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Needed: a radical recovery.

A recent issue of Time magazine ran a piece on Al Gore's frequent use of "recovery talk"--the now widely spoken language of the Twelve Step/Addiction/Self-Help movement--in his campaign appearances. The New York Times, a few weeks earlier, ran a similar piece about Bill Clinton's frequent references to his experience with family "dysfunction," drug and alcohol abuse, and therapy.

To which Bush aide Torie Clarke responded--invoking the days when a candidate could easily be defeated by the mere disclosure that he had sought treatment for emotional problems (Thomas Eagleton) or by allowing the cameras to see a single tear-filled eye (Edmund Muskie)--that "real men don't lie on couches."

But, as the Republicans found out, the times they are a--changin'. "Codependency," wounded "inner children," "adult children" of various kinds of "dysfunctional" parents, are the cultural and, increasingly, the real currency of today's marketplace of ideas and things. Melody Beattie's Beyond Codependency and Codependent No More were on The Times bestseller list for many months. So were Robin Norwood's Women Who Love Too Much and the continuous tumble of John

Bradshaw treatises on every calamity that might befall a person growing up in a dysfunctional family. Bradshaw offers books, tapes, seminars, and even vacation "recovery" cruises for those fortunate enough to have "survived" family dysfunction and also prospered.

And the Hazelden addiction empire, famous for leading such notables as Liz Taylor, Kitty Dukakis, and Liza Minnelli to "recovery"--to name just one of many treatment-centers-turned-million-dollar corporations--also markets everything from greeting cards to key chains, necklaces and bracelets, from coffee mugs (decaf only) to "daily meditation" books, all inscribed with uplifting slogans from the gurus of the movement. And then there are the electronic media. You can hardly watch a day of daytime talk (and that's a lot of talk these days, what with all the cable clones of Oprah and Phil) without coming up against at least one problem for which the solution turns out to be a twelve-step recovery program. A random sample of freeze frames on any channel-surfing excursion will almost surely hit on one or two talking heads with identification tags like "drug-addicted transsexual prostitute" or "compulsive blinker." And in every case, there will be an "expert" hawking another self-help book with information on how to find the appropriate Anonymous group for this "addiction."

In the last ten years or so, more than seventy made-for-TV movies have dealt with addictive disorders and their family-destroying aftermaths. Lately, more and more of them end with the sufferers attending group meetings where they are seen to weep with relief at having found the "solution" to their "problem."

Just last month, I saw two starring Connie Sellecca. In the first, made in the 1980s, she suffers from bulimia. In the second, brand new, she plays a successful career woman in a "codependent" relationship with a man who is a "sexaholic." In the end, she goes to Codependents Anonymous (CODA) while he, terminally "in denial," goes from bad to worse.

If any of this makes sense to you, if you recognize the language and the gestalt it refers to, you know that stuff represents a major cultural phenomenon in American life. Nor is it obviously, as too many critics blithely assume, a politically "conservative" (as opposed to "liberal" or "progressive") movement. Not with such left-feminists as Gloria Steinem writing bestsellers on the need for "healing" one's "inner child" and developing the "self-esteem" destroyed by "dysfunctional" family dynamics.

No, traditional political terminology is not so easily applied to this brave New Age world of recovery. Like all totalizing discourses, "recovery thought" reflects a world view that explains and addresses everything, in its own terms. Any troublesome behavior pattern, from shopping "too much" to sleeping "too much" to worrying "too much," can be made to fit the loose definition of "addiction." Any objection or doubt can be answered with the all-purpose dismissal that one must be "in denial."

Do you worry that such self-absorption takes people away from political matters? You are using political activity "addictively" as a way of avoiding "your problem." I have been told so many times, "You can't change the world until you heal yourself," that I don't raise the issue any more. Do you insist that your own moderate, but regular, use of alcohol is a pleasure rather than a problem? You are, so far, "controlling" your addiction, but it will soon "progress" and "become unmanageable." Just wait.

It is this totalizing, politically reductive aspect of the movement that critics--most notably Wendy Kaminer in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional and David Rieff in "Victims, All? Recovery, Codependency, and the Art of Blaming Somebody Else," in the October 1991 issue of Harper's--most oppose.

Movement people call everyone a "victim" of a "dysfunctional," "abusive" family system: Bradshaw and friends use a widely quoted figure of 96 per cent as their official statistic on dysfunctional families, and most agree with Robin Norwood that virtually everyone in therapy could use" a twelve-step program. Their critics argue, however, that to do so is to trivialize the idea of "victimization" and oppression."

"A quick way of seeing just how specific the recovery idea is to prosperous Americans," says Rieff, "is to think how preposterous it would seem ... to a man whose daughter had just been killed by a terrorist bomb, to someone who was hungry, to someone, anyone, in Croatia, the Soviet Union, or South Africa." And Kaminer agrees. "The recovery movement's cult of victimization mocks the notion of social justice by denying that there are degrees of injustice," she says. "It equalizes all levels of abuse.... The personal subsumes the political."

