on 19 March 2012
Martha Beck has a much higher profile in the US than in the UK. I've never heard her name mentioned in the UK (either in the media or by acquaintances), but in the US she regularly appears on the Oprah Winfrey tv show and in videos hosted at Oprah's website, writes a monthly column in Oprah's print magazine, has written several bestselling books, runs a successful life-coaching company, is an inspiration to families who have children with Down's Syndrome, and has publicly aired her antagonistic relationships with the Mormon church and her extended family (which is highly-placed in the church's organization).
I read my first Martha Beck book about 13 years ago, and instantly admired her sense of humour, writing skill, down-to-earth personality, intelligence and academic achievements, and concern for other people. The more I've read by her, seen her on tv, etc., the more highly I've thought of her.
I haven't read all her books, skipping the one about her son Adam, the one about dieting, of course the Mormon-focussed one she wrote a long time ago with her (now-"out", now-ex) husband about overcoming addictions (including how to overcome being gay) (and now Martha is "out" as well, having lived with a female partner for many years, although I just learned about that side of her life last year, and I saw a 2011 interview of Beck by Oprah Winfrey during which Oprah learned about Martha's being gay, and Oprah was also quite shocked she had not known about this before, since they have worked together for many years).
I especially recommend her book _Finding Your Own North Star_. The follow-up _Steering By Starlight_ is okay, but kind of dips into the "woo-woo factor" more than most people are probably comfortable with (although I was fine with it myself).
Martha's writing can make me laugh, cry, marvel, and groan, often within the same few paragraphs.
[By the way, you can find a generous amount of her material for free on her personal website, and I think all of her monthly columns from the O Magazine archives are available at Oprah's website - many of them are well worth spending a few minutes on, if her writing style floats your boat.)
Therefore, I was looking forward to reading this, her latest book. I am disappointed in it. Not only because I expect so much from her, but because it's so... circular and woolly. The subject matter is by definition hard to describe in words, but she is a better communicator than this. To me it felt like an early draft, filled with too many stories and metaphors and words, which normally gets whittled down into a tight, well-flowing, easy-to-follow manuscript before it is published.
Some of the negatives, in my opinion:
-Text was too long, didn't flow very well.
-There were too many stories of her experiences on the game preserve in South Africa.
-There was too much about animals (and willing them to appear in front of her). Too much about far-flung, expensive travels. I know she deeply enjoys both and that both are integral to her lifestyle and recent discoveries about the universe, but the repetitiveness marred the book for me.
-It felt like half-autobiography, half-self-help-guide, and the two parts didn't join together as smoothly, for me, as she obviously meant them to.
-The "practical" steps about how to be a healer/"wayfinder"/"mender"/etc. were scattered too much around the book, and the example tales that were meant to illuminate the practical steps were often so long and involved that I forgot what their purpose was.
-Sometimes, she assumes that readers have some prior scientific or esoteric knowledge they may not have, while at other times she explains things a bit too simply.
-She makes up some terms for some of her concepts, which makes sense because the typical terms in English do have a lot of preconceptions and emotion attached to them, but she then uses too many new terms for the same concept, and most of her new terms were just a shade too "cutesy" or something for me. The capitalization of various words, like Team and Imagine, began to grate on me too.
-She keeps saying, "my friend Noelle" or "my friend (whoever)", and there is a certain point when any reader is going to know that Noelle (or whoever) is, yes indeed, that same friend with the unusual name whom Martha has already mentioned 25 times. Are the people she refers to by-name-only not her friends? It felt a bit "adolescent".
-She is a bit obsessed with having slept in the same bed as Mandela, in the same resort as Mandela, having walked the same pathways in the game preserve as Mandela. It is interesting of course, and mentioning it once is fine, but after that, it's kind of pointless. [I used to work in the room Chopin died in, so slap me with a blue plaque. ;-)]
-She tells a few of the same life stories that she has told in other books, which most self-help authors do and it's no problem, but it occurred to me that each time that I've read several of these stories, new aspects have been unveiled (which she had been aware of from the start). I wish that, the first time I'd read her telling of her stories, I would have learned all about them, at least all the relevant information. I realize that she's been playing a delicate game, trying to write books that would appeal to and give comfort to (and not freak out) the public while she's been negotiating a complex and fraught emotional journey in her own life (leaving her religion, accusing her dad of abusing her as a child, being cut off by her family, getting divorced, drinking the mystical kool-aid so-to-speak, etc. etc.) But I do feel a bit misled, because I had thought that the original telling of the stories would have contained all the pertinent details. However, I know this is too much to ask of an autobiographical writer, especially one who doesn't want to push the public's boundaries so far that she isn't given a chance to express herself.
