The Hope Circuit by Martin Seligman is like reading a Wikipedia article about someone accomplished enough to have their own entry but not so much they can resist editing it themself.
Also, that article continues for 400 pages.
Subtitled A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, surely it’s the amount of unpleasant reading that makes the experience most unpleasant, but to be fair, Seligman — or “Marty” as he’d prefer his coed undergrad students call him — also establishes himself as an unlikable person very quickly. That is a truly remarkable accomplishment for a memoir where he controlled the entire narrative and reached me as a blank slate with no prior knowledge about his life.
Marty is a Baby Boomer, which I may allow to explain more about him than is warranted. Despite reading like a vanity press publication, he is a legitimate American psychologist whose research led to the concepts of learned helplessness and its connection to depression, and from that, he helped develop learned optimism and positive psychology, generally.
The latter is something of a criticism of typical evaluations of mental health focusing only on sicknesses or deficiencies instead of what are good practices such that make people happy and resilient to trauma. It’s also something that yaws easily into woo, but let’s set that aside.
Learned helplessness is the concept that experiencing suffering in a condition where you can’t affect or lessen your suffering causes you to give up, to learn to act as if you’re helpless even when later you do have some control. Marty learned this by repeatedly torturing dogs for the higher purpose of learning useful information, and the CIA later used many of his insights to better torture humans after 9/11, allegedly for similar reasons.
Toward the end of his book, Marty defends his role in this with the comprehensive futility of the Maginot Line, explaining and citing how he thought that he was only advising how captured American soldiers could better resist enemy torture. At the same time, yes, he opposes all torture, but he’s patriotic, so he doesn’t feel any compunctions about his time immediately after “accidentally” helping the CIA to go intentionally earn a living advising the U.S. Army on mental health.
If the first thing I’d learned about Marty had been the controversy of his role in helping the CIA abuse helpless people, I might have been more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, he wrote an entire book leading up to that controversy where he paints himself—I mean, I have to presume unintentionally—as astoundingly odious in every facet.
This is strange and not intended as an insult or joke, but I’ve read memoirs of actual serial killers, career armed robbers, and junkies that came across as more sympathetic than this. The distance between what the author thinks of himself and what the reader does is a vast, vast gulf. Carl Panzram was an unrepentant murderer, and up to the moment of his execution, his life’s purpose was abuse of every other person alive. With no education or writing experience to speak of, somehow he managed to achieve self-awareness and honesty in writing about his own life, with a sense of proportion about what people would actually care about and what sort of a human being he was, morally and otherwise. Despicable human; great memoirist.
But Marty, Marty thinks of himself as a good guy; he’s the protagonist in the epic story that is his own life and expects you to feel the same. This manifests itself in the tone he writes with and his characterization of past events but also in an utterly unwanted level of granular detail, especially in his youth, that is the literary equivalent of watching someone pick lint out of their bellybutton for the better part of an hour, occasionally smelling it.
The first 60 or so pages are such hard slogging because there are so many purposeless anecdotes, stylistic experiments like tense-shifting, and forgettable figures who are introduced but add up to nothing. That includes his parents, his first wife and their children, who are established as existing but then disappear, and he never really has an accounting for himself or his behavior except to say that he was really focused on his work at that time. That is then the focus of his recollections, except that his personal life intrudes awkwardly, frustratingly, again and again.
There is a good book buried in here, and it’s almost entirely about the research he was doing, which seems to be his only genuine love.
When Marty talks about the transformations in psychology over the past half-century, his own work’s relation to that, and how our collective understanding of the mind has developed due to the inclusion of other sciences, it’s engrossing even to a layperson. I don’t want to suggest that this book has no virtues or that the author has no authority to write; he clearly does.
But actual important folk don’t have to shoe-horn in stories about briefly being friends with Carl Sagan or how they argued with the Dalai Lama just to make sure you know they met those people.
Someone who has transformed the understanding of a scientific field also doesn’t feel the need to grind axes in asides, especially of former lovers or to peers long dead, or write chapters rebutting general criticisms of what they feel to be their greatest accomplishments. It’s insecure, it’s petty, and it makes a stronger case for the opposite than itself because as a reader, you inherently sense it was threatening enough for that person to argue about it. A writer can answer critics without addressing them, and if that writer is correct, people stop caring what the critics had to say except as academic curiosity.
This all is, perhaps, just a veneer for what is my fundamental complaint with The Hope Circuit: I really don’t like Marty as a human being, in his apparent incapacity for self-reflection and honesty, but especially the way this is expressed in his casual misogyny and racism.
The way he talks about women throughout his book is frankly disgusting. It is leering, objectifying, inappropriate and interminable to the point that parody would be indistinguishable.
As a college student, he only shyly ogled women, he says, and relates how he picked out “a gorgeous Swedish blonde” from the yearbook to be “his” before he got on campus, then describes her as “a statuesque blonde” who (oh gosh!) didn’t move her foot when his brushed against it. She stands up, he finds out she’s a foot taller than he is, and then… he never mentions her again.
