Confessions of a Self-Help Book Reader
(Her advice: Read these titles. Be wowed. Pass them on! )
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.