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NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER, Vol. 38: 25, January 21, 1994

12 - Step Programs Work for Many, Not All
By Dawn Gibeau

A 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 years.

Kurtz, 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."

Among 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.

Another 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.

Kurtz 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.

Kurtz 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.

He 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.

"I 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.

"A.A. 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.

To 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.

some 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.

Kurtz 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.

Many 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.

He 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.

One 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.

Materialism 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.

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