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June 3, 2001 - Therapeutic Language - 2002-02-05

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster, you'll meet an English professor in Texas who thinks Americans have gotten into a bad relationship with the language of what she calls the "therapeutic self-help movement."

RS: These days troubled families are diagnosed by popular culture as "dysfunctional" or "toxic." People with troubles are told to "let it go," to give their will over to a higher power in a spiritual quest for "recovery" and "healing." The idea of a "twelve-step" recovery program originated decades ago with Acoholics Anonymous and its Al-Anon support group for family and friends so-called "co-dependents." But today you can even find twelve-step weight-loss programs!

AA: Trysh Travis at Southern Methodist University in Dallas says terms that sound clinical may reflect little more than personal opinion. A few years ago, she began to notice her students applying therapeutic jargon to literary analysis … even of works like Shakespeare's "Hamlet."


RS: "How do you react when you see them in your student's papers, when you see words like 'dysfunctional' or 'toxic family' or 'co-dependent.'"

TRAVIS: "What I try to tell them is that those terms may work really well to describe their own lives and to describe the world that we live in now, but you can't look back at Hamlet's family -- written in England circa sixteen-hundred, existing in Denmark some time even earlier in the modern era -- and say that Hamlet and Claudius and Gertrude are dysfunctional.

Because the kind of family structure that we think of as functional -- and dysfunctional -- didn't exist until the mid-nineteenth century."

AA: "I know in the past this kind of language has been criticized for representing a 'culture of victimization.' Is that what the students are revealing in their writing is a sense of whatever is going on in the story, it's still a story of victimization of one or another, or in their own family, in their own life?"

TRAVIS: "That's a really interesting question. In original AA and Al-Anon culture, and in the official publications of those groups today, there is a real emphasis away from the victim role, a real push towards members to take responsibility for their own actions, to acknowledge what they have done and to make their wrongs right with the people that they have hurt.

What's changed as this theory has moved out into popular culture is that somehow the opposite has happened and you're exactly right that these terms have become associated with a sense of victimization: 'My horrible parents, they've done this to me'; 'My terrible abusive partner has done this to me.' And that's one of things that critics of this therapeutic movement have really reacted strongly against."

RS: "When you see these words in the compositions or the writing of your students, do you think they're using them basically as crutches and do you have them look for other words -- I mean, how do you remedy this?"

TRAVIS: "I can only do so much as a teacher. My main plan is to get them to try to understand that these words are historically specific ways of understanding human suffering, that they are not universal, timeless and true, in the way they would like to believe them. And then I try to push them -- yes, I try to push them further to get a more complicated understanding of things. For instance, if they want to believe that a character in a Toni Morrison novel is a victim of the cruel family around her, they need to go past that idea of the dysfunctional family to think about the fact that this is a family that exists within a racist culture, this is a family that exists at the edge of poverty. But as I said, they don't like it when I push them to do that and they tend to be very reluctant to think that hard."

RS: "Because some of these words are very much a cliche."

AA: "They're trendy."

TRAVIS: "They are, they're extremely trendy and like most sort of cliches, they are useful and popular because they allow you to stop thinking before it becomes uncomfortable. And that's exactly what I see my role as a teacher to fight against, is to push you to think past the point of comfort, into the realm of discomfort, which is where actual progress and thinking really happen."

AA: "Where you'll create functioning students."

TRAVIS: "(laughs) I would like to think that."

RS: Trysh Travis, an assistant professor of English at Southern Methodist University. She's taking next year off to write a book. The topic? How the twelve-step recovery movement has moved into popular culture.

AA: That's Wordmaster for this week. Write us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington, D-C two-zero-two-three-seven USA or send e-mail to With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Product of Dysfunction"/5 Chinese Brothers