Book Report: Didn’t See That Coming by Rachel Hollis

A Deep Dive into Curated Vulnerability and Where the Self-Help Genre Goes Wrong

By Maggie Patterson

All opinions in this post are my opinions and mine alone.

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It’s no secret that I love to read, but when I said I was going to read Rachel Hollis’ newest book, many people were concerned about me. Especially, as I’ve been pretty clear that my previous experience with her book Girl, Wash Your Face was a rage inducing experience.
Based on that, you’re likely wondering why I’d read this book at all.

That’s an entirely valid question. It’s one I’ve had to examine carefully as I didn’t want to read the book and write an entire book report without a clear plan. Nor did I want to invest my time reading this book, let alone writing about it unless I had something new to contribute to the conversation about her work.

The Rachel Hollis Backstory

As someone who actively studies what’s going on with influencer culture and online business, Rachel Hollis fits into a specific archetype of celebrity entrepreneur that I’ve termed BFF Next Door.

This is an entire squad of conventionally attractive, successful celebrity entrepreneurs who get us to trust them by focusing heavily on being relatable. They garner our trust by sharing their lives with us and showing us how much like us they really are.

In 2015, Rachel’s star quickly rose after a viral post with her sharing her stretch marks while wearing a bikini. The photo ended up with more than 10 million views and 325,000 likes on Facebook.

Since then, she’s been building her BFF Next Door brand through a strategy of keeping it real and being honest. She uses being vulnerable as a way to create a strong connection with her community.

If you’re not familiar with Hollis Co., it’s a business built on the idea that “everyone can benefit from a personal growth mindset.” It’s essentially self-help meets a lifestyle brand, and until early 2020 was primarily fuelled by live events under the Rise banner including Rise Weekend and Rise Business.

Rachel’s husband Dave is an ex-Disney executive who left his role in March of 2018 to become the CEO of the company, which was then called Chic Media.

Once Dave joined the company, he was a key part of the brand and they positioned themselves as #couplegoals on Instagram and beyond.

By mid-2018, they’d created a marriage related conference, Rise Together and also launched the Rise Together podcast in July which featured Dave and Rachel.

Dave became a key part of the brand, as did their focus on dispensing marriage advice and providing us with an inside look at their relationship.

Dave & Rachel Announce They’re Getting a Divorce

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This is where things get interesting.

On June 8, 2020, Rachel and Dave announced they were divorcing. Before we go any further, I want to 100% acknowledge that divorce is hard, it’s challenging, and I’m not here to comment on their marriage per se.

The divorce announcement is where her legions of fans –– many of whom who’ve spent thousands of dollars on events, books and other merchandise –– get a clear sign that things are not what they seem.

In Rachel’s post she said, “We’ve worked endlessly over the last three years to make this work and have come to the conclusion it is healthier and more respectful for us to choose this as the end of our journey as a married couple.”

Let that sink in. Three years. As in before they started talking so much about their marriage. BEFORE they decided to launch a conference aimed at couples.

Interestingly, Dave’s announcement diverged from Rachel’s messaging, and when I was researching this piece, I went to find his statement, and it’s been removed. So here’s a run down on what it said.

Regardless of how you feel about the Hollises, it’s understandable that some would feel both surprised and/or duped. They’ve built a business on their vulnerability and sharing their relationships, and it turns out they’ve been anything but transparent.

They decided to build up their business using their relationship as a prop, and to monetize it, even when things weren’t going well behind-the-scenes. They were curating their vulnerability to make even more money.

In Rachel’s case (and we’ll focus on her as this is a post ultimately about her book), the trust she played upon giving us a look behind-the-scenes and treating her fans like a BFF evaporated overnight. As a couple, they were providing marriage advice and holding themselves up as a model to aspire to when their marriage was struggling.

As someone who’s been married for 19 years, I know exactly how challenging it can be to weather the ups and downs of marriage. But I’ve never built a business on the strength of my marriage, or on providing insights based on my day-to-day life.

And therein lies the problem with Rachel Hollis, and that’s where my book report comes in.

