Synopses & Reviews
Naming the Controversy:
"Different People., Different Needs"
In 1935, when Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, stopped drinking alcohol, he went home to a loyal, dedicated wife, a warm home with enough food, and a circle of people who cared about him. He had a law degree, was an experienced stockbroker, and had all the privileges accorded an upper-middle-class white man from an old New England family. Most of the men who were instrumental in putting together the AA program and whose experiences were to be recorded in "Alcoholics Anonymous," the AA "Big Book," came from similar backgrounds.
Fifty-two years later, in 1987, when a woman named Cathy sobered up at age thirty-two, she went home to a small apartment in a poor neighborhood in Cleveland, two difficult children, and an abusive boyfriend. Two weeks into her newfound sobriety, long-repressed memories of incest-no longer shielded by alcohol and drugs-began to surface, plunging her into anxiety and depression. A psychiatrist put her on antidepressants. Not trusting the system to give her help, she didn't reveal to anyone that she was being battered by her partner. A physician prescribed pain killers for a back problem that resulted from the abuse. She began eating compulsively and eventually relapsed into substance addiction. A year later she was admitted to a hospital for severe depression and drug addiction. Eventually, she was able to maintain sobriety-after attending an all-women's treatment program and an incest survivors' group where she could also talk about the violence in her relationship.
Joseph, a Native American, started to drink in the Army, where it was considered "manly." He had been throughWorld War II, the Korean War, and what he called the "worst war of all" - being emotionally, physically, and sexually abused in a Catholic boarding school where he had been taken against his will as part of a governmentordered program to "assimilate" Native Americans into white culture. Thirty-four years later, after a vision of a relative came to him, he quit drinking. For the first month he had hallucinations and the shakes, couldn't sleep, and was afraid he would die. He couldn't imagine what he would do with his life. He felt it was over and that he was condemned. Living in Butte, Montana, separated from his Native American culture, Joseph worked in a mine with mostly white people and knew only one other sober person-his sister. He never drank again and eventually returned to his native reservation, where he reconnected with his people's rituals and customs and worked at a healing center for alcoholism.
Madge was an upper-middle-class woman of thirty-seven when she first went through a women's treatment program for addiction to alcohol and prescription medications. After she completed the program, she ate compulsively and eventually returned to drinking. For years she had lived in the shadow of her professionally successful husband, medicating her resentments. She also had a well-kept secret that fueled her desire to escape. She went through treatment three times before a counselor helped her open up the buried subject of her attraction to women. Only then was she able to maintain her sobriety, which cleared the way to begin the process of giving up the security, stability, and status of her home and heterosexual privilege to "come out" as a lesbian.
Alan, a history teacher,joined AA after an intervention by family and friends. While he appreciated the support from other people recovering in the group, he felt increasingly negative about the AA belief in setting aside logic and reason and surrendering to God or a Higher Power. He left the group, tried a program for controlled use of alcohol, and started drinking again. He then realized that abstinence was the only way for him. He eventually decided to use Antabuse, a substance that makes you violently ill if you drink, to keep from drinking. Since then, he's never attended a support group and has been sober for many years.
Cathy, Madge, and Alan could be any race or color. Their stories reflect many people's experiences. There are many other stories I could tell. In 1948, my Uncle Ron overcame alcoholism with the help of an aversion treatment program in Seattle called Shadel. He never attended AA, and he helped more than four hundred people find sobriety through aversion therapy, an approach still available but not widely understood or used. Danny, a young Native American/Caucasian from the South, told me he quit drinking at eighteen "because I get crazy from that stuff." He never had treatment and he never joined a support group. His life has been chaotic, but he doesn't drink.
Whatever your feelings about the different ways these people sobered up, the fact is that they are all sober today. Some used twelvestep support groups and some didn't. Some found life after sobriety a great improvement over their using days; for others, sobriety opened the door to new problems and old pain that had been buried under alcohol and drugs.
Bill Wilson's imagination, determination, andcreativity in putting together the twelve-step program that worked for him and many others does not change the fact that he was influenced by white, male, middleclass Christian values of the 1930s. Bill Wilson could not have known about issues that would become central in the ensuing decades - sexism, racism, homophobia, drug abuse, homelessness, and child sexual abuse that are interwoven with addiction. He could not have known that, fifty years later, the steps he wrote would be used internationally for men and women struggling with all types of addictions-from narcotics to food, sex, dependent relationships, medication, smoking, gambling, and spending, as well as incest and emotional problems.
It is important to remember that Bill Wilson based the steps and the Big Book on experiences of a hundred white men and one woman. He also based his definition of an alcoholic personality-egocentric, arrogant, resentful, controlling, or violent-on these people. I think this is a mistaken personality syndrome that frequently describes traits of white, upper-middle-class men who have power in the system. There are many men with these personality traits who are not alcoholic or drug addicted, and there are countless people who are passive, afraid, and lacking a sense of self who are alcoholic and drug addicted...
From the author of Women, Sex, and Addiction, a timely and controversial second look at 12-Step programs, helping all readers to draw on the steps' underlying wisdom, adapting them to their own experiences, beliefs, and sources of strength.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 409-415) and index.
About the Author
Charlotte D. Kasl is a social activist and a psychologist at the forefront of the empowerment movement sweeping the recovery field. She lectures and leads workshops in the United States and abroad and lives near Missoula, MT.