James Altucher & Claudia Azula Altucher, The Power of No: Because One Little Word Can Bring Health, Abundance, and Happiness
Around fifteen years ago, I had a pastor who formerly suffered from sexual compulsion. I say “suffered,” because his sermon illustrations frequently drew object lessons from his past—very, very long illustrations, lavish in detail and dripping with heartfelt emotion. He was the JK Rowling of recovering Christian sex addicts. One started to suspect he didn’t so much regret his pre-conversion dependencies, as miss them.
I recalled that pastor, reading this book. The title and back-cover synopsis implied I’d get insights into setting productive boundaries, rejecting others’ opportunistic impositions on my finite strength, and screening toxic relationships and commitments, hopefully without alienating friends or insulting strangers. Instead, I mostly got a painful litany of the Altuchers’ past struggles. These long confessions cross the line between relevant anecdote and just wallowing in it.
The Altuchers built their current stable marriage, achieved late in life, on the ruins of significant prior setbacks. James, a serial entrepreneur, got unbelievably rich unbelievably young, and his profligate lifestyle alienated everyone he loved, including his first wife and children. Claudia, a yoga instructor, sought romance for the wrong reasons, defining herself externally, believing herself personally unworthy unless somebody loved her. They tell their stories at some length.
Their introduction, “Your NO Bill Of Rights,” seemed promising. In eleven simple precepts, followed with one- or two-paragraph explanations, the Altuchers set a tone of declarative therapeutic redemption. It’s difficult to dispute tenets like “You have the right to defend your life,” “You have the right to take your time,” or “You have the right to silence.” Based solely on this introduction, I wholeheartedly agree with the Altuchers’ underlying philosophy.
But turning to Chapter One, I got a sinking feeling. James describes a despondent moment when he considered suicide. His young daughter intruded, though, suffering bad dreams; James got her to sleep by encouraging her to count, not sheep, but things she’s grateful for. Then, in the silence and darkness, he followed his own advice, realized life’s intrinsic worth, and survived. His takeaway lesson? “I said no to killing myself.”
Okay, I’m a Liberal Arts guy, not a psychotherapist. But saying no to suicide sounds like “Don’t Think Of an Elephant,” because you can’t reject something negative without mentally foregrounding it. Saying no to suicide reinforces suicide. Why not say yes to your daughter? Why not say yes to your family, friends, and potential for future redemption? Instead of embracing the struggle, James rejected defeat. That seems counter-productive.
Similarly, Claudia spends a lengthy chapter detailing her romantic struggles before meeting James. She fell in love recklessly and often, seeking somebody to validate her existence, even if he kicked her in the heart. Only after several such relationships ended badly did she recognize herself as a serial love addict and seek counseling. Serious self-assessment, peer support, and relearning how to love herself opened Claudia to real love in James.
So, one month into the relationship, Claudia undertook “a ceremony to express gratitude” with James. One month! She’s making this commitment of healing thirty days in, after admitting she let one suitor string her along for two years! Recognition of legitimate healing takes longer than one month. I tried to keep reading past this point, but everything tasted of ash, because I realized, these authors are deaf to their own counsel.
Books like this, grounded on the authors’ personal life lessons, always lead reviewers into a minefield. If I criticize the book, am I pooh-poohing their lives? I’d like to think not; rather, I’m criticizing the Altuchers’ ability to self-scrutinize. They lack distance from the life lessons they describe, which blinds them to certain implications. I don’t doubt their sincere intentions, but they aren’t exactly taking the long view of themselves.
The Altuchers support their lessons with a broad, inclusive spirituality, a sort of Judeo-Christian, New Thought-ish pantheism. The universe, they say, wants to support, nurture, and defend you. Nearly seventy years ago, George Orwell complained that post-Victorian Christians did well instilling fear of Hell and damnation in proselytes, but turned vague and abstract on topics of salvation and Heaven. The Altuchers find themselves in much the same position.
There’s a book called Boundaries, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, that accomplishes what this book’s promotional copy promises. Though explicitly Christian, that book is grounded on solid psychology and science. It describes both healthy balance, and the process of achieving it. Though this book isn’t bad, it suffers limitations from the authors’ own situations. They probably should’ve written a memoir.