Book Review: Almost Everything

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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.

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: Almost Everything”

  1. I will proudly state that I am one of her “them” folks and I find her anger and hatred to be old and tired.

  2. Oh heavens! That’s beyond awful. No, whatever is beyond awful, that is beyond that. I’m left scratching my head.

    I am so sorry you are struggling again.

  3. https://www.recoveryfirst.org/blog/the-enabler-in-drug-addiction-and-alcoholism/

    I believe that she was enabling her brother’s behavior. The enabler wants to “save” the addict from the consensus of their actions. I remember some of my mother’s behavior and our behavior around our father’s drinking. One of the things we or I should say our mother would buy him for his birthday or father’s day was more alcohol. We would all give it to him as a present. Now you might ask what kind of insanity was involved in giving an alcoholic more alcohol. It just fueled more of this bad behavior. The only answer I can think of is that it made him happy for about five minutes. We were enabling his drinking because we thought it made him happy, but of course it really didn’t.

    1. I ment to say consequences. I think another reason we did this was to get some kind of acceptance and approval from him.

  4. “To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.”
    ― Charles Krauthammer, Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics

  5. I am sorry to read that you have been dealing with depression! I was happy to see your post from the other day. I figured you were off hunting, or enjoying summer weather or visiting people. I had started writing a comment, but it went off on a tangent, and I needed to fix it before posting it. Sometimes I wait to make things perfect and then never finish them.

    It does seem strange to write a self-help book about an experience you’ve never had. That anecdote about the brother does sound horrible. The first time I read it (in the passage you posted), it seemed like a joke at her brother’s expense. Reading it a second time, it feels like a confession, but without the context of the effect that it could have on him; like confessing a guilty pleasure. It would feel better if the point she getting to was something like, “This is my role in my dysfunctional alcoholic family. Everyone took advantage of my empathy, and this is how it makes me feel. Here’s where I’m wrong.” That would make more sense. Instead, it feels like unexamined, toxic anger. I became my dad’s bartender, but if the day had ever come when he abstained (it did not), the last thing I would have done was offer him a drink! Same is true for other loved ones. That said, as the friend who dragged me to my first meeting warned me, “AA is not a hotbed of mental health.” Later I heard, “Some are sicker than others.” Before I moved to away from Washington, I spent my early sobriety going meetings on P Street, Connecticut Avenue, and Wisconsin avenue and found a wonderful fellowship at there. I feel like it helped to save my life, but what my friend said is not untrue. It might be especially true of AA’s with unresolved alcoholic family issues, although a wise group of women double winners was one of the most helpful that I ever found. Speaking of tangents…

    As for the Trump etc. bashing, I am less conservative than you represent yourself as being, but that would turn me off too. I’m so sick of it! If you hate someone/something that much, why dwell on it constantly? I think even if I hated him I’d be sick listening to it by this point. Also, people always assume that their audience or friend is on the same side because there is only one side even worth considering and all the good people are on it. I can’t believe we are in this place, or how far this has gone. I mean, it’s one thing to criticize administrations; I certainly have, but to define your existence, who you can be friends with, and even family relationships by how people feel about a political figure or issue, seems so misguided and unfortunate. I have no precedent to understand it. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but maybe you can think of one.

    This spring and summer I have been getting my condo/home of ten years ready for sale, in a process that has seemed endless. I have learned more about renovation and construction than I ever planned to know, made quick decisions about things I know nothing about, and have been far, far more involved than I expected to be. I feel relief that it may finally be over soon, as well as sadness as I let go of an era of my life and all the things I felt, did and didn’t do during that time. I console myself with the idea that one day I can haunt the place. I have barely been reading, but when I do finally relax with a book, I’ll make sure it’s not this one! I sincerely hope you will find yourself in a much better mental space very soon,

    Jennifer

    1. Jennifer,

      I too have recently gone through the process of leaving my home of 10+ years & finding a new home. The emotions I experienced when I realized I was locking my front door for the last time are indescribable. The process took nearly two years & yet I was still unprepared for the last few weeks. Good luck on your transition.

  6. There is some form of competition amongst those on the left, to see who can outdo the other in their disgusting display of hate & vitriol.

    I find it quite ironic that these are the very same individuals who would demand respect for the office of the presidency during the last administration, no matter how legitimate a critique might be.

    As to 12 Step programs… Ten steps too many. There are only two steps.
    #1. Make the decision.
    #2. Follow through.

  7. I have suffered with depression for years. It is never cured, but maybe controlled. I was on one anti-depressiant that stop working. About ten years ago I was unable to function. I would get up eat and promptly lay back down. I spent a good deal of time laying and sleeping on the sofa. I finally went to a different psychiatrist and he told me that my medication had stop working. I was prescribed medication and also went to a therapist. All this has helped quite a bit. I also have Fibromyalgia which cause pain in my body.

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