“It’s nearly impossible to live in the world and escape self-help,” Jessica Lamb-Shapiro writes in the prologue to her new memoir “Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture” (Simon & Schuster, Jan. 7, 2014). We are bombarded by messages about self-help – in books, magazines, advertisements, and even our Gmail inbox — yet most of us invest little time thinking about the nature of this phenomenon. Lamb-Shapiro, raised by a widowed child psychologist father who has spent decades writing self-help books, developed a keen awareness of the culture that seems to spew motivational messages on self-improvement. She also developed a keen curiosity, the result of which plays out in her new book. Lamb-Shapiro will appear in Brooklyn on Tuesday, Jan. 7 at BookCourt in Cobble Hill to speak about and celebrate the launch of “Promise Land.”
Lamb-Shapiro was driven to write the book because of her own bewilderment with the self-help genre: by the time she hit her thirties, she had not yet settled down, was afraid of flying, and continued to shy away from discussing her feelings. If the aphorisms and guides surrounding her were as helpful as they claimed to be – and if the demand for such messages was consistent, if not growing – she wondered why she was not better adjusted.
Part memoir and part reportage, “Promise Land” analyzes contemporary American culture with a personal slant that makes for an especially poignant read. Through her research and cultural analysis, Lamb-Shapiro comes to realize that her mother’s early death and the ensuing silence between her and her father affected her in ways she had never acknowledged. As she hauntingly puts it, “in the course of writing this book I walked on hot coals; took a class on how to find a husband […] talked to over thirty aspiring self-help writers […] joined a Healing Circle; ate breakfast with over a hundred grieving children; and faced my debilitating fear of flying. Of all these things, talking to my father about my mother was by far the hardest.”
Lamb-Shapiro’s mother passed away before her second birthday. Just over a year later, her father remarried, she was legally adopted by her stepmother, and her father and stepmother sold their house, furniture, and car, and ventured to Europe to travel. “This goes against conventional wisdom,” Lamb-Shapiro writes. “According to self-help books on grieving children, preserving stability after a loss is paramount.” She also divulges that her “ambivalence” about confronting her mother’s death “was the biggest obstacle to opening a door I’d kept shut, locked, and boarded up my whole life.”
At once humorous and heart-breaking with its confessional undertones, “Promise Land” demonstrates that in insisting we know everything about a particular subject, we often blind ourselves to the fact that we know very little — or, at the very least, are in need of challenging and rethinking our understanding. Beyond its insight into the self-help culture, Lamb-Shapiro's book makes us reexamine the very notion of "expertise", which she suggests sometimes serves to thinly veil our own ignorance.
The Jan. 7 event will begin at 7 p.m. BookCourt is located at 163 Court St. in Cobble Hill.
Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has published fiction and nonfiction in The Believer, McSweeney’s, Open City, and Index magazine, among others. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts and is a graduate of Brown (BA) and Columbia (MFA). She lives in New York City and Columbia County, New York. Promise Land is her first book. Learn more at http://promiselandbook.com/.