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Self Help : With Improvement Books Cramming the Shelves, Experts Are Asking: Do They Really Work?

October 02, 1988|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Lisa Marsoli and Mel Green had planned on having some fun when they set out to promote their book, "Smart Women, Stupid Books: Stop Reading and Learn to Love Losers." A good-natured jab at the avalanche of self-help guides for women in search of Mr. Right, the book urges desperate single women to reconsider some undesirable personality types, including the clam, the egomaniac and the mad artist. Chapter 3, "Breaking the Rules: Dating the Deranged," tells how.

Trouble is, some talk-show listeners refused to take the book lightly, and pressed the authors for advice. Exasperated by their demands, Green began offering these stock suggestions to lovesick callers, whatever their dilemmas: "Loosen your garters and eat some cheesecake."

Marsoli and Green's experience demonstrates what many mental health professionals have suspected for years: America's love affair with self-help books has become a steady relationship. More than 2,000 are published annually, estimates Chandler Grannis, contributing editor of Publishers Weekly. And if their success is an indication, many will continue to land on best-seller lists.

But while some experts believe self-help books can motivate readers to break bad habits and live life more fully, others caution that with promises of quick and easy solutions come pitfalls, including the possibility of psychological harm.

Heeding the call for a reform of the genre, psychologists and publishers are debating ways to improve self-help books, an effort complicated by the fact that American Psychological Assn. and the American Psychiatric Assn. do not have official policies regarding them.

"The claims (on book jackets and in advertisements) have become increasingly outrageous," said Gerald Rosen, a Seattle psychologist and a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington Medical School, Seattle.

"Some of the titles themselves are ridiculous," said Rosen, who chaired the American Psychological Assn.'s now-defunct Task Force on Self-Help Therapies. As an example, he cites "The Doctor's Guide to Instant Stress Relief," adding, "There's no such thing as instant stress relief."

Surveys suggest the likelihood of self-help books leading to psychological damage is rare. Only 8% of the psychologists polled by Portland psychologist Steven Starker reported clients had complained of being harmed by self-help readings. And none of the surveyed psychologists considered self-help works generally harmful, although 4% rated them "unhelpful" and 29% found them "rarely helpful," said Starker, author of the new book "Oracle at the Supermarket: The American Preoccupation with Self-Help" (Transaction Books).

Such surveys, however, may not reflect the actual incidence of psychological damage, other mental-health professionals maintain.

"In many of the books, people are given instructions on how to solve difficult problems without a support system," said Patricia Keith-Spiegel, a psychology professor at Cal State Northridge. "Suppose a reader tries something (suggested in the book) and it fails. There's no one to say, 'You've misinterpreted me here.' There's no one there to mop up the consequences."

And if a book doesn't deliver on its promise, experts say, readers may blame themselves, discouraging even the most enthusiastic.

Helen Swanner, for instance, a La Crescenta real estate agent who credits much of her professional success to the seven to 10 self-help books she reads each year, was recently frustrated by one that called for myriad behavior and attitude changes. "Who can make all these changes at once?" she said.

But to some self-help book proponents, even a little help is better than none. Says one: "If I get just one good idea, it's worth the price of the book."

Psychologist Starker explains the fascination with self-help books this way: "We all want to better our lives, to become more beautiful, to be happier. In our mobile society, people have fewer sources of immediate support. A self-help book can be a pep talk that keeps people hopeful and gives them some direction. There's the constant hope that the next book will change your life for the better. If someone promises that, why not take a risk, particularly if it costs $3.95?"

In a survey of reading habits, Starker found that Portland residents read an average of three self-help books a year. In other surveys, he found that a majority of psychologists recommends self-help books at least occasionally, and that West Coast therapists are more apt to do so than those in the East.

Self-help books also appeal to our penchant for independence, say experts. "We tend to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps," said Keith-Spiegel of Cal State Northridge. And for some, the books work as well or better than other psychological assistance.

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