Self-help books
Photo: Michael Gilette
Let me admit it. There was a time, not so long ago, when I thought self-help books were for ninnies. It's not that I believed that people didn't need help. But having grown up among literary-minded college professors—my father taught Russian literature, my mother taught journalism and social theory, and most of their friends were academics and book lovers—I assumed that any coping strategies I might need as I blundered through life could be found in the novels that I devoured. By the age of 6, I had absorbed pioneer stoicism from the Little House series: Where there's a will, there's a way. In Jane Eyre, I saw that a bookish loner who was ostracized by coddled children could educate herself into a richer life than her blinkered peers imagined. Later, reading Dostoyevsky, Naipaul, Flaubert, Balzac, Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, Anne Tyler, John Irving,, Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was a teen favorite), I anticipated the freighted entanglements of romance, sex, adulthood, and parenthood—with their joys, despairs, perfidies, and compromises. What torments could I possibly face that my literary heroes and antiheroes hadn't already thrashed out for me on the printed page?

Besides, my own family background predisposed me to keep a stiff upper lip. Descended from a long line of German-American Midwesterners, I instinctively adopted the family motto: If you're looking for a helping hand, look at the end of your own arm. This didn't mean that any of us, or all of us (I have two brothers), did not melt down from time to time (well, not my dad...). It meant that when we did, we sorted ourselves out without the benefit of any dime-store manual about the color of our parachutes, or about which planets our romantic nemeses came from.

Furthermore, as someone who wanted to write, I superstitiously believed that psychological knots in the mind were best left tangled. I feared that if I were to avail myself of over-the-counter psychology, my thoughts would become so clear to me that my own inner life would bore me. Childhood is the writer's bank balance, Graham Greene had written. What if organizing the accounts emptied it?

And then, early in 1999, in the wake of the old-fashioned husband-hunting manual The Rules—volumes 1 and 2—I came across a breathtakingly elegant, jaded, and useful book called The Technique of the Love Affair, published in 1928 by a sultry British newlywed in her early 20s named Doris Langley Moore. (She later divorced, I read in an online biography.) In her author photo, she looked like the luscious, sly heroine of a Noël Coward play. Her book begins with a dialogue between a sophisticated minx named Cypria and a naïve damsel named Saccharissa. "It is desirable for the happiness and well-being of a woman that she should be frequently, or at any rate constantly, pursued," Cypria declared. At the time, I was young, divorced, and enmeshed in my first serious postmarriage relationship. I wondered: Could I follow Moore's instructions so that, as Dorothy Parker had written when she reviewed the book decades earlier, I might become "successful instead of just successive"? Cypria's lessons were pointed and unsentimental. Chastity was not necessary to earn a man's loyalty, she explained, but teasing and reticence were de rigueur. "We dare not give rein to our generosity," she said, "for men, like children, soon tire of what is soon obtained." Saccharissa, Cypria's sappy sidekick, was horrified. "Your cynicism has shocked me," she whimpered. But before long, she was won over.

I took less convincing.