Her latest book, “Didn’t See That Coming” was announced six weeks after the impending divorce, leaving many wondering what the hell was actually going on.

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This morning my friends at @goodmorningamerica made a big announcement for me... the cover of my next book!! 😭 Here’s an excerpt: “I set out to write this book because I have survived crisis and grief many times and I believed I might have something to share that could help others walk through it. I wrote the first draft as a sort of Sherpa, believing I could help guide you over the mountain of grief. Now I find myself back inside grief and editing from an entirely different perspective than the one from which I wrote. I’m no longer a Sherpa, leading from the front—now I’m also trudging through it with you, which means this book has the unique duality of being a creation both outside and inside of pain. As someone who lives by a plan, who has imagined in detail the next two decades of my life and how they might play out, I can honestly tell you, I never planned for the end of my marriage. Honestly? The fact that I didn’t see this or plan for it makes me feel like an idiot. I will add a bit more honesty and tell you something in confidence. I considered pushing this book away or scrapping the idea altogether. I didn’t think I was ready—I wasn’t sure I’d ever be ready. I questioned whether I could teach and learn at the same time— because this lesson, this work, feels like the hardest I’ve ever done. Even though the words were written, even though I believed they could be helpful to someone—I knew it was impossible to keep this book in its original form without acknowledging the fresh destruction I find myself in. And, the idea of writing about something so new goes against everything I have believed about my work. There’s an old expression that says we should teach or write or share only from our scars, never from our wounds, and I have lived by it. Meaning, I have been intentional about never processing the hard parts of life with you but instead have only ever shared what has been effective for me after I’ve done the work. But here we are. Everything feels fragile and scrubbed raw. Everything feels unreal and uncertain. Everything feels absent of all that matters and simultaneously too big to carry.” Didn’t See That Coming is out on September 29th. 🤟🏻

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For me, this has been a fascinating case study on the curated vulnerability and image of the BFF Next Door celebrity entrepreneur archetype, as well as the dynamics of trust with self-help, influencers and online business personalities.

The Premise of Didn’t See That Coming

Here’s a summary of the book from the Hollis Co. website:

In her newest book, Didn’t See That Coming, Rachel shares how to embrace the difficult moments in life for the learning experiences they are. Speaking from personal experiences and with heartfelt honesty, she describes how a life well-lived means it is one of purpose, and focused on what is essential. Inspirational and aspirational, this small book is about big feelings, and an anchor that shows how the darkness can co-exist with the beautiful.

Rachel has publicly shared how she wrote the book during COVID-19 as a way to help offer hope during a challenging year. It’s worth noting that this wasn’t the book originally planned for 2020. A health focused book, Girl What the Health, was dropped after she realized it would be“disingenuous.”

Next up is the font which is used on the cover and throughout the book for the chapter titles, and the summaries at the end of each chapter. It’s a block font which is casual yet impactful. It’s very approachable and makes you feel like this book will be very friendly and readable. (And yes, I’m a total book nerd who thinks about things like fonts used on the cover, okay?)

As a writer, you know I’m going to talk about the actual writing. And I’m going to resist the urge to go into a massive amount of detail about how I hate the way it’s formatted as it’s hard to read. Long blocks of text are onerous on the reader and this should have been fixed in editing.

Rachel uses her signature conversational style, where she writes like she’s speaking to you directly. This creates a strong connection with the reader, and helps to make her likable.

There are two things I noted in this book in the writing that seem deliberately placed to cement her BFF Next Door position. First, the fact that right out of the gate, she swears, and the first section of the book is called “This is Bullshit.”

As someone who uses my real voice in my writing, complete with all the fucking swears, this felt false to me as fuck and bullshit were used super early on, but not consistently throughout. It’s like she negotiated a certain number of swear words into the book in an effort to be relatable.

The other thing that grated on my nerves in the book was the use of cute asides and pop culture references. Truth? I love both of these. I use them heavily in my own writing, so you’d think I dig them here. My problem was that they seemed contrived, forced and like she was trying too hard. One reference to my fave cheer movie of all time, Bring It On felt particularly over the top as did a side note to the Dalai Lama.

