Feminist Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, ps 177-192, 1993.




            The "recovery' section of my local bookstore, sporting best-selling women's self-help titles like Smart Women/Foolish Choices, Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, and the very popular Women Who Love Too Much, occupies the shelves directly above the "women" section, where one goes to find such feminist classics as The Second Sex, The Madwoman in the Attic and This Sex Which Is Not One.  If this marketing juxtaposition seems jarring, it nevertheless has the virtue of foregrounding a certain relationship between women, self-help, and feminism that I want to explore further.  It suggests not only the extent to which the audience for self-help is a female one but also the dramatic way in which this self-consciously popular genre has gained the privileged position in addressing 'women's issues' in the textual marketplace, offering "solutions" to women's problems that often borrow from the discourse of feminism even as they work against feminism's fundamental tenets.

            In the last decade, following in the wake of second-wave feminism, self-help books for women have become a multi-billion dollar publishing phenomenon.  They offer, as a New York Times press clipping in a promotional packet from Harper/San Francisco put it, a program of 'recovery through reading" in an era when other kinds of literacy are on the decline.  A photo in the same press packet of best-selling author Melodie Beattie (Co-dependent No More and Beyond Co-dependency), sitting on the houseboat she purchased with the royalties from her books, evokes the kind of self-help success narrative that has been a part of the American cultural imagination at least since Benjamin Franklin penned his autobiography.[1]'

            Of course, American culture has a long and healthy masculine self-help narrative tradition, rooted in the Protestant theme of individual self-improvement and its many secular variations that have been so frequently associated with the national character.  From Ben Franklin's eighteenth-century program for fame through frugality, to Horatio Alger's tales of rags to respectability in the nineteenth-century streets of New York, to Dale Carnegie's program for winning friends and influencing people in our own century, these success narratives have characteristically addressed men in the public sphere.[2] But a cursory glance at the self-help section of any bookstore today reveals a preponderance of titles for women: The Cinderella Complex, Smart Women/Foolish Choices, Men Are Just Desserts, Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, Why Men Stray and My Men Stay, Men Who Can't Love, and Women Who Love Too Much are just a few of the titles that take up the issue of gender in a "post-feminist" world.  These books address what has come to be a recognisable cultural icon, represented everywhere from 'Cathy' to 'Thirty something.' Economically independent, professionally successful, and desperately in need of a man, this 'contemporary woman' is what might be called the tragic heroine of feminism.  Self-help books promise to empower her to make healthier relationship choices at a time when, by all accounts, satisfying intimate relationships between the sexes are increasingly imperilled.[3]

            In order to question the promise of a book like Robin Norwood's Women Who Love Too Much, which I take here as a representative text, I want to detour by way of another therapeutic discourse, one which also purports to know what women want and which has already been thoroughly demonised by a generation of feminist critics-Freud's well-known case study of hysteria, Dora (originally published as 'Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria").[4] At least at first glance, these two works appear to occupy polarised ends of the spectrum of therapeutic discourses.  For many feminist critics, Freud's self-admitted failure to complete his analysis of Dora's case has come to represent the failure of classical psychoanalysis to interpret female experience, to answer Freud's own now-famous question: "What do women want?" In contrast, Women Who Love Too Much belongs to a distinctly different therapeutic genre, one whose very name - "self-help" - proposes an escape from the gender-inflected inequities embedded in Freud's doctor patient relationship with Dora.  Whereas, in Freud's discourse, the male analyst stands in privileged relation to the female "text," self-help books like Norwood's apparently eliminate the hierarchical division between analyst/analysand, critic/text, by making the tools of interpretation available to the female lay reader and inviting her to engage in self-therapy.  By correctly diagnosing her illness and following a prescribed program, the reader of Women Who Love Too Much can self-author her own narrative of addiction and recovery.[5] Whereas Freud addressed a specialised audience of male colleagues, relegating Dora to the position of subject (or, if you like, object) of medical scrutiny, Norwood addresses a community of women, a "we' to which she herself professes to belong.  By her own claim, her insight into her material comes from "having been a woman who loved too much most of my life."[6] Her writing is authorised not by her medical or professional training but by her stated membership in the very group about which she writes.  This democratic and non hierarchical nature of the self-help rhetoric is codified in the tenth and final step of the Women Who Love Too Much recovery program: 'Share with others what you have experienced and learned' (p. 222).  Central then to the project of self-help is a model of authority which is decentralised, passed laterally from woman to woman.  The fact that Norwood suggests that sharing "may mean helping to educate the medical and counseling professions about the appropriate treatment approach for yourself and women like you" highlights just how different a conception of the relation to knowledge is implied by the self-help model (p. 260).