While I agree with much of this argument, I am deeply offended by its tone. Kaminer and Rieff, progressives both, actually ape the smugness and cold-bloodedness of such right-wing Republicans as William F. Buckley Jr. and Pat Buchanan when they dismiss the suffering of everyday people in this vicious world as so much whining and whimpering and suggest that they simply pull themselves up by their Bruno Magli bootstraps and get on with the dirty business of being grownups in a tough world.

"Imagine everyone grappling with their problems and forging their identities, using their own intuitions and powers of analysis," says the tough-minded, I-did-it-my-way Kaminer. That, agrees Rieff, would be facing "the splendor and misery of being an adult."

But this kind of Emersonian self-reliance misses the political point. It assumes that the pain for which so many seek help in the recovery movement is wholly "personal," which it certainly is not. That people drink, eat, take drugs, shop, and spend themselves into oblivion or the poor house; that they starve themselves into fashionability; that they endlessly and compulsively seek sexual conquest and novelty--these are not merely personal" matters. They have everything to do with capitalism and its effects on daily life and social relations.

The fact is that much of the thinking found in recovery books makes perfect sense, as far as it goes. Bradshaw's analysis of dysfunctional family dynamics actually says a lot of things feminists and leftists have been saying for twenty years. The family isn't working. Patriarchal power relations breed abuses of power, both emotional and physical. They encourage women to feel they can't function without men and to bond with (typically patriarchal) men who won't communicate emotionally and who use the cultural capital they were born with to dominate, manipulate, and exploit those who are less powerful.

The workplace is just as bad. Now that men have gotten into the recovery thing--via Robert Bly and pals--there are almost as many books that use New Left and feminist ideas to decry the emotional toll taken by life in corporate and bureaucratic settings as in the family. Ann Wilson Schaef has built her own empire of books, conferences, consulting gigs, and recovery retreats and hotels to go along with her many bestselling treatises on the addictive" nature of American society as a whole. Using feminist and New Left ideas, she explains how the stresses of work and politics grow from institutional "male-style" power "addictions" which can only be ended by putting "success" and "work" addicts into their own recovery groups.

Most of the self-help stuff about addiction, unhealthy sexual and child-parent relationships, and self-destructive, compulsive habits uses this kind of Left/feminist model. Much of it reads like a 1972 issue of Ms. or Liberation magazine. Except for the political conclusions. There aren't any.

Instead, we are given a complete ideological system of explaining human suffering which replaces political and economic forces with biologically determined genetic causes. It offers prayer, group conformity, and the giving up of one's personal and political agency to a "higher power" as an ultimate "cure" for everything.

Since, according to this model, the "disease" of addiction is not only inborn but incurable, there is no help for it but to put oneself--permanently--in the hands of the movement and religiously attend meetings and work one's programs. Once in the movement, one always discovers more addictive tendencies; how could it be otherwise? These are the feelings and behaviors of people trying to live up to the common demands of advanced capitalism and to avoid the common, socially caused kinds of stress, misery, and loneliness this social system breeds. Lest one be accused of a lingering case of "denial," however, one must forget about trying to change institutions and power relations until one is "healed."

The recovery rhetoric works because it manages to shift attention away from social reality and redefine actual political, social, and personal ills and miseries in ways that work to contain and control impulses toward realistic social solutions. In fact, the rhetoric of addiction and recovery has become a subtle form of social control in a world in which more and more of us are at the ends of our ropes, our wits, and our emotional resources. Just as the managed-media Gulf war thwarted Vietnam-style protest by redefining reality in terms of images which masked the actual situation, the recovery movement works to thwart protest against domestic madness by redefining that reality in ways which keep us from seeing the real situation.

In fact, the discourse of addiction and recovery, now circulated so effectively and ubiquitously through the mass media, can be seen as a subtler version of the War on Drugs aimed at inner-city, mostly male, African-Americans. Hard drugs like crack and heroin, it is argued, lead to street crime and violence, and so we must put users in jail. This is a form of social control widely accepted as necessary, even though theorists of the Left and Right agree, more and more, that it is erroneous, costly, and ineffective. The real causes of crime and violence are, after all, the same as the real causes of drug use--poverty and despair. The law-and-order solutions, then, are public-relations smokescreens for a society that has never had any intention of ending drug abuse, only of "controlling" and demonizing it, making it a scapegoat for systemic-bred social crises.

This PR strategy of keeping us confused and agitated over the intractable "drug problem" can be seen--if you look carefully--in the media's approach to the "softer," middle-class "addictions" so in vogue these days. To watch a talk show about any of the compulsive disorders is to see a very clever kind of social control mechanism at work, only this time the socially dangerous "abusers" being controlled" are not violent, dark-skinned young criminals but white middle-class men, women, and teenagers whose inability to function in the world they find themselves in has become socially problematic.

These people don't rob banks, of course, but they do get out of control personally. And that leads to problems in the professional work force, in family stability (which women are depended upon to maintain), and in the socialization of middle-class youth into productive work habits.

