SHAM stands for Self Help and Actualization Movement and is the Author Salerno’s choice of that acronym, along with his subtitle (“How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless”), reveal the content and tone of the book. I am glad to have seen the book, but ultimately only skimmed most of the chapters.
Salerno’s analysis of self-help as an industry is accurate and fascinating. He began with a fact: the target audience for a self-help book is someone who bought a SH book on that topic 18 months ago. WAIT!! If the help worked, they should not need another book!
A closer look shows a field that, if grounded in science at all, over-simplifies and generalizes, then packages the result with an emotional experience: the high of sliding down a steep cliff (“How will this help you sell more houses?” Salerno asked a realtor. “I don’t know,” he eventually replied – but added enthusiastically, “I am sure it will!”). Aside from testimonials, little evidence from objective follow-up studies supports these programs.
Salerno’s second point is even more sad: that the SH industry makes us feel inept, ugly, unskilled, and unsuccessful. It diagnoses problems in our families, marriages, friendships, and jobs. It tells us we are victims, addicts, diseased, or dysfunctional. Worst of all, we are incompetent to improve, and so are all the potential mentors in our lives. Only their secret knowledge can save us – for a price. Salerno speculates that the more SH literature one reads, the more problems one will identify in their lives – and feel bad about.
These two ideas would make a great magazine article or blog paper. To turn them into a book, Salerno supports them with lengthy investigations into some of the most prominent celebrities of the Self-Help world.
These examples constitute the bulk of the book. It only deserves a careful reading if you want to know details – sometimes salacious – of celebrity self-help gurus and their programs. Even so, after finding that John Gray (Mars-Venus) has a diploma-mill doctorate or that Dr. Laura’s sex life is scandalous, my interest waned. Salerno’s initial case was convincing enough.
For anyone who is caught in the SH cycle, SHAM would be a powerful antidote. For others, the first and last chapters will be most interesting; the rest can be covered through rapid grazing.