Regardless of how I feel about all of these things, it’s clear to me that each one of them is intentionally used by Hollis to support her BFF Next Door self-help meets lifestyle brand.

How Hollis Creates Trust with the Reader

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This book is a masterclass in how the BFF Next Door archetype creates trust. Everything in this book is right out of that celebrity entrepreneur archetype’s playbook, from the design of the book through to the writing style to the stories she shares.

Every single thing in this book is designed to be relatable. To cast Rachel in the role of your tell-it-like-it is BFF who wants you to win. Truthfully, I’m glad I read the book, as this was done skillfully, and it’s clear to me that in writing, packaging and marketing this book, she knows exactly what she’s doing.

Take for example, the design of the book. First, the image of Rachel is very casual, it’s jeans and a blue sweater, and blue just happens to be the color of, you guessed it, trust. This image is non-threatening and suitably low-key for a year where many of us haven’t put on real pants for months.

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What Worked in this Book

When I decided to read this book, I committed to keeping an open mind. Which means, I’m going to lead with what I thought worked about Didn’t See That Coming.

The best thing about this book is that Rachel is open about her experiences with therapy, and I found it very pro-therapy overall. As someone who’s benefited immensely from therapy, I appreciated that she includes this as an option. She shares freely that she’s been in therapy for two decades.

There are two other things that stood out to me in this book as actually being accurate or helpful for me. First, she encourages readers to get specific about the problems they’re facing when researching them. While this was a small part of the book, it landed for me.

The other thing I appreciated was a passage about resilience, which mirrored my own personal experiences. “Resilience makes you strong, and while you earn the right to your strength, you simultaneously become more tender.”

That said, given Rachel’s ongoing problem with plagiarism, she may have picked that helpful tidbit up elsewhere.

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What Doesn’t Work in this Book

A lot doesn’t work about this book, and truthfully, if we were looking at this in 2018, or even 2015, the content would read differently.

But here in 2020, this book is dripping in her privilege. Despite a reference to “staunch inclusivity” in the bio for this book, she completely ignores the fact that she’s a wealthy, healthy, white woman.

Throughout the book, she makes reference to privilege, yet at no point does she truly recognize her own. She references “quarantine being a privilege”, which is true, but it’s directed at the reader.

There’s an entire section where she talks about the differences between her and Dave’s mindset, and how he had a fixed mindset as he’s had to overcome so little as a “straight, white, Christian man living in America.” While this may be accurate, she’s using him to contrast with herself having a growth mindset as she’s had to struggle as “everything about the way I grew up reinforced how little access I had to resources, how few people supported me, how very harsh life could be.”

At no point does Rachel stop and acknowledge the privileges she has as a white, cisgendered, heterosexual, thin, able-bodied woman. In fact, later in the book she doubles down on her hardship story when writing about finances.

“I am speaking as someone who has lived in extreme financial insecurity as a child and as an adult.”

This doesn’t work as it’s using her financial hardships and childhood as a way to absolve her of being privileged. She fails to understand that you can grow up poor, suffer from trauma and still benefit from your white privilege.

This tone and approach is really the heart of the book which deals with trauma, grief and doing hard things. Hollis dishes up her real talk in an effort to show you that you girl, you too can do it.

The problem being that, without acknowledging her immense amount of privilege, her entire “I did it and you can too” brand of self-help is completely flawed.

Remember, her husband was an executive at Disney, and had worked there for 17 years. He was the president of the film distribution arm and oversaw the release of franchises such as Star Wars and the Avengers, leading Disney to the three biggest years on record, and one of which was the biggest in industry history.

So excuse me if I’m having a hard time buying her story. This pull yourself up by your bootstraps bullshit and denial of white supremacy is extraordinarily damaging as it’s one of the main reasons MORE white women voted for Trump in 2020 than in 2016.
Even after everything we’ve seen in action, they choose to uphold the system, and Rachel Hollis, and others like her, are part of the problem.

