I'm OK, You Suck

Popular advice books get tough.


The two best-selling advice gurus in the U.S. would like us to call them by their first names. But don't be fooled by such folksy familiarity. Dr. Phil (author of the chart-topper Relationship Rescue) and Dr. Laura (10 Stupid Things Couples Do to Mess Up Their Relationships) have the bedside manner of a drill sergeant and their prescription for success is a bitter pill to swallow indeed.

In a publishing cohort dominated by the awkward, plodding images of John Gray (who in addition to his trademarked punchline—"Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus"—often speaks of "love tanks") and the feel-good gruel of the nauseating Chicken Soup series, Laura Schlessinger and Phil C. McGraw have introduced a clinical level of cynicism, detachment, and practicality. "You think I'm teaching you how to be manipulative," runs a typical Dr. Phil directive. "You're right." Asks Dr. Laura, "Is compromise really a good idea?"

Although getting what you want from your friends and acquaintances is important, that isn't Laura and Phil's real subject. The true object of their attention is you, and they're not sure they like what they see. A typical caller to Dr. Laura's popular national radio show contends that she treats her daughter badly because she herself was "emotionally abused." "So what?" Dr. Laura retorts. In his books, Dr. Phil is less brutal, but just as direct: "Bottom line: You are not a victim. You are creating the situations you are in….This is not a theory; it is life."

Between Dr. Laura's powers-of-10-based "Stupid Things" series and Dr. Phil's Oprah-spawned "life makeovers," the industry once best known for assuring everyone that they're OK has received a powerful corrective. Not only are you not OK, it's also all your fault.

Books intended to guide readers along the path of life have been staples of American publishing since Benjamin Franklin's autobiography. From the preposterous New Age mind cure of Deepak Chopra to the hard-nosed confidence of Think and Grow Rich, few offer much beyond a variation on working hard, being specific in formulating your goals, and treating others well in order to get what you want (whether you call this manipulation or "karma"). Still, that hasn't stopped self-help from becoming a multi-billion dollar industry. And the profit margin gets better every day.

Through the advent of bullet-pointed lists and fill-in-the-blank charts, on a strict words-per-page basis, modern readers are getting less and less advice. The stagnation of the advice itself, along with Emperor's New Titles like The Simple Abundance Workbook (which is mostly blank pages), makes it easy to think, as many do, that self-improvement is a racket, a kind of page-bound snake oil. (On the bright side, self-help books epitomize the best of what America has to offer, both in the sense that success seems possible to so many and that so many have become successful by selling advice.)

Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil define themselves against most touchy-feely patent medicine literature. Dr. Laura rails against "the psychology articles and experts working feverishly to exorcise the world of guilt," because guilt is "a good emotional sign that something is wrong." Similarly, Dr. Phil thinks the "'self-empowerment' industry" is "largely unfocused, lazy, gimmicky, politically correct, and, above all, marketable." Such postures befit their radical renegotiations of the whole "I'm OK, You're OK" contract.

Their emphasis on personal responsibility and on methods that "work" by the most bottom-line definition (whether in the realm of material goods or family life) contrasts helpfully with the P.C. psychobabble they each dismiss so handily. While almost every author in the self-help universe stresses the same fundamental concepts, the underlying assumptions about who the reader is and what he wants are so far away from how Phil and Laura see their readers, Deepak and company may as well be on one of Mr. Gray's distant planets.

Above all, readers of Chopra, Marianne (A Return to Love) Williamson, and the like want extended, improbable metaphors and sentimental, pan-denominational fake spirituality. Their readers want less to change themselves than to change how they feel about themselves. The two most common aphorisms in the typical modern self-help book are "learn to love yourself" and "wealth won't make you happy."

Try laying that wisdom down on Dr. Phil, or to a listener of Dr. Laura. Neither would go so far as to say you have to be rich to be happy, but neither would put money very far down on the list of things that would help. As for "loving oneself," that isn't nearly as important as being honest with yourself. Or, at the very least, as Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura being honest with you.

And you suck.