            Thus, Freud's and Norwood's discourses appear to represent two very different epistemologies and two correspondingly different positionings of the female subject.  Freud attempted to constitute psychoanalysis as a privileged scientific discourse and to make its interpretive tools available to a newly consolidated medical elite; the women's self-help book of the 1980s emerged out of feminist critiques of the medical establishment and such feminist self-help classics as Our Bodies, Ourselves. [7] Our Bodies, Ourselves operates, at least in theory, on a grassroots political model that promises to reclaim power from institutions to people through the dissemination of knowledge.  Does women's self-help, in its "post feminist" mode, similarly empower women?  I will argue that, far from representing an alternative to traditional psychotherapeutic discourses that are structured around women's disempowerment, the goal of the contemporary women's self-help narrative, exemplified by Women Who Love Too Much, is to produce a female subject better suited to inhabiting a gender-asymmetrical society than to challenging its political and social basis.  I want to turn first, however, to a text whose strategies of containment are by now quite familiar, as a way of signalling the continuity of contemporary women's self-help literature with other patriarchal therapeutic discourses and practices.

            Feminist criticism has made us attentive to the constellation of social and cultural factors that produced the hysterical role as a virtual parody of femininity in the late nineteenth century.  As Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has argued, hysteria emerged out of the inherently contradictory demands placed on Victorian bourgeois women. On the one hand, the role of "true woman" required a woman to be "emotional, dependent and gentle"; in contrast, the role of 'ideal mother' required her to be 'strong, self-reliant, protective, an efficient caretaker in relation to children and home.'[8] The extreme disjunction between these two roles led the hysteric to seek relief in a socially acceptable sick role through which she could escape her role as self-sacrificing mother while still exerting enormous influence on the family.  At once passive and aggressive, dependent and rebellious, self-punishing and angry, the hysteric embodied the numerous contradictions of nineteenth-century femininity.

            If, for feminist criticism, the hysteric has become a crucial trope for the disempowered medicalized female subject, then Dora's case has certainly become the metonymic narrative of that disempowerment.  Dora's protofeminist consciousness of herself as "an object for barter" in a rather sordid domestic tale has made her an attractive, if tragic, heroine in contemporary feminist scripts of her story.  Freud's willingness to exculpate Dora's father and Herr K. for their use of Dora and to affix blame on various women - Dora's mother, Frau K., Dora's governess, and Dora herself -has been noted by numerous critics, as has his notorious presumption that Dora's hysteria emerged out of her repressed heterosexual desire for Herr K. Regarding the pivotal scene by the lake in which the fourteen-year-old Dora rebuffed Herr K.'s advances, Freud infamously writes: "I should without question consider a person hysterical in whom an occasion for sexual excitement elicited feelings that were preponderantly or exclusively unpleasurable; and I should do so whether or no the person were capable of producing somatic symptoms."[9]

            In a provocative discussion of this passage, Nancy Armstrong reads Freud's treatment of this scene of seduction as overturning the tradition of domestic fiction that begins with Richardson:


"Freud . . . questions the form of authority that depends chiefly on resisting seduction.  Only insofar as she could say "no" did Pamela possess any power of self-definition.  But in a communication situation where strategies of reversal rule meaning, her "no" actually means "yes," and signs of disgust therefore disguise pleasure."

