BOOK REVIEW : Dysfunctional Look at Recovery Crusade : I’M DYSFUNCTIONAL, YOU’RE DYSFUNCTIONAL: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions; <i> by Wendy Kaminer</i> , Addison-Wesley $18.95, 192 pages
Don’t be fooled by the modest dimensions and the hyper-cute title of “I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional.”
It may appear to be a slender volume of satire, a non-book, but Wendy Kaminer’s tract is actually a tough-minded, acid-tongued and relentlessly sarcastic hit piece on the so-called recovery movement.
“We are a nation of sexaholics, rageholics, shopaholics, and rush-aholics,” Kaminer complains. “What were once billed as bad habits . . . are now considered addictions, or reactions to the addictions of others, or both.”
Kaminer, a lawyer and a journalist, is quick to reassure us that she is not “a recovering alcoholic, overeater, drug abuser, shopper or support group junkie,” and she approaches her subject with the distaste and detachment of a music critic being forced to sit through a bad opera.
“On the basis of research and reflection, not experience,” she explains, “I’m writing counter to the Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-step tradition currently in vogue.”
Kaminer is proud to proclaim her non-expertise, which she seems to regard as a kind of credential in itself: “You don’t have to be a therapist, MD, or any other certifiable expert in drug and alcohol abuse and other bad behaviors,” she insists, “to wonder about a society in which people are so eager to call themselves addicted and abused.”
And so Kaminer wonders out loud and at length about the “religiosity” of 12-step groups that call on the intervention of a “higher power,” the “cloyingly positive messages” of various recovery gurus, the “weird New Age babble of bliss-speak and techno-talk” and the media excesses of confessional television programs like “Oprah” and “Donahue”: “Voyeurs collaborating with exhibitionists in rituals of sham community.”
Kaminer may be accurate enough in her self-described “indictment” of the recovery movement, but she cannot seem to resist the impulse to offer up an arch and condescending judgment on the frailties of human nature: “Listening to 35-year-olds complain that they have never been understood by their parents,” she cracks, “I find myself thinking about the Kurds.”
The author is certainly capable of sound research and illuminating analysis. Amid the ball-and-chain irony and the barbed put-downs, she has something interesting to say about the origins and function of the self-help movement in American culture, and she points out the intriguing continuities that link Ben Franklin, Mary Baker Eddy, Norman Vincent Peale, Abraham Maslow, Werner Erhard, Joyce Brothers, Shirley MacLaine and John Bradshaw, among many others, in an unlikely constellation of self-help luminaries.
The values that Kaminer brings to her critique are worthy of praise, too. She is politically engaged, ethically alert and quick to question how the essential message of the recovery movement affects a democratic society:
“What are the political implications of a mass movement that counsels surrender of will and submission to a higher power describing almost everyone as hapless victims of familial abuse?” she insists on asking. “What are the implications of a tradition that tells us all problems can be readily solved in a few simple steps?”
Still, the author is so arrogant, so brutal and so cutting that Kaminer sometimes sabotages her own earnest arguments. And she so often qualifies or apologizes for what she has written (“It’s not that all positive thinkers are Stalinists or Nazis . . .”) that I began to wonder if her own editors didn’t ask her to lighten up a bit.
Kaminer complains that the recovery movement is “niggardly and mean-spirited.” The same, I’m afraid, can be said of “I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional,” which discounts and dismisses the real human suffering that has prompted the very excesses that she gripes about. To the reader in pain, I’m afraid, the author has nothing to say except: “Buck up--and shut up.”