Fool’s Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology, by Stewart Justman. Ivan R. Dee, September, 2005. $27.50
You have heard of Dr. Phil, you probably have friends who have adopted the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you may have even nodded blandly upon hearing that Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. Most take the ubiquity of pop psychology for granted, and if the number of books sold is any index of public opinion, many agree with its many principles. Stewart Justman, winner of the PEN Award for his previous book The Seeds of Morality, exposes pop psychology as a corrosive force in American popular culture. Rather than ignoring the clichés of self-awareness and self-affirmation as harmless, Justman traces the history of pop psychology to the utopian movements of the 60’s, and finds a rotten core of self-help rhetoric misappropriated from the civil rights movement. While each self-help book he mentions claims to be the one truth, Justman maintains that each has the same message: Society has robbed you of your authentic self, and only this book (or this charismatic television personality) can help you regain it.
Justman ably skewers the world of pop psychology with comparative references to every main text of the past 30 years. Yet despite his convincing critical analysis, this reader remained curious as to the popularity of pop psychology. Their message of focus on the self and disavowal of all else is ultimately a detriment to the goal of happiness, but what in their message makes it so appealing? Justman’s scorn for the denizens of pop psychology comes at the cost of compassion for their “victims.” His book is thus more of a screed (albeit a witty and eloquent one) and less of the gentle reeducation more appropriate to his goal.