            The result, according to Armstrong, is a critical shift in the discourse around female subjectivity.  By rewriting any other-than-phallic desire as repression and denial, Freud converts the feminine virtues of the entire domestic fiction tradition into a set of pathological symptoms from which the female patient must be healed/liberated.  Mr. B.s libertinism in Pamela is rewritten as Freud's liberation, but both men clearly stand in the position of the seducer.  Nevertheless, as Armstrong aptly notes, Dora refuses to be seduced: "She plays Pamela to the end, leaving Freud without a successful conclusion to his case history."[10]

            Smith-Rosenberg's and Armstrong's discussions point to two aspects of the contemporary women's self-help phenomenon that I want to develop further.  First, I suggest that, like the figure of the hysteric, the woman who loves too much must be understood in relation to the project of constructing middle-class femininity undertaken by a tradition of domestic discourse most frequently associated with the late-eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.  At the same time, however, Women Who Love Too Much participates in this tradition in an emphatically post-Freudian moment, one that frames what had previously been seen primarily as moral questions in terms of a thematics of sickness and health that has come to characterize our century.[11]

            In many ways, Women Who Love Too Much appears to be a radical break from the same restrictive, socially constructed feminine roles that Smith-Rosenberg suggests the Victorian hysteric was seeking to escape.  Analysing a series of first- and third-person narrations of women's stories, Norwood attempts to redefine the traditional female sex role, suggesting a central paradox implicit in its construction.  The figure of the martyred woman, usually associated with selflessness and nurturance, is shown, in fact, to be dominated by the need to control.  Far from being a healthy role, it is a dangerously self-destructive one.  The problem with the woman who loves too much, Norwood reveals, is that she needs to develop her own sense of self rather than focusing on others.  Thus, on one level, the message of Women Who Love Too Much seems liberated and liberating.  That the injunction to be selfish (step nine out of the ten steps to recovery) violates everything women have been taught to be is implicit in Norwood's cautious presentation:


"Selfish here requires careful explanation.  It probably conjures up an image of exactly what you don't want to be: indifferent, cruel, thoughtless, self-centered. . . . But remember, you are a woman with a history of loving too much.  For you, becoming selfish is a necessary exercise in letting go of martyrdom." (p. 256)


            Norwood's "history of loving too much" could well refer to the history of white middle-class women in America for at least the last hundred-and-fifty years.  Beginning with Barbara Welter's now classic essay, 'The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,' scholarship on what has come to be known as the cult of domesticity has flourished.  Although critics disagree on the extent to which the female role was a submissive one, they do agree that the nineteenth-century white middle-class woman's role was defined relationally: her value was a function of the extent to which she met others' needs.[12] By revealing this traditional female sex role-nurturing, protective, selfless -as damaging and self-destructive, Norwood suggests that the problem with women is that they have played this role too well, ultimately to the detriment of themselves and those around them.

