2016-06-30
Before reading two of Sarah Ban Breathnach's books, the wondrously popular "Simple Abundance" and the new "Simple Abundance Companion," I prided myself on the catholicity of my cultural tastes. I spend my days studying American religious history, but my nights are occupied with videotapes of John Hughes teen flicks, new episodes of "Ally McBeal," the song stylings of The Barenaked Ladies, a new novel by Richard Powers, Joseph Mitchell profiles from The New Yorker, a return visit to Bernard Malamud's short stories, or the latest issue of People. High culture, or low, or whatever's in the middle. That is, I am not a snob.

Until now. Sara Ban Breathnach has taught me to hate, and I can't say that I am very grateful. "The Simple Abundance Companion: Following Your Authentic Path to Something More" is the second sequel to 1995's "Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy," a huge best-seller that sent Breathnach's career as an inspirational speaker into the stratosphere. Multiple sequels are generally a bad idea--never more so than with books that go under the self-help/advice rubric. (See "Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul" or "Mars and Venus on a Date.")

Breathnach's first book needs sequels less than most. It was trite, but capacious, comprising 366 essays "aligning you with the creative energy of the Universe"; guiding you, the female reader, to the six principles of "authenticity" (gratitude, simplicity, order, harmony, beauty, and joy); and beginning with an anodyne epigraph from some Great Thinker, like Tennyson (June 28), Spinoza (August 10), or Ralph Lauren (May 6).

As I write, I turn to today's essay, "When Did You Feel Most Beautiful?," and find wisdom from Sharon Stone. "I don't believe makeup and the right hairstyle alone can make a woman beautiful. The most radiant woman in the room is the one full of life and experience." After each month's essays, Breathnach recommends "Joyful Simplicities." For May, you might wish to learn feng shui or rent "old movies from the 1930s and 1940s." What could possibly be left to say in a sequel?

So, in the "Simple Abundance Companion," Breathnach rehashes, recapitulates, and downright reprints much of the advice from "Simple Abundance," broken down this time into chapters with titles like "The Fullness of Life" and "Choice as a Spiritual Gift." Each chapter ends with a set of questions meant to prompt "moodlings," or idle reveries. A typical exercise from this workbook: "When you feel good on the inside, it shows on the outside. This week, make an effort to stand a little straighter, or to smile more often. Record the reactions you get. How does this make you feel?"

The overriding message of the first book's essays, which each span one or two pages, and the second book's homework assignments, is, "You are an overworked woman and must make time for yourself. You must slow down, smell the roses, sip a cup of tea, cultivate your garden."

Fair enough, I say. The search for authentic, true being, however we define it, runs deep, and there is no quarrel with Breathnach's objective. Thinkers from Jesus to Carl Rogers to Thomas Moore have given us their recipes, and others will follow. Why, then, do I object?

First, because Breathnach's quest for still waters seems to run awfully shallow. At no point does it occur to Breathnach that fulfillment for some women might come from going back to school, getting a promotion, or otherwise engaging their minds. Indeed, insofar as such endeavors take up more time and energy, they seem suspicious. Rather, why not indulge in "cinematherapy" or "audiotherapy," watch a good movie or listen to a good CD? She provides helpful, horribly parochial lists too: "Sleepless in Seattle," "It Happened One Night," Sting's "Mercury Falling," Tina Turner's "Simply the Best," and--didn't you just know?--Pachelbel's "Canon in D Major."

That Breathnach's tastes run to the middlebrow isn't the problem; it's that in choosing the most crushingly boring, unchallenging stuff that the popular canon has to offer, she ignores middlebrow art whose awareness of life transcends its mediocrity. "Terms of Endearment," for example, a true paragon of pop schmaltz, would never appear on a Breathnach list: too sad. Because John Mellencamp, one of my Top 40 heroes, might just for a moment cause us to think about the plight of indebted farmers, his music seems unsuitable. Breathnach recommends "Life Is Beautiful," which I consider a generally superb movie, but with a ludicrously upbeat ending. For "Bibliotherapy," she directs us toward Marianne Williamson and Edna St. Vincent Millay (though Dorothy Parker makes a shocking, and pleasing, appearance).

Breathnach, in other words, places middlebrow culture in the service of mental laziness. Her refusal to challenge or prod leads to her narcissism. For someone who aims to simplify, she spends an awful lot of time giving wardrobe advice, albeit while insisting that she is sticking to her theme of implicity. "Famous, wealthy women known for their chic sense of style keep their looks ncluttered," she says. It's a strange blanket statement, especially coming from a woman who writes that earlier in her career, she gave talks while gussied up in "lace-trimmed frills and the big Gibson girl hair of the Victorian era."

More disturbing still, she then gives advice on how to select one's best colors and wardrobe components. At about this point in the "Simple Abundance Companion," it all begins to add up: the feng shui, the color charts, the decades-old dream (confessed in Chapter One) to own a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes. Sara Ban Breathnach, a married woman with but one child and expensive tastes, finally made time to treat herself right. Now she wants to help all ladies do the same.

At its nadir, narcissism (obsession with oneself) yields to solipsism (the belief that there is nothing other than oneself). Fulfillment, which apparently does not reside in intellectual engagement, also has nothing to do with other people. Absolutely nowhere in "The Simple Abundance Companion" does she favor altruism, charity, or just plain kindness. No cradling one's child, walking with one's beloved, or tending to needy strangers. Rather, the presumption is that women do too much giving already and need more time alone--for feng shui or Tina Turner.

Breathnach is right that women, and I would add men and children, need more solitude. That is not, however, a sufficient recipe for "being authentic" or, to quote the title of her closing chapter, "becoming real." Walks in the wood, bubble baths, cooking one's favorite recipes, and reading Maya Angelou could be felicitous ingredients in the good life, but by themselves they will not make anyone real, just really self-centered.

It is notable that Breathnach constantly tells her readers to regress to childhood: "Think seven years old." "Pretend you're ten years old and playing with paper dolls." "What was your favorite game in childhood? Jump rope? Hide-and-seek? Playing kick-the-can at dusk?" Childhood is a wonderful time, but adulthood can be better, richer, even more fun. If, that is, we are willing to grow up. "Simple abundance" is religion as the Marxists caricature it. It deadens the critical senses and infantilizes.

"The Simple Abundance Companion" is, in fact, sinister. Professional nostalgians like Wendy Shalit, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and David Gelernter at least place their agenda front and center when they argue that the Victorian Age was a better place. Sara Ban Breathnach conjures a privileged, snowy, New England childhood and urges women to join her there. She turns artists from Sting to Ruth Rendell, who presumably have never done anything to hurt her, into foot soldiers for her silly cause.

And now I'll no longer be able to enjoy their art without feeling like one of Breathnach's minions: women who will embroider, etch, and jot--to the sounds of the Breathnach-approved soundtrack--but apparently will not cry, have sex, or change the world. And who will not, except in unfortunate ways, change themselves.



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