This was early on in the book and seemed bizarre, so I thought, “Maybe this is a famous person in some other context I don’t know.” If she is, the publisher forced a name change because there are no other results in a search engine for “Monica Skenske” except exactly three references across two pages of this very book as well as, for some reason, its Index?
Funny enough, that’s about as much time as Marty spends talking about first wife before they marry, then she, too, disappears except for anecdotes such as how she cooked dinner and he got sick. His oldest children exist hypothetically, invisibly, the way children do in sitcoms.
But some coed grad student studying with him? Now Marty paints a picture. “Jewish, short, perfect of face and body with sparkling brown eyes and explosive” this Ph.D. student (“Sue”) was the femme fatale professor Marty left his first family for. Is she a person with hopes or dreams? No, she “trades up” for a better professor later is all we learn when we’re supposed to feel sorry for lonely Marty.
Before leaving his first wife, Marty also talks about how he wants to be sure to invite a very bright sophomore (“Susan”) to his laboratory for more personal attention. Another (“Suzanne”) is a “sparkling Cornell undergraduate”, a “perky, freckle-faced senior” he also invited into his laboratory. There are pictures of many of these women, some headshots others posed. In any event, he made sure he was the cool professor where students could feel comfortable to come drink at his house and talk about important things.
Is it just college students (or people named a variation of “Susan”)? No, he describes a leader at the National Institute of Aging as a “gorgeous silver-haired seventy-year-old”; decades later, as a man ostensibly happily re-married to his current wife, Marty talks with a newly-widowered friend about a particular lecturer at his inaugural positive-psychology summit; the friend finds “intellectual power the sexiest of feminine charms” and wonders if the speaker is married.
“She is, unfortunately,” Marty answers and then goes on to ruminate about “eros and the hidden, dirty secret of how strongly it powers education, the progress of science, and the life of the mind.”
Oversharing? I mean, sure. That passage probably was not necessary for the reader to understand the sort of person Marty is or how he understood his position of power over his students. The fact that he didn’t have the courage to account himself directly previously in the narrative tells a lot more about him.
He’s been remarried for 30 years, they have five more children together, and he talks a bit more about that family toward the end. But it seems clear from the relish of his recollections where his heart would lie, given the opportunity, so it’s not clear what lessons at all he learned.
Then there’s the issue of racism.
Seligman is an ethnically and culturally Jewish American, which is to say he describes himself as an atheist but the religion that he is not is Jewish. Growing up, he relates how his family pushed him to be academically successful and how he was bright but a very hard worker, ultimately denied scholastic honors he’d earned because of nothing more than rank anti-Semitism. This is one of few compelling stories in the early portion of the memoir.
So it’s something of a surprise when Seligman decides to spend a great deal of time criticizing Cornell’s admission standards for black Americans in the late 1960s as flawed, characterizing the demands of those students once on campus as unreasonable and dangerous, complaining of how faculty were unfairly targeted as racist, and ultimately citing all of this as reasons for him to leave before he, too, would be incorrectly labeled as racially prejudiced.
Then he writes:
[Berkeley professor Arthur Jensen] argued that IQ was heritable, and that the IQ difference between American blacks and whites was genetic. He cited a bushel of evidence, such as the IQ gap remaining constant at every level of income. Jensen was vilified in the press.
To be clear, Seligman’s point here is that a person is arguing that black Americans are literally subhuman compared with whites, and this is an idea that’s worthy of consideration or at least civil debate. When people at Cornell treated it as if it were not a valid idea to put forth, Seligman knew he needed to leave his job there. Because he definitely did not deserve to be criticized for racism.
Let me put it this way: if the German response to World War I had been to test the hypothesis, “Are ethnic Jews are more prone to betrayal and greed than Aryans?” I think we can hear in the question itself the problem. Even someone responding, “Well, let’s see what the peer-reviewed studies say first” has mostly tipped their hand.
I presume Seligman would not have been mollified if he’d just been told, “Jews can’t be class presidents because studies show they make worse leaders, and it may, in fact, be genetic.” It’s not objective science when the bias is in the question, and it should not be thought of as radical to demand that people’s inherent humanity is a starting point of ideas, especially with benefit of four decades of hindsight.
Like with the descriptions of women, for Seligman to not merely have thought that at the time but to still feel this way in 2018… it cuts against all of the supposed growth he claims he’s made and any benefits positive psychology as a philosophy might have — in the same way his storytelling cuts against his self-assessed writing proficiency, despite how often he repeats it.
It, then, is not a difficult leap to make that decades later he would be the sort of person to square the circle of being against torture unless they were terrorists, then lying about it, even to himself, once political circumstances changed.
If you’re interested in the progress of psychology in the second half of the 20th Century, from Freud and behaviorism to a science that includes evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and its consilience with psychiatry, this is worthwhile with a lot of unnecessary and unpleasant narcissism. Skim generously, and skip the first 60 pages entirely, or just go look for something you think you’d actually enjoy reading all of.
But if you are not in that somewhat narrow demographic, life is much too short and precious to devote any of it to read any part of this.