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Help Is on the Way

Berkeley author Beth Lisick goes gonzo journalist on the self-help gurus.


Courtesy of Beth Lisick

After years in the Bay Area literary underground, Beth Lisick is enjoying a dip in the main­stream. The 39-year-old writer, poet, performance artist, and storyteller for NPR’s This American Life hit the big time in 2005, when her sidesplitting book, Everybody Into the Pool, received rave reviews and made The New York Times best-seller list.

For her latest book, Helping Me Help Myself, Lisick spent a year staking out 10 self-help big shots—including spiritual advisor Deepak Chopra, finance whiz Suze Orman, and exercise cheerleader Richard Simmons—and applying their advice to her life.

The results were often positive and always hilarious, especially in the case of John Gray (Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus), whose relationship advice gave Lisick the sensation of “a knitting needle entering my brainpan.” Diablo talked to Lisick about her encounters with self-help types and with fame at her home on the Berkeley–Oakland border. >>>

Congratulations on a very funny book. As soon as I started reading, I thought, “I wish I had thought of this.”

It’s a really strong concept, but the execution was difficult—self-help is such a huge topic. The whole year I was doing it, people were saying, “Oh! Have you tried this guru?”

The hardest thing was narrowing down who I was going to research and how I could apply their self-help approach to my life.

I never cared for the concept of John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, so I enjoyed your portrayal of him.

My goal was not to skewer anyone for the sake of skewering, because that wasn’t really interesting to me. But when I got to John Gray, it was really hard not to, even though he’s someone who has helped millions of people and they will testify to that fact. It’s hard not to go to town with the crazy ideas he has—like pretending to listen to your wife by shaking your head and saying “uh-huh” and “oh yeah?”

None of Simmon's fans will talk about his sexuality, even though they know every other detail about his life.

Has he, or any of his disciples, sent you hate mail?

No. But, when I was on Ronn Owens’s show on KGO radio, a woman called in and said, “What’s wrong with John Gray if he’s helping people’s marriages?” She was absolutely right. If people can get through problems with their spouse by following his advice, more power to them. I did notice the Chronicle best-seller list last week: My book was number 10, and his newest book, Why Mars and Venus Collide, was number five.

I was also happy to discover that Richard Simmons seems like a pretty good guy.

He was great. I got to spend so much time around him, and I could see different sides of him. He’s a clown, a court jester, but he is in total control of his persona. He also makes these totally gay references but is not out—I find that totally fascinating. And none of his fans will talk about his sexuality, even though they know every other detail about his life.

Which of these gurus did you want to hang out with?

Definitely Richard Simmons. And, I really liked [Chicken Soup for the Soul’s] Jack Canfield a lot. He’s the kind of guy who listens to everything you have to say. I’d be curious about Suze Orman, but I’ve seen her give some really clowny performances—I think I would have liked her more when she was a wisecracking waitress [at Berkeley’s Buttercup Bakery in the 1970s].

Lisick (right) with Richard Simmons.
Courtesy of Beth Lisick

Which ones actually gave you pragmatic, helpful advice?

The best were the ones where I started and could see a difference right away. Thomas Phelan, who wrote the parenting book 1-2-3 Magic, and Julia Morgenstern’s home-organizing lessons both made a real difference.

I also like the no-frills approach of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s a great book with lots of fantastic ideas. And, the way that Suze Orman thinks about money is really interesting. I’ve never liked to talk about money or people who were money-obsessed. Orman says, “If you don’t care about your money, no one else will either.” There are decent reasons to have money, and she presents some philosophical points about how money can help you be a more comfortable person.

Throughout the book, you’re concerned about money. You take a trip to Italy that you can’t afford, and the Richard Simmons cruise wasn’t cheap. How much did you have to plunk down researching the book?

I spent about $8,000 on plane tickets and seminars. The cruise alone was $1,800, which is insane when I think what I could have done with that money. I wanted to go to Deepak Chopra’s spa, not take BART to see him at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

You worked for years as a writer and a performance artist, and even wore a banana suit in public for $25 an hour. Now that you’re a best-selling author, have you met any resentment from the struggling writers you’ve known for years?

Just last night! I was about to do a reading, and the girl introducing me was trying to be sassy and said, “She’s ditched all her friends, and she won’t answer calls. …” All of a sudden, I thought of a few unanswered e-mails and thought “Oh, no!”

I’m sure people are calling me a sellout but not to my face. There was a scathing review about Everybody Into the Pool on Amazon.com that said, “She’s so full of herself!” It took me a while to get over it. It may be all the self-help books, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.

Did you read the review of your new book from the guy stuck in bed with a back injury?

Yes, that was funny. He hated it. No one would get him another book to read. He had to lie there in agony, reading my book!

The East Bay references are fast and furious throughout the book. Do people on your block recognize you as the star author?

[Laughs] Our neighbors don’t know what’s going on. My husband, Eli, and I have weird hours, and we’re always tag teaming to take care of our son, Gus. I just filmed a segment for the Rachael Ray Show. They brought a film crew at night with all these lights to film us pretending to do a puzzle with Gus and pretending to make dinner. I found out from a neighbor a few days later that the latest rumor on the block is that we’re swingers and we are shooting a porn film.

Nice. What’s the next writing project?

I’m writing a stage show with my friend Tara, hopefully for a small theater in San Francisco this summer. I’m helping Jack Canfield’s son Oran edit his memoir, which is really interesting. It’s about growing up the son of the Chicken Soup for the Soul guy, having the worst self-esteem in the world, and turning into a heroin addict. And, I used to moderate a book group for fifth- and sixth-grade girls and their moms. I’m interested in writing a book for that age group.

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