I’m going to break my own rule and write a negative review.
I have always been a fan of Anne Lamott’s writing. I liked Rosie and I think Bird by Bird is easily the most helpful and encouraging book on writing I have ever read, and that includes E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.
My wife recently asked me to order Ms. Lamott’s Help Thanks Wow for her prayer/book group and in the process, I stumbled across a well-written, intelligent and extremely laudatory review of Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. The reviewer mentioned specifically that it had helped him during a period when he was struggling with depression. I have had and I am once again having my own difficulties with that malignant monkey—the disease we call depression—and I thought Ms. Lamott’s book might help me.
Unfortunately, and shockingly, my expectations were dashed. More than dashed: shattered, obliterated, all the hope Ms. Lamott purports to write about driven from my personal hard drive.
To give Ms. Lamott her due, she states clearly and unequivocally in her preface that she does not have, nor has she ever had, depression issues, but since depression is a disease defined by (among other things) the absence of hope, I decided to press on.
Then I came to the following passage:
My older brother, John, was the first person to break free of my helpful relief efforts. He surrendered and began to recover. He initially came to me one night for help, as everyone in the family had always done, on his first day of not drinking or using. He looked scared to death, like a handsome wino whose old dog had just died.
My best thought was to offer him a cool refreshing beer.
I just wanted to save him—from his pain, his self-loathing, his physical decline, and his absolute utter desperation. I was not yet familiar with what the phrase “the bottom” meant, although I did know firsthand and from art about the dark night of the soul. My brother was there, I could tell, and I thought he needed a beer…
“Helpful relief efforts?” “I just wanted to save him?” You can read more about that kind of help in M. Scott Peck’s The People of the Lie.
Let’s think about this. Ms. Lamott has written that she is a recovering alcoholic, and a recovering drug user. She has written about being in a twelve-step program. She has written that she is a Christian. She has written that she has studied the works of many different spiritual leaders. (In addition to quoting one of Jesus’s parables in Almost Everything, she also quotes Ram Dass, Frederick Buechner, Mother Teresa, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King—both of whom I consider spiritual—and a host of other spiritual leaders and writers in other works, and she refers regularly to Buddhism.)
I have a little experience in living with and dealing with alcoholics and while I may not the brightest bulb in the tanning bed, I knew, even as a young child, that the last thing you do with any alcoholic, ever, under any circumstances, but most especially when they are trying to stay sober, is to encourage them to drink. There are only two reasons in the world anyone would ever encourage a known alcoholic to drink: one is sheer staggering stupidity and/or ignorance; the other is malevolence, usually of the passive/aggressive type. That is neither Christian nor spiritual by any standard.
You have only to glance at any page of Anne Lamott’s writing to know that she is neither stupid nor ignorant. Nothing about her writing (which is charming, self-deprecating, frequently funny, and quite singular in her use of language, mixing proper English with slang and idiomatic expressions in a refreshing, eminently readable, sort of literate patois of her own) gives any indication of malevolence, and I have no intentions of trying to psychoanalyze her, so I will draw no conclusions, but I was so appalled by that passage that I very nearly quit there. Assuming there must be a punchline, a wise tag to the anecdote somewhere further down the line, a mea culpa, something, anything, that would somehow justify such behavior, I kept on going.
There wasn’t. Instead, this is what I came to:
Certain special people of late have caused a majority of us to experience derangement. Some of us have developed hunchbacks, or tics in our eyelids. Even my Buddhist friends have been feeling despair, and when they go bad, you know the end is nigh. Booker T. Washington said, ‘I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him,’ and this is the most awful thing about it. Yet part of me sort of likes it, too, for the flush of righteousness, the bond to half the electorate. Who would we be without hate? [snip] Some of my wise, more evolved friends say that loathing certain people, henceforth referred to as Them, is not worth the effort, that they are too thin as human forms to actually hate. I say, ‘Not for me, baby.’ [snip] Of course we hate the corporate evildoers and what they are doing to us and the earth, assuring a future for our grandchildren that is more horrifying than anything we’ve lived through. Of course we hate the man who raped our friend or abused our child. And I’m going to go out on a limb here, but almost everyone hates the spokespeople for the NRA.
I wonder what Jesus would make of all that unrelenting hate? What would Booker T. Washington make of it?
Apart from the wondrous arrogance of assuming her point of view is “righteous,” with its corollary implication that a different perspective must, by definition, be wicked, wouldn’t both she and “Them” be better served by dialogue? If all that hatred could be transformed into a willingness to listen and understand “Them’s” point of view, as well as to explain and clarify one’s own position, could not some common ground be found?
Ms. Lamott does pay lip service to empathy, but even there she does so narcissistically: Empathy begins when we realize how much alike we all are. My focus on hate made me notice I’m too much like certain politicians. That’s progress, of a sort, but seeing the public parts of a politician—whom you have only seen on television—in yourself is a kind of crooked step sideways rather than forward. Empathy is defined as seeing oneself in the object of contemplation and so understanding the observed person, not the other way around.
(Since the politician she hates is Donald Trump, I’ll go out on a limb here myself and speculate that she might dislike him personally even more if she got to know him, but personality is the last, absolute last, reason to elect any politician.)
But beyond that, does Ms. Lamott seriously expect anyone to take spiritual advice—or any other kind of advice—from someone who admits to enjoying hate? Yes, she writes about struggling against it, but does a belief in, say, the efficacy of the internal combustion engine over the taxpayer-subsidized Tesla that gets its energy from a power plant, or vice versa, does that really justify hatred so extreme that it should necessitate a struggle in the first place? How about a conversation instead?
I’m afraid all I could think of when I read that chapter was disgraced FBI agent Peter Strozk’s text message to his mistress about going to a southern Virginia Walmart: “I could SMELL the Trump support.”
If our fellow travelers on this tired old globe are so contemptuous of “Them,” and the smell of people who take a shower after they come home from work, instead of before going to an air-conditioned office and a desk, then dialogue and rapprochement are unlikely indeed. In any event, I decided to seek help for my depression elsewhere.