But I digress. Let’s talk about a specific example.

At one point in the book, she urges the reader to stop wallowing and to move forward. Then she backs it up by saying, “And before you dismiss what I’m saying as a harsh directive of a privileged author speaking about something she doesn’t understand, you should know the grown-up, mature part of me isn’t the one who has strong opinions on the issue.”

Basically, because this is a belief from her childhood we’re supposed to overlook her countless privileges. Sorry, not sorry Rachel, I’m having a hard time buying any of it.

Finally, when speaking about her marriage she again has a completely external locus of control when she could have acknowledged what was really going on. This would have been not only the brave choice, but the right one for her integrity.

Instead, she attempts to garner sympathy, “It’s the author who’s written for years about working on her marriage and the Internet bullies who say horrible things when the marriage ends.”

This my friends, is a perfect example of white lady tears in action, and sums up everything that’s wrong with this book. She has an opportunity to be accountable, but she chooses to play the blame game. (Sounds like a lot of the big celebrity entrepreneurs in online business doesn't it?)

Should Rachel Hollis Really be My Guide Through the Hard Times?

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As I read this book, I found myself struggling with one overarching question, which is “how’s Rachel Hollis at all qualified to speak to me about grief and trauma?”

The short answer? She isn’t.

Hollis’ background is as an event planner and author. She’s now a life coach and motivational speaker who focuses on a wide range of issues including life, business, health and relationships.

The book is written based on her own personal experiences, and without any professional training in this realm. Early on in the book she fully acknowledges that this isn’t “expert” information, it’s simply what helped her.

At one point in the book, she jokes about learning everything from Google.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want someone who’s self-taught via Google University getting into my head and helping me confront my trauma. And I absolutely don’t want them telling me how I should handle it based on their singular, narrow, ultra privileged world view.

While people may find her book helpful, grief and trauma are not subjects to be taken lightly. Holding up a self-proclaimed life coach as an expert on this subject matter is downright dangerous.

Hollis provides a highly generalized, clearly not trauma-informed book full of advice to help us navigate the hard times. The result is a series of toxically positive tropes that fail to address the nuances of each individual’s challenges.

The perfect example of this comes in the mindset section where she writes “How can you rethink your negative experiences as happening FOR you and not TO you?” This is classic toxic positivity where we’re all supposed to just reframe our thoughts and get back to making everyone else comfortable.

Again, it’s what’s helped her, but it doesn’t at all acknowledge that her experience may be unique thanks to her privilege or other circumstances. (In fact, she rejects this throughout the book.) Or that her pulling yourself up by the bootstraps style positivity of could potentially be harmful to someone in a vulnerable state.

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The Self-Help Genre

is Full of Bullshit

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Rachel’s book isn’t marketed as a memoir. It clearly sits in the self-help, health and wellness genre.

All of which begs a bigger question for me around the self-help genre. Why are we consistently being sold self-help books by people who aren’t actually qualified to teach us? There’s a massive chasm between a book written on grief by a licensed therapist, and one written based on personal experiences.

It’s clear there’s an appetite for self-help books (including this one) as they’re consistently on the NY Times Bestseller List.

But who’s responsible for the safety and well-being of readers? Where does this responsibility lie?

With writers who should stay in their own lane? With publishers to ensure there’s some degree of oversight of the content? With the reader to figure out if this is something we can trust for guidance?

I don’t have the answers, but we need to think critically about the content we consume, particularly in the self-help and wellness genre. The more I learn about the inner workings of this industry, it’s clear to me that we can’t simply trust that because someone is a published author that they’re an expert.

I’ve written about the online business industry and how the “leaders” aren’t necessarily real experts, but savvy marketers. The same holds true for the self-help and wellness industries.

In an era where anyone can claim to be an expert, and there’s a complete lack of professional oversight or standards, it’s up to each of us to rigorously vet who we trust.

Just because Rachel Hollis has built a successful brand and is a published author doesn’t mean she’s someone we should automatically trust. That girl, you can take to the bank, just like Rachel is taking her millions based on her curated vulnerability.

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