Father Figures: Three Wise Men Who Changed a Life, by Kevin Sweeney, 2003.

The resilience of kids is a byword, but at the age of eight Kevin Sweeney came up with a novel way of dealing with the loss of his father. He decided to choose three men to be his surrogate dads–without telling them, he’d observe and emulate them. A terrific premise, but alas this book doesn’t deliver quite as much as it promises. It’s still an occasionally touching look at a hardscrabble San Francisco Irish childhood.

Sweeney explains in the introduction that the book grew out of an essay he wrote for Salon in 2001. (The original essay says he was 7 when he came up with his plan; presumably he subsequently found the correct age in the journal he kept.) The deaths of many young fathers on 9/11 prompted him to think about his coping strategy, and he wanted both to reassure families left fatherless and to encourage other men to be role models. I just read that essay, and it’s wonderful. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t very succesfully flesh out the essay, and what’s been added to pad it out to full length is just not as compelling as the original.

Memoirs are as thick as dandelions these days. If the author’s not a household name, doesn’t have a truly compelling and unusual story to tell, or doesn’t write like an angel, it’s tough for yet another autobiography to stand out. The Sweeneys are averagely interesting people with an averagely interesting story; what’s compelling is Kevin’s idea, but we don’t learn much about what prompted him to come up with it. He describes being eight years old, lying in bed and worrying that he won’t know how to be a good father, a good man, because he doesn’t have “the classic reference point–my old man.” Isn’t that in itself a rather remarkable train of thought for an eight-year-old? But as an adult, Sweeney has difficulty reconnecting enough with his child self to explain it to us. “My scheme had a formality and simplicity that makes me wonder now about why I felt this need so clearly,” he says. The idea was his first journal entry, but reading one’s old journals can sometimes be like reading that of a stranger’s–it isn’t always possible to reconstruct the self who wrote them.

After describing his family–how his father died when Sweeney was three, leaving six children, how his mother worked tirelessly and his oldest brother became the male head of the household–Sweeney goes on to introduce the three men he chose to be his subsitute fathers, but that only takes a few pages for each. The rest of the book is taken up with Sweeney’s youth: inheriting his brother’s paper route, playing baseball, pranks and mischief (he and his friends used to collect gunpowder from used casings at the Navy base and use it to blow things up), learning to drink in high school, and so forth. We hear a little bit about his interactions with his chosen fathers, notably the one “man to man” talk which got him off the path towards excessive drinking. But until the conclusion, which briefly analyses what he learned from each of the three, it’s not really much about them. There’s some insight into the damage repression of grief does; the family doesn’t talk about their dad and his death until the kids are grown.

As a side note, Father Figures has an arrestingly hideous cover–extreme closeup of a boy sitting and holding an enormous orange balloon(?) in front of him, cropped so that all you see is one dirty scabbed knee, ugly shorts, a bit of T-shirt and arm, and one quarter of an orange circle taking up most of the cover. It’s unsettling in a way the book absolutely isn’t, and I think it might make people who might enjoy the book hesitate to pick it up, while suggesting some dark tale of child abuse to others who would then be disappointed.

Fear and Other Uninvited Guests: Tackling the Anxiety, Fear, and Shame That Keep Us from Optimal Living and Loving by Harriet Lerner, 2004.

Lerner is among the best of the self-help authors–she’s pragmatic, insightful, funny, literate, and avoids one-size-fits-all/magic pill claims. (Of course, the downside of realism is missing the excitement of “this will solve ALL my problems!”–which is what drives bestsellerdom.) Lerner gives a brief overview of the book’s layout in the first chapter, which ends:

…the brief epilogue reveals the six secret, simple, specific steps you can take to banish unwanted anxiety, fear, and shame from your life forever. Just kidding, but yes, that would be nice.

This book is a good exploration of emotions that fuel unhappiness, with some practical exercises, though it’s not as structured as the most detailed self-help books. Lerner’s primary technique is to weave anecdotes and reflections together into a narrative. It’s a more philosophical approach than most, and more enjoyable to read and think about.

Lerner draws interesting distinctions between behaviors in the face of stress, like underfunctioning and overfunctioning (I can see that I do both in different circumstances). She does describe a sort of “magic” solution which is pretty cool. A man was terrified of asking a co-worker out on a date. Lerner asked him to go to a shopping mall in a city he was visiting and collect 75 rejections in a row by asking women out to coffee. The process helped him realize that it would be easier to just ask out his co-worker than to finish!

The chapter on public speaking, and how its principles can apply to difficult private situations, is especially good. I also found the section on dealing with anxiety in organizations particularly novel and useful.

But my favorite aspect of Fear and Other Uninvited Guests is Lerner’s bracing and refreshing realism. When she shows people talking to their parents about sensitive topics, for example, there’s no “Honey, you’re right–thank you for pointing that out!” conclusion. Instead, the parents storm out and the adult child is left shaking with nerves. But the focus is on having the courage to speak up respectfully and constructively, and the participants end up feeling better even if there’s no huge breakthrough. The epilogue is titled “Everyone Freaks Out,” which encapsulates the whole approach. Anxiety, fear, and shame won’t go away, but facing them with courage and calm can help.