I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help

From the New York Times review:

Ms. Kaminer’s antipathy has little to do with whether these techniques work or not. She avoids questioning the experience of people who say they have been helped, cured or even had their lives saved by these methods and others; to her thinking, successful cure isn’t even the issue.

What worries her is the movement’s ideology. She feels that it tends to trivialize suffering by melodramatically refusing to distinguish among levels of suffering or victimization.

* …MS. KAMINER also detests the abstract jargon that makes a linguistic salad of contradictory realms of discourse — especially the high-tech and the spiritual — in order to reap benefits from both markets. For example, people in recovery are usually exhorted not only to overcome the ravages of shame and abuse in flicted by dysfunctional families, but also to resurrect the buried, suffering “inner child” that exists in each of them, as well as to give up their addictions to alcohol, hard drugs, food, sex, tobacco, other people, shopping, work and negative emotions.

* According to the recovery movement, evil, as Ms. Kaminer puts it, “is merely a mask — a dysfunction.”

* Ultimately, what lifts Ms. Kaminer to the pinnacle of her indignation is the recovery movement’s insistence that the faithful surrender their wills to an unspecified higher power.

* For all her wit and intelligence, though, Ms. Kaminer, in her polemical fury, seems blind to some important distinctions. Maybe she stared a little too long at the klieg lights shining on those recovery celebrities who have grown rich and famous entertaining audiences plunged into the darkness of addiction and co-dependency. It’s true enough that in our society, movements readily turn into industries. But that has not happened to Alcoholics Anonymous, which explicitly prohibits the use of its name for publicity or profit. A.A. is a serious, worthwhile organization that employs a blend of moral pressure and group support to help people who can’t face their drinking problem even in psychotherapy. The same is pretty much the case with Overeaters Anonymous and some of the other 12-step programs.

Moreover, there is something to be said for any movement that seeks to stop the centrifugal drift of private life in America. The very existence of the recovery movement illustrates how urgent our longing must be for a sense of community that transcends self-interest, unhappy marriages and the terrible pressure to achieve professional or business success.

* “The failure to deal with racism is partly a function of the kind of insularity that the recovery movement encourages,” she observed. “It becomes more important to focus on your own problems than on larger social issues. And look at the Rodney King verdict — it had nothing to do with rationality. It was all emotion.”

Isn’t what works the most important question for the average bloke? About 100x more important than good linguistics and sterling philosophy? About 100x more important than distinguishing between levels of suffering?

Evil is not a focus of recovery programs. Is that ok?

If seeking direction from a Higher Power works, what’s so terrible? Kaminer hates recovery programs for making people simultaneously more self-centered and more other-centered. What a powerful critique! Either way, recovery loses in Kaminer’s worldview.

So what does Kaminer think is important? Dealing with racism. The Rodney King verdict. Not the riots, the initial Simi Valley verdict. She writes: “It becomes more important to focus on your own problems than on larger social issues.”

For most people, and properly so, their own problems are more important than larger social issues, which they can’t change much anyway.

She’s furious at movements and groups that help people connect with one another and share their deepest fears and pains. Whether or not these groups enable people to lead better lives is irrelevant to Kaminer. To me, that is disturbing. She doesn’t care that some people turn their lives around in these groups? That means nothing to her? What kind of person lacks interest in the welfare of other people? A sociopath. Kaminer’s callous disregard for individuals while laboring so publicly for humanity is typical of her leftwing political orientation.

And why is she so angry? What is it about reality that she can’t accept? Why is she so filled with rage against people who believe in something greater than themselves? What is it about the transcendent and the ineffable that so troubles her?

All effective approaches to life boil down to adrenalin management. When does religion help and when does religion help? According to its ability to manage your adrenalin. When do recovery programs help and when do they hurt? According to their ability to manage your adrenalin. When does philosophy work for a man and when does it hurt? According to its ability to manage your adrenalin. When does therapy help and when does therapy hurt? According to its ability to manage your adrenalin.

