Book Review — “The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power”

LifeRing member Charles D. has written the following review of The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad. It’s an older book — 1993 — but still very relevant and available as both a paperback and an e-book. Here’s Charles’s review:

In the book Empowering Your Sober Self, Martin Nicholas, one of the founders of LifeRing Secular Recovery writes about a divided self causing addictive behavior. One part of the person is called the addictive self and the other part, the sober self. In his view, an addicted person “chooses” to allow the addicted self to have free reign over one’s life and decision making. The addicted self then chooses people and situations that reinforce its power. The road to recovery is then presented as deciding to let the sober self run the show and doing things and associating with people that will reinforce the strength of the sober self and extinguish the addictive self.

Authors Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, in their book, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power published in 1993, argued that there is a divided self that explains addictive behavior, but in their paradigm, it is the divide itself that is responsible for the loss of control, and it is through the integration of the two selves that true recovery takes place.

The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power is a book with a wide scope, looking into how authoritarian structures in human society affect both society and the individual. The rest of the book may be of interest to LifeRing members because the majority of the book tries to deal with authoritarian mind control cults, one of which is Alcoholics Anonymous. They define as authoritarian any situation where one must accept the proposition “we know better than you what is good for you” either in the form of beliefs or rules or an authority figure and under which questioning is not allowed or punished. LifeRing’s decidedly un-authoritarian approach to recovery literally makes it the ultimate Un-Cult, but the better the membership understands how authoritarianism can subtly affect structures created by human beings, the better, IMO.

On the other hand, one of the chapters in the book that should be of great interest to anyone who is trying to solve the riddle of addiction is titled Who Is in Control? The Authoritarian Roots of Addiction. It is in this chapter that Kramer and Alstad attempt to explain the root causes of addictive behavior, whether to substances or activities such as eating, gambling, sex and many other behaviors not commonly thought of as addictions. The basis of their premise is that the individual internalizes an unreachable ideal self which the authors call the “goodself” and the opposite of that called the “badself” which the individual creates because of being unable to attain the unattainable. This “badself” uses addictive behavior to “knock out” or incapacitate the “goodself” so the “badself” is free to express itself in ways it normally can’t. As they say in their book, “Feeling out of control really means the goodself is not in control, but instead an unacceptable part of oneself is.”

The authors admit that the notion of a divided psyche is not new or their creation. They cite not only Freud and Jung but also historical sources such as Christianity and Buddhism. Kramer and Alstad are adding something different because they believe that it is the demonizing or devaluing of the “badself” and over valuing the “goodself” that results in the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of addiction and many other human problems.

For instance, our “goodself” may be punctual, orderly, organized and popular with authority figures, but our “badself” may be creative, loyal and democratic.  It is because our culture and its authoritarian roots overvalues the “goodself” and it’s librarian like qualities that we need to indulge in the guilty pleasure of the “badself” in the form of drugs, sex and rock and roll. In the process of recovery, therefore, the aim ought to be not the suppression of the “badself” or the glorification of the “goodself”, but rather integration of the two. We can learn that some of the qualities we may find unacceptable in ourselves, such as being judgmental, uncompassionate and hypocritical may come from the “goodself” and that some of the qualities we admire in ourselves come from the “badself”, such as being fun loving, being brave and thinking outside the box. Kramer and Alstad have written a thought provoking book which gives a more nuanced view of the divided self in addiction.


  1. JeffK on December 17, 2012 at 8:12 am

    Interesting, I also found that reintegrating my own addicted self, my “reptile”, was a key stage of my own recovery. It wasn’t an event, it was a process that I became increasingly aware of the need for, and it didn’t really start for me until a year in, maybe it’s not done yet two years in, but reabsorbing the part of myself that was in control for so long was what allowed me to find peace and stability in recovery.

  2. Vince on December 11, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    I haven’t read this book, yet, but after reading that introduction I hope to very soon. Sounds really interesting. Hoping to get my hands on a copy soon. Thanks for your input here.