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54 of 57 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Opening Salvo...But Much More Is Needed
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...
Published on August 15, 2005 by Peter Kobs

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434 of 485 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dreadfully argued
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...
Published on June 25, 2005 by Susan Wise Bauer


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434 of 485 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dreadfully argued, June 25, 2005
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. But it is only in recent years--since the advent of 'sensitivity,' 'self-esteem,' and 'getting in touch with your feelings'--that America has seen so many boys and young men acting out in horrific ways. Is it fair to draw a straight line of psychological causation that connects the two? No. But the coincidence is hard to ignore." Salerno uses this horrendously deceptive rhetorical technique again and again, apparently as a way of avoiding an actual claim of causation (that might require actual proof).

In addition, Salerno can't seem to restrain his loathing for his subjects. His analyses of the theories and profit-making techniques of self-help experts from Dr. Phil to Dr. Laura are plenty damning, but Salerno has to throw in gratuitous personal slams. "Perhaps [Marianne] Williamson is well aware that her ideas break down in the end, but she's just having a jolly time on her way to the bank." "Just as harmful as the photos were Schlessinger's coy efforts at damage control." "Orman has never married--a bit odd for a woman who spends so much time talking about balance in life."

And finally, he makes inexpert use of his sources. To prove that classrooms are damaging children by prioritizing feelings over learning, he quotes Grace Llewellyn's Teen Liberation Handbook, which says, "Healthy children can teach themselves what they need to know," as an example of this damaging trend. But Llewellyn's handbook is a radical tome on home education/unschooling; it has nothing to do with classrooms. (As a matter of fact, it recommends children get OUT of classrooms, because classrooms are damaging children." He quotes Leon Podles to prove that self-help is "feminizing" American culture (this, by the way, is a BAD thing, according to Salerno); Podles' book actually is about Protestantism and Protestant evangelical churches, and is itself very sketchily argued, since it depends heavily on Ann Douglas's outdated and polemical book on the feminization of America. He sums up his characterization of Dr. Phil by quoting Dr. Phil's ex-wife, as proof that Dr. Phil is a self-obsessed jerk. (What did he expect her to say?)

The sad thing about this book is that so much of what Salerno argues strikes me as being true. The self-help industry is out of control; it is wildly profitable at the expense of far too many desperate people; and I'm no fan of Dr. Phil, who does indeed seem to be a self-obsessed. Unfortunately, I can't give Salerno's book to any of the people who need to read it. It's just too easy to poke holes in his logic and dismiss his conclusions.
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54 of 57 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Opening Salvo...But Much More Is Needed, August 15, 2005
By 
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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32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Little scholarship here, July 19, 2005
By 
dick (Westport CT) - See all my reviews
Several of the other reviewers cite Salerno's "arguments". And that is largely what we have here. Not a serious fact/theory- based study, but an extended journalistic article, shoehorning a wide diversity of 'teachers' to align with the author's two - scarcely original - central conceptual slants: empowerment and victimization. There is scarcely any discussion of the core ideas propounded by various self-help practitioners; scarcely any reference to evidence of the validity or - likely - invalidity of these teachings, their relationship to established psychological theories, or indeed the content of what is taught. Instead, we get a scattering of scornful examples of language used by people such as Tony Robbins, Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, etc. and anecdotes discrediting their pasts. In the case of Tony Robbins, we get a criticism of his spelling.

There's an important job to be done in analyzing what's going on in the self-help movement. This book does not do it.

Dick Westwood
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, Yet Unsubstantiated, September 6, 2005
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. Some things are useful to know (such as Dr. Laura having a PhD in physiology and not psychology), but other things aren't necessary (I won't perpetuate needless disrespect). Yet another star lost.

I'll have to give him an "A" for effort; he does have a lot of research, even if it's misguided and misused (quite an understatement). Unfortunately that doesn't improve the books rating; it just keeps me from discounting it that much more.

If anything, this book will likely make you critical of self help as a consumer. It reminded me of the "Killing Us Softly" series of videos, which point out how media influences subtly promote objectification of women and promote many of the things (i.e. "you're broken, but I have the cure") that this book points out. Although both may seem over the top in many cases, they do make you think about what is going on around you; something that you can't ignore once you've been enlightened to it. I don't think all self help providers are out to create problems for which a cure exists, but I do think that some are, and that they are making a lot of money from it. I think this is fairly obvious to most people, however. Those who could benefit from this book, unfortunately, would be extremely offended by it's tone. (Please note that I in no way find this book to be on the level of "Killing Us Softly"; I just find the precedents to be similar.)

