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Chicken Soup for the Bottom Line

A review of SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Has Made America Helpless, by Steve Salerno

Cynic that I am, I enjoyed a moment of schadenfreude after it was reported that James Frey had fabricated parts of his alcoholic memoir, "A Million Little Pieces." That moment was short-lived. Frey, unfortunately, turned out to be the exception that proved the rule--namely, that there are a million little James Freys out there, and they prosper in an industry James Salerno calls SHAM.

SHAM stands for the "Self Help and Actualization Movement," and it's the title of Salerno's book exposing it. It's a clever acronym and a fitting description of the modern-day carnival barkers who've made a fortune off other peoples' problems.

SHAM is a quintessentially American industry. There are no barriers to entry, market forces act almost unchecked, and the most skillful hucksters rise to the top. SHAM also bears an eerie resemblance to the mass-market religion practiced by preacher/entrepreneurs like Joel Osteen, but that's another discussion for another day.

The beauty of SHAM is that Frey notwithstanding, frauds and incompetents ply their trade with impunity. To begin with, SHAM artists' stock in trade consists of empty slogans and circular statements, which are hard to quantify and harder to sue over. Even better, if the promised "cure" doesn't materialize, they have a ready-made defense: the customer didn't want to get better. These guys remind me of the minor-league manager who said, "I managed good but boy, did they play bad."

Salerno names names, starting with B-listers like pop guru Deepak Chopera and Jack ("Chicken Soup for the Soul") Canfield, and works his way to the top, where Oprah Winfrey reigns. Along the way, he strips the halos of SHAMdom's leading lights. For example, motivation king Anthony Robbins insists that your favorite foods have an "energy frequency," something that comes as news to nutritionists. And self-styled relationship expert Dr. Phil McGraw was disciplined by the Texas licensing board for sexually harassing women.

The author doesn't limit his attack to the Dr. Feelgoods. He also takes aim at coaches, both real and ersatz, who've cleverly marketed their services to men who wouldn't be caught dead on a psychiatrist's coach. But there's a problem with these coaches' advice: what works in sports doesn't work in the rest of the world. Put Tiger Woods in a Fortune 500 company, and he could turn into a high-maintenance pain in the butt. And that "attitude is everything" mantra doesn't jibe with reality either. Some athletes are swifter and stronger than others; and, as Damon Runyon advised us, that's the way to bet.

The dregs of SHAMdom are what Salerno calls "contrepreneurs," ex-offenders who, after an appropriate public repentance, cash in on their misdeeds. His rogues' gallery includes a former member of the Columbo crime family, a bank robber mean enough to get sent to a federal supermax, and the Ponzi scheme operator who coined the term "Club Fed." You aren't alone in wondering whether contrepreneurs are sending the message that crime does pay.

SHAM would be nothing more than a national irritant were it not for the fact that its practitioners can harm others. Some engage in sleazy cross-marketing and pyramid schemes. Others drift into fields where they have no expertise. Still others misdiagnose problems and make them even worse. Most dangerous of all are those who talk clients into believing they'd been sexually abused and encourage them to bring trumped-up charges.

But according to Salerno, SHAM's worst effect is that it has given Americans an excuse to thumb their nose at society's rules. He divides SHAMdom into the Victimization faction, which encourages people to blame others for their problems, and the Empowerment faction, which urges them to focus on themselves. Either way, they're giving a green light to bad behavior. Point well taken. In recent years, with the help of the pros, Americans have blamed their wrongdoing on everything from Twinkie consumption to "black rage."

But Salerno goes off on an extended frolic and detour in the final chapters. He laments the "feminization" of society, and accuses America of wimpiness–at least before 9/11 made aggression fashionable once more. He fulminates about out-of-control litigation, which is actually more under control now than it was 20 years ago. And he bemoans our lack of shame, even regretting the disappearance of the phrase "illegitimate child" from our lexicon. Even if you agree with Salerno's politics, it's a stretch to blame an industry the size of professional sports or video gaming for such a long list of social ills.

If right-wing polemics agree with you, then read SHAM cover to cover and enjoy the entertainment. Otherwise, stop after Chapter Eight and hunt up a copy of Wendy Kaminer's I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, a brutal send-up of the motivation-and-inspiration field that doesn't carry Salerno's considerable baggage.

Copyright © 2006 PAUL RUSCHMANN. All Rights Reserved.
Posted March 2006.