Marianne Power had me at hello. I’d only read a few pages of her blog-turned-memoir, “Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out If Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life,” and I was already all in.
The late-30s London-based journalist was searching for … well, something. She had a close-knit group of friends, a supportive family and a job that frequently sent her on luxurious free trips. But she was also drowning: in debt, ennui, romantic misfires and self-doubt about the freelance writing career that had produced one too many bylines on mascara articles. Her life was fine! It just wasn’t spectacular. She wasn’t living in her dream beach house in California; she didn’t have “bookshelves full of highbrow literary books that she actually read”; she didn’t attend “swanky gatherings” or have a “handsome man in a cashmere sweater by her side.”
So she decided to make an experiment of self-help — an arena she’d dabbled in for years, having breezed through pop-psych tomes while ignoring their advice and shrugging off the exercises, only to realize that “nothing changed because I didn’t do anything the books told me to.”
This resonated, more than I wanted to admit. I wasn’t writing mascara reviews or seeking a cashmere-clad hunk, but I’d done the dabbling, the searching for not-sure-what many times over. I’d read a solid 80 pages of (though rarely finished — dabbling at its finest!) at least a dozen books that promised a certain path to inner peace or financial success or self-love. I’d kept the gratitude journals and made the vision board (that I promptly shoved into a closet, swiftly nullifying the “vision” part). I’d sat in meditation circles in strangers’ apartments, trying not to sneeze.
My own self-help journeys were more like pit stops, and never delivered as promised; probably because, like Power, I’d only ever attempted the lite version, skimming but never committing, while always half-believing “that the secret to happiness lay in the next book, the next book, the next book.”
So when Power finally decided to “do the work,” as the converted like to say, it seemed like a generous gambit on my behalf. She committed to tackling 12 self-help classics over the course of a year and following their advice to the letter. She would “Unleash the Power Within” alongside Tony Robbins, practice Stephen R. Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” “Get The Guy” (per Matthew Hussey) and channel “The Secret,” as mastered by Rhonda Byrne.
She would do the journaling. She would say the affirmations — out loud to her naked reflection, if that’s what the book instructed (as “You Can Heal Your Life” did). She would approach and flirt with a handsome stranger on an otherwise dead-silent Tube commute. She would “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway” — everything from standup comedy to skydiving to karaoke. And she would walk over hot coals at Robbins’ behest (and pay hundreds for the privilege). If she simply did as she was told, maybe Power could become an ever-expanding well of self-esteem, fearlessness, inner peace and abundance (self-help speak for “gobs of money”). Take a look: It’s in a book!
But if Power was hoping for a woo-woo sabbatical comprising equal parts enlightenment and spa water, she was in for a brutal awakening. She’s unfailingly honest about the toll her drive-thru spiritualism took: She wound up deeper in debt — “Feeling my feelings had become a full-time job,” she writes. “I certainly wasn’t doing my other one” — and physically ill for weeks, frustrated that the cosmic hacks she’d learned “did not prompt an instant cure.” She alienated her nearest and dearest, even falling out with a best friend, only to end up appalled by her own streak of self-indulgence, of “getting lost up my own navel-gazing behind.” Finally, those months of obsessively reflecting on her every thought and feeling result in a mental short circuit of sorts — akin to how your metabolism might react if you attempted a new extreme diet every month for a year? — until Power finds herself bawling to a cab driver, who suggests she’s “touching the void.”
Still, Power manages to keep her wits about her, maintaining a wry, cheeky style that should appeal to self-help skeptics. (When she forks over money for several packs of “angel cards” meant to provide daily guidance, she wonders, “Was this any different to the church selling pardons and telling people they could buy their way into heaven?”)
And she even emerges from her year of living dangerously with some hard-won (if trite) insights: that rejection won’t kill you; that thoughts beget beliefs; that all we have, really, is the present; and that joy — just as “Daring Greatly” author Brené Brown insists — shows up in “ordinary moments.”
“Help Me!” reads like a novel, with full-color recurring characters, including love interests, an increasingly exasperated roommate and Power’s pragmatic, farm-raised mom always ready with a one-liner. “You’re not going to go all American, are you?” she asks Power at the start of her experiment. “You know … happy.” Power even delivers some screenplay-ready scenes, like when she “feels the fear” enough to pose nude for an art class and ends up barking at one handsome artist, “You’ve made my arse the size of Australia!” Bridget Jones does self-help.
Speaking of movie potential, the screen rights have reportedly already been sold — making the £100,000 check Power wrote to herself in a Law of Attraction money exercise, seem positively prescient. Whether or not that figure materializes, Power would probably admit that her greatest payoff from months of soul-searching is the revelation that she “already had everything (she) would ever need” long before turning her life upside-down. If there’s anything worth cribbing from Power’s self-help cheat sheet, perhaps it’s that and that alone.
“Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out If Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life”
By Marianne Power
Grove. 384 pages. $26.