Powerlessness: Wendy Dossett

I was fascinated by Wendy Dossett’s interview with my colleague Wulf Livingston, in particular the discussions around the 12-Step Fellowship. Her research has provided some important insights into the 12-Step Fellowship. The film below follows on from an earlier one of Wendy’s that I have posted, The Nature of Addiction, where she describes acknowledging her own powerlessness over her addiction.

Wendy describes powerlessness as being a central concept in 12-step fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It is argued that if control of substance use is beyond your own willpower, then there has to be some other power that is going to bring about abstinence. For example, step 1 states ‘We admitted we were powerless over alcohol…’, whilst step 2 states ‘Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’

Wendy emphasises that we must remember that the 12 steps were written in America in the 1930s by white Christian men who came from quite pious backgrounds. For them, the Higher Power was indisputably God. However, early on in the development of AA, room was made for people to interpret Higher Power in any way that made sense to them. As a historian of spirituality and an ethnographer, Wendy has been very interested in how the language around the fellowships has changed over the past 80+ years. Today, there is a massive diversity in the way people interpret Higher Power.

Wulf points out that some people reject fellowships without trying them because they say they don’t want ‘to do that god-stuff’. Wendy can understand this, given the literature is still the formal language of the 1930s. However, if you listen to the voices of fellowship members you hear really creative ways they interpret that language, in ways that make sense for themselves. One common translation of GOD is Group Of Drunks. Former drunks being abstinent is a power that a newcomer can tap into. The power of example, the power of community, the power of friendship.

In Wendy’s research, only 25% of her fellowship participants described themselves as religious. Many people who stick around in the fellowships interpret Higher Power in secular ways. She points out that lots of ideas found in SMART Recovery, which presents itself as rational and scientific, ‘those very same mechanisms are working in this apparently religious or spiritual context’ of the 12-step fellowship. Dr. Wendy Dossett is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Chester, UK, and Director of the Chester Studies of Addiction, Recovery and Spirituality Group. 23 May 2023.