By Wendy Kaminer
From I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions (Addison-Wesley, 1992)
This is not a book about my life or yours. It does not hold the secret to success or salvation. It won’t strengthen your self-esteem. I don’t think it will get me on “Oprah.”
My critique of the recovery movement and other self-help fashions does not reflect my personal experiences (although it surely reflects my temperament). I am not and never have been a convert to recovery or even an occasional consumer of popular psychology, religion, or wellness books. I have attended support groups only as an observer, not as a participant. I have read self-help books only as a critic, not as a seeker, and I was rarely engaged by the books that I read (one hundred or so), except as a critic. Whether this makes my analysis more or less worthwhile depends on whether you value the authority of experience more or less than the authority of research and reflection.
Writing on the basis of research and reflection, not experience, I’m writing counter to the Alcoholics Anonymous, twelvestep tradition currently in vogue. “Hi, I’m Wendy, and I’m a recovering alcoholic, overeater, drug abuser, shopper, or support group junkie;” I’d be required to confess if I were writing a recovery book, offering advice. Instead I have only opinions and ideas; so although I imagine myself engaging in a dialogue with my readers, I don’t imagine that we constitute a fellowship, based on shared experiences. Nor do I pretend to love my readers, any more than they love me and countless other strangers.
Perhaps because I have never trusted or desired protestations of affection or concern from strangers and mere acquaintances, I have never been attracted to support groups. It is often said that support groups offer community, and for people who attend the same group regularly and befriend other members that may well be true. But newcomers to meetings are considered part of the community too, so it is not necessarily based on friendship, if by friendship we mean bonds that build and strengthen over time. A twelve-step group seems a sad model for community. Testimony takes the place of conversation. Whether sitting in circles or lined up in rows, people take turns delivering monologues about themselves, rarely making eye contact with any of their listeners. Once, at an AA meeting I attended, a man testifying from the front row turned to look at us while he spoke, scanning our faces, seeking contact. Like everyone else I looked away; his behavior seemed inappropriate.
My own notion of intimacy does not include prurience — the exchange of secrets between strangers. My vision of community is shaped by an ideal of mutual respect between citizens and neighbors and a shared sense of courtesy and justice, but not love. “Not all men are worthy of love,” Freud wrote, debunking the religious ideal of unconditional love on which the recovery movement is based.1 God loves us in spite of our flaws, as we must love each other, today’s popular Protestant writers confirm. Or, as recovery experts might say, the love that discriminates, which Freud described, is a form of abuse. Like an Old Testament patriarch, Freud might be a model for an abusive, “shaming” parent.
Although the literature about recovery from addiction and codependency borrows heavily from family systems theory and seems, at first, an offshoot of pop psychology, it’s rooted most deeply in religion. (Codependency is the disease from which everyone — alcoholics, drug abusers, shoppers, and sex addicts — is trying to recover.) The ideology of recovery is the ideology of salvation by grace. More than they resemble group therapy, twelve-step groups are like revival meetings, carrying on the pietistic tradition.
The religiosity of the recovery movement is evident in its rhetorical appeals to a higher power and in the evangelical fervor of its disciples. When I criticize the movement I am usually accused of being “in denial;” as I might once have been accused of heresy. (There are only two states of being in the world of codependency — recovery and denial.) People who belong to twelve-step groups and identify strongly as addicts often turn on me with the self-righteous rage of religious zealots defending their gods.
Yet I have no power over them and want none. I’m not questioning their freedom to indulge in any religion or self-help movement. I’m not marketing a competing movement or exhorting them to do anything in particular with their lives. If they’re happy in recovery, why do they resent and take personally the skepticism of strangers?
In fact, I don’t intend my indictment of the recovery movement to be an indictment of every recovering person or even a comment on the movement’s role in their lives. It is impossible to know how everyone in it uses this movement, interpreting or screening its messages to suit themselves. (It is equally impossible to know how many people are helped or hurt by individual therapy.) Countless people move in and out of support groups and read self-help books with varying degrees of attentiveness, skepticism, and naiveté. Some people say they’ve been helped by twelve-step groups, some say they’ve been hurt, and many have probably been affected indifferently.
This is not to minimize the popularity of the recovery movement, which, after all, is what makes it worth reviewing. Recovery gurus, such as John Bradshaw, have large and loyal followings; although sales of recovery and codependency books may have peaked, they are still in the millions. But, in the end, the testimonials of several million satisfied consumers are not exactly relevant to my critique. I’m not commenting on the disparate effects of the recovery movement or any other self-help program on the millions of individuals who partake in it. How could I? The individual effects of any mass movement are impossible to quantify. I’m commenting on the ideology of the recovery movement and its effect on our culture.
In questioning the collective impact of self-help trends, I’m making the unfashionable assumption, bound to irritate many, that it is still possible to talk about “our” culture in a self-consciously multicultural age. I’m assuming that Americans of different races, ethnicities, religions, genders, degrees of physical ablement, and socioeconomic classes may be affected by the same cultural phenomenon, such as television, celebrity journalism, confessional autobiographies, consumerism, and the preoccupation with addiction, abuse, and problem-solving techniques. Precisely how each group, tribe, or subculture is affected by these phenomena I leave to poststructural scholars to decide.