With that, I leave this book with it's remaining 2 stars. Overall, I'd recommend this to people enjoy a passively cynical view of the world. I would not recommend this in any sense to convince yourself or anyone else to avoid self help, however.
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42 of 52 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars pretty lame book, July 20, 2005
By 
One of the points of the author is that there's no hard scientific evidence that supports that the self-help industry has actually helped anyone.

The ironic thing is that the author gives absolutely NO scientific evidence backing up any of his own hypotheses.

He also goes on and on about how self-help gurus can make millions of dollars- and that this is somehow proof that they're phonies. Uh, excuse me- EVERY business is out to make money. Dell who sold your computer has made millions. Does that make them a phoney? No.

He casually mentions that the rise in divorce rates corresponds with the rise of the self-help indutrsy, implying that self-help is responsible for divorce and just about every social ill out there. Yet he gives NO evidence of a connection- he simply makes the assertion with nothing to back it up- exactly what he accuses self-help gurus of doing.

He'll rightly attack some gurus for the bad advice they give (he particularly attacks "Dr" Laura Schesslinger) but uses these specific examples to generalize that the entire self-help industry is 100% nothing but scam-artists destroying the very social fabric of society. Give me a break.

The book's thesis is poorly supported- in fact, almost laughable. It's particularly ironic that he's doing the very thing he excuses the self-help industry of doing- not supporting his assertions- except he does it even worse!

I'm returning this book as I feel I've been SHAMMED out of my $24.95
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137 of 177 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Throws the baby out with the bath water, August 4, 2005
I give the book two stars for presentation. The man can write, and he's certainly dug up some interesting tidbits on various famous self-improvement gurus. I actually laughed out loud several times while reading it, it was so entertaining. But I have to disagree with his main arguments.

Salerno is shocked that there's overlap in the content of a lot of these books. He supposedly first "saw the light" while working at Rodale, and saw how self-improvement text was recycled in several books. Why does this surprise him? Especially if you realize that he's a professional writer, and he ought to be familiar with the idea of recycling information. I understand it's pretty common to research and write an article, then tailor it for different readerships so the same basic article can be sold to several magazines. I'm sure Salerno has done it himself.

Also, he's upset that people who've bought one self-help book are apt to buy another one, and that publishers take advantage of that fact. He assumes that if you feel the need for book number two, it's proof that the first one must have been useless.

Let's extend this to the field of cookbooks, because there's kind of a similarity there. Just like a self-help book, you read a cookbook to get new ideas, make your life a little more pleasant, and to find directions for accomplishing certain goals.

So. People who buy one cookbook are liable to buy another one, and publishers take advantage of that. Does that mean the first cookbook was no good, or that the whole cookbook industry is a scam?

There's a sameness to a lot of cookbooks, as with self-help books. The same basic recipes keep turning up, with a few little variations. People know this, but they tend to keep checking out new cookbooks because if they find just one or two new ideas per book, it can make their everyday lives more enjoyable. Sometimes the exact same recipes are repackaged in various cookbooks, just like advice is recycled in self-help books. But maybe I'm looking for a general cookbook that covers all courses, and someone else wants one just on desserts. Would it really be so awful if the same chocolate mousse recipe appears in both books?

He brings up example after example of gurus with questionable credentials, and never mentions the hundreds of legitimate experts who write practical, useful books based on proven ideas. He seems to have never heard of reputable mental health professionals actually assigning self-help books to patients as "bibliotherapy."

It makes about as much sense as dissing the whole cookbook industry by digging up a lot of dirt on certain celebrity chefs who never went to culinary school, yell at their kitchen staff, etc. First off, would it really matter, if people found their recipes useful? Second, it wouldn't be fair to just ignore all the other well-trained, nice, hard-working folks who happen to write cookbooks.

Finally, when he talks about the danger of bad ideas people can pick up from self-help books and seminars, he is exhibiting the same belief in the victim mindset that he criticizes in his own book! Give people some credit for having common sense and a working baloney-detector. Besides, a bad idea for one person might be a great idea for somebody else. Let us read the advice and think about it for ourselves.
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40 of 50 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Misfiring on all cylinders, January 16, 2007
This book is a crock. And here's why:

The book claims that all aspects of American society - values, morality, education, the family, etc. - are being undermined by so-called Self-Help gurus. And one of their main techniques is to encourage everyone to think like victims. In essence: "I can't help what I do - I'm the victim of forces beyond my control".

