DO YOU HAVE TO BE AN EXPERT TO WRITE A SELF-HELP BOOK?
Not that long ago, a woman I’d just met but who was aware of my book about brothers and sisters, dove in with all kinds of questions. She has only one sister, and the two have not exchanged more than a few words at a time for many years.
“You wrote the sibling book,” she said. “What can I do to reconnect with my sister? She’s my only sibling. Once my mother dies, I’ll have no one.”
“I like you a lot. Maybe you and I can be like sisters.”
I have a sister, thank you, and am not in the market for another.
She put her arm around me and leaned in close.
Hey, I’m an author, not a therapist and not a god damn surrogate sister.
That didn’t stop me, however, from offering some advice. I wanted to help. Isn’t that what the author of self-help books hopes to do?
Well, okay, but she’d better know of what she writes. According to a January 8, 2008, article in the Monitor of Psycholgy, a publication of the American Psychological Association, there are 2,000-plus self-help tomes published every year. “Many may be useless yet essentially benign,” says John C. Norcross, PhD, “but some can carry harmful messages.”
The expert readers of my book with all kinds of letters behind their names praised it as, among things, “wise,” “disciplined,” and “informed by the best available knowledge and speculation of social scientists and clinicians.”
So, what was my problem? I’d passed muster—gotten the gold stamp of approval—but felt bereft of any good advice to offer to this distraught woman who wanted her sister back. (And if that didn’t work, she’d take me instead.)
I asked a few questions and got more than I’d bargained for: The sisters’ father had left the family before the girls started kindergarten. Their mother who’d married when she was 17 was still a young girl herself and needed as much mothering as the girls, if not more. She was, according to the 72-year-old sibling I’d just met, inappropriate (as in making “plays” for her boyfriends) and flitted from one sexual liaison to the next. The sisters waited four years before their mother served them a hot meal.
Conventional wisdom would have it that two sisters who had such a disastrous childhood and were, at that time, each other’s support, would stick together and remain close into adulthood. No one else could understand their struggles to survive and thrive.
I asked more questions: Is your sister married? (No, but she’s been with the same man for many years. He is the father of their two children.) What does she do professionally? (She teaches creative writing at a prestigious midwestern university. Ironically, the “other” sister is also a writer, as well as a visual artist.)
The more information I gleaned, the less competent I felt. How had I gotten myself into this position? Why the hell did I write the book? I should have blogged or written a journal. (There was no such thing as blogging in 1991.) Or I should have printed the poems I wrote in first grade.
But I was cornered. I had an emotionally damaged woman who wanted her sister back, and it felt as if I were the only person on the planet who could offer a few suggestions.
- Reconnecting is never a direct path but a series of spirals that move backward and forward. The old cliché rings true: Patience is a virtue.
- Never begin “the” conversation in your childhood or current parents’ home. Pick a neutral spot (a coffee shop, restaurant, park) where there are no memories and reminders of things past.
- Get over yourself and admit that many of the reasons you’re pissed at your sibling is/was not her fault. She didn’t ask to be more athletic or more academic or more socially adept, just as you didn’t ask to be more musical, more attractive, or more able to spend time alone.
- Listen. Yep, sounds easy. Right? Well, my bad. Really listening does not mean making judgments, offering solutions, interrupting, multi-tasking. It’s a skill that many of us don’t have because we weren’t taught. Hell, there are classes for just about every group (parents, students, friends, spouses) about how to better communicate by listening. (I actually wrote a business program on the subject.) Now, listening isn’t always easy. It takes practice. If you want to improve a sibling connection, active listening is key.
I may have uttered a bit of psychobabble after that but, if I what I’d said was minimally benign and optimally helpful, I could walk away with confidence that my next book would never fall into the self-help category.