I'm Dysfunctional—You're Dysfunctional, by Wendy Kaminer, New York: Addison-Wesley, 180 pages, $18.95
A couple of years ago, when I knew only vaguely that there was something called codependency and something called the recovery movement, I flipped on the local PBS station one night to see a benign-looking man telling a rapt audience that we were all victims of dysfunctional families. Our parents abused us whenever they stopped us from doing something we wanted to do (like the time Mom wouldn't let me dress up the neighbors' dog) or scolded us for something we had done, thus "shaming" us and repressing our true selves, which live as wounded children within. This was John Bradshaw, a leading guru of recovery—an amorphous movement that advocates the "12-step" model of Alcoholics Anonymous as a cure for all of life's problems.
Many Americans, at least those who aren't regular watchers of Phil and Oprah, might still think that a codependent is someone you list on your tax return and being in recovery means that you've had an operation. But unbeknownst to them, the movement is exerting an often subtle influence on popular culture. People casually talk about excessive shopping or promiscuous sex as addictions. Bestseller lists sport how-to books such as Codependent No More, or, for the supposedly more discerning reader, Gloria Steinem's Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. Celebrity memoirs with their revelations about "toxic" parents—Patti Davis comes to mind—are also written in the language of recovery.
But here comes an unusual best seller: I'm Dysfunctional—You're Dysfunctional, by lawyer and social critic Wendy Kaminer, a withering look at the recovery and codependency fads sweeping America. It would be hard to write a book about the phenomenon that would not be funny, given the movement's propensity for jargon—a good relationship, according to Bradshaw, is based on "the equality of two self-actualizing spiritual beings who connect at the level of their beingness"—and dense metaphors that sound deep while signifying nothing: "Most men have to make that journey to find the lover that only lives within." Just take the names of some support groups: "Children of Bisexual Parents Who Smoke Anonymous." (Is it the parents who smoke, or the children? Clarity is not a forte of the recovery crowd.) For a writer of Kaminer's pithy wit and down-to-earth analytical mind, the subject is irresistible.
One curious thing about the recovery movement is that while it uses the self-help label, it is really not about helping oneself but about seeking help through submersion in a crowd. "The putative message of codependency literature—that we are responsible for ourselves and shouldn't spend our lives pleasing or heeding others—is undermined by the medium in which it is conveyed," Kaminer observes. Members of support groups are supposed to be expressing their innermost selves, but they all sound alike, talking in the same psychobabble.
And while the ostensible purpose of recovery is to turn "adult children" into fully mature adults, it is hard to see its techniques as anything but infantilizing: hugging teddy bears, writing love letters to one's "inner child," and the like. Recovery literature actually warns people with "addictive" habits—ranging indiscriminately from alcoholism to hair twirling—against trying to cope with these problems on their own: "A belief in self-control is a symptom of codependency and 'the perfectionist complex.'"
What exactly is codependency? According to pop feminist Anne Wilson Schaef, it's "a disease process whose assumptions, beliefs, and lack of spiritual awareness lead to a process of nonliving which is progressive." Another best-selling exponent of the modern self-help genre, Melody Beattie, tells us that a codependent is anyone who allows her/himself to be affected by others' behavior. No wonder the disease is said to be ravaging no less than 96 percent of all Americans. The remaining 4 percent must be hermits or sociopaths.
Recovery could be seen as an amusing pastime of affluent neurotics, harmful only to their pocketbooks. (People pay hundreds of dollars to attend workshops where they tell each other how wonderful and lovable they are. In one workshop attended by Kaminer, a woman complained that this "affirmation" from a total stranger didn't mean much, only to be told by the expert on hand that "this is a typical codependent response, indicative of low self-esteem.") Kaminer believes, however, that this spreading craze is contributing to some dangerous tendencies in American society.