To phrase things a little differently, all effective approaches to life help you to attach to the people most important to you. When does religion help you and when does it hurt you? To the extent it helps or hurts you to attach. If you can’t attach to people you love, you’re in big trouble. If believing in the tooth fairy helps you to attach to the people you love, that belief benefits your life. If believing in Santa Claus hurts your ability to attach to the people you love, it hurts your life. If believing in Jesus helps you to attach to the people most important to you, it helps your life. If eating right and exercising diligently hurts your ability to be present with the people most important to you, those seemingly healthy practices are destroying your life.

The less comfortable you are with yourself, the less comfortable you will be with others. The more grievance and anger and resentment you carry, the less you will be able to bring joy to those you love and the less they will want you around.

* Publishers Wweekly: “Kaminer takes potshots at the omnipresent 12-step self-help groups that are threatening to put psychotherapists out of work. She dismisses the rhetoric and religiosity of the programs, finds their intimacy manufactured and their emphasis on “higher power” authoritarian.”

How is having a higher power authoritarian? If it does not exist, what can it do? Why should anyone care that people are finding a more useful and less expensive substitute for therapy?

Los Angeles Times review:

Kaminer is proud to proclaim her non-expertise, which she seems to regard as a kind of credential in itself: “You don’t have to be a therapist, MD, or any other certifiable expert in drug and alcohol abuse and other bad behaviors,” she insists, “to wonder about a society in which people are so eager to call themselves addicted and abused.”

And so Kaminer wonders out loud and at length about the “religiosity” of 12-step groups that call on the intervention of a “higher power,” the “cloyingly positive messages” of various recovery gurus, the “weird New Age babble of bliss-speak and techno-talk” and the media excesses of confessional television programs like “Oprah” and “Donahue”: “Voyeurs collaborating with exhibitionists in rituals of sham community.”

Kaminer may be accurate enough in her self-described “indictment” of the recovery movement, but she cannot seem to resist the impulse to offer up an arch and condescending judgment on the frailties of human nature: “Listening to 35-year-olds complain that they have never been understood by their parents,” she cracks, “I find myself thinking about the Kurds.”

…Still, the author is so arrogant, so brutal and so cutting that Kaminer sometimes sabotages her own earnest arguments. And she so often qualifies or apologizes for what she has written (“It’s not that all positive thinkers are Stalinists or Nazis . . .”) that I began to wonder if her own editors didn’t ask her to lighten up a bit.

Kaminer complains that the recovery movement is “niggardly and mean-spirited.” The same, I’m afraid, can be said of “I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional,” which discounts and dismisses the real human suffering that has prompted the very excesses that she gripes about. To the reader in pain, I’m afraid, the author has nothing to say except: “Buck up–and shut up.”

* Kaminer’s big critique of recovery programs is that they are not political and don’t promote participatory democracy.

Kaminer criticizes 12-step programs for being religious, but AA’s founder, Bill Wilson, and the two thinkers who influenced him, William James and Carl Jung, were not religious and even anti-religious.

In the 12-step approach, what does powerlessness over an addiction mean? One, it is an approach to dealing with a problem proven to work for millions of people who otherwise felt hopeless. Two, it increases our humility and opens us up to new ways of doing things. Three, stating powerlessness brings awareness of how many automatic responses we have that do not serve us, and brings awareness of our vulnerability in a dangerous world. Four, it is a way of turning our orientation away from ourselves to a higher power. Five, admitting powerlessness means complete self-acceptance and that in turns enables me to accept others. I have accepted my place in humanity. Six, admitting powerlessness is an acceptance of reality because we are powerless over almost everything around us and helplessness is one of the four basic states we continually return to as we climb the spiral staircase of life (along with mastery, grandiosity, and loneliness). Seven, admitting powerlessness in 12-steps is not a flight from responsibility, rather, it is the beginning of accepting responsibility. It is akin to admitting that one is a type one insulin-dependent diabetic and hence needs to take insulin regularly. When we admit we are powerless, we are admitting we have a guillotine above our necks and that it is only through the maintenance of our spiritual condition that we can live freely one day at a time. 

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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