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CATHOLIC REPORTER, Vol. 38: 25, January 21, 1994
- Step Programs Work for Many, Not All
backlash has arisen in recent years against the Twelve Step
programs originated by Alcoholics Anonymous. The critics
of Twelve Step programs deserve a hearing, contends Ernest
Kurtz, a historian who has been researching A.A. for 20
who has written The Spirituality of Imperfection, among
other books, says he respects A.A.'s 60 years of "helping
more people than anything else." He agrees with A.A.
founder Bill Wilson's advice long ago to A.A. members: Do
not fear making mistakes but "confess our faults and
correct them promptly."
objections, Kurtz told NCR, is that Twelve Step programs
manifest spirituality or religion and thus may not help
individuals who do not accept spirituality or religion.
charge is that A.A. is useless to oppressed blacks, American
Indians and others because it is a "self-help"
rather than professionally assisted organization. These
oppressed people see it "as a Reaganesque, pick-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps"
approach, Kurtz said, and that route has proven useless
in their experiences.
said he'd learned a long time ago that A.A. "does not
need me" to defend it. The organization has more than
one million members in the United States and almost two
million worldwide, according to 1992 figures by the A.A.
World Service Office.
tries to help others understand what is valid and what is
a problem with Twelve Step programs. Recently he did so
at Seattle University during a program honoring Fr. James
Royce, professor emeritus of addiction studies and psychology.
explained, for instance, that minorities and other oppressed
peoples need not fear any A.A. "bootstrap" philosophy
because that was an inaccurate caricature. Twelve Step groups
"do not expect people to be captains of their souls
and masters of their fates," he said. He reminds critics
that A.A. never said it could help everybody.
think the main thing that's going on right now is a tendency
to confuse spirituality and therapy," such as that
offered in chemical-dependency treatment centers, Kurtz
said, and that most addicts probably need both.
is not therapy. A.A. is not religion," he said. Rather
it offers "this amorphous thing" called spirituality,
a quality "that when we see it in others, we want some
of that." A truly spiritual Twelve Step program can
be identified, he said, by these qualities: Humor and laughter
characterized its meetings; its participants do not wallow
in moans and hugs.
differentiate between spirituality and therapy, Kurtz quotes
former Czech leader Vaclav Havel: "People need understanding
more than they want explanation." Therapy tends to
explain the past, spirituality to promote understanding,
he said, and spirituality encourages the addict to "embrace
the present," whatever caused his or her problems.
recovering alcoholics reject A.A.'s spirituality because
they have been alienated by fledgling A.A. members who gush
with enthusiasm about something they have found meaningful,
said Kurtz. Yet other A.A. members, he said, "when
they first came around, said they didn't have any use for
spirituality," only to discover as they tried the program
that it worked for them.
said A.A. members included people who "seem to find
their religion in it." Among these are people who have
been wounded by institutional religion. But about half of
A.A. members return to a religious affiliation they had
previously experienced, he said, and they bring depth and
maturity to their renewed participation.
charges against A.A. come from psychologists and social
workers who - with some exceptions - base their objections
on hearsay or on limited, superficial contact with Twelve
Step groups, he said.
tells A.A. members to invite such critics to meetings, and
recommends these critics judge Twelve Step groups on their
own terms - the original framework augmented by patterns
and consistent themes that subsequently evolved.
valid objection, Kurtz finds, is that marketers prey on
the vulnerability of Twelve Step group members to sell them
self-help books, tapes, T-shirts, teddy bears and such.
As a Catholic who believes in sacramentals, Kurtz said,
he thinks such items can be useful in moderation. However,
the continual pursuit of yet another workshop, yet another
book, can be as much an addiction as sex, booze or gambling.
is "the ultimate addiction," he told NCR, and
like other addictions it leaves people unfulfilled. Quoting
a speaker, Kurtz said: "We are made with a Cod-shaped
hole in the middle of our being. No matter what else we
try to fill it with," nothing but Cod works.