October 25, 2009

Self-Help Doesn't Help—And Often Hurts

The Wall Street Journal
OCTOBER 23, 2009

While many Americans are skeptical of the claims of the self-help industry, their attitude can be summed up as follows: "OK, we all know this is a silly and sometimes expensive exercise in navel-gazing. But really, where's the harm?"

Fewer people are asking that question since the grim news from Sedona, Ariz., on Oct. 8. This week, another death was announced, bringing the total to three fatalities and 18 hospitalizations resulting from a sweat-lodge ritual led by self-help guru James Arthur Ray. Authorities are investigating the deaths as homicides and have been interviewing the other participants at this $9,000-per-person retreat. Mr. Ray is best known for his cameo in the blockbuster DVD "The Secret," where he compared mankind's relationship with the universe to Aladdin and his lamp: Ask and you shall receive.

This is not the first time that self-help tactics have gone awry. In fact, this isn't even Mr. Ray's first brush with tragedy. This past July, Colleen Conaway leaped to her death during one of Mr. Ray's success seminars in San Diego, where attendees were subjected to the mind games that are routine in these events, which are all about stripping away the defenses and leaving people highly suggestible. This may involve everything from having them remove their clothes to forcing them to suffer the excruciating discomfort and debilitation of being locked in a crowded makeshift sauna for hours on end.

There have been other tragedies. In 2000, as part of a then-current fad in self-actualization, a pair of Colorado women wrapped 10-year-old Candace Newmaker in a blanket, pinned her down with their bodies, and bade her to fight her way out; they told her parents that this "rebirthing" would help the child shed her maladjustments and symbolically begin a new life. Instead, they ended her old one: Candace suffocated. At work in December 2005, 34-year-old Rebekah Lawrence stripped down, began screaming at coworkers, then jumped from a nearby window to her death. Investigators found no alcohol or drugs in her system. What was in her system was a $695 multiday course called The Turning Point, which she'd recently attended. Like many offerings from the land of personal growth, the course emphasized tapping into buried angst. The following year a Korean student, fresh from that same exercise, was found naked in his apartment, dead of self-inflicted stab wounds. In 2008, another young man took his life soon after a session with "seer" John of God. In the note the man left, he said he feared that John had channeled an evil spirit into him and suicide was the only way of keeping this evil from propagating.

We also have at least three known deaths due to "breatharianism," an Eastern concept that denies the human need for food or water. Add to this the many documented instances where sick people died after forgoing conventional treatment in favor of New Age nostrums—a path blazed several decades ago by actor Peter Sellers, who vowed to unclog his arteries via "psychic surgery." Mr. Sellers died of a massive coronary in 1980.

And yet even when people aren't dying, there is no missing the recklessness of this misbegotten realm. Self-help is not benign. The $11 billion industry can hurt you psychologically, it can hurt you financially and, as we see, it can hurt you physically. It can hurt your family and friends too.

Consider that today's increasingly popular "large group awareness training" (LGAT) incorporates tactics more commonly identified with psychological warfare. Facilitators bully attendees verbally and sometimes physically, call upon them to relive their worst experiences in humiliating detail in front of strangers, deprive them of sleep and even bathroom privileges—all in the name of self-actualization. In expert testimony in a 1992 lawsuit against the best-known of these LGATs, Landmark Forum (long a favored choice for corporate retreats), the clinical psychologist Margaret Singer observed that Forum "applies a number of powerful and psychologically disturbing, emotionally arousing and defense destabilizing techniques to large groups of people, in an intense, marathon-like period." How can this not have a catastrophic effect on people in a fragile emotional state—which is surely the case with a sizable contingent of those who seek out these "transformational" courses to begin with?

Other offerings, bracketed as "relationships therapy" or "assertiveness training," can wreak havoc on existing interpersonal bonds. Stories abound of couples whose marriages fell victim to gurus who celebrated promiscuity and "personal morality," or who chastised participants for their codependent (that is, caring and empathetic) ways.

Apologists argue that there are bad outcomes in any endeavor, that it's unfair to single out self-help when, say, conventional medicine kills thousands each year. The difference is that in medicine, practitioners share demonstrated expertise in methods that evolved over time and have been tested and retested for efficacy. A bad outcome in a field with proven benefits is unfortunate. A bad outcome in a field with little basis for existing in the first place is unforgivable. As noted psychologist Michael Hurd told me, "Gurus encourage these poor, already troubled souls to literally take leave of their senses, as if departing reason will somehow liberate you."

Meanwhile, the self-help industry continues to expand, with dozens of new gurus flooding the market each year, seeking their slice of the pie. Though modern self-help had its origins in works by classically trained psychiatrists like Eric ("Games People Play") Berne and his disciple Thomas ("I'm OK, You're OK") Harris, today's leading exponents have as much business trading in mental health as they do performing neurosurgery. They're snake-oil salesmen, pitching regimens that have never been validated.

For example, Mr. Ray draws on random elements of New Age and other psychobabble, hoping to make himself sound cosmically plugged-in. Here he is establishing his bona fides ina promotional video: "I've been initiated into three different Shamanic orders. I've studies in The Mystery Schools." Which is fitting, because when it all blows up in his face, he may well be the most mystified guy in the room. He probably never thought that far ahead.

The saddest part is that these activities—seen as fringe stuff back in the mid-'70s heyday of Werner Erhard—have gone mainstream. The movement's leaders hold court on Larry King and Oprah. Their books challenge Harry Potter's domination of best-seller lists. A funny thing: At least most people realize that Harry Potter's wizardry is fictional.

—Mr. Salerno is the author of "SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless." He blogs at www.shamblog.com.