I’m not assuming, however, that self-help movements always represent every group of Americans they affect. Mainstream, mass market self-help books are generally written and published by whites and tend to target mostly white, broadly middle-class audiences. There are also, no doubt, historic racial divides in the self-help tradition, reflecting racial divides in society. My own reading of turn-of-the-century African-American self-improvement literature and conversations with African-American scholars lead me to suspect that there is an African-American tradition oriented more toward communal, than individual, development; analogous self-improvement efforts among whites tended to emphasize the individual’s progress up the ladder of success and salvation. Given the legacy of slavery and discrimination, it’s not surprising that African-American self-help would focus more on “lifting the race.” But diversity of opinion and ideals within racial and ethnic groups makes it difficult to label self-help movements distinctly black or distinctly white, the tradition of community activism and volunteering cuts across American culture, and the larger self-help tradition involving personal and communal development is a fairly pluralistic one. Early twentieth-century African-American leaders Marcus Garvey and Father Divine adopted some classic positive-thinking ideals — both were proponents of New Thought, a loose collection of beliefs about mind power that emerged in the nineteenth century. Today, Oprah Winfrey is a most effective proselytizer for recovery.
The divide in the self-help tradition that interests me is not demographic (racial, ethnic, sexual, or economic) but ideological: I’m distinguishing between practical (how to do your own taxes) books and personal (how to be happy) books. Of course, sometimes the practical and personal converge: Saving money on your taxes may make you a happy person. A diet book may offer helpful, practical advice on how to eat, while reinforcing cultural ideals of slimness and promising to boost your self-esteem. But if few books are purely personal or purely practical, some are clearly more personal. It is a strong emphasis on individual, personal, or spiritual development that connects the self-help ideals I’m reviewing and composes a tradition. It is that tradition I’m critiquing. How-to books may be appropriate guides to fixing your car, caring for your pet, or even organizing a political campaign. They are fundamentally inapposite to resolving individual psychic or spiritual crises and forming an individual identity.
The self-help tradition has always been covertly authoritarian and conformist, relying as it does on a mystique of expertise, encouraging people to look outside themselves for standardized instructions on how to be, teaching us that different people with different problems can easily be saved by the same techniques. It is anathema to independent thought. Today’s popular programs on recovery from various (and questionable) addictions actively discourage people from actually helping themselves. (Self-help is usually a misnomer for how-to programs in identity formation.) Codependency experts stress that people who shop or eat or love or drink too much cannot stop themselves by solitary exertions of will. Addiction is considered a disease of the will; believing in self-control is one of its symptoms.
That the self-help tradition is rarely described in these terms — as conformist, authoritarian, an exercise in majority rule — is partly a tribute to the power of naming. How could anything called self-help connote dependence? But the authoritarianism of this tradition is cloaked most effectively in the power of the marketplace to make it seem freely chosen. Choice is an American article of faith (as the vocabulary of the abortion debate shows; even antiabortion activists use the rhetoric of choice); and we exercise choice, or enjoy the illusion of it, primarily in the marketplace. We choose from myriad brands of toothpaste and paper towels in the belief that they differ and reflect our own desires. We choose personal development experts, absorbing their maxims and techniques and making them our own.
With luck or good judgment, some readers find guides who are helpful or who at least will do no harm. The best self-help books are like good parents, dispensing common sense. Many more are like superfluous consultants, mystifying the obvious in jargon and italics to justify their jobs. “The first step in dismantling the kind of thinking that reinforces misery addiction is to identify what I call miserable thoughts,” Robert A. Becker, Ph.D., announces in Addicted to Misery.2 Experts package inanities as secrets that they’re generously willing to divulge. In the best-selling Secrets About Men Every Woman Should Know, Beverly DeAngelis clears up such mysteries as “why men don’t like to talk and have sex at the same time.”3 The answer, she says, simply restating her question, is that “men have a more difficult time expressing themselves and simultaneously performing a task than women do.” What is the basis for this bold assertion about gender difference? There is only DeAngelis’s claim to expertise — her Ph.D and special insights into humankind. She is, after all, the author of How to Make Love All the Time.
This earnest fatuity that you find in self-help books is what makes them so funny. That millions of people take them seriously is rather sobering. We should be troubled by the fact that the typical mass market self-help book, consumed by many college-educated readers, is accessible to anyone with a decent eighth-grade education. We should worry about the willingness of so many to believe that the answers to existential questions can be encapsulated in the portentous pronouncements of bumper-sticker books. Only people who die very young learn all they really need to know in kindergarten.*
Some will call me an elitist for disdaining popular self-help literature and the popular recovery movement; but a concern for literacy and critical thinking is only democratic. The popularity of books comprising slogans, sound bites, and recipes for success is part of a larger, frequently bemoaned trend blamed on television and the failures of public education and blamed for political apathy. Intellectuals, right and left, complain about the debasement of public discourse the way fundamentalist preachers complain about sex. Still, to complain just a little — recently the fascination with self-help has made a significant contribution to the dumbing down of general interest books and begun changing the relationship between writers and readers; it is less collegial and collaborative than didactic. Today, even critical books about ideas are expected to be prescriptive, to conclude with simple, step-by-step solutions to whatever crisis they discuss. Reading itself is becoming a way out of thinking.
This book will not conclude with a ten- or twelve-point recovery plan for the “crisis of codependency;” or the “codependency complex,” or any other “self-help syndrome.” If there is an easy way to get people to think for themselves, I haven’t yet discovered it. (The hard way is education.) This book is not what publishers call prescriptive. As a writer and not a politician, I’ve always felt entitled to raise questions for which I have no answers, to offer instead a point of view.
*Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was the number one best-seller among college students for the 1989-1990 academic year. Fulghum was chosen as commencement speaker at Smith College in 1991 and offered an honorary degree, to the horror of at least a few alumnae (Edwin McDowell, What Students Read When They Dont Have To New York Times, July 9, 1990, sec. C, p. 16.
- Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (New York: Norton, 1961), 49.
- Robert A. Becker, Addicted to Misery (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 1989), 60.
- Beverly DeAngelis, Secrets About Men Every Woman Should Know (New York: Delacorte Press, 1990), 156.