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
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
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
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