When and why did America become so enamored of recovery groups?
During the 1980s, when awareness of drug abuse, the problems of addiction and AIDS were heightened and we became obsessed with disease. The recovery movement is based on the notion that we are all diseased. And its stress on finding the divine inner child offers us a parable of redemption. It tells us we can be reborn.
What do you find so distressing about the movement?
I am most critical of its tendency to call any bad habit or problematic behavior an addiction. I worry about the way the movement dramatizes relatively minor problems and trivializes the major ones. It is much worse to be raped by your parents than to be yelled at by them, and when you call both of those things abuse, the whole concept loses its meaning. The posture of what I think of as the stereotypical recovery person is that of an adolescent obsessed with the ways her parents didn't understand her—someone who feels entitled to put her problems first and be the center of the universe.
But don't you concede that the movement has helped people?
I'm sure many individuals have gotten something good out of the movement. I think good support groups are out there. But this is mostly a movement of the middle class, not helping those who need it—poor people for whom drug abuse really is a serious problem. Also, I'm looking as a social critic, not a therapist, and my critique is of the movement's ideology. When you tell people any bad habit is an addiction, you're telling them they are incapable of controlling their behavior; you're disempowering them. If you say to a person in recovery that you want to stop smoking without joining a program, they'll say you're in denial, because trying to control a problem by will is a symptom of codependency. One of the first things you do in a 12-step group is surrender your will and submit to a higher power.
And you think that altitude is harmful to society?
We call it self-help, but it's really about looking to experts and believing they have all the answers. There are serious political implications. It's not good for people in a participatory democracy to think they should be surrendering to a higher power. Look at the Ross Perot phenomenon. People say, "We don't care about his positions on issues, he seems like a can-do kind of guy." What they're saying is, "We don't want somebody who will engage us in a conversation on how the country should deal with hard problems. We want someone to whom we can abdicate the responsibility." In part I'm describing a nation of sheep, vulnerable to demagogues, and that's distressing.
You are equally critical of the leaders of the movement and its best-selling authors.
I'm troubled by the fascination with charismatic authority figures—people like M. Scott Peck, John Bradshaw and Robert Bly. I think they are all on their own power trips. And I'm not the first feminist to point out that there is often a strong element of misogyny in these books, as in Bly's Iron John. He presents the stereotype of the domineering, shrewish mother and wife who encourages children to disrespect their father.
Also, many of the books are incredibly insipid. The vast majority would be accessible to a reasonably intelligent 12-year-old. I don't see any complexity; I see a lot of pabulum. Reading Peck's The Road Less Traveled was like reading a million fortune cookies.
Do you think the popularity of the recovery movement has peaked?
Yes. We're seeing a little bit of backlash now, and the reaction is taking the form of "Grow up and stop whining!" "Resilience" is going to be the next buzz word, because the idea that you have to get strong, that life never gets easy and must be endured, is missing from this movement. But I don't think the tendency to look to experts for simple answers to complicated problems will change. Next there'll be books prescribing 10 steps to achieving resilience.
With all of your criticisms of the movement, what alternative can you offer?
My response to that is, Why must there be one program, one belief system or set of techniques that will solve all our problems? I don't think I have the answer to the questions about self-help. But maybe the alternative is for people to start thinking for themselves.