Self-help – one often loony step at a time

Review: Vivien Horler

Self-HelpLESS – A cynic’s search for sanity, by Rebecca Davis (Macmillan)

Help Me! by Marianne Power (Picador/Macmillan)

self-helplessRebecca Davis is a successful Cape Town essayist, columnist and commentator. She writes for the Daily Maverick, appears on panels at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, and has a regular Thursday afternoon gig with John Maytham on Cape Talk, when she talks interestingly and wittily about current events.

She’s blonde and attractive, and happily married to the journalist Haji Mohamed Dawjee.

But Davis, like all of us, has her worries in life, which prompted her to spend a year seeking personal wellness, spiritual enlightenment “and good old-fashioned happiness”.

One reason for this course of action, she tells us in her first chapter, is giving up alcohol. She worried, as do we all, about things like falling giraffe populations, the drought in the Western Cape, and the diminishing amounts of sand available for mining – we apparently need it to make everything from houses to cellphone screens.

Alcohol helped her cope with these concerns, until her own consumption became an even bigger concern. Eventually she gave up drinking when she met Haji and realised: “Drinking was threatening to scupper something too precious to be squandered. For the first time in my life, I’d found something that mattered more to me than alcohol.”

The problem then was this: here she was, stuck in a world that was driving her crazy, without even alcohol to muffle the pain.

She lived in a city that was “the undisputed stronghold of ‘alternative’ paths to peace and enlightenment in South Africa”. Cape Town has practitioners in all sorts of alternative therapies, some quite startling, and so Davis launched a quest to see if she could find new ways of thinking or living. And if she didn’t, well, it would be a good story.

And it is  – often a very funny one too. She starts the year with magic mushrooms at a venue a couple of hours outside Cape Town. The experience is wonderful, astonishing, mind-blowing. So delighted is she that she persuades a reluctant Haji to take another trip at home, in their eighth-floor flat.

It turns out to be a very bad experience, one that almost sees Haji hurl herself over the balcony. So much for magic mushrooms.

Next she tries fasting, adhering to the rules of Ramadan. This will, she says, test the spiritual dimensions of fasting, and impress her Muslim in-laws. But she concludes at the end of the month she has failed to grasp how Ramadan is less about deprivation and more about connection and fellowship.

Then she more or less gives up social media, and describes the feelings of loss at going cold turkey. You wonder if anyone has noticed; you wonder what you’re missing; you have to make up your own mind about things (which Davis is clearly extremely able to do); you will have a lot more time; you will, eventually, find peace.

She tries a pill which promises to mimic all the good effects of exercise but may give you cancer; she becomes addicted to the gym; she declutters her home and even throws out books; she tries hypnosis to find any past lives; she goes to a sweat lodge where she suspects she might die; she goes on a solitary silent retreat (and Davis is a loquacious woman); she spends time in a coffin-like isolation tank; she goes to a sangoma, and she attends a pop-up “Death Café” where the point is to talk about your own death.

The conversation, taking place as it does during Cape Town’s drought, is unexpectedly riveting, and afterwards, one of the participants says: “Can I just say, what a pleasure it has been not to talk about fucking water.”

She visits a woman called Tara in Tokai who is going to sort out her chakras. Tara hands her a glass of water that strikes Davis as having an unusually clear and sweet taste, and she wonders what the source is. Tara looks at her kindly: “That’s from Woolies.”

Much of this book is very funny, and some of it is astonishing: who knew all this stuff was going on in Cape Town?

Looking back on her year, she says she was struck by the kindness of lots of the people she met, and how many were trying to beat the modern curses of loneliness and alienation by trying to connect.

She tries self-help books and discovers that this category of literature is the most likely to be shoplifted from bookstores. She points out that she has read a lot of them, and warns: “The vast majority of these volumes are not worth leaving Exclusives in handcuffs for.”

Which leads us to Marianne Power, a single 30-something London journalist who writes about mascara and is broke, depressed, anxious and drinking too much. She decides to try to turn her life around in a year by focusing on a different self-help book each month and following their precepts.

The books include Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers (which prompts her to pose naked for a class of aspiring artists), Money, a Love Story, by Kate Northrup, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, The 7 habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey, and You can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay.

One of the great comic characters in this memoir is Power’s Irish mum, who considers her daughter with some bemusement. Power explains: “The idea is that we replace our usual negative thoughts with positive ones.”

“You mean you delude yourself?”

“No, you just try to focus on the good rather than the bad.”

“You’re not going to go all American, are you? You know, happy? People don’t like that, Marianne. It’s not real.”

Things don’t go quite the way Power expects – in fact about three quarters of the way through she has something of a nervous breakdown. But she presses on, and by the end of a roller-coaster year, she has found peace, a nice man, and reconnected with a dear friend.

She writes down a sort of manifesto for living:

“Be honest. Be kind. See the funny side. Exercise. Laugh. Lighten up… Go for the big things. What’s the worst that can happen? Failure won’t kill you. Say no. Say yes…Cherish the day and cherish the people in your life…”

One could do worse.

  • A version of this review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday September 9, 2018




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