Anne Wilson Schaef

For some time now I’ve been working on a post about psychologist Anne Wilson Schaef. (It’s still not finished, so you won’t be reading it today.) Her provocative book When Society Becomes an Addict argues (convincingly, I think) that hidden addictive patterns are rampant in our culture. According to Schaef, our “Addictive System” smothers and silences everyone outside the power matrix…unless, that is, they insist on having their voices heard.

It’s clear that writers – people like you and me – have an important role to play in this struggle. We can give a voice to feelings and ideas that the Addictive System doesn’t want to hear. But today I want to talk about Schaef and her work from another angle.

I’ve read a number of her books and listened to several of her tapes…with mixed feelings. I think she’s an insightful commentator about some of the problems our culture is facing. But I also think she’s too quick to put the “addiction” label on feelings that should be valued – even cherished. (Please note that I’m not referring to the very widespread and serious problem of people addicted to alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex, gambling, and so on.)

For example, Schaef has diagnosed herself as a”romance addict.” Yipes! I think most people are “addicted” to romance. Yearning for an attractive person you’ve just met is perfectly normal. Yes, it complicates life – but it also enriches it in countless ways. (I’ve written a free ebook called Impossible Love.) 

Another example: one of Schaef’s books quotes a woman who confesses that she’s “addicted” to music and uses it to change her moods. Good grief. Isn’t chasing after a feeling one of the best reasons ever for listening to music? And why would anyone not want to be “addicted” to music?

And there’s something else I find odd about Schaef. I think it hints at an issue that’s both interesting and important.

Schaef has led a long and productive life (she’s in her 80s now). Throughout her career she often moved from place to place. At one point she was working at a big hospital in New York City. Soon after that she moved to a rural setting…and so on.

It’s puzzling: for Schaef, one place seems to be just like another. She never mentions missing the vitality of New York – or (the opposite feeling) relief at finally getting away from the Big Apple’s noise and congestion. There’s no nostalgic looking back at a place she’s leaving, and no joyful anticipation about the next move. She just seems to pick herself up and move on.

I live – by choice – in a lovely Central Florida town, so I understand – sort of – why someone might not want to live in a huge metropolitan area. And of course I can understand why city dwellers love their lifestyle. (If it weren’t for the brutal winters in the Northeast, I’d still be living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.)

What I don’t understand is not caring about where you live.

Schaef strikes me as a person who isn’t grounded. Sometimes she sounds like the spiritual writers of old who preached detachment from everything – you weren’t even supposed to notice that you were hot, or cold, or in pain. You just kept trying to reach the next rung on the spiritual ladder.

Yet Schaef is still an engaging and insightful writer. There’s so much vitality crammed into her soul that she can’t completely turn it off. But what – I wonder – would her books and her tapes (and her life!) be like if she gave herself over to the mysteries within – started loving them instead of labeling them?

And that brings me back to the topic of a writer’s voice. What thoughts and feelings do you (and I) routinely try to turn off and get rid of? Is there untapped energy hidden somewhere in your soul (and mine) that’s waiting to be discovered? What truths are concealed inside our dreams,  jealousies, joys, and rages?

All of those questions can be starting points for finding your unique voice.


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