This one got off to an iffy start with me, as Will Storr tries to hook us in with a cheaply novelistic description of a woman called “Debbie” waking after a failed suicide attempt, using pills and “cheap Shiraz”.
She puts it down to her failure to create and live a perfect life. He reflects on the strangeness of suicide, which goes against all normal survival instincts, and concludes a lot of it is just down to high expectations failing, resulting in a rejection of the self: self-harm.
Storr digresses to cite the effect of antidepressants, asking whether they might increase the numbers of suicides or, on the contrary, be veiling a wider problem of “social perfectionism” in an age of impossible role models - so maybe more of us would kill ourselves if we weren't on them
Well, I simplify, the man is quite long-winded. But that seemed to me a slightly insulting way of looking at the mystery, the diversity and individuality of those who die that way. But it gets more interesting if you persevere and grit your teeth through the academic research. He sets out to look at the history of how we think about “self” - from ancient Greece and China, through the Christian era, to Ayn Rand, the philosopher of selfishness admired by Donald Trump, and the Oprah self-esteem cult which saw 5-year-olds being issued T-shirts saying “I’m loveable and capable”.
To get to grips with the Christian era, he goes to a Benedictine abbey and, despite an apparently Catholic upbringing, seems shocked and horrified when he reads a psalm about wrath and judgement and observes the bareness of a monastic cell.
In a nice metaphor of this journey through history, he says the monastic mediaevalism makes him feel as if the penitential Christian era was just “the overcast adolescence that followed the collapse of our narcissistic, ambitious, beautiful, noisy sun-warmed Grecian youth”.
Yet he suspects Christianity is selfish, too: “Didn't these monks essentially believe that by doing the right thing, they'd earn a fabulous future reward that beneath all the outward humility and subservience, there was a cold steel heart of self-interest?”
Unfortunately, he doesn't let a sensible theologian pop by to explain that “spiritual pride” and entitlement to heaven is considered by Christians one of the gravest of sins. I began to lose patience again.
But moving on: the most entertaining chapter takes him to modern California’s neurotic, self-seeking encounter groups at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur.
In one of the rare moments of humour, listening to a line of people fretting about how their fathers messed them up, Storr admits he sneakily feels sorry for the fathers.
A role-playing exercise makes everyone try to become the “version of himself he fears the most”. One woman becomes a sadistic cop, another a cave woman in rags who urinates on the ground.
Our author raises a cheer from me by telling her she’s disgusting and to “grow the f*** up”. It turns out to be his worst-dreaded inner version of himself, but I was glad to meet it.
A witty academic sums up the Californian nonsense by saying: “The further west you go the more individualistic, the more delusional about choice, the more the emphasis on self-esteem, the more the emphasis on just about everything, until it all falls into the Pacific.”
There are some real insights about how stories, social rules, cultural norms, role models can affect our attitude to ourselves - sometimes dangerously, sometimes usefully, sometimes even stupidly.
Some of his interviews (a young offender, a priest, an anorexic girl) and insights are pretty standard.
Enough people have also pointed out the pig-obvious fact that other people's shiny lives portrayed on Facebook, “vlogs” and social media can depress the rest of us no end.
But, because he puts it into a long, historical perspective, even nitwits with selfie sticks become a bit more interesting to think about. We all want to be the hero of our story, and we all fail.
It's quite a good read, though Storr’s struggle to work out his own issues can get a bit wearing. There is a lovely moment when he realises that, after being a teen in the 1980s and early 1990s, told that high self-esteem was important, he lately has come to think: “What if my self-loathing was actually an entirely rational reaction?”
We all need that: a bit of humility and remorseful self-judgement. And, though there is little about art and theatre, he realises we need stories from every era, good and bad, and to understand how they shape us. “Reality is chaos, chance and injustice, our future is illness, bereavement and death
Our sense of self hides this disturbing fact from us, leads us to believe we are heroes captaining the plots of our lives
“Ultimately, we can all take comfort in the understanding that other people are not actually perfect, and that none of us will ever be.”
While Storr has taken a centuries-long intercontinental journey to work this out, most people find it just by growing older.