Yet the book's title is: "SHAM : How the gurus of the self-help movement made us helpless".

The phrase "the gurus ... MADE US helpless" is clearly designed to get us to think like VICTIMS!

Even the word SHAM (used here as an acronym for "Self-Help & Actualization Movement"), is a complete non-starter, because there's no such a thing as "the" self-help and actualization movement in the sense that this book implies.

Many individuals and groups could be lumped together under this label, ranging from the totally nutty to the barely "off mainstream". Trying to hang the whole bunch with a single rope just doesn't make sense. Even something as simple as learning a few basic stress reduction techniques would qualify me as a victim of SHAM.

Oh really?

Although the book attacks some people and groups by name, it is essentially based on blatant stereotyping. For example, page 134 refers to:

"SHAM gurus like Phil McGraw, Tony Robbins, and John Gray..."

Yet the book also refers to well-known business gurus such as "... Warren Bennis, a professor of business administration at the University of Southern California's business school ..." (p.107) and "... people like Harvard's John Kotter..." (p.112) as though their every word should be taken as gospel.

McGraw, Robbins or Gray, and co. may have their flaws, by why is Kotter so much better? There may be a reason, but this book certainly doesn't supply it.

Likewise welcome "... world-class debunker, James Randi...", (p.116). What qualifications does Mr Randi have, other than his career as a "repentant magician"? None - as far as I know. He certainly doesn't have a background to match that of Phil McGraw, of whom the book admits, "... at least [he] holds a degree to practice what he now preaches." (p. 15)

Yet Randi is cited as a reliable investigator, whilst page after page is devoted to criticising the content and value of what McGraw does and preaches.

In fact the book is short of sensible discussion on all fronts.

Thus we are told that "Even a leading medical dictionary describes codependency as `a relational pattern in which a person attempts to derive a sense of purpose through relationships with others.' [no reference given] ... the definitions put forth for codependency could describe most people whose lives are built around empathy and self-sacrifice, which are qualities we once admitted in ourselves and others." (p.262)

This seems to be saying that the ONLY motive for empathy and self-sacrifice is "attempting to derive a sense of purpose", though in practise any genuine example of empathy and self-sacrifice is far more likely to be the result of HAVING a sense of purpose, not from a lack thereof.

And the unsubstantiated claims, like:

"Up to one-fourth of all hospital admissions are believed to be alcohol-related in some way." (p.228)

As to how close a link qualifies as "alcohol-related in some way", the book doesn't say, and with no indication as to where this "information" came from, readers cannot check for themselves.

Indeed, whilst there are numerous references to individuals, reports etc., there is barely a single complete citation giving document title, date, publisher, page number, even in the case of a direct quote.

The "Notes" section is 8 pages long, with just three semi-complete references. Compare this with, say, Daniel Goleman's book "Emotional Intelligence" (Bloomsbury, London (paperback): 1996). Goleman's book is not quite 30 pages longer, yet it has 29 pages of "Notes", in which at least 75 percent of the entries are detailed references.

Plus a dollop of plain old-fashioned ignorance. For instance, the attack on the idea of unwarranted self-belief tells us that the web site of:

"... life coach Mark Gibson begins, `Whether you believe you will succeed, or you believe you will fail, you are right'." (p.110).

But overlooks the fact that this epigram is not "new age" waffle - it's an almost exact quote of a statement by Henry "Production Line" Ford, who went bankrupt twice - but succeeded three times.

Likewise, on the subject of helplessness the book asks: "If a person has no power over his or her weakness, how does society credibly decide whose weaknesses are tolerable and whose isn't?" (p.153). This is presented as though the claim and problem has only arisen in the last 30-40 years. So naturally there is no indication that famed American lawyer Clarence Darrow was a leading supporter of the "no responsibility" viewpoint as far back as the 1920s.

This ignorance even extends to widely-discussed topics such as homeopathy where we read that:

"... homeopathy employs trace dosages of substances (some of them toxic, like mercury or lead)..." (p.215)

Yet the most frequently voiced objection to homeopathic remedies is that they are SO diluted that not even a trace of the original substance remains in the final dosage.

