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SHAM

How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless

by Steve Salerno

SHAM
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2005, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 288 pages

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Far too often, the SHAM leaders delivering these pompous philosophies of life and living have no rightful standing to be doing any such thing. "There's a tendency on the reader's part to think these people are unimpeachable authorities speaking gospel truth," says Steven Wolin, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University. "That's hardly the case." In truth, writes Wendy Kaminer in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, the only difference between a self-help reader and a self-help writer may be "that the writer can write well enough to get a book deal." In Kaminer's view, the end result is that consumers make sweeping changes in their lives based on "something their aunt or auto mechanic could have told them."

By the time the most powerful woman in American media plucked him from obscurity and conferred the Oprah Touch, Phil McGraw had given up on clinical psychology, in part because, he later said, he was "the worst marital therapist in the history of the world." But McGraw, at least, holds a degree to practice what he now preaches. As we'll see, others of similar SHAM stature hail from far less convincing backgrounds; they proclaim themselves "relationship therapists" or "dating coaches," made-up specialties that require no particular licensing yet sound credible, thus duping unsuspecting patrons by the millions. At meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups, the leader's sole credential may consist of his being in recovery from whatever the specific addiction is. Society, again, seems to think this makes good sense. I would ask two questions: Isn't it possible that fellow sufferers are a bit too close to the problem to lead effectively and impartially? And if your problem was, say, that the electrical fixtures in your house were acting funky, would you really want a workshop taught by some other homeowner who couldn't get his lights to work right (and who, by his own admission, still had the problem)? Or would you want a trained electrician?

In today's SHAM marketplace, individuals who stumbled into celebrity sans talent, or who managed to "conquer adversity" entirely by accident, now collect hefty fees for talking up their experiences as if they'd planned the whole thing out as an inspirational crucible. Get stuck on a mountain for a while, lose some body parts, and presto!–instant motivational icon. I refer to Beck Weathers, the Texas pathologist who lost his nose, his right hand and part of his left hand, and nearly his life in the notorious May 1996 Mount Everest disaster that was chronicled in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Weathers, now in his late fifties, travels the lecture circuit, expounding on the theme of "surviving against all odds." You wonder, though: How many people live in situations that are truly analogous to what Beck faced up on the mountain? For that matter, what role did any of Weathers's own actions play in his survival? According to Krakauer, Weathers was like a hapless pinball bounced around the mountaintop for sixteen hours, and he almost surely would have died if others hadn't helped him down the treacherous slopes at significant risk to themselves, and if his wife had not arranged for a dangerous helicopter rescue. (To be blunt about it, Weathers probably had no business being up on that mountain in the first place, as Krakauer himself strongly implies.) So what do we learn from a Beck Weathers? Tellingly, he informs his admiring audiences that "Everest, in many ways, was one of the best things to happen to me." At $15,000 per speech, he's not kidding. Even pathologists don't make that kind of money.

Excerpted from Sham by Steve Salerno Copyright © 2005 by Steve Salerno. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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