            Yet underneath this apparently radical challenge to the social construction of femininity, Women Who Love Too Much bears a strong resemblance to other genres of domestic fiction whose goal is to produce a happily socialised female subject.[13] Like the seduction novel, Women Who Love Too Much uses the second-person pronoun to address a female reader and to instruct her on how to avert the devastating results of a liaison with "the wrong man." Moreover, like its eighteenth-century counterpart, Women Who Love Too Much confronts not so much a crisis in femininity as a crisis in heterosexual relations.  In the opening chapter, Jill presents her situation this way: 'I'm doing this - seeing a therapist, I mean - because I'm really unhappy.  It's men of course.  I mean, me and men.  I always do something to drive them away" (p. 2).  Similarly, Margo: "My life is like one long, sort of crummy, novel....I've been married four times already, and I'm only thirty-five" (p. 197). And, perhaps paradigmatically, Celeste: "I've probably been with more than a hundred men in my fife, and I'll bet, looking back, that every one of them was either too many years younger than I or a con artist or dependent on drugs or alcohol or gay or crazy.  A hundred impossible men!  How did I find them all?" (p. 156).  Like the hysteric, the woman who loves too much disrupts exogamous exchange.  Endlessly circulating from man to man, she signals a failure in heterosexual relationships that poses a threat to the constitution of society around the figure of the nuclear family.[14] The implicit project of the text, then, is to stem this erosion of the bourgeois family. just as her eighteenth-century sisters were threatened by the "rake,' the woman who loves too much is threatened by a seemingly endless series of "inappropriate" men; too young, too addicted, too gay, they all fall short on a yardstick of morality that the text prescribes.  Like Trudi, whom we meet early on in Women Who Love Too Much, the task of the woman who loves too much is to learn to simply be in the company of men whom she considered nice, even if she also found them a little boring, 'in other words, to recognise Mr. Right from Mr. Wrong (p. 38-39).  Given this underlying project, it is not surprising that, like a familiar Jane Austen novel, Women Who Love Too Much ends with marriage.  In the final chapter, when we again meet Trudi, engaged and learning to love the man who is "the best friend I've ever had" (p. 264), we are reminded of Emma, who, after discarding a series of suitors who turn out to be variously 'inappropriate'-in one case too inferior socially, in another too 'rakish'- finally 'discovers' Knightley as an object of desire. The "appropriateness" of Knightley depends, of course, on a whole constellation of social factors, not the least of which is his superiority to Emma in every way, both socially and intellectually, and this dynamic finds an interesting corollary in Women Who Love Too Much.  Precisely what is at stake in most if not all of the mini narratives that comprise Women Who Love Too Much is a reversal of the traditional power relations between women and men.  Women who love too much, according to Norwood, classically pick men who are their inferiors.  For example, Connie recalls that in her relationship with Kenneth: 'I made virtually all the decisions concerning us as a couple.... I felt strong and he felt free to lean on me' (pp. 144-45).  Similarly, Pam: 'I had at least twenty IQ points over him.  And I needed that edge.  It took all that and more to make me even begin to believe I was his equal. . .' (p. 152).  And Celeste: 'He was also twenty-seven and still a virgin.  Again, I was the teacher, which made me feel strong and independent.  And in control' (p. 158).  In each of these cases, the power differential is glossed variously as "sick," "controlling," "manipulative," "scheming," "dominating." Norwood advises: "When her drive to control masquerades as 'being helpful' and 'giving encouragement,' what is ignored again is her own need for the superiority and power implied in this kind of interaction' (p. 176).  I would submit that what is ignored, in Norwood's formulation, are the power differentials between women and men that might historically account for these women's desire to feel in control, to have, as it were, a handicap.[15]

            In its attempt to fashion a female subject who is independent, without being too independent, Women Who Love Too Much belongs to a genre of women's culture that Lauren Berlant has called the 'female complaint." Berlant defines the complaint as a genre of self-containment that 'allows the woman who wants to maintain her alignment with men to speak oppositionally but without fear for her position in the heterosexual economy.' For Berlant, the complaint is characterised by its resistance to masculine privilege through an attempt to "demystify" female experience and its simultaneous foreclosure of any fundamental challenge to the conditions which induced its production.  Thus, by managing and controlling women's resistance, it acts as a "'safety valve' for surplus female rage and desire."[16]

            Certainly in its relentless adherence to the traditional marriage plot of domestic fiction, the impulse of Women Who Love Too Much is to foreclose any possibility of breaking out of the heterosexual economy.  The text's 'refusal to see' anything other than heterosexuality as a relationship option is perhaps most apparent in Margo's story.  After describing a series of unhappy relationships with men, Margo relates her experience in sharing the home of another young mother this way:


"Susie, my roommate, coached me through natural childbirth with my second daughter, Darla. It sounds crazy, but that was one of the best times of my life.  We were so poor, going to school, working, taking care of our babies, buying clothes at thrift stores and food with food stamps. But we were free in our own way.... Yet I was so restless.  I wanted a man. . . .'

