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THE TWELVE STEP CONTROVERSY
Charlotte Davis Kasl
addiction, codependency, incest, compulsive eating, sex,
gambling, and shopping - multitudes of people are using
12-step programs modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
to recover from these problems. But beneath the surface
of this massive movement, women are asking, is this really
good for women? While female dissatisfaction with AA is
not new (Jean Kirkpatrick founded Women for Sobriety in
1976), widespread questioning of these programs has only
In workshops and group interviews, women repeatedly expressed
fear about opening up the sacrosanct 12-step institution
to scrutiny: "I'm afraid if we talk about this I'll
lose something that helped me," or "I questioned
the steps in my training program and they said I'd have
to leave if I kept that up."
who question "the program," as it's often called,
have been shamed, called resistant, and threatened with
abandonment. They have been trained to believe that male
models of nearly everything are better than whatever they
might create for themselves.
Some women are grateful for what 12-step programs have given
them: a generally available peer model providing support
and understanding at no cost. Yet no one way works for everyone.
The steps were formulated by a white, middle-class male
in the 1930s; not surprisingly, they work to break down
an overinflated ego, and put reliance on an all-powerful
male God. But most women suffer from the lack of a healthy,
aware ego, and need to strengthen their sense of self by
affirming their own inner wisdom.
Research strongly suggests that alcohol addiction has links
to genetic predisposition. A vital point that seems overlooked
in AA is that in the case of nearly all substance abuse,
the brain chemistry and the body ecology need extensive
healing in order to prevent the protracted withdrawal syndrome
of depression, anxiety, volatile emotions, and obsessive
thinking that can last for years. Too often women endlessly
attend groups, have psychotherapy, or take antidepressants
when their emotions are actually being influenced by a chemical
imbalance that could be helped by proper nutrition and exercise.
Other addictions and codependency (as well as the will to
recover), are influenced by cultural oppression, which includes
poverty, battering, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Treatment
programs need to incorporate understanding - and advocacy
- regarding these concerns.
As a psychologist and former member of 12-step programs,
I have encouraged women to write steps that resonate with
their own inner selves, putting the focus on self- empowerment.
Here are the 12 steps (as published by AA World Services)
followed by a critique and by some possible empowerment
"We admitted we were powerless over [our addiction]-that
our lives had become unmanageable." The purpose of
this step is to crack through denial or an inflated ego
and acknowledge a destructive problem. It can be helpful
to say "I am powerless to change my partner,"
but many women abuse chemicals or stay in harmful relationships
because they feel powerless in their lives. Thus, many women
prefer to affirm that they have the power to choose not
to use chemicals or have dependent relationships. So, alternatively:
acknowledge we were out of control with but have the power
to take charge of our lives and stop being dependent on
others for our self-esteem and security.
. "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves
could restore us to sanity." I believe that spiritual
power is neither higher nor lower but all pervasive. I would
replace the passivity implied in this step - that something
external will magically restore us to sanity - with "affirmative
action"; I came to believe that the Universe/Goddess/
Great Spirit would awaken the healing wisdom within me if
I opened myself to that power.
"Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over
to the care of God as we understood Him."
conjures up images of women passively submitting their lives
to male doctors, teachers, ministers, often with devastating
consequences. Instead: I declared myself willing to
tune into my inner wisdom, to listen and act based upon
following steps are grouped together here because they all
ask women to focus on negative aspects of themselves:
4 . "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory
5 . "Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another
human being the exact nature of our wrongs."
. "Were entirely ready to have God remove all these
defects of character."
7. "Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings."
. "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became
willing to make amends to them all."
9. "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible,
except when to do so would injure them or others."
(All emphasis mine.)
We women need to make a searching and fearless inventory
of how the culture has mired us down with guilt and shame,
recognizing how hierarchy has harmed us, and how we have
been complicit in harming ourselves - and only then look
at how we have harmed others.
examined our behavior and beliefs in the context of living
in a hierarchal, male-dominated culture.
We shared with others the ways we have been harmed, harmed
ourselves and others, striving to forgive ourselves and
to change our behavior.
We admitted to our talents, strengths, and accomplishments,
agreeing not to hide these qualities to protect others'
We became willing to let go of our shame, guilt, and other
behavior that prevents us from taking control of our lives
and loving ourselves.
We took steps to clear out all negative feelings between
us and other people by sharing grievances in a respectful
way and making amends when appropriate.
"Continued to take personal inventory and when we were
wrong promptly admitted it." As one woman said in a
group, "Admit that I'm wrong? I say that I'm wrong
for breathing air. I need to say that I'm right for a change."
to trust my reality, and when I was right promptly admitted
it and refused to back down. We do not take responsibility
for, analyze, or cover up the shortcomings of others.
"Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our
conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying
only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry
that out." Instead of looking to an external power,
women need to reach inside and ask, What do I believe, what
feels right to me? For example: Sought through meditation
and inner awareness the ability to listen to our inward
calling and gain the will and wisdom to follow it.
"Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of
these steps, we tried to carry this message to [others],
and to practice these principles in all our affairs."
The desire to reach out to others is a natural step that
comes with healing, but women need to remember to first
care for and love themselves and then to give from choice,
not from guilt, emptiness, or to prevent abandonment.
important is that we not identify ourselves with such labels
as codependent or addict, or get stuck in chronic recovery
as if we were constantly in need of fixing.
The goal is to heal and move on, embrace life's ups and
downs, and move from recovery to discovery. Then we can
break through the limitation imposed by hierarchy, work
together for a just society, and free our capacity for courage,
joy, power, and love.
Ms., November/December 1990)