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Book Review: Helping Me Help Myself by Beth Lisick

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Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone is perfect for lazy, cynical people who say they want to work on improving themselves but really just want to make fun of others. It enables you to read only one book and become knowledgeable about many of the prominent self-help guru theories.

The story commences with Beth awakening with a hangover, mysterious bruising, and muscle pain on January 1, 2006. Via a replay of the videos on her digital camera, she realizes she has performed her party trick of “doing the splits.” While contemplating her first-ever New Year’s resolution (to be able to do the splits on her other side for her next New Year’s Eve party) she somehow happens on a decision to stop eschewing self-help books and take a year to explore and write about the self-help world. The beginning is fantastic and grabs you. She has a wry sense of humor and you can’t wait to hear more.

The reader discovers Lisick is an author and a banana. In between writing gigs, she receives a paycheck by dressing up as a banana. Her husband is a workaholic. Their marriage is celebrated between the hours of midnight and 2:00 a.m. They have a tantrum-prone four-year-old. They are poor financial managers. Her father is very sick. They have completely neglected their house such that the front steps are rotting and the bedroom ceiling is in danger of caving in. What better time than this to take an entire year and attend expensive self-help workshops?

Helping Me Help Myself begins on a comedic note and maintains a healthy dose of sarcastic humor overall. It is divided into monthly chapters. I’ll briefly review her year.

In January, she peruses a Jack Canfield (of Chicken Soup for the Soul fame) book, The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. This book recommended she ask for what she wants. Ironically, in this chapter, she asks for help repeatedly and gets rejected.

In February, she explores Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and attends one of his workshop. In March, she forces herself to choke down John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and attends his vitamin-hawking seminar.

In April, she takes Richard Simmons’ Cruise to Lose, even though she has never had a weight problem. In May, she reads Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern, and organizes a few rooms of her house.

In June, she tackles 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 by Thomas W. Phelan, PhD. Her July chapter is six sentences long about how she and her husband should have more sex. Presumably, that is why this month’s chapter was so short: she was otherwise occupied.

In August, this 11-sentence chapter about being “relaxed and slipping on my self-improvement project” leads the reader to believe she let July’s project creep into August. In September, she and her family go on a two-week vacation to Tuscany. She half-heartedly reads The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. After this vacation, there is a startling $148 in their bank account and they are delinquent on all their bills including being two months behind in preschool payments.

In October she reads Suze Orman’s The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom: Practical and Spiritual Advice So You Can Stop Worrying. She lowers her credit card’s annual percentage rate (APR) with one phone call and attends a conference. In November she sees Deepak Chopra and reads his book Life After Death: The Burden of Proof. In December she attends a Sylvia Browne (psychic) talk.

Beth’s journey into the world of self-help is wonderful. The not-quite-hidden disgust in her voice when describing the gender stereotyping of the Mars-Venus book is fabulous. After reading Gray’s first anecdote she writes, “so far he sounds like a total dick.” She calls herself a “knee-jerk Godophobe…in a deity-heavy self-help world.” You can’t buy a turn of phrase like that.

She tries valiantly to minimize her disdain for so many of the other “gurus,” but her personality comes through in her writing too much to disguise her true feelings. Her frank appraisal of all the motivational speakers is often laugh-out-loud funny.

She describes her precocious young son’s tantrums with an honesty that is painful to read, yet she is able to make it play like a dark comedy.

Somewhere deep inside, it hits me that this whole thing would probably make a pretty choice YouTube clip. My sad, frustrated mom-face scrambling for a solution while getting taunted by someone who wasn’t born until 2002…And it would be funny if I found it on YouTube, as opposed to its way-too-frequent rotation on MeTube.

She also has some moments of startling clarity and insight.

A sense of despair mounts as I think about the very real work he did versus this personal growth “work” I am paying over a thousand dollars to do. My parents were the first in their families to go to college, and here I am, flying halfway across the country to hammer out my “personal mission statement.” It seems like the curse of a certain class, having the free time and energy to devote to your “emotional bank account” and “synergistic communication.”

After the Richard Simmons cruise, however, there is a deflation in the narrator’s voice. Her exuberance and optimism fade a bit and the entire book seems to turn morose. The humor is more biting than light-hearted. The cold hard reality of being broke seems to set in. I couldn’t help but mentally add up the money she was spending during the course of this year ($10,000) while not holding a steady job.

The chapters get shorter and it felt to me that she just wanted to be finished with this book, perhaps in order to start collecting royalty checks. Don’t get me wrong, I loved her writing style and her humor, but I just felt a little rushed at the end. After all, I’m a lazy self-helper who wanted an ending that pointed me toward the self-help idea or at least taught me what she’d learned.

She indicated that during this journey she had wanted to do some practical chores, such as painting the inside of her house and obtaining an earthquake preparedness kit. She did neither, even after three tremors occurred near her home. This struck me as sad.

By my accounting, she did manage to read several books, master the art of actually wearing the goofy nametags they hand out at conferences, partially organize a few rooms of her house, decrease her credit card APR, and learn to fly while she was dreaming.

She also seems to have become depressed. She describes a young actor in a school play as “fake-tending a fake fire,” which she uses as a visual metaphor for “going through the motions without being alive or present.” This is the perfect description of the last scene in the book.

The Afterword comes in July, 2007, when she is passing out bananas in her banana suit and gets mocked by a marathon runner who has lost all his body fluids pursuing his own dream. Her parting summary indicates that, “we may be humming along just fine for a while, but we also can’t help but compare our tests and goals to those of other people…All we’re ever going to do is stumble around.”

She did not succeed in learning how to do the splits on her other side, and sadly, nowhere therein will you find a banana split joke.

About Alexandria Jackson