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American guru: an interview with Houston-based author John Bradshaw

John Bradshaw
John Bradshaw
Courtesy of Bradshaw Media Group

John Bradshaw first won local celebrity status as a psychologist and speaker in Houston during the late 1970s. National recognition came with several lecture series televised during the early 1980s on PBS. Based on this early television work, Bradshaw developed two books which became best-sellers: Bradshaw On: The Family (1986) and Healing the Shame that Binds You (1998). From there, his fame skyrocketed with the publication of his third and most-successful book, Homecoming (1990), which concurrently appeared in bookstores while PBS televised his lecture series under the same name.

While sales of the book exceeded four million, the Homecoming series earned him a Daytime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Talk Show Host. Celebrities from Cher to Steven Spielberg lauded his works and every major US talk show held interviews with him. The print press was equally keen on Bradshaw, resulting in features in leading publications including Time, People and Rolling Stone, which named him “Guru of the Year”. After his success peaked in the mid-90s, Bradshaw published two additional books, Creating Love (1992) and Family Secrets (1995). Bradshaw continues to hold lectures and workshops throughout the US, in addition to conducting trainings for professional therapists. Bradshaw’s newest book, Reclaiming Virtue, became available in June 2009.

Any true Bradshavian (a term coined by Barbra Streisand) knows Bradshaw’s work goes deeper than the typical US trends and fads. He is considered by many to be a pioneer in the self-help movement, a phenomena focused on self-improvement via understanding and resolution of psychological baggage as well as recovery from unhealthy behaviors and addictions. His continued work has woven words like ‘dysfunctional family’ and ‘inner child’ into the fabric of popular culture. I interviewed Bradshaw at the family home in Houston’s Museum District.

The self-help movement has grown exponentially in the last 20 years. What differentiates you from others in the field?

Many self-help books give you these neat, tidy formulas that are really illusions. They dupe people into thinking, “Well if I can just do that, then everything’s going to be okay.” My work differs in that I don’t offer quick solutions and simple explanations. I try to get people thinking, to consider their pasts and presents, ultimately encouraging them and giving them the tools to embrace the work of reshaping their lives. That’s not easy work to do, and so my message isn’t simplistic or necessarily easy to digest in one sitting.

What’s a good starting point for someone who’s not familiar with your work?

Probably Bradshaw On: The Family, my first book, is a good place to start because it is an overview of the whole theory of family systems, which I very much believe in. Family system theory really changed the face of psychology. That book gives you an overview of a healthy family from a systems point of view, and explains a typical dysfunctional family – the typical alcoholic family, the incestuous family, the physically battering family and what I call the ‘co-dependent’ family or the emotionally abusive family. Then the last part of the book is my own experience with recovering from being a child of a dysfunctional family. The book gives you an idea of what being raised in a ‘culture of obedience’ does to a person, and how to overcome it.

Would you say there’s been any sort of common thread between the books you’ve published?

In a sense, all of my books have been about a ‘poisonous pedagogy’, which engenders a culture of obedience, this underlying theme of patriarchal systems. Author Alice Miller came up with the ‘poisonous pedagogy’ in her discussion of obedience without content, and how this kind of obedience damages people.

If you go back to Bradshaw On: The Family, the first chapter is on how Hitler could have happened. It’s grossly over-simplified in the sense that I’m not addressing the economic situation and other factors at the time in Germany. I was really just looking at the German family, specifically corporal punishment. Hitler supposedly grew up being beaten a great deal in his life. I know from my own clinical work that when people are beaten and hurt, they numb out so that they can’t feel anymore.

In Healing the Shame that Binds You, I explain that the greatest cause of shame is violence, whether it is physical abuse, sexual abuse or emotional abuse. Then the inner child book, Homecoming, is about all forms of abuse, abandonment, neglect and enmeshment, which is a big issue in patriarchal systems.

My fourth book, Creating Love, is about all the mystified forms of love, especially mystified religion, which is promulgated in a culture of obedience. In a culture of obedience, you’re given all the rules, told to memorize them and then if you have questions about them, you’re told they’re a mystery and you should never question it or else you don’t have good faith. If you don’t follow the rules you’re going to get punished. And if you do follow the rules, you’re going to get rewarded. Well there’s no intelligence in that.

Family Secrets discusses how all this stuff gets set up in dysfunctional families. In a dysfunctional family, you’ve always got someone who is distressing the system, and then you’ve got somebody over-functioning to take care of the person who’s distressing the system. The distressing person ultimately becomes more and more distressed because the over-functioning person is taking on more and more of their responsibility. I wrote the book hoping people would understand that what isn’t expressed in the daily life of a family is carried (emotionally) by everybody in the family. You don’t have to have some bizarre secret to be buried under this weight.

Writing my latest book has been really important for me personally. It goes beyond psychology and encompasses the variegated and rich background that I’ve been able to have over the last fifty years. Reclaiming Virtue is the kind of book you certainly can’t just dash through. You’ve got to take your time and you’ve got to think about it. The reason that book took so long to write is that I had to constantly translate philosophical, neuro-scientific, psychological terms into a language that people could get.

Of your five earlier books, which do you feel has been the best-received?

Homecoming has certainly been enormously successful. It’s now in - I don’t know how many languages, but it’s estimated at forty languages – and sold over four million copies. I still get emails every day that it’s caught on in different countries. The other book that continues to sell is Healing the Shame. I think that book is just so important for people who are early in recovery. It helps you understand what happened to you and that the way you feel is normal, based on what happened to you. That understanding relieves your shame right then and there. So the book itself offers real shame reduction for people.

How would you explain the popularity and success of your work?

Well, for one thing, we had a vehicle of advertising for the first three books: there was a book available corresponding with my televised series. For example, PBS was running the ten-part Homecoming series in various locations. Then as the show ended, I would come in to that location and do a workshop. The success expanded into Canada as well because the series were televised there as well. As a young man, I'd left Toronto a day before I would have been ordained as a priest. Sent away, I left in infamy as an alcoholic. I returned 25 years later and had 9,000 people show up. It was like a phenomenon! The same thing happened all over Canada. I was probably more popular in Canada than I was in the United States, or certainly at least as well-known.

What was the reception like outside North America?

When I lectured in England, I had some big audiences. I had a thousand people in London and another thousand people in Dublin. But we weren’t able to get the series on local television, and that’s what I think was missing. I continued to tour, even going to Australia and selling out events in Sydney twice in one month. I was also invited to come to Russia, Japan, and Germany. But the US and Canada really remained the fertile ground as the televised programs were showing there.

What’s next for the so-called guru?

[Chuckling] Good question! I continue to tour and lecture. I’m promoting my new book and plan to start on another book in the coming year.

Thanks for your time. I’m sure our readers will enjoy learning more about you and your work.

My pleasure, son.

Portions of the interview were previously published by WorldGuide AG (used with permission).