Margo's tense face, still pretty though painfully thin, looked at me pleadingly. Could I help her find and keep Mr. Wonderful? This was the question written all over it, her reason for coming to therapy. (p. 200, my emphasis)


            Just at the point where Margo's relationship with a woman begins to sound like her only healthy marriage, the impossibility of that happiness, and the sense of freedom it apparently conferred, is registered in the phrase "it sounds crazy.' Immediately, we are thrust back into the marriage plot (finding and keeping Mr. Wonderful) which we learn, through Norwood's subsequent analysis of Margo's story, involves looking for satisfaction in yourself rather than endlessly searching for the "magic man who will make [you] happy" (p. 219).  The possibility of a lesbian relationship is foreclosed - remains, in fact, culturally unintelligible within what Judith Butler has called "the heterosexual matrix" that governs both Margo's self-constructing narrative and Norwood's interpretive intervention.[17] The goal of the narrative becomes the production of a female subject who is 'just independent enough.' Like Austin's Emma who must, in the course of that novel, be gently disabused of her wish not to marry, the woman who loves too much must be taught not to need men, but never not to need men.

If the cultural project of Women Who Love Too Much may be understood as continuous with that of a tradition of domesticity established, among other laces, in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction, the text's use of the disease model as an explanatory construct for the behaviors it attempts to police also distinguishes it from that tradition.  What in a previous century n-tight have been formulated as a question of arbitrating proper middle-class feminine behavior is here represented as a matter of fife and death, demanding all the attention and respect our century affords issues in the medical domain.  In a chapter appropriately titled "Dying for Love," Norwood appropriates the already familiar contemporary discourse of addiction and recovery, using Margo's case history to argue that loving too much is a progressive disease with a specific symptomatology, diagnosis, and treatment.


"I want to make a case for applying the disease concept to the pattern of loving too much.  This is a tall order, and if you balk at accepting this proposal, I hope you will at least see the strong analogy between a disease such as alcoholism, which is addiction to a substance, and that which occurs in women who love too much, addicted as they are to the men in their lives.  I am thoroughly convinced that what afflicts women who love too much is not like a disease; it is a disease process, requiring a specific diagnosis and a specific treatment." (p. 208)


Without treatment, Norwood warns, "loving too much can kill you" (p. 218).[18]

            Norwood's insistence on the disease model deploys a series of paradoxes with regard to the question of agency.  By treating loving too much as an addictive disease over which the individual has no control, Women Who Love Too Much accords the women it addresses both the helplessness and the absolution from moral responsibility that we normally associate with illness.  The acceptance of one's helplessness over one's disease then becomes the precondition for "self-help," a paradox which will be familiar to anyone conversant with the language of the twelve-step recovery programs.  But I wish to point to a further (and to me more insidious) paradox embedded in this particular version of self-help.  By insisting that the woman who loves too much is afflicted with a disease process, Norwood's book addresses a 'victim" who is paradoxically rendered responsible for a set of problems that are, if anything, "symptoms" of larger social and political ills.  Although any number of factors - child sexual abuse, alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, to name just a few - are present in the various clinical narratives, the specificity of those social issues and, more importantly, their social, cultural and economic contexts are lost in Norwood's analysis.  In demarcating the individual biological subject as the site of responsibility for the problems she purports to address, Norwood reduces each narrative to a variation on that familiar American tale of individual triumph over adversity.  Like the protagonist in a conversion narrative, or its secular spin-offs, the heroines of the mini-narratives of Women Who Love Too Much must follow the path schematised in the chart entitled "The Progression of 'Loving Too Much' and Recovery" alone (p. 213).  Any appeal to the political roots of their problems, and hence any possibility of real social change, is foreclosed.

            This bracketing of the political is made explicit in the following advice Norwood gives to women forming support groups:


"Stick to the topic at hand.  Virtually any topic a leader wants to introduce is fine except anything having to do with religion, politics, or outside issues such as current events, celebrities, any causes, treatment programs, or therapeutic modalities.  There is no room for debate or devisiveness [sic] in a support group." (p. 281)


The fantasy that this advice promotes is the possibility of a self or group of selves functioning in isolation from any social or political context.  The book's utopian vision of an ever-widening circle of self-help groups is more likely to produce a class of women better prepared to adjust to existing social structures than to direct their collective energies toward any kind of challenge to those structures.

