DISCLAIMER: The Zamboni Lady is not a doctor, nor does she play one on TV. She is, simply, a busybody who wants to know everyone else’s business. The advice, while well-meant, is not meant to substitute for legal advice or protection, indicate a definitive way to live one’s life, or in any way imply that you should take her advice any more seriously than you would the advice of the bestie of your bestie, given out over a long and tear-soaked evening of nachos and margaritas.
While I was going through the masses of unread books that gracefully line the Zamboni Cave, I came across A Guide to Confident Living, written by Norman Vincent Peale (hereafter known as NVP), 1948. Ho…lyyyyyyyyy… In my quest to bring you all the finest cheese in all the land, I’ve gathered up quite a few things for future examination in the Zamboni Cave, and some of the things I have, on closer inspection, turn out to not be what I expected them to be. NVP’s A Guide to Confident Living is just such a thing. Have I said “Ho…lyyyyy”? Because what I meant to say was, “Holy shit.” I mean, I’d heard of Norman Vincent Peale. I think my parents had a copy of The Power of Positive Thinking floating around the house for a while and if they didn’t, then surely one of my friends’ parents
did. But I never read anything he wrote. I mean, I don’t really read self-help-feel-good-happy-squee books (with the exception of books written by Dr. Wayne Dyer, about whom I want to put a bag over my head when I admit I like, but he seems so niiiiiiice and pleasant…and I digress). Usually, I’m the person who positively wants to punch a self-help acolyte in their happy throat. But this book is about being confident. Who doesn’t want to be confident? I want to be confident. We all want to be confident, and get over that constant feeling of being mentally thirteen years old, when it’s your first day at a new school and you walk in with your fly undone. We all secretly worry that we’re that kid (and I know you do, even if you deny it). Look at the title! This book can help with that! This book can make you the capable, charismatic, functioning adult you know you could be if only you were sure your fly were in the right position! To keep the record straight, this book is something I picked up at either a yard sale or a flea market and I am fairly sure I didn’t pay more than a dollar for it (it is hardcover, after all). This book? Is also appalling.
NVP was a minister who spent more than half a century pastoring his flock of confidently living Manhattanites. In that time he did his fair share of counseling, some of which gets recounted in the pages of this book. The worst advice ever, and the point of this blog, comes from my favorite story recorded here from his counseling days, which involves a married couple who were on the brink of divorce and had even taken separate residences. He said they were both college-educated, extremely smart, and came from “good” families.
- She was dowdy and a little bit disheveled, hated housework, only served “improvised” meals and spent a few afternoons a week playing bridge with whatever of her college girlfriends lived close by.
- He had a series of affairs that he told her about “brazenly and rather cruelly”, says NVP, who witnessed the recounting.
…I noticed that he was right, the petticoat did show. Her hair was rather frazzled. She was basically a nice looking lady but no care had been exercised in her dress…One chief trouble with her husband was that he didn’t make enough money for her to have a maid, she complained….I raised the question why once a week wouldn’t be sufficient for her bridge parties with “the girls.” I also politely suggested that she pull up her petticoat and that she make the beds first thing after breakfast and pick up the newspapers and sweep the place out….
She wanted to know why a minister from whom she expected some spiritual counsel laid all this stress on how she fixed her hair, on why she didn’t pull up her petticoat, and on being a better housekeeper. I replied that those matters seemed to be the trouble points (again, emphasis mine). –NVP, same book, one paragraph stating the wife’s concerns on page 192, and the rest of 192/top of 193 talking about what a slovenly, complaining harpy she is
Sigh. Actually, no. And here’s the thing, people. Whatever gender you are, whatever your sexual orientation, when the person you’re involved with is a controlling prick, IT’S NOT BECAUSE OF YOUR HAIR. There’s not a syllable of discussion in this book about why she stopped giving a shit about her appearance, there’s not a peep about why the husband felt the need to A) cheat and B) cruelly discuss it. (His term, not mine.) The worst advice imaginable in this situation is, “Well, you know, you do look like crap. Why don’t you put on some lipstick?” Because surely, a little mouth rouge will rein the straying husband in.