The real "solution" would be to go back to the original Left/feminist analyses of these problems and take another look at the ideas about changing institutions and power relations they laid out. But that has never been television's way of doing things.

Better to sell Excedrin than find a cure for headaches, after all. So television keeps things up close and personal, within the family unit, where it seems as though we cause and can therefore solve our own problems, with the help, at most, of (free) self-help groups, private therapy, and mass-market paperbacks. It offers us Nytol, Calgon bubble baths, an occasional trip to Disney World, and now the recovery movement.

On Oprah in recent months there have been many examples of how this works, but I'll use just one. A group of people who, as children, were subjected to emotionally painful teasing and ridicule because of the way they dressed were the guests. In the audience were some of the very people who had persecuted them. During the opening segments--when the problematic experiences were recalled--the emotional distress felt by these "adult children" was extreme. After the passage of decades, after their lives had gone in different, adult directions, they still could not recall these incidents without tearing up and stifling sobs.

Oprah's method of handling the situation was, typically, to force a therapeutic confrontation between abusers and victims, in which the persecutors came to acknowledge the effects of their behavior, accept responsibility, and ask forgiveness. This technique, quite moving and useful as far as it goes, was also used recently in Oprah's exemplary prime-time special about sexually abusive fathers and their daughters/victims. It is no small thing to get a grown man to cry on television, acknowledge his sexual abuse of power, and beg his victim not to blame herself even if she can never forgive him.

Nonetheless, here, as in the segment on childhood teasing, the real political issues are not only avoided; they are ideologically reformulated to fit a nonpolitical world view. The children who had been tormented were working-class and poor. Among the hurtful labels used against them--which still pained them to the point of tears--was "white trash." But when the "expert" came on to give closure to the matter, she ignored the entire class basis upon which children shame each other in this materialist, consumer culture for failing to own the right "things." Instead, she advised the victims to find a group (Bad Dressers Anonymous? People Who Cry Too Much?) and "heal your inner child." Given time, I'm sure she would have offered the same advice to the middle-class tormentors who were, by now--judging by their fashionable and expensive clothing--surely in the grip of their own inner-child problems with addictive shopping, workaholism, or credit-card debt.

TV movies about such issues do much the same thing. The codependency/sexaholism movie, for example, was actually--in its first half--a good portrayal of the dynamics of a destructive marriage between a successful woman and her insecure, competitive, subtly hostile husband. In the 1970s--when movies like Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and An Unmarried Woman were popular--a woman in this kind of marriage would have gone to a consciousness-raising group, or at least gotten support from friends in leaving the marriage. Today, she is sent to a group where she gets support in "recovering" from a problem that is defined as hers," not his--and not sexism's.

Or take the case of the prize-winning Shattered Spirits, in which Martin Sheen played an alcoholic who abused his children and wife emotionally and jeopardized them economically, until he finally "hit bottom" and agreed to family therapy. There they learned that they were all sick" members of a "dysfunctional family system." No mention of the economic and power relations that kept the woman and children captive and emotionally complicit in this "sick" system. No mention of the economic and power relations of the demeaning Willy Loman-esque job the man had.

The usefulness of this kind of "help" model in keeping people functioning, just barely, in intolerable, unjust circumstances is obvious. The ideas of these experts and therapists aren't wrong. They do address one level of socially induced suffering and failure. Nor, I am eager to explain, do I underestimate the value and efficacy of therapy, support, and self-help groups in helping us negotiate the treacherous terrain of daily life. These kinds of things are often lifesavers and godsends for people experiencing any level of emotional distress.

I am concerned, however, politically and theoretically, with the broader social implications of their theories, taken out of their proper therapeutic context and used, as the media now use them, as panaceas for socially induced troubles.

To suggest, as the media do, that nothing more is needed to keep us happy and at peace is--implicitly--to ensure that nothing changes in the broader structure that causes this suffering and injustice. These groups and experts and dramas turn things upside down logically and insist that our problems are internal and the solutions personal. As the critics say, they do dissolve the political into the personal, but that's only because they deny the political nature of personal problems, as do Kaminer and Rieff themselves.

Instead of simply attacking the recovery movement and alienating millions who have experienced it as a lifesaver, we need to reclaim its ideas as our own and reformulate them in our own politically oriented terms. The social movements of the 1960s did not "fail," as Gloria Steinem suggests, because we were too emotionally damaged to be politically effective. It was never "us" that was the problem. It was the "damaged," "dysfunctional" society itself, and it still is.

In fact, we were too politically effective for comfort. So much so that our ideas and analyses have had to be incorporated and redirected into "self-help" directions in order to contain their very dangerous--still very dangerous--implications. Nor are the many problems addressed by the recovery movement just the whimperings of a bunch of rich, spoiled babies. As Bradshaw and others rightly suggest, they are experienced by the vast majority of Americans these days. The pain and anxiety are real enough. It's the "Higher Power," Savior solutions that are phony.
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Title Annotation:Culture; psychological 'recovery' movement
Author:Rapping, Elayne
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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