And why complain that "the Recovery ethic strongly implies that a genetic predisposition exists for whatever ails us." (p.141) when it is in fact scientists such as the evolutionary biologists who have been trying for decades to convince us that genetics influence everything we think, say and do?

Lastly, isn't the promise that `anyone can achieve anything' built right into US culture? Surely it's the keystone of "The American Dream"?

The fact is that things are indeed in a mess, but not simply because of the actions of one relatively small group of people. Those that the book attacks may well be exploiting the situation - but they didn't MAKE anyone do anything. By taking such a biased position the book not only fails to provide answers - it actively obscures the real nature of the question.
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26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the book's critics merely prove the need for the book itself, November 25, 2005
I saw the author on CNN the other night, bought the book the following day, and am quite impressed with the depth of Mr. Salerno's research, as well as his shrewdness at deductively and inductively stringing together various trends and social phenomena in making his case about the self-help movement's destructive effect on American life. As I sat down to write this review this morning, I was struck by the fact that the previous reviewer, in essence, wrote an extended advertisement for the self-help movement, and even his own services! I then read down the entire list of reviews, and this seems to typify so many of those who attack this book. They either have a personal stake in sustaining the illusion that self-help works, or seem determined to remain in denial ("I've already made up my mind, so don't confuse me with facts") so they can justify continuing to feed their own addictions. That is exactly the case that Mr. Salerno makes in his book, and one of the chief reasons why self-help is so dangerous: It becomes addictive, and like any addiction, people will find all sorts of ways of rationalizing their behavior to allow them to remain addicted. I particularly liked the author's point that it's not up to him to show that self-help doesn't work--even though he does a good job of this, though he is occasionally prone to overstatement; I can forgive him for this. Rather, it's up to the industry/movement itself to show that what they're selling does work. For $8 billion a year, we should expect nothing less.
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29 of 36 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Terrible!, April 26, 2006
Salerno picks on an enormous target - the empty-head "self-help" speakers that fill hotel meeting rooms across the country to hear platitudes and dubious advice. He informs readers that 3,500 - 4,000 new self-help books appeared in '03 alone, with the fastest growing sectors being the softest and least utilitarian - inspirational, spiritual, and relationship-oriented. "Psychotherapy has a chancy success rate even in a one-on-one setting over a period of years," writes a Harvard Medical School researcher quoted by the author. "How can you expect to break a lifetime of bad behavioral habits through a couple of banquet-hall seminars or setting down with some book?"

Salerno divides the self-help industry into two groups - "victimization" - eg. Dad was an alcoholic, etc., so stop beating yourself up - you need help! (Rev. Jesse Jackson is a premier example of this approach.) The other is "you can be anything you want - you just need to want it badly enough" - the province of an endless parade of motivational speakers. (Though there is certainly truth to success being related to effort, few have the ABILITY to reach the stars.)

Salerno also suggests that self-help vendors sometimes cause more help than benefit - eg. talking someone into leaving a less than Hollywood marriage, and ending up with worse.

Nonetheless, overall Salerno fails - badly. While rightly accusing the industry of being rife with those lacking credible evidence of effectiveness, Salerno nonetheless allows his criticisms of individuals to dwell on mostly irrelevant earlier mistakes or lesser ventures. I was particularly put off by his nonsensical criticism of Suze Orman - an individual whose financial advice books are very well researched and useful. And as I earlier alluded, a little positive motivation is probably good for all of us.

So which is the bigger SHAM - Salerno's book, or those he writes about? I honestly don't know.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars the book is worth the money--and may save you some, October 6, 2005
Okay. What I don't get about so many of the critical customer reviews of this book is that the reviewers almost sound as if they've done their own independent study of the world of self help, and they know things the author doesn't. Where are they getting the information on which they're basing their disagreement with author Salerno? All I know is that if you take the book at face value, which seems the only fair way to evaluate a book if you're not an expert in your own right, it presents a great deal of food for thought, and puts America's passion for self help in a light in which most of us may not have thought of it previously. There is a wealth of information in this book, on the "gurus," their methods, the science behind them (or lack of same), the results (or lack of same). Give it a chance, it's a worthwhile investment.
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Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless
Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless by Steve Salerno (Paperback - June 21, 2005)
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