If these walls could talk, Libby would tell them to shut the hell up

By Libby Pearson

In his book If These Walls Could Talk, Thomas A. Habib, Ph.D., says, “Be skeptical of fast-food-like sources that rarely provide background information to help you understand the reality.”

Nowhere in Habib’s book, book jacket, or website does he tell us what university his Ph.D. is from.

The premise of the book is that Habib will give you the stories of real people he has counseled and the real solutions that helped them. He has selected these people’s situations because they can teach us all a lesson or two. However, in hiding the details of his patients’ lives until they become universally applicable, the stories are extremely cliché—and so is the subsequent advice.

This book is a fast-food-like source in almost every way. It’s quick, and it could have been acquired anywhere. It would taste better if made with something other than grade-D meat. And it contains a few deep-fried chicken heads (or rats) that you hear about people finding in their tubs of fried chicken every few years.

This book contains 28 chapters and 275 pages, giving about 9.8 pages to each chapter. In these chapters, Habib tackles such issues as road rage, the horrors of the evening news, and expecting a Bridges of Madison County kind of love. Without having you read this book, I can easily give you Habib’s—or any normal person’s—conclusions on the matter: don’t succumb to road rage, don’t believe the sensationalist evening news, and your husband isn’t Clint Eastwood.

But I forgot the plethora of section headings, the quotes from dead white men before every chapter, and the gray boxes with helpful sentences picked out of the actual content of the book. It’s as if the editor himself doesn’t even expect you to read this.

The quotes at the beginning of the chapters are like mind-games. Each quote takes up an entire page before moving on in the journey of self-help. The fun part is trying to figure out how the quote fits with the next 10-page chapter that will, of course, solve all emotional problems.

Here is an example: “The language of truth unadorned and always simple.” That’s from a Roman historian. That’s pretty deep. It’s also missing the requisite “is” that exists in the actual quote, but this review won’t even dip a toe into the book’s grammatical and stylistic errors. What do we think the next chapter might be, based on this (incorrectly quoted) quote? Could it be about letting people know how you feel? About not telling white lies? No, it’s about not yelling at your partner while you bring up said (unadorned and always simple) truth.

Isn’t this self-explanatory? What if I throw in a few unnecessary quantifications and flow-charts for you? In the chapter on road rage, Habib provides a chart of how much time you actually save by driving at a rage-like speed for 15 minutes. By driving 75 mph instead of 65 for 15 minutes, I would only save 1 minute and 51 seconds on my trip. Gee whillickers, that doesn’t sound like much time at all! I’ll try to be less frantic on my next drive, Doc.

A chart on page 95 in a chapter entitled “Finding Peace” reminds me of the one on the chalkboard of Donnie Darko’s health class. Instead of Fear and Love, we’re talking about dwelling in the Past and Future, neither of which you’re supposed to do. Under Past is written “depression” and under Future is “anxiety.” We’re supposed to stay in the middle, or Present. We should be focused and not let worries about our next task absorb us. Remember, you can’t control what happens, only how you react to what happens.

What scares me is that I live in a world where someone thinks it’s necessary to give this kind of rapid-fire advice to a number of people—enough to make the writing and printing of this book profitable. People need to be told not to yell at their spouses when they’re trying to say something important and not to marry men whose mothers still dominate their lives. They need to hear from a Ph.D. that they shouldn’t expect to be deliriously happy all the time and that not everyone in the world wants them to fail.

This book could only be successful in a world that has been taken over by Tom Teide’s idea of the “self-help nation,” a nation of self-help addicts who can’t think of or prescribe any solution to their own problems. I find it hilarious that Habib has included a chapter on letting children discover things for themselves. In chapters titled “Raising Resilient Children” and “Neglect or Indulgence: Knowing the Difference with Your Children,” Habib describes letting his daughter pour a heavy bottle of ketchup by herself and refusing to buy his 8-year-old son a new action figure when he won’t chat on the way home from school.

By writing this book of clichéd and self-evident advice—gleaned from years of experience as a successful clinical psychologist—Habib pours the ketchup for the reader. He buys the reader action figures. He sets us up with fast food for the rest of our lives, with the sections of his book ranging from personal and professional life to marriage and raising children.

However, there is a healthier diet than self-help. For those who want psychological aid and want to get it from a book, I recommend Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. This is not a self-help book. There is no advice readily dispensed, but rather study after study describing how humans think about themselves and their environment. Habib has read Goleman and mentions Emotional Intelligence in a few footnotes. It seems like Habib wanted to write a Goleman-esque book, as evidenced by his warning in the introduction against unsubstantiated “fast-food-like” advice. But Goleman’s book, much more helpful than Habib’s, provided no advice.