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Customer Review

40 of 49 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A book for the choir, May 21, 2006
This review is from: I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help (Paperback)
There are at least two types of eloquence: one is stating the case in a manner that those already in agreement will applaud, and the other is arguing persuasively. Kaminer's book has been hailed for its exhortations and wit by foes of the "self-help" movement, whatever that is exactly. Fans of the books that she criticizes are undoubtably outraged. The skeptical will be unimpressed.

The irony is, one of Kaminer's chief complaints about the somewhat ill-defined self-help movement is that it blunts our critical thinking: she wants a nation of critical thinkers who won't analyze this book too closely. Kaminer doesn't offer any analytical evidence of how the self-help movement actually affects our society, she merely utters extremely vague warnings" "imagine the effect ... ." Nor does she have much evidence as to how people typically use self-help: a reader might gain useful insights without letting the book rule their life or joining a cult around the author. The "self-help movement" is a phrase that is tossed around a great deal, but what is Kaminer actually referring to? Any book that lumps together Norman Vincent Peale, Wicca, Alcoholics Anonymous and M. Scott Peck is covering a lot of ground. (It has never occurred to me to think of Wicca as a "self-help movement"; I guess Kaminer just doesn't like it and decided to throw it in for good measure.) All of philosophy and theology could be thrown into such a broad categorization. It would have been better if Kaminer had stuck to specific criticisms of specific books instead of trying to generalize about such a variety of works.

Kaminer's main arguments are two - one is that if you agree with her, the two of you will share the pleasure of sneering smugly at others. Secondly, she keeps informing us that whatever it is doesn't appeal to her as if we should be just overwhelmed that ***!!!!Wendy Kaminer!!!!*** doesn't approve.

I actually read this a long time ago. It came back to me when I was reading Paul Collins' fascinating The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine, and read the discussion of phrenology in the early 19th century. Kaminer seems to assume that all this is a recent phenomenon, falling back, I suppose, on the common tendency to think that things are going to pot these days but were much better at some vague time in the past. Actually, books of advice have been extremely popular since the the printing press made reading materials generally available: they were the best sellers of 16th century England. Moreover, most of these books are based, legitimately or otherwise, on psychology and/or religion, both of which predate our time. Kaminer has indicated a respect for psychology in other books, and religion certainly preceded the founding of the Republic that she argues is now endangered by self-help books. So what has happened? She compares, for example, a belief in the 12-step higher power with devotion to a political demagogue. In the first place, a disembodied, individually conceived "higher power" is not capable of running for President-for-Life. In the second place, how does this differ from religion in general (which Kaminer never directly deals with)? Indeed, religious movements seem to me to be far more likely to be used for demagoguery: when was AA a voting bloc?

Some people do get pretty silly over these books, but is that because of the book, or because they're silly? Are their individual lives actually better or worse without the book? I know several people who work professionally with alcoholics who think that AA can be tremendously helpful. Sure, it would be better if no-one was inclined towards alcoholism, but that isn't one of the choices. The members of AA, et al., feel that they are better off with the program than without it. Kaminer gives us no reason to believe that she is a better judge of what is good for them than they are.

Toward the end of her book, she expresses her hope that we will drop all this nonsense and learn to think sharply and insightfully. She doesn't explain how she expects people who are too moronic to read these advice books critically are supposed to effect this transformation.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 7, 2007, 6:21:42 PM PST
this review shows that Kaminer was mostly right (albeit quite unpleasant). Self-help needs some criticism, and self-helpers need to hear some no rather than the same old "everyone is right, anything goes".

Posted on Nov 21, 2007, 4:32:32 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 17, 2007, 8:40:33 PM PST
I would agree that almost anything can do with criticism, but I'm a bit surprised that you see that as the point of my review. I don't think that Kaminer is offering insightful or intellectually defensible criticism.

Posted on Jan 7, 2008, 4:55:17 AM PST
RGL II says:
"All of philosophy and theology could be thrown into such a broad categorization." Well, given that all theology is pulled out of someone's alimentary terminus, and that much (though certainly not all) of philosophy is mental masturbation...I don't have a problem with this.

Your review is a more erudite version of "OMG Wendy Kaminer's a big meanie! Self-help helped me and that proves it's right!!!" Having done my time amongst the self-helpers, and feeling much better now that I seek out company with two brain cells to rub together, I don't feel guilty at all sneering at the "moronic," in your own words. If Mark Twain were alive today, he'd probably come in for your condemnation too.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 24, 2008, 3:45:45 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Aug 10, 2015, 4:34:38 PM PDT
Actually, I'm very fond of Mark Twain, especially his more acerbic essays. The difference, in my opinion, is that Twain is basically presenting his beliefs, take 'em or leave 'em, while Kaminer is supposedly constructing a logical argument. Actually, even so, Twain does a better job of building a case.

The worst of Kaminer's remarks is that she rarely gives a coherent reason for her opinions. Kaminer affects to be analyzing an important social trend, but she does it on the basis of her personal reaction, not any verifiable consequences. Further, considering that she is attempting to portray this as a new threat to the republic, she is rather ahistorical.

If some people find these works helpful, I will not automatically assume that they are stupid, or that all these many and varied groups and ideas can be lumped together and judged en masse. I would consider that to be very poor critical reasoning. If you don't want to be around self-help groups, by all means avoid them. Even if you consider the people who attend to be stupid, that doesn't address whether or not the groups are helpful to their members. Kaminer concedes that perhaps AA and NA are beneficial, but with a reluctance that makes little sense. When you say that they don't have two brain cells to rub together, do you mean to say that reading one of these books causes brain-cell death? In that case, perhaps Kaminer's failure to present any real evidence should be laid to brain-damage caused by reading the books. There is the problem of people using insight to make excuses rather than improvements, but that's hardly unique to "self-help", and Kaminer doesn't seem to hold the same tendency against psychology.

The bottom line for me is that Kaminer is claiming that "self-help" poses a new and unique danger to our society, and I don't think she's made the case. It is important to critically analyze social trends, but one should produce some real evidence to back up one's conclusions.

Posted on Jun 17, 2016, 9:24:08 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 17, 2016, 9:39:03 PM PDT
Steven Haack says:
To Ms. Root,

I am waiting for my copy of "I'm Dysfunctional." As an ex participant of Alcoholics Anonymous for seven years, I can tell you that it has done me more harm than good. I kept going in hopes of learning something new. AA members are brainwashed believing AA is the only way to keep sober. In fact, they blame the participant if the person cannot keep sober.

AA beats people down and no matter how much you work the AA 12 step program, one's self esteem always remain in the toilet. AA is the most closed-minded group in the world. AA is "this" close to being a cult. Read "AA: Cult or Cure" by Bufe. By the way, the government mandates some to go to AA for therapy.

Narcotics Anonymous is a much better program. Although AA says that they are spiritual and not religious, AA is saturated with Christian theology. AA even takes credit for the Serenity Prayer.

Read "The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War" by Elisabeth Sifton, 2005 and you will discover the author of the Serenity Prayer.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 23, 2016, 10:11:50 AM PDT
Good luck with NA. I know that some people are sent by the courts. I think they automatically order AA and people have to know that there are other groups and petition to join something else. There are some non-religious groups.
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