A Psychologist Tells Why

The first self-help book I ever read was called Always Ask a Man, by Arlene Dahl. It was written at a time when women were explicitly encouraged to offer men narcissistic protection by feigning weakness, dependency and incompetence. “Never upstage a man!’ Dahl advises. “If you smoke, don’t carry matches!’ “Never launch loudly into your own opinions … instead draw out his ideas to which you can gracefully add your footnotes from time to time!’ Dahl’s advice typifies guidebooks for women written before the 1970s — explicitly prescribing male dominance while implicitly warning women that men are weak.

Are the newest breeds of guidebooks for women — recovery books — that much different? In many ways they resemble Always Ask a Man, yet most feminists seem not to be bristling. Recovery books are best-sellers even in feminist bookstores; a recent issue of Feminist Bookstore News actually lauds recovery as a feminist concern. My fear, though, and it’s a deep one, is that the recovery movement (and it is indeed a movement, if not an epidemic) is lulling us back into nurturing our weaknesses. It’s also luring us back into other things: self-blaming, parent-blaming and a narrow disease model of our problems and our pain.

Recovery literature, programs and products are purportedly grounded in the 12-Step principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, the fastest-growing spiritual movement in the country. The concept of a Higher Power (“turning our will and lives over to Him”) is central to 12-Step spirituality, although feminist recovery groups reframe “Him” as “the goddess within’,’ “a guiding white feminine light’,’ “one’s higher self and so forth.

I grant that 12-Step spirituality has quite literally saved the lives of countless women and men who would otherwise have died from drinking. Recovery books too have given us permission and skills to take better care of ourselves, both in and out of relationships. In contrast to the advice-to-women books that I was raised on, there is no sacrificing the “I” for the relational “We” in this literature.

The recovery movement has also provided women with a strong sense of female community and has paid respectful attention to lesbian relationships rendered invisible by the earlier self-help industry. The literature has encouraged women to speak openly about how experiences such as alcoholism, sexual abuse and incest have affected our lives, and in so doing to recognize private experience as validated and shared. These large achievements tempt one to say, “If it works, don’t knock it!’ I’ve heard enough “It-saved-my-life” stories from the women’s community to feel almost apologetic for my own deep misgivings.

Still, I have these grave concerns, starting with the exploitation and misuse of 12-Step language and spirituality now that “recovery” has become big business. I have a creepy feeling in response to the new market of self-help music tapes “created especially for Twelve Steppers” with subliminal affirmations and 12-Step wisdom for recovering people. And I agree entirely with Sonia Johnson, who finds the ubiquitous labeling of primarily white, middle-class problems as “addictions” [for example, “shopping addiction” or “work addiction”] to be both preemptive and callous.

But more important than being either inspirational or prescriptive, recovery literature confers identity, which has me pondering the following questions: Why do so many women I meet in my professional travels use recovery labels to identify themselves with perfect ease and comfort (as in, “Hi, I’m Sue. I’m an Adult Child of Alcoholic Parents, and I’m in recovery from relationship addiction”)?

Why are so comparatively few women comfortable using the “F” word (as in, “Hi, I’m Jane, I’m a feminist”)? Why is it easier, more permissible, reassuring, or simply just possible, to move forward b, defining oneself as a recovering person?

And here we do come full circle back to Arlene Dahl, to the advice-giving industry I was raised on, to the culturally ingrained belief that women who put their primary energy into their own growth are hurtful and destructive to others. Women tend to feel so guilty and anxious about any joyful assertion of self in the face of patriarchal injunctions that each small move out from under is invariably accompanied by some unconscious act of apology and penance.

I believe that it is an act of deep apology, especially to the dominant group culture, for women to move forward in the name of recovery, addiction and disease.

The feminist movement, like the civil rights movement, is a profoundly transforming, enlivening and empowering social revolution. Because we have been so effective, the backlash against feminism has been so virulent. In the face of such resistance we might all shuffle back to the broom closet, which we have not done. But it hardly requires explanation that many women are hesitant to become feminist activists, even when they support feminist goals.

Recovery, then, to my mind, is a sort of compromise solution. It teaches women to move in the direction of “more self while it sanitizes and makes change safe, because the dominant group culture (never fond of “those angry women”) is not threatened by sick women meeting together to get well.

“I used to bitch at my husband to do housework and nothing happened” a woman from Minnesota told me recently; “Now I’m in an intensive treatment program for codependency, and I’m asserting myself very strongly. My husband is more helpful because he knows I’m codependent and he supports my recovery!’

Arlene Dahl, are you listening out there? Surely, we can take the best of what the advice-givers offer without de-contextualizing our problems and without sifting them through negative, dispiriting, or pathologizing filters. It is my expert opinion that women are competent, wise and not sick.

If we smoke, let’s carry matches. Let’s launch boldly into our own opinions. If we know more about vintage wines than the steward (male or female), that’s not a problem. 

Harriet Goldhor Lerner is a staff psychologist at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, KS. She is the author of two national bestsellers, The Dance of Anger and The Dance of Intimacy, both published by HarperCollins, New York. Some of the material in the above article appeared in different form in The Women’ s Review of Books, April 1990.