Cure Without Communication: Self-Help Books and Popular Notions of Self and Communication, 1860-2000

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Woodstock, M. Louise

This study traces the development of a basic premise, that what we think manifests in reality, underlying much of psycho-religious self-help literature in the United States. This premise posits alternative ways of thinking about the self, the community, and the communicative relationship between them. The belief in the power of thought to impact action - in the capacity of thought to instill good health, confident mindsets, and optimum circumstances — makes the claim that one can repair reality without social interaction. This study excavates the various evolutions of that claim and considers its impact on both notions of the self and the collective as well as on our understanding of how communication works. The study emphasizes three periods during which self-help and the genre’s attending interest in “thought as communication” have been particularly resonant. In the early period, popular from roughly 1880 to 1910, psycho-religious self-help books were published by writers of “mind cure” or “New Thought ” movements, alternative spiritual movements that promised relatively easy remedies for health and happiness. By rallying their powers of mind, readers were told they could control and direct their thoughts so that they exactly mirrored the intentions of God with the resulting consequence of perfect health and happiness. The underlying mechanism at work, according to these books, posited a direct relationship between thought and material consequence. This belief in the power of thought to construct reality continued to weave its way through our culture, becoming especially popular again in a middle period of 1940 -1960 under the name “positive thinking.” During that period, the full effects of popular psychology were manifested in the self-help genre, positioning scientific knowledge alongside God and offering an alternative conception of the ways in which “communication” could improve our lives. At the same time, “negative thinking” books encouraged readers to identify and accept painful elements of their pasts. By the late period of the 1980s and 90s, the concept previously called “mind cure” and “positive thinking” had incorporated popular psychology into a hybrid “spirituality,” a concept that encouraged readers to place painful problems in the past while holding strong to a “positive” future. The self-help genre provides a valuable written record of how the self and thought have been constructed into a particular cultural discourse. The self-help rhetoric about “thought as communication” claims that individuals in isolation can in fact accomplish the restorative and healing functions regularly attributed to social interaction. Surrounding this core self-help concept, however, circle many changing characterizations of religion, science, health, personhood, and community.

Barbie Zelizer
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