VANZANT, IYANLA. Peace from Broken Pieces. Carlsbad, California: SmileyBooks, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4019-2822-3. Pp. 309. $24.95.
Iyanla Vanzant's newest "self-help" book is subtitled "How to get through what you're going through." I'm not a big reader of the self-help genre, but I do know that this is really a memoir whose subtitle should have been "How I got through what I was going through". Which is not to say that Vanzant's story isn't awe-inspiring. The woman grew up in the most abject circumstances, experienced three failed marriages, and lost two of her four children. The comfort one gets from her book is knowing that life can't get much worse than Vanzant's does.
Peace from Broken Pieces recounts the trajectory of fortunes and misfortunes that befall the author, all of which ultimately lead to the tragedy of the death of Vanzant's daughter Gemmia at the age of 30 from colon cancer. Vanzant's narrative is strongest when her plights are most relatable, especially when she refrains from littering her story with bits of Christian/New Age-y/Yoruban wisdom concerning "life experiences" and "personality level" and "heart center". My interest and the book's potency flag when Vanzant veers away from memoir to these nonsensical platitudes: "When your life is going downhill, it doesn't get better just because you want it to. Nor can you will it to be better. Your life will only get better when you get better". Each chapter begins with something of this sort, seemingly thrown in to justify marketing this work as a self-help guide rather than an autobiography. I acknowledge that this is a marketing ploy--Vanzant is best known for her self-help books and motivational speaking--but it truly compromises the integrity of the work.
This work is also flawed in other ways. Many of the "broken pieces" in Vanzant's history are not truly tragic occurrences, but the result of her own short-sightedness, egotism, and, to be blunt, stupidity. She is the founder of Inner Visions International and the Inner Visions Institute for Spiritual Development. She hired her third husband, her daughter Gemmia, and Gemmia's partner Jimmy, as well as a group of women who form the core of fiercely loyal but cliquish group and it is to this institute that outsider women seek spiritual guidance. Several things go wrong because of this dynamic, which ultimately takes "conflict of interest" to a new stratosphere. I don't know much about anything but I do know one should never, EVER be the boss of one's partner, be he man or be she woman. When a woman works for her partner, it is a degrading experience; when a man works for his partner, it is emasculating. Not only does Eden, Vanzant's husband, work under his wife, he suffers the humiliation of his wife announcing on national television that she loves her husband even though he doesn't have any money. Well, they do have money, but she makes it clear, on Oprah's show no less, that it's really her money. When their marriage really begins to fall apart, both Vanzant and Eden rely on spiritual "visions" to serve as their guides through the rough. Unfortunately, their visions don't align at all: Vanzant believes they need to seek therapy; Eden believes in a temporary separation. Vanzant's reaction to her husband's vision is telling: "What spiritual authority are you relying on for your guidance?...I mean, when you get your guidance from the Holy Spirit, you have to test the Spirit by the Spirit. You have to make sure that what you are hearing is coming from the Holy Spirit and not just any spirit passing by on the way to McDonald's." The dismissal of her own husband's "vision" and the condescension she shows him are almost painful to read, but Vanzant shows no awareness of how she might be perceived as the asshole of the situation.
The marriage ultimately fails, but the worst involves Gemmia and Jimmy. Jimmy continued to work for Vanzant after he and Gemmia separated. Their relationship remained amicable, at first, and they shared dual custody of their daughter. When one of Gemmia's students at the institute confided that she was interested in Jimmy, Vanzant decided to bring it up during a group workshop, believing that the woman's feelings had not been acted upon. In front of Gemmia and the rest of the group, no less than three of Gemmia's students admitted to having had a relationship with Jimmy. Inadvertently, but still callously and wickedly, Vanzant has instantly turned what should have been a private dilemma, into a painfully public and humiliating one. Here's how Vanzant deals with the situation: "I called [Gemmia] to the microphone in the center of the floor. I asked her forgiveness for having aired this in such an impersonal way. I explained that one of the hazards of our working together was that I was first her immediate supervisor and then her mother...I had to treat her as if she were a student in the program, who had created an experience that was up for healing." To be honest I couldn't quite believe what I was reading. Gemmia had just learned that three of her own students had gotten involved with the man she had been with for more than fifteen years, and her mother asks her to stand in front of a microphone in front of a group of women, among whom are all three of her adversaries, and express her feelings. Instead of retreating, as I believe she should have, Vanzant further humiliates her daughter by refusing to acknowledge that for once she should let her daughter be her daughter, and not her underling.
After reading this awful passage, I decided that, though Vanzant is a strong and probably brilliant woman, she is the last woman from whom I would seek help. Peace from Broken Pieces is a captivating memoir, but a failure as a self-help book.