One is the victimization explosion, with the attendant turning away from personal responsibility. About 30 years ago, Ayn Rand lambasted some professor for pronouncing that the true heroes for our age were not the great thinkers or achievers but the great victims—Anne Frank rather than Albert Einstein. Perhaps the message has hit home, and codependency is some people's way of measuring up: When spanking is compared to the Holocaust, every middle-class American can be Anne Frank.
Kaminer contrasts the "abuse" suffered by most recoverers with the stories of real survivors—Cambodian refugee women who were beaten, raped, or tortured by the Khmer Rouge, who watched their entire families slaughtered. Ironically, these women don't seem to revel in their victimhood: "There is more laughter and lightness in these meetings of vulnerable, impoverished survivors of genocide than in any twelve-step group I've attended, where people pursue recovery with deadening earnestness." Kaminer is not suggesting that "all lesser degrees of suffering" are not worthy of consideration, only that they should be viewed in perspective.
Another danger Kaminer sees in the recovery craze is the glorification of irrationality. It is truly refreshing to find a writer who bluntly declares that all the talk about our culture's excessive rationalism is so much bunk: "Am I the only person who thinks we've gone crazy?…I never feel surrounded by rationality." Members of 12-step groups are urged to think with their hearts, not with their heads; men's movement gurus in particular bemoan the fact that men in our culture are encouraged to be too cerebral. Kaminer notes, "If you want to denigrate thinking, call it intellectualizing. If you want to elevate thoughtlessness, call it experiencing at a feeling level." She sums up the basic message of much recovery and New Age literature as "in nonsense lies salvation." If that's the case, salvation should be near.
Kaminer traces the history of self-help and personal development philosophies in America, from 19th-century revivalism and Christian Science to Norman Vincent Peale's "positive thinking," and looks at such specialized markets as religious recovery literature and the men's consciousness movement. Interestingly, she has little to say about feminist recovery literature, which has had its own share of inanities (in Steinem's aforementioned tome, wars, dictatorships, and massacres are traced back to the abuse that the likes of Saddam Hussein and Nicolae Ceaucescu suffered as children).
This omission may betray Kaminer's own political biases, which also surface in her analysis of the "victim syndrome" and its origins. Kaminer notes that "feminism and the civil rights movement underscored the historic victimization of women and minority males, demanding change that eventually made some white males feel like victims too." She dwells extensively on the men's movement with its frequently ludicrous claims of victimization for middle-class men and cites the Tawana Brawley case as an instance of the exploitation of victimhood by racial minorities; but what about similar exploitation by feminists? When some feminists tell us that ogling is almost the same as rape, aren't they, too, egregiously guilty of ignoring differences in degrees of suffering?
I am also somewhat disturbed by Kaminer's suggestion that a focus on personal development unduly diverts attention from problems that are due to "social injustice." She ties the recovery movement to the narcissism allegedly encouraged by Ronald Reagan and seems to lump navel-fixated 12-step devotees together with conservative critics of the welfare state.
But to say that many problems of the underclass have something to do with personal behavior is not to imply that the poor could improve their situation if they only started corresponding with their inner children. Furthermore, while Kaminer seems to fault the recovery movement for being too apolitical, she ignores the widespread political uses of its metaphors: the contention that the vast majority of conventional families are "toxic" and "dysfunctional" easily becomes, in the hands of radical academics, an attack on bourgeois society.
Kaminer is no libertarian, but she is no anti-individualist either, unless individualism is equated with self-absorption. Besides, specific social policy is not really the point. Can any sane person disagree with Kaminer's assertion that urging people to surrender to a higher power (embodied, perhaps, in a humble expert) and to stop using their heads so much has its political and social dangers?
Kaminer is not unduly pessimistic. She concedes that recovery may have value for some people ("we're all better off if self-proclaimed addicts consume only books") and that our society is in no danger of collapsing under the weight of the codependency obsession. American democracy and freedom will survive this latest self-help fad—but probably not unscathed.
Contributing Editor Cathy Young is a writer living in Middletown, New Jersey.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Recovery Boom".