Jessica Lamb-Shapiro's Promise Land seems to invite preconceptions.
First, there's the white kitty hanging perilously from a rope on the book cover, cheekily recalling the famous "Hang in There" inspirational poster.
Then there's the subtitle: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture.
Flip to the first page of prologue. The book opens: "Ten years ago, I tagged along with my father to a weekend conference on how to write self-help books." Yes, it really was a self-help retreat for self-help-guru wannabes.
From those elements, you might expect an arch, cynical take-down of a movement and the industry that feeds it (or feeds off it).
Lamb-Shapiro will be the January 27 guest in the River Readings at Augustana series, and you're hereby advised to not judge this book by its cover or its opening sentence. It's so much richer than that.
There is a hint of that on the cover: It's labeled a memoir.
And another hint in the first paragraph: Her child-psychologist father had written self-help books for decades, and only the most churlish child would write a book mocking a well-meaning, generally competent parent.
Later in that opening chapter, Lamb-Shapiro lays out what she's really up to, writing about her struggles with the book, with her failure to find a firm stance: "Some of the groups and workshops I attended seemed useful and genuine; some didn't. Some of the books I read I admired and enjoyed; some I didn't. There was no truth waiting to be discovered. Eventually, I grew tired of searching, and that's when I realized that I had been stalled at the threshold of something much more personal."
The next paragraph begins: "Self-deception is the most intractable deception." It ends: "I was headed toward a very uncomfortable, awkward, and painful conversation with my father."
And the next paragraph begins: "My mother died just before my second birthday."
All of this suggests a restive, curious mind, and in an interview last week, Lamb-Shapiro admitted that it's difficult for her to keep things simple. "I'd be terrible on a debate team," she said. "I'm always arguing with myself. ... It's always very complicated."
And later: "I would write the worst self-help book ever."
So six pages in, the author has obliterated any sense of what Promise Land is, replacing it with suspense, with questions. How will the author negotiate the tension between earnest assistance and crass commerce, both inherent in self-help? Can she reconcile her conflicted feelings about self-help, especially considering her father's vocation and aspirations against her skepticism? How will the personal narrative play out in the context of an immersion in self-help literature and workshops? And will it all amount to a coherent book, or something with a hopelessly split personality?
To partly answer those last two questions, I'll fast-forward to the book's epilogue, titled "In Which My Father & I Break Into a Cemetery." I'll leave the details for you to discover, but I will say that Lamb-Shapiro has built the book to a tender, tentative moment that is entirely expected yet written with delicate precision - a quiet breakthrough that is a beginning rather than an ending.
In other words, Lamb-Shapiro and her father are still working through what they didn't talk about for more than 30 years - the 1979 death of her mother.
"I have a lifetime of habits I'm still somewhat enslaved to," she said. "It's sort of a slow process of change. ... We're still the people we were last year."
That process is hard enough for two people. The difficulty is magnified when it's in service to a book, and then made public through the book.
Lamb-Shapiro said she was careful to be sincere with her father, and to never do something merely for Promise Land.
Take the cemetery visit. "Certainly, when we made the plan to go," Lamb-Shapiro said, "it wasn't about the book. ... The writing sort of initiated a process in real life. ... I didn't force any of it, because I was afraid to force any of it. ...
"My mother's death was a subject nobody wanted to discuss," she added, because nobody had discussed it. So when it became clear that the book needed to address that death, she had to lay groundwork with her father: "In order for me to feel comfortable talking about it publicly, I have to talk to him privately. ... That was something he had not wanted to talk about with me," let alone with his friends or with the reading public.
And, as the prologue suggests, this was not territory Lamb-Shapiro approached with enthusiasm. The book was published early last year, but its origins date back a decade, to an article Lamb-Shapiro wrote about that self-help-for-self-help-authors workshop led by Chicken Soup for the Soul kingpin Mark Victor Hansen.
Agents thought the article might lead to a good book, but the author was hesitant. In 2008, she finally sold the book on proposal, intending to write a survey of self-help. She wrote several complete drafts but found it repetitive and boring.
Then she had her epiphany and was able - with the help of her editor - to incorporate the personal into the exploration of self-help. "Those choices [of what to include and exclude from her family story] felt very unclear to me," she said. "To me, everything about me is self-evident."
The result is, to some extent, messy. Personal history is interspersed with personal self-help experiences undertaken for the book and with an exploration of self-help literature through the centuries. But her family anecdotes give the book a shape and momentum through what the self-help books would call a journey - although Lamb-Shapiro never settles for the easy platitudes or mangled language you'll find in the genre she's writing about.
She goes to a workshop based on the dating handbook The Rules and hears a distressing testimonial that undercuts the whole enterprise. She walks on hot coals with hormonal teenagers. She tries to overcome a deep phobia. (The chapter begins: "I am afraid of crowds, elevators, and heights. I am - to such a degree that I avoid it entirely - afraid of flying.") She attends a grief camp for kids (in the chapter "The Saddest Camp in the World").
Lamb-Shapiro has a sharp eye, but the book would indeed be tedious without her heart. You can see the distaste she has for the self-help industry and its profiteering, for the isolation inherent in trying to work through one's problems via books, and for the kookiness of much of the advice. Yet she sometimes finds herself moved personally, and cheered by the community that develops at workshops despite all the money changing hands. Some people are indeed helped.
It's less neutrality than openness, and Lamb-Shapiro said that mindset "was something I had to work at. ... It was almost like a thought experiment." Instead of going in cynically, she tried to figure out what was good about any particular self-help event. People aren't stupid, she said, and self-help was meeting a need.
Promise Land, she added, was helpful to her personally in several ways. Her fear of flying, she noted, likely wouldn't have been addressed without the assignment she gave herself in the book. "I can push myself to do things for writing that I wouldn't do for myself," she said. "I would not have sought out that kind of self-help."
And then, of course, there's the death of her mother, and the way that talks with her father have moved beyond the perfunctory.
"We've gotten a lot closer," Lamb-Shapiro said, and "I really enjoy that change in my relationship with him."
And although she forced him to begin talking about the previously unmentionable, "I feel like my dad has taken the lead" since the book was published, while she's become more "shy" on the topic.
"It's not finished," she said of her family's grief process.
Jessica Lamb-Shapiro will speak on Tuesday, January 27, at 7 p.m. at Augustana College's Wilson Center (3750 Seventh Avenue, Rock Island). Admission is free.
For more information about Jessica Lamb-Shapiro and Promise Land, visit PromiseLandBook.com.