Alice Miller & The 12 Steps

This continues The Healing Voices Series on Alice Miller: Icon & Ideas

One of the most dynamic social trends which embraced the ideas found in The Drama of the Gifted Child and all other Alice Miller books was the surging membership in 12 Step programs. The lessons these programs offered the development of abuse and trauma recovery therapists are countless. They changed book publishing and media–and the zeitgeist. It’s worth taking a look at the programs in some detail.

The primary 12 Step program was Alcoholics Anonymous. AA had been founded in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith. After a few years of success, the founders and other AA members formalized their program of fellowship as a book called Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism. This book is known as The Big Book. As members and meetings grew, AA ironed out a loose program for self-governance. Peer support groups managed themselves, without a professional or trained facilitator. This, along with their spirituality, made AA groups distinct from therapeutic groups. The idea of self-governing people in any kind of therapeutic setting was radical then and, to this day, remains controversial for many schools of psychology.

By the 1960s, the public was astonished by AA’s results. Alcoholics, who had been diagnosed by experts as hopeless and doomed to die, were recovering against all odds. Attendance at 12 Step meetings surged. The variety of groups grew to focus on different addictions and compulsions, e.g., narcotics, debt, sexual additions, compulsive eating habits, and incest survivors. For every member of one of these groups, there were multiple loved ones who were welcome to attend a 12 Step program for families.

In every group, the process of recovery created seekers, and seekers were voracious readers. Friendships within the groups centered around self-reflection and ideas found in a common litany of book titles. This meant one thing. The 12 Step as a book market was huge. Sales were astronomical by the late 1980s.

The surge in 12 Step program members converged with other trends, i.e., growing numbers of patients involved in therapy or self-improvement. For example, 12 Step members began to seek therapy in addition to meeting attendance. Therapists freely recommended addicts and family members of addicts join a 12 Step program in addition to therapy sessions. The synergy between meetings and therapy was obvious when, not longer medicating or burying trauma memories in an addiction, patients needed to process past abuse. The free flow of members into short-term therapy, often covered by insurance, was steady. Patients also took some ideas, including Miller’s ideas, from therapy back to their meetings.

Book publishing wasn’t the only media transformed by these trends. Remember how Miller’s book could not find friendly press and was considered dead in the water on publication? Professional publications and news picked up on culture shift and started covering the ideas in Miller’s book, The Drama of the Gifted Child. Reviewers clamored for new Miller publications. New lines of research into her clinical themes kicked off a flood of articles. General media was learning and popularizing the ideas and themes in trends like self-help and compulsion fellowships, and their revered litany of literature, which included Miller’s book.

In the middle of this 1980s sea change, The Oprah Winfrey Show launched what would become Oprah’s award-winning 25-year show. Her book club and on-air discussions made ideas and language in these books, including the view of the negative impact of families of origin, everyday notions in homes across the country. Oprah’s book club energized all the readers in self-help, therapy, and 12 Steps. Early in her winning programming, Winfrey recreated settings similar to group therapy or peer-support session. Storytelling, at its most confessional and evocative, became mainstream.[1] The willingness to share personal revelation in the search for meaning became a common bond for members of a national audience. While Miller was not the sole mover of the zeitgeist, any more than Winfrey was, Miller was one of the first (if not the first) who popularized the notions that became foundational in this convergence of factors that made her ideas so appealing.

Curious about 12 Step programs? You can find information lines and websites on our Hotline & Helpline List.


[1] Wikipedia contributors. (2020, August 24). The Oprah Winfrey Show. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 01:37, September 7, 2020, from

If you found this helpful, you might like a weekly roundup of posts delivered to your mailbox. Subscribe for free here.