot, adding to the sense of disenfranchisement among already disgruntled factions while reinforcing their feelings of oppression and entitlement....Inexorably, such notions began to undermine clear-cut judgments about morality." Good gracious me. Who were these politicians? Who were their operatives? What disgruntled factions? Whose clear-cut judgments got undermined, and how do we know?

Salerno not only throws out this sort of unsupported statement over and over, but also draws clear connections between cause and effect while claiming not to. Here's a typical statement, following on his assertion that the self-help movement is damaging boys because it teaches them to behave like girls: "Boys have been playing with toy guns and soldiers, and before that toy cowboys and Indians, pretty much since toys existed.
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60 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Peter Kobs on August 15, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Steve Salerno's "SHAM" is worth reading despite its weaknesses and shortcomings. Essentially, this book is an angry, one-sided attack on the money-grubbing stars of the self-help industry -- the big name hucksters such as Tony Robbins, Dr. Phil, Marianne Williamson, John Gray, Dr. Laura and their ilk. Salerno demonstrates over and over again that they're motivated primarily by greed and lust for personal power. He's also concerned about the long-term effects of the "victim" mentality and "human potential" mindset on American society.

Salerno does an outstanding job following the money trail, which is not surprising given his background in financial journalism. He also unveils the fundamental dishonesty behind this burgeoning industry -- the idea that you never really "get better." Instead, followers are urged to keep buying more tapes / books / videos / etc. ad infinitum. The intellectual emptiness beneath most of these self-help programs is pretty obvious, as is the widespread tendency for gurus to use phony credentials and mail-order academic degrees.

Where Salerno fails is clear: He is so darn angry that he undercuts his own credibility from time to time. And, more importantly, he doesn't really answer the basic question: "Why are Americans pouring all this money and time into the self-help industry?" In other words, are we so overwhelmed with change that we can no longer cope? Have the old sources of value / direction / meaning failed us? And why have so many Protestant Christian congregations started mimicking the self-help movement?

These are profound questions that deserve answers. I'm not sure Salerno is up to that task, but I sure wish Karen Armstrong would tackle it. (See Armstrong's "The Battle for God" to find out why.) Bottom line on SHAM: Salerno exposes the darkness of the self-help industry but doesn't shed much light on our nation's seemingly endless hunger for shallow, simplistic solutions.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Kevin P. Barry on September 6, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Based on the subtitle and summary of this book, I imagined it would be an argumentative piece. I found, however, that the author seems to have had a predisposition which he felt inclined to defend, making it an overly-justified premature opinion. I'm convinced that the author did little more than glance in the direction of self help when researching "measurable results", however he extensively researched why self help provides negative results. I'm taking away one star for the gross lack of formal references, which anything argumentative piece should have. Some of his quotes don't even qualify the person making the statement. The precedent of this book makes for a good editorial, however I'm not convinced that even the author believes all that he has written.

The overall presentation of the argument seems like either a lawsuit or a high school debate. His side was obviously chosen early on in the project (probably before the project), and he felt the need to defend his position at all costs. He essentially blames self help for the decline in the prevalence of conservative Christian values (not necessarily a bad thing), feminization of society, youth violence, poor scholastic aptitude, degradation of "the queen's English", people taking medicine into their own hands, and numerous other things. He attempts to tilt the scale all to one side; he entirely ignores the fact that anything at all beneficial may come of self help, ignorantly villanizing the entire industry based on a 1% sample at best. For this I take another star.

I admit that this is an entertaining piece of work. Some of the things he says are funny, and some are shocking (if they are, in fact, true). I don't like the potential slander thrown out to discredit specific people, however.
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