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Codependent ForevermoreReview - Codependent Forevermore
The Invention of Self in a Twelve Step Group
by Leslie Irvine
University of Chicago Press, 1999
Review by Kenneth A. Bryson Ph.D.
Jul 31st 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 31)

The book’s subtitle "The Invention of Self in a Twelve Step Group" is what first caught my eye. I am part of an interdisciplinary team at UCCB charged with the delivery of a course on chemical dependency. The reference to 12-Step group recovery comes up in several of the lectures, but I’m not convinced that codependency is an addiction, although the team has yet to agree on what addiction is. The DSM-IV does not include it as an addiction as Irvine notes (37), but then nor does it include 100 or so other kinds of conditions served by 12-Step self-help groups. For our part, we do not distinguish between chemical and behavioral addictions since they touch on a common pleasure area of the brain. What is Co-Dependency Anonymous (CoDA)? The literature describes it as being "a fellowship of men and women whose common problem is an inability to maintain functional relationships" (29). 12-Step groups operate on similar principles of admitting powerless over some substance or behavior, and turning control over to some higher power (which is not necessarily God). Members meet on a regular basis to discuss feelings. Recovery is gradual, but never complete. In CoDA, members relate a common history of dysfunctional relationships, typically a story of abuse. This creates a bond or fellowship between them. The goal is to gradually "reinvent self" or engage in healthy, loving relationships. According to Irvine, CoDA now counts 60,000 members (40).

The first question I brought to the book is who attends meetings? Divorce statistics suggest that bad relationships are rampant. The difference is that Program members have unmanageable relationships on an ongoing basis: "We admitted we were powerless over others–that our lives had become unmanageable" (Step One). But what if I’ve gone through a divorce and I only suspect my life might be unmanageable? The brain, after all, is not able to use its own bad wiring to recognize bad wiring. In this event, the Third Tradition kicks in: "The only requirement for membership in CoDA is a desire for healthy and loving relationships."

The second question I brought to the book is who is the "self" that is being reinvented? (The problem of personal identity.) Do relationships define me or do I define relationships? If the former, then, a change in relationships could redefine me. But new relationships will not help me in the second sense of the self as center of subjectivity. Most of us do not have a problem knowing who we are until pressed to identify what makes us who we are. Terms like "self", "subject", "ego", or "I" are elusive. I hoped Irvine would cast light on this problem. She suggests that two selves exist in Program. The first is the output of bad relationships. The second sense of self exists beyond relationships as an epistemic center of needs. Recovery entails the development of skills for taking care of self (146), although the process of recovery is never complete (151). Irvine does not say who the real self is, but my sense is that she opts for dualism: the wounded self arises out of the ashes of bad relationships while the protected self stands at a safe distance detached from relationships (100). The goal is to reclaim self number two.

What else does Irvine say about the wounded psyche? For the sake of brevity, the book can be subdivided into three main themes: The first is that Irvine’s CoDA characterizes a "good" story sequence as moving through a "five-part" chronology (51). The book details the process of "uncoupling" in the narratives of self; the role of "abusive" childhoods and the origins of codependency; hitting bottom; working the Program, and so on. In brief, what relationships were like, what happened, and what relationships are like now. The second is that CoDA (1995) is modeled on the original principles of Alcoholics Anonymous (1935). The third is the belief in the value of subjective truth or the possibility of viewing subjectivity from the objective (scientific) point of view. This theme includes an Appendix on ethical guidelines in research involving human subjects (167-184).

Irvine’s insight into the dilemma of subjectivity is solid. She reminds us that subjective assumptions always undergird objective research. The true nature of informed consent is not tested in the classroom, but at the level of operation in the field where it is seen to be relative to context. For instance, Irvine’s decision to join Program was a difficult one to make. Should she announce her research intentions and risk either being thrown out of Program (as happened), or negatively influencing discussion? Can authentic resonance and identification occur in the face of objective research? No. And this is the problem with obtaining reliable data on 12-Step groups. So, Irvine initially took the path of not disclosing her research interests. She provided a relationship story to qualify and no one knew the difference. How else could she proceed? I agree with her decision, but I also consulted CoDA material available on line.

The second point, however, (AA’s connection to CoDA) is not well made. In my opinion, Irvine’s interpretation of Alcoholics Anonymous is off the mark. This may be due to the fact that she relied more on second hand reporting (CoDA members) than on original research. I shall point out a few instances to make the point. The claim that AA does not focus on feelings or is "stuffy" when it comes to relationships (30) runs counter to the affective component of 12-Step meetings. CoDA and AA make use of identical Steps and Traditions, only the focus is different. Both make use of sponsorship (see the detail provided on sponsorship online at Newcomers Page). Yet Irvine says "Although CoDA does not prohibit sponsorship, I never encountered any evidence of it during my research. Several members I spoke with believe that sponsoring another could place you at risk ..." (31). CoDA’s own guidelines suggest that these individuals are not working the program. Irvine should have spotted this.

CoDA is a young movement. Is it helping anyone? Irvine’s narrative helps create the reality. The book is generally well researched and worth reading.


Kenneth Bryson is Professor of Philosophy at University College of Cape Breton, Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada. His latest book Persons and Immortality, (Amsterdam - Atlanta GA: Editions Rodopi B.V. VIBS volume number 77, 1999) is an examination of personal identity from the perspective of survival. It examines the question "how can that be me in the afterlife as disembodied soul". He has published several books and articles on death and dying.



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