Book Reviews: 3 new self-help books — Ann Landers, Laura Schlessinger, and Mary Pipher dish tough love

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated April 26, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

How Could You Do That?

  • Book

Book Reviews: 3 new self-help books

Well, here’s another fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. We’ve followed our bliss, we’ve taken the road less traveled, and we’ve gone from a time when books advised us to work hard pleasing others to an era when books encourage us to work hard pleasing ourselves. And what’s the result of all this empowerment? According to two best-selling psychologists, our lives feel out of control, our families are falling apart, and we need help. From them. Both The Shelter of Each Other, by Mary Pipher, Ph.D., and How Could You Do That?!, by Dr. Laura Schlessinger, fit fashionably into the current, politically co-opted interest in virtues, values, and other comforting words that gussy up the obvious. Both buy into the mantra — chanted by presidential candidates and pack journalists alike — that modern society is going to hell in a handbasket, and both offer advice on how to change destinations. But only you can decide which therapeutic approach you prefer: having your hand squeezed or your face slapped.

Pipher, in Lincoln, Neb., takes the there-there approach. She went to Berkeley in the late ’60s, and she’s big on the concept of ”tiospaye,” a Sioux word she translates as ”the people with whom one lives.” (She’s a busy therapist now, but I’ll wager somewhere in her attic is a tie-dyed-era poster that reads, ”War is not healthy for children or other living things.”) Pipher — author of the bestseller Reviving Ophelia, about the struggles faced by adolescent girls — says that tiospaye was what made her grandparents’ lives rich, even though they were poor. It was a 1930s thing, she explains, decrying the loss of old-fashioned community. ”Our culture is at war with families,” she says mournfully.

And she blames the media: ”David Letterman won’t be helping out if our car battery dies on a winter morning.” Consumerism and advertising: ”They say that effort is bad and convenience is good and that products solve complex human problems.” Psychotherapy: ”At its most superficial level, therapy teaches that feeling good is being good, and that duty and obligation are onerous chains, better off broken.” So what’s a person to do? ”We need to take back our streets and our living rooms,” Pipher urges, as if she were chairing a sit-in for peace. Then she tosses around political beanbag words like character, will, and commitment.

Among the togetherness-building activities Pipher suggests are recycling, feeding the poor, turning off the TV, and telling stories. ”I encourage families to orchestrate ‘collective emotional experiences,”’ she declares proudly, like she’s cured cancer. Myself, I encourage families to underline every sentence in this book, write and how! in the margins, put the book aside, and then watch The Simpsons together, religiously. Because that’s a model family that devours popular culture and still manages to stick together.

Or you could watch Moonstruck again. Remember that scene where Nicolas Cage is howling with love and Cher smacks him and shouts ”Snap out of it!” That’s Laura Schlessinger’s strident, simplistic approach to whatever ails you. The Los Angeles-based, nationally syndicated radio-call-in-show host and author of Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives says it’s because we’ve abdicated personal responsibility that we’re in such a psychic jam. So quit being a weakling! Smarten up! Knock off the whining! ”To resist the inner drive toward self-indulgence over character requires a value system that judges some behaviors as better than others — along with a specialty known as Courage,” Schlessinger writes, and adds conscience, self-respect, integrity, and principles to Pipher’s list of moral buzzwords. ”I’m convinced that with an intense emphasis on honor and integrity, many of people’s painful ‘situations’ or ‘problems’ simply would not exist,” she opines. Next!

I’m convinced that every skin-deep suggestion you read in both of these self-help books will move you for exactly the length of time it takes you to turn the pages, after which you will forget everything they said. Which leaves plenty of room in your neural receptors to take in Ann Landers’ new book of old columns, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!. Landers has been giving moderate, untrendy advice for more than 40 years now. She’s dealt with every conceivable romantic, marital, health, and family situation known to modern humanity. And some of her comments carry the ring of wisdom that comes only with age. ”I’m glad I have lived the greater part of my life,” she writes. ”I wouldn’t be 20 again for all the tea in Sri Lanka. I just pray that my grandchildren and yours will be able to pick their way through the mine fields of the ’90s and into the 21st century.” Now, that’s sage. The Shelter of Each Other: B- How Could You Do That?!: C- Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!: B

How Could You Do That?

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  • Laura Schlessinger
  • HarperCollins