            In its deployment of a thematics of health and disease that pathologises women, rather than examining the oppressive nature of the intersections between gender and power that help to produce their "condition," Women Who Love Too Much recalls Freud's treatment of hysteria.  Like the hysteric before her, the figure of the woman who loves too much has become a kind of archetypal female, a pervasive cultural stereotype that functions as a locus for a variety of displaced blame, anger, and resentment.  As in Dora, the pathologisation of women becomes a means of avoiding a larger social crisis in gender arrangements, and the production of a "healthy" female subject becomes a means of maintaining female complicity in precisely those gender arrangements which most oppress her.[19]

            But unlike traditional psychoanalysis where the pathologisation of women takes place within a hierarchical physician-patient relationship, self-help therapeutic discourse produces its female subject through the private act of reading and depends upon the willingness of the reading subject herself to join the interpretive community the book offers membership in.  The importance of "good reading' is thus crucial, as is made clear in the preface:


"But if you are a woman who loves too much, I feel it only fair to caution you that this is not going to be an easy book to read.  Indeed, if the definition fits and you nevertheless breeze through this book unstirred and unaffected, or you find yourself bored or angry, or unable to concentrate on the material presented here, or only able to think about how much it would help someone else, I suggest that you try reading the book again at a later time.  We all need to deny what is too painful or too threatening to accept.  Denial is a natural means of self-protection, operating automatically and unbidden.  Perhaps at a later reading you will be able to face your own experiences and deeper feelings." (p. xvi)


Freud's concept of resistance, whereby Dora's disgust could be re-written as pleasure, is here appropriated and re deployed as a means of regulating the act of reader-response.  The critical act itself is rendered suspect, because any negative reaction to the text is deflected back on to the reader as evidence of her own shortcomings.  There is no such thing, then, as a 'bad text,' only a 'bad reader.' In contrast the 'good reader,' the one who doesn't resist or deny the text, is, through the private act of reading, inducted into a community of women who share her narrative of sickness and recovery.

            In constructing for the American cultural imagination an archetypal narrative of female experience as disease, Women Who Love Too Much functions as a kind of smoke screen for a variety of pressing social problems, effectively ensuring that those problems are themselves never directly confronted.  Paradoxically, by refusing to address the specific historical legacy of the gender-asymmetrical distribution of power and assignment of roles in our culture, the text avoids precisely what is at the root of the current crisis in heterosexual relations that it is nevertheless attempting to heal.  By focusing our attention on the 'sick,' controlling,' 'manipulative,' 'dependent,' 'obsessive,' 'weak,' 'dominating,' 'bitchy,' 'nagging' women who people its pages, Women Who Love Too Much distracts us from reformulating their 'disease' as a symptom of larger social and political ills.

            During more than a decade of Reagan-Bush politics, it is not surprising that contemporary women's self-help books have managed to appropriate many of feminism's principles and practices for quite different ends.  Seventies' consciousness-raising groups became eighties' self-help groups; the analysis of the personal as political became simply an analysis of the personal; and the apparent critique of the cult of domesticity, which self-help borrowed from feminism, has fallen short of dismantling the monogamous heterosexual couple, not only as the normative model for connectedness and intimacy but also as the basis for all social relations.  As women are facing a wider range of culturally sanctioned choices about how to live their lives without the accompanying institutional supports and options which would make those choices easier, self-help books like Women Who Love Too Much function to discipline women in certain fundamental values, including the notion that monogamous heterosexual love (corrected to a "post feminist" mode) is at the basis of self-fulfilment.

            Have feminist critics ceded the field?  In her book Talking Back, bell hooks has suggested that the market for self-help books like Women Who Love Too Much has been created by feminism's failure to provide models for meeting the longing for personal transformation that its successes have awakened in women. hooks redefines this longing for "self-recovery" as the process by which dominated or exploited individuals gain a 'critical consciousness' of their oppression and begin the process of 'remaking and reconstituting themselves so that [they] can be radical."[20] Her definition depathologises and politicises "self-recovery," making it the necessary basis for a radical politics that doesn't simply identify structures of oppression but also works to change them.[21]