He never once asks her about the depression she’s trying to offset by (my guess) drinking too much sherry with her girlfriends during their bridge sessions. He never once explores the husband’s rigid view of acceptable relationship parameters. He doesn’t try to get the husband to accept his responsibility in regards to his affairs. NVP, apparently, agrees with him AND allows him to place the blame squarely on the wife. (In one brief moment of conciliatory gesturing, he said the husband had “deficiencies” which they discussed. That’s like saying a professional auto thief is “mischievous,” and I digress.)
Seriously, this is terrible advice. Among the worst I’ve ever read, and I love me a good advice column. It’s sad but true that relationships can suffer terrible blows, and people can inflict horrible pain on each other. But what you can’t do–especially if you intend to stay in that relationship, and want your relationship to grow once you get past the pain–is blame the other person for your own bad behavior. EVER. That wasn’t cool in the third grade, when you blamed Timmy Johnson for making you trip him during the fire drill because the glare from the sunlight bouncing off his glasses hurt your little eyes. It’s not cool now. Knock it off.
NVP is kind of passive in his voice and approach, which makes him sound pompous and snide. It provides no leeway for the party he isn’t mentally aligned with–which of course, in this case, is the wife. His refusal (or maybe it’s an inability, who knows?) to dig anywhere below the surface and examine actual causes for bad behavior, and then tell this lady, “Your husband’s wandering eye is tied to the sheen of your hair. You don’t need no stinkin’ therapy, you just need to tidy up yourself and the house,” is the 1948 equivalent of, “I’m just saying.” We all know how satisfying that term can be.
Before I go one step further, YES, OK? I know we all want our partners to be attractive to us, so sure, maybe an unkempt appearance can become a turnoff. But, consider this: If your previously put-together spouse suddenly starts opting out and you wonder why, you won’t find the answer in someone else’s booty. (I’m assuming she was previously put together because something tells me Mr. I-Can’t-Stand-Her-Petticoat wouldn’t have married her if that’s how she dressed before.) This is where coaching in communication skills would have come in handy, if NVP were a real therapist and not an inflexible demagogue intent to maintain the trappings of patriarchy. Interestingly enough, there’s no shiny, happy reconciliation epilogue at the end of this story. NVP simply slides from “they had to work on this stuff” to “let me tell you about another letter I got…”.
And sure, you’re thinking, but Zamboni Lady, this book was written in 1948. Nineteen. Forty. Eight. That’s, like, a thousand years ago, and times have changed. And probably, like, nobody ever reads this book anymore. To be fair, there is a legitimacy to pointing out that women have made tremendous strides in the intervening 64 years. Personally, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be an educated woman in 1948, having to exist within such rigidly-defined social roles. I’d probably fall into a depressive funk and drink too much sherry in the afternoon, too. And I’d like to think this book is just a throwback, some anomalous, out-of-print dinosaur that I managed to get my meathooks on, that it was just a blip on our historical horizon.
Only that’s not true.
This book, originally published in 1948, is still selling. Its copyright was renewed in 2003 and is currently distributed by Touchstone, which is an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Today, its rank in sales on Amazon.com is #76,518 which might seem like, so what, right? Until you consider that Amazon has millions of titles for sale, so ranking in the top hundred thousand is really a pretty healthy sales statement. AND, it hasn’t been revised, so what was written in 1948 still stains the pages today. If this were the only example of NVP’s work, I might not look at it with so much concern. But he’s got a few other books, also in print for more than fifty years, still on the shelves. He had a radio show that he hosted for 54 years, until 1989. He’s had lots and lots of time to add fuel to the gender-related fires that we still have to address now. Accepting the concept that a woman bears responsibility for her husband’s misbehaviors feeds directly into the ideas that a woman in a short skirt is “asking for it”, or that a man can’t control himself, or that boys will be boys. His impact on the cultural attitudes towards women and emotionally abusive relationships can’t be minimized. But it can be put on the table and examined. Justice Louis Brandeis once said that the proper actionto take against harmful speech is not censorship, but counterspeech. As I ride in on the Zamboni of Righteous Indignation, I challenge all of you to counter his unhealthy approach to relationships with compassionate discourse. Try to understand each other. Don’t make your partner’s problems all about you. He gives crappy advice, people. Think. Would you want your spouse to disregard your obviously acted-out images of unhappiness? Or would you want to be blamed for it when they made your issues all about themselves and went boinky-boink on the side?