New York Times Essay on Self Help Books

The following essay appeared in the New York Times on Sunday June 20, 2004. The thrust of this piece is to describe the two “first” pop-psychology books published, Games People Play and then I’m OK – You’re OK and then to argue that their modern counterparts lack the depth and complexity that these classics possess.

THE LAST WORD; The Golden Age of Self-Help

The very qualities that make self-help one of publishing’s most despised genres — its formulaic simplicity, its reduction of human beings to cartoonish types, its unrelenting optimism — also make it popular with people who rarely read any other kind of book. Each new volume of advice promises life-changing lessons; each delivers more or less the same fistful of homilies. Perhaps the familiarity provides comfort, for to judge by recent titles, self-help’s readers — guilt-stricken, fear-plagued, stupid-choice-making as they are — can barely stagger through a day without the assistance of trained professionals.

But even despised genres can have a creative heyday, and for self-help (as for the movies), the peak came in the 1960’s and 70’s. A new generation of suburbanites pored over pop psychology books as their younger siblings dropped out of college to smoke pot in communes or talk up the revolution. These books taught their readers exotic sexual techniques and urged them to experiment with what would later become known as alternative lifestyles. At their most ambitious — and few were more so than Thomas A. Harris’s I’m O.K. — You’re O.K., which will be reissued in trade paperback next month — the self-help books of the era vowed that the ideas between their covers could save the world.

That the world needed saving, few doubted. The debacle in Vietnam, the paroxysms of the counterculture and the menace of nuclear war fomented an apocalyptic mood. That the task required drastic change, many believed. As Todd Gitlin wrote in his introduction to the 1990 reissue of Philip Slater’s ”Pursuit of Loneliness,” a 1970’s work of popular sociology, ”anguish and hope were the very hydrogen and oxygen of the time.” Slater, Gitlin argues, ”was the first American sociologist to develop the 60’s radical idea that our domestic arrangements and foreign policy are the inside and outside of the same phenomenon.” Or, as Harris put it: ”The problems of the world . . . essentially are the problems of individuals. If individuals can change, the course of the world can change.”

You don’t actually have to believe this to be touched and impressed by the enormous task readers of such books set for themselves: to jettison their hallowed notions of the good and proper life and start over from scratch. They were brave but naïve, and in many ways self-help has been nursing them through the traumas resulting from their efforts ever since. Relationship guides for single women explain how to coax men to marry after the sexual revolution did away with the old incentives. The ”Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” franchise tutors people in the traditional gender roles they were once so keen to abandon, while Laura Schlessinger hectors her readers to return to the moral code of the mid-20th century. The self-help of today addresses itself to the limping, shellshocked veterans of yesterday’s utopian schemes, who appear to be barely holding themselves together.

By contrast, whoever Harris imagined as the readers for ”I’m O.K. — You’re O.K.” were a worldly bunch, energetic, curious and literate. He recaps scenes from Sinclair Lewis’s ”Babbitt” without stopping to explain the source and favors us with disquisitions on the subject of free will and the need for a secular concept of ”an objective moral order” — all inconceivable in a contemporary work of pop psychology. He quotes Whitman, Maugham, Emerson and (a particular favorite) Bertrand Russell, not to mention Freud and Plato, and, moreover, is clearly familiar with their work. The venerable quotations brandished by today’s self-help authors reek of Bartlett’s and ignorance.

Given that ”I’m O.K. — You’re O.K.” is a brainy and challenging book by contemporary standards, it’s chastening to realize that it was itself a popularization of a popularization. Its predecessor — by Harris’s mentor, the psychiatrist Dr. Eric Berne — was Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships, which hovered on the best-seller lists for a couple of years before ”I’m O.K. — You’re O.K.” became a fixture in the No. 1 slot. The comparison is illuminating. Berne, who developed transactional analysis, provides the general reader with a field guide to ”games,” familiar patterns of interaction that rely on plausible cover stories to conceal ulterior, often unconscious, motives. In the game of ‘‘Why Don’t You — Yes But,’‘ players begin by bemoaning a problem and inviting others to suggest solutions, all of which will be shot down. The real object, Berne writes, is ”to demonstrate that no one can give them an acceptable suggestion.”

Cataloging such games necessarily fosters an ironic, if not outright jaundiced, view of human nature, evident in Berne’s taxonomy; game titles include ”Let’s You and Him Fight” and ”Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch.” (The player of the latter game secretly welcomes being wronged: ”Ever since early childhood he had looked for similar injustices, received them with delight and exploited them with the same vigor.”) Berne called games ”necessary and desirable” because intimacy, the highest form of interaction, ”is rare, and even then it is primarily a private matter.”

Three years later, in 1967, (webmaster note: I’m OK – You’re OK was published in 1969, not 1967) Harris took Berne’s description of how people behave and reworked it into a prescription for how everyone could behave better. He wrote that ”games nearly always are destructive, inasmuch as their dynamic is ulterior, and the ulterior quality is the antithesis to intimacy.” Harris called for a new, intimate social order in which ”giving and sharing are spontaneous expressions of joy rather than responses to socially programmed rituals.”

Common sense suggests that achieving intimacy in most of our daily relations would be not only impractical but intolerable. Yet by the time Harris was repackaging transactional analysis as self-help, common sense took a backseat to idealism. Transactional analysis, he argued, should be mandated for newlywed couples. It could restore psychotics to reality, prevent teenage sex, stabilize manic-depressives, end child abuse, mend the generation gap, transform international relations and effect world peace. It was a power eminently devolvable to the people. That starry-eyed dream may have been misguided, but the capacity to dream it is something to be envied.