            Certainly in the last decade, some academic feminist critics have been more concerned with deconstructing than with reconstructing the self: the very term "self-recovery' calls up precisely that notion of a reified identity that precedes its discursive construction that many recent feminist debates have sought to destabilise.  And yet, if feminist criticism is going to have a transformational impact on women's lives, it must begin to be attentive to the remarkable appeal of narratives of self-recovery in contemporary popular culture. hooks's definition reminds us that the process of becoming a subject - a process of self-making - is crucial to political activism.  We can embrace this definition and still be attentive to the lessons of recent feminist debates on the social construction of the subject.  Self-recovery should be understood here not as a nostalgic return to the stable normative subject of early feminism, nor as an uncritical re-embracing of individualist politics, but as an ongoing process of self-making that is socially constituted, that straddles multiple axes of difference in a culture organised hierarchically according to those axes, and that serves as a basis for challenging those hierarchies through political action.

            As long as feminism continues its deep suspicion of self-recovery as a project, it will continue to abdicate its authority in this area to other forms of discourse that are self-consciously popular and apolitical and that are simultaneously complicit with conservative dominant-culture values.  And as long as we continue to five in a society that oppresses and abuses women in a variety of material ways, women - in and outside the academy, feminist and otherwise-will continue to struggle with recovering a sense of self-empowerment.  It's time we reclaimed self-help as an area of legitimate feminist analysis.




I would like to thank D.A. Miller, whose insights into self-help literature initially inspired this inquiry, and Lauren Berlant, whose comments on an earlier version of this essay were especially valuable in guiding its subsequent direction.  Thanks also to Bruce Burgett and Judy Berman for many helpful conversations.


[1] Edwin McDowell, In a Land of Addictions, Shelves Full of Solace,' New York Times, 21            June 1989; J.D. Reed, 'Melody Beattie Helps Anguished Readers Kick the Dependency Habit,' People Weekly, 7 Aug. 1989.


[2]  John G. Cawelti traces this masculine self-help narrative tradition in Apostles of the

Self-Made Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).


[3]   1 want to distinguish at this point in my discussion between self-help literature and self-help social movements.  The contemporary women's self-help books that I explore in this essay frequently borrow from the discourse of the twelve-step recovery movement pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous, but I do not pretend to decide here which, if any, of my claims can be generalised to the twelve-step recovery and related self-help movements.  Although there are surely many similarities, the obvious differences require that they be treated as two distinct phenomena.

[4]  In recent years, there has been an extraordinary amount of criticism on Dora from a feminist perspective.  See especially, Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, The Newly Born Woman, trans.  Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986); Diacritics 13 (Spring 1983), a special issue on Dora; and the collection of articles entitled In Dora's Case: Freud-Hysteria,-Feminism, eds.  Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).


[5]  For samples of these self-authored narratives, see Robin Norwood's sequel, Letters from Women Who Love Too Much (New York: Pocket Books, 1988).


[6] Robin Norwood, Women Who Love Too Much (New York: Pocket Books, 1985), xvi.  Subsequent references to this edition are noted parenthetically in the text.


[7]  For feminist critiques of the medical establishment, see, for example, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1978); and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Knopf, 1985), esp. pt. 3. I offer the Boston Women's Health Collective's Our Bodies, Ourselves (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971) as an alternative self-help model with the following caveat: as an example of the praxis of 1970s' feminism, it shares with early feminist theoretical discourse a tendency to construct a normative woman as its subject. The New Our Bodies, Ourselves (1984) attempts to provide a corrective to the original text by being more attentive to differences among women.


[8]  Smith-Rosenberg, 199.


[9]   Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, ed.  Philip Rieff (New York:

Macmillan, 1963), 50, 44.


[10]  Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction,.  A Political History of the Novel (New

York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 232-33, 237.  Madelon Sprengnether also treats Freud's case history as an "attempted seduction via interpretation" which ultimately fails (see "Enforcing Oedipus: Freud and Dora," in In Dora's Case, 254-75, 261).


[11]  Armstrong's account of this shift in Desire and Domestic Fiction stresses the relative power and autonomy enjoyed by the middle-class woman prior to this moment of reigning in.  I view the domestic fiction tradition somewhat less optimistically, stressing its role in disciplining middle-class women into gender arrangements that were limiting and oppressive.


