Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Martha Beck is a truly fascinating figure in the world of self-help.
I first became aware of her years ago when she wrote an absolutely inspirational book called Expecting Adam, in which she detailed the birth of her beautiful son who happened to have Down's Syndrome. It was a sensitively written, intelligent book, and I became very interested in its author - obviously a woman who could deal with complexities and who had a very delicately honed moral sense.
Soon after Beck re-invented herself as a self-help author, producing a series of books based on her work as a business lecturer and executive coach. I also learned something of her extraordinary background. She was the daughter of a revered Mormon scholar and historian who had grown up in Salt Lake City and had herself been a devout Mormon. The Mormon impulse toward self-help is not, of course, unusual (cf Stephen Covey), and I simply put her down as another Mormon inspirational writer, that sect having taken the Protestant work ethic to its ultimate extreme.
But I always enjoyed her work. As well as being sensible and quite psychologically sound, it expresses a self-deprecating humour and a willing acknowledgement of the real world that is noticeably absent from most American self-help writing. Her brick of a book, Finding Your Own North Star, is these days considered a classic, and groups have been established around the world to study it and to put its exercises and reccomendations in place (there's even a virtual one on Facebook).
A couple of years ago Beck shocked everyone by releasing a book called Leaving the Saints, a searing expose of Mormon paranoia and insularity, and the hypocritical approach to childhood sexual abuse that seems to exist among Mormon communities in Utah. This book was something light years away from her usual stuff (with titles like The Joy Diet), and I wonder how many readers were scarred by unwittingly reading it, expecting some cheery, no-nonsense self-help. In many ways it is a book I felt deeply uncomfortable about while reading, and I do think there are some ethical problems in making such serious allegations in print, particularly when you are a famous, Oprah-appearing author who patently holds the balance of cultural power. That said, it's a darkly fascinating book, and Beck's talent as a writer makes it well worth reading.