Nancy was 10 minutes into her weekly codependency group before she realized she was at the wrong meeting. Instead of a group for people with eating disorders, the 42-year-old writer for public television in New York was surrounded by adults who were habitually messy.
"I got there late, and evidently they had changed rooms," she said. "What was upsetting was that there were several other people from my eating group, but they hadn't noticed either, because the vocabulary was the same."
Before long, Nancy, who did not want her real name used, decided she had had enough of "sharing her experiences" with other adults "in recovery." In the process, she found herself part of an emerging backlash to the recovery, codependency and adult-child movements that swept this country in the 1980s.
The notion that scars etched deep in childhood resurface as negative behavior in adults is under attack from a number of directions. Critics blast "recovery" and "codependency" as code for self-absorption. They say the recovery movement has failed to make a distinction between understanding inappropriate behavior, and excusing it. They say that labeling problems as diseases reduces the importance of personal responsibility.
But critics save their strongest ammunition for "dysfunctional family," a term they say is overused to the point of parody. Or as Wellesley, Mass., family therapist Michael Elkin put it: "When politicians use it, you know the phrase has become truly bankrupt."
More significantly, opponents say, no family could measure up to the abstract ideal of perfection expected by the recovery and codependency movements.
"People have been wearing codependency like merit badges in Boy Scouts," said Washington psychiatrist Dr. Edward Beal. "The truth is, everyone is codependent in some way."
Charles Sykes, author of "A Nation of Victims," said the chorus of powerlessness over one's problems has become so shrill that "if Walt Whitman were to come back to America in the 20th century, he wouldn't hear America singing. He would hear America whining."
But the criticism goes beyond bashing. At the recent meetings of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists in Miami Beach, Fla., Michele Weiner-Davis offered what she called "solution-oriented brief family therapy," which concentrates on present solutions instead of past traumas.
At the same conference, the Washington psychiatrist and psychologist team of Steven J. and Sybil Wolin introduced the concept of "resiliency therapy" -- focusing on how survivors of troubled families overcome their pain by building on their strengths.
"Our model is an attempt to provide balance," Steven Wolin explained. "To say, yes, there has been damage, but that you can develop strengths you might not have had, had you not gone through the caldron."
Although they are forceful in arguing against what they call the "damage model" of the recovery movement, the Wolins are nevertheless diplomatic in their assessment.
"I think the adult-child movement needs to move toward a vocabulary of strengths," said Steven Wolin. "I think you preserve the 'victim's trap' by preserving the sense of the adult child."
Atlanta psychiatrist Dr. Frank Pittman is more blunt. Writing in theAmerican Family Therapy Networker, a professional journal, Dr. Pittman asserted that "the adult child movement, by declaring practically everyone to be a victim of imperfect parenting and therefore eligible for lifelong, self-absorbed irresponsibility, has trivialized real suffering and made psychic invalids of those who once had a bad day."
To illustrate the excesses of the recovery movement, journalist Charles Sykes begins "A Nation of Victims" with a story about "a guy who lost his job because he could never get to work on time." The man sued, arguing that he was "handicapped by chronic lateness syndrome" -- and won.
"It's as if we, as a nation, have developed an allergy to dealing with rather old-fashioned notions like personal responsibility," Mr. Sykes said. "But you bring this up, and people look at you like you've been beamed in from the 19th century."
The evolution -- or mutation -- of the recovery and adult-child movement has given pause to one of its pioneers, Jane Middelton-Moz. The lecturer and best-selling author, who is based in Montpelier, Vt., observed that one recent book about adult children "identifies 254 symptoms of codependency" -- one of which, she dryly noted, "is that you think before you speak."
While stressing that "thousands of people have been helped by the movement" that she has espoused, Ms. Middelton-Moz said codependency "has proliferated too far," allowing its devotees to project responsibility away from themselves and to engage in unnecessary blaming.
"If you remain in a dynamic of defining yourself as damaged, you nTC haven't recovered," she said.
Along those lines, the recovery-oriented magazine Changes, which used to carry the notation on the cover "For and About Adult Children," this year changed the line to "The Magazine for Personal Growth,"associate editor Andrew Meacham said.
He said the change was made "to reflect a broader audience and move out of that insular us-vs.-them isolationism that perhaps has been a problem with the recovery movement." The magazine, which was founded in 1986, now covers "more things about intimate relationships -- not just with your parents -- managing money, fitness and health, self-esteem and spirituality," he said. "They're all recovery concerns but we're trying to take them into the direction of moving back into the mainstream."
But Ms. Middleton-Moz objects to outright bashing of the movement. She cited Wendy Kaminer's recent book "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional" -- whose very title expresses Ms. Kaminer's contempt for the recovery movement -- as an example of criticism that fails to offer solutions.
"What I'm saying is let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater," Ms. Middelton-Moz said.
At the barest minimum, she continued, the national obsession with the woes of childhood has brought public awareness to certain long-avoided topics.
"Now at least there are people talking about sexual abuse and alcoholism and addiction," she said.
The widespread use of the term "adult children" makes Dr. Stanton Peele, a New Jersey psychologist and health care researcher who is the author of "The Diseasing of America," breathe fire.
"They're all at these meetings, complaining about how they were treated as children," Dr. Peele said. "Meanwhile, their kids are at home. You wonder what groups they're going to go to when they grow up."
"There's a lot of pop psychology coming out, and that concerns me," says Ronald L. Rogers, clinical director of the Avery Road Treatment Center in Montgomery County and co-author of seven books on addiction and recovery. "There are a lot of charismatic leaders in the field who take very old, outdated ideas in the field -- such as old Freudian repressed experiences -- and give them new names . . ."
He's also concerned that "a lot of these addiction-treatment programs treat everything but the addiction. I visit a lot of them in my work and they may treat legal problems, or family problems, or hidden, repressed problems, when in fact the person has an honest-to-God, life-threatening disease [such as alcoholism]. When you're drinking two fifths of vodka a day and have cirrhosis of the liver, it may not be very relevant to know that your father molested you as a child."
Until recently, the recovery, adult-child and codependency movements held such sway that many mental health professionals were loath to criticize it. Dr. Stan J. Katz said his book "The Co-Dependency Conspiracy" (written with Aimee E. Liu) "came under a tremendous amount of attack" when it was published in 1991.
"They didn't want a book that said the emperor was wearing no clothes," said Dr. Katz, a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, Calif. "They wanted a book that said, 'I am not at fault, so I can blame someone else' for whatever is wrong."
The Wolins, among others, are hoping that alternatives to the practice of identifying with disease and defect will take hold.
"People are going to realize that to get better, you just have to change," Sybil Wolin said. "Even logically, it's hard to understand how reciting your damages is going to help."
Successful survivors, said Steven Wolin, "take pride in measuring their own strengths. They know there is no magical umbrella that enables them to walk through life's raindrops without occasionally getting wet."