-It is interesting to see that about three different times in the book, she is quite critical about "New Age" people and she even mentions the film of "The Secret" (in all but title) in a disparaging way, even though I recall that she was a guest in at least one hour-long Oprah tv show which mainly lauded that film. I agree with her criticisms of certain magical thinking, and certain "New Age" topics, but then she turns around and keeps quoting Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, and that _Eat Pray Love_ woman as experts and guides for her way of thinking, as if they themselves weren't deeply New-Agey (and as if they were not all annoying and much less profound -- in my opinion, anyway! -- than the American public seems to find them). [I lost some respect for Martha when I realized she holds these people up as the ultimate sages -- but that's just me.]
-A reviewer on the Amazon UK site says that Beck doesn't veer into "law of attraction" stuff, but that IS precisely what she is talking about with her 4 steps. She doesn't call it "law of attraction". But it's pretty similar to it. Some of her steps remind me of steps from Chopra's book on it from about 8 or 10 years ago.
-She assumes that almost everyone reading the book is going to be a "healer" type of person, and does not go into any other archetypes or destinies (whatever you want to call it). She also assumes that every "healer's" life goal should be helping other people find joy. I don't have an opinion on it, but I wonder if it's that simple for every single person who determines that she/he has a "healer" personality.
-Although she said she's spent years researching magic, medicine men/women, shamen, ancient tribes, healers across the ages; and mentions many ideas, experiments, historical events, locations, and people, there are very few references in the book. The only references are to YouTube videos of antelopes jumping and that kind of thing. It's obviously not a textbook or a scientific journal article, but some selected references would have been welcome. Also, of course she mentions her sociology PhD, but historically and in modern times there has been a lot of study of these topics by countless anthropologists, folklorists, and even medical doctors (like Larry Dossey), which I'm not sure she mentioned at all in the book. I know this isn't meant to be an exhaustive review of the "magical" in human experience, but I found it to be a bit waffly and breezy.
-In her promotion of "magic", communing with animal spirits, opening right up to the universe, etc., I know that she is very well-meaning and feels that she knows all the ins and outs -- and she does give a few weak caveats about this throwing oneself wide open to all and sundry, such as beaming comforting, calming vibes to angry and hostile people and imagining a light surrounding you that will supposedly dissolve any bad vibes coming at you -- but it is my impression that she seriously downplays the potentially negative aspects of this sort of individual, amateur, unprotected dabbling. She does mention several times that the ancient tribal healers that she has studied went through decades and decades of training, mentorship, and so on before they were put in charge of this role for their social group -- yet she pulls out some of their "technologies", describes them in a woolly, convoluted way, and encourages her mainly-American, mainly-middle-class, mainly-untrained-in-this-realm readers to rush into these practices on their own with no personal backups in place in case something odd happens, with no broad understanding or training, with no previous experience with the "field". It's too simplistic, too rosy. I think it's not safe enough, spiritually, as described here.
-The subject of mystical, healing drugs (like the one she had, at least at one point, decided to take in a magic ritual led by a South American shaman, and ended up being affected by -- even though she didn't, apparently, ingest it) is complicated and I hardly know anything about it, but she seems to indicate that it's safe, brave, and normal to do this kind of thing without much preparation, and I am not sure that it ought to be that simple or that easy, nor that it is without any danger of side effects/lasting problems. [A fellow student from my university days took something like this and was injured physically and mentally and his life rapidly fell apart, never to be the same. But one can't extrapolate from just one example.] Serious, methodical, logical, educated, open-minded researchers like Dr. Andrew Weil (in his younger days) have researched deeply into this kind of thing, and of course this sort of hallucinatory drug use is engaged in by many folks around the world. However, I think it's only responsible to mention how to learn about the risks, the chemistry, the methods, the legality, the "spiritual" history, etc., if you are going to casually suggest doing this sort of thing for personal growth.
I think that Martha Beck is well-meaning and kind. She's brave, hard-working, and intelligent. She is usually a very good writer. She has an uncommon gift of making readers feel more normal, less alone, happier, calmer. But this book was a disappointment to me, and is my least favorite of her works that I've read.