[12]  Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-60," American Quarterly 18 (Summer 1966): 151-74.  For further discussion of the cult of domesticity, see, for example, Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977); Mary P. Ryan, The Empire of the Mother (New York: Haworth Press, 1982); Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catherine Beecher (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973).  For a reconsideration of the nineteenth-century construction of femininity in view of the politics of race, see Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).


[13]  As Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction suggests, the contemporary women's self-help book has a history in the form of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British conduct books and domestic novels for middle-class women that predates the medicalisation of the discourse on sexuality.  For a discussion of that history in America, see Ryan; and Richard H. Brodhead, "Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America," Representations 21 (Winter 1988): 67-92.  Although tracing such a lineage is beyond the scope of this paper, I suggest that the gender arrangements promoted by contemporary women's self-help books are continuous with precisely those middle-class family formations whose emergence Armstrong, Ryan, and Brodhead document.  But whereas these earlier discourses were progressive, shaping the new middle-class family as a supposedly democratic alternative to the earlier patriarchal family model, contemporary women's self-help literature emerges as a reactionary response to the "breakdown" of this "traditional' family.  In lieu of creating new institutional supports in a society undergoing rapid demographic changes, self-help books suggest that the solutions to the intensely dislocating effects of these changes lie in the promotion of the "right" individual choices and a return to the nuclear family.


[14]  In The Newly Born Woman, Clement notes that "Freud's young hysterics are looking everywhere for an ideal man, are unsuccessful at reconstituting the family, are failures at exogamous exchange' (p. 45).  The question of whether the hysteric's disruptiveness of the family is ultimately conservative or revolutionary remains open in the dialogue between Cixous and Clement.


[15]  A corresponding impulse to equalise the distribution of power in the relation between the sexes can be seen in a text like Jane Eyre, in which Jane marries her former employer, Edward Rochester, only after he has been severely crippled in a fire.


[16] Lauren Berlant, "The Female Complaint," Social Text, no. 19/20 (Fall 1988): 237-59,

243, 245.


[17] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 151n. 6.


[18] "Loving too much" is a popularisation of the concept of "co-dependency," a term originally deriving from family-systems approaches to drug and alcohol addiction which see the (usually female) spouse of the addicted individual as a participant in the addiction.  But there are growing signs of dismay with women's self-help literature oil self-recovery and addiction.  See, for example, Marianne Walters, "The Co-dependent Cinderella Who Loves Too Much . . . Fights Back," Family Therapy Networker (July/August 1990): 53-57.  Walters decries self-help books' tendency to pathologise traits normally associated with the feminine and calls for a therapeutic approach that is socially contextualised.  My purpose here is not to discredit either "co-dependency" or "addiction" models but to explore the implications of their popularisation and over application.


[19]  A book like Steven Carter and Julia Sokol's Men Who Can't Love (New York: Berkeley Books, 1987) reverses the title of Women Who Love Too Much, but not its politics.  Despite the title's gesture toward pathologising men, the subtitle - "How to Recognise a Commitment-Phobic Man before He Breaks Your Heart" - makes clear that the focus of the book remains women.


[20] bell hooks, Talking Back (Boston: South End Press, 1989), 28-34, 32.

[21]  An example of a "cross-over" text, which both markets itself as self-help and is deeply informed by feminist analysis, is Susie Orbach's Fat Is a Feminist Issue: A Self-Help Guide for Compulsive Eaters (New York: Berkeley Books, 1978).  Although it has recently been reissued, the book predates the wave of love-as-addiction self-help books that began flooding the market in the 1980s.  Although the book's focus is not relationships, the prevalence of what Orbach calls "lose weight and get/hold your man" diet plans reveals the deep affiliation between the marketing of commercial weight-loss plans and the institutionalisation of heterosexual monogamy.  In contrast, Orbach's version of self help places personal responsibility for weight loss in the context of political analysis, viewing compulsive eating as a symptom of women's social inequality and specific roles in this culture.