From Adult Child to the True Self: How the ACA Red Book Creates a New Identity for Trauma Survivors
Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families, or ACA, meetings are held weekly all over the Wasatch Valley. ACA is a Twelve Step program designed to help members recover from childhood trauma. The program website explains, “The only requirement for membership in ACA is a desire to recover from the effects of growing up in an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family” (2015). If you were to visit a meeting, you would find individuals from all walks of life gathered in a circle in a rented room, each of them holding a red book in their hands. The ACA Red Book is a text written collaboratively by the ACA community to meet the specific needs of those struggling from the effects of unresolved trauma. According to the ACA Red Book,
We believe this book represents the most complete description of the ACA experience from our fellowship view. … With this book, we hope to begin a discussion on the greater meaning of ACA recovery. We believe this discussion will lead to new levels of clarity for adult children. (2006, p. ix)
Using rhetorical analysis, research, and participant interviews, this case study aims to answer the question: In what ways does the ACA Red Book support recovery in the trauma community? This study found the ACA Red book supports recovery through the formation of a new, healthy identity, the “True Self.” The True Self is created by identification with the problem and the solution, acquisition of new skills and language by working the Twelve Steps, and a sense of belonging and community through attendance of weekly meetings.
IDENTIFICATION WITH THE PROBLEM AND THE SOLUTION
Many participants come to the ACA program because they feel that something important is missing in their lives. They are struggling with relationships, work, addiction, and other issues. The participants who were interviewed described unhealthy, repetitive patterns which they felt powerless to stop. One piece of writing in the ACA Red Book helps these individuals identify what the issues and patterns are: The Laundry List. The Laundry List is a collection of 14 identifiable traits that most trauma survivors relate to—for example, becoming isolated and afraid of people and judging yourself harshly. The ACA Red Book states, “Adult children of all types identify with one another at the level of abandonment, shame, and abuse like no other group of people in the world.” The Red book adds, “The proof of identification and ACA unity can be found in ACA meetings and the immediate identification created by the reading of the Laundry List, a list of identifiable traits.” The identification with “the Laundry List is the glue that holds together our fellowship and its membership” (2006, p. xiv). The Laundry List helps participants name and understand their issues and shows these issues to be the effects of living in a dysfunctional home.
In the ACA program, the identity that is created by living the 14 dysfunctional traits is called the “adult child.” During meetings, participants are encouraged to claim the identity of the “adult child” by introducing themselves in the following format: “Hi, my name is (first name), and I am an adult child.” Once that identity is claimed, the ACA Red Book encourages the participant to work the Twelve Steps to arrive at their true identity, the True Self. The identity of the True Self is outlined in the ACA Red Book through the ACA Promises and includes learning to set healthy boundaries, cultivating self-acceptance, and choosing to love responsible people. According to the ACA Red Book,
This book will present the structure of the program beginning with The Laundry List, the 14 characteristics that define the traits from which we need to heal. … Ultimately, this text delineates the foundation of how the Twelve Steps offer an incredible path that will give the adult child choices, versus living a generational script. (2006, p. xix)
LANGUAGE AND SKILLS ACQUISITION THROUGH THE TWELVE STEPS
A large portion of the ACA Red Book is dedicated to a detailed outline of the ACA Twelve Steps. The Twelve Steps is a program of recovery adopted from Alcoholics Anonymous. Steps in the program encourage participants to admit their lives are unmanageable, believe in a Power greater than themselves, inventory their lives, and make amends, as well as other actions. When the ACA Red Book was written, the ACA community tailored the Twelve Steps to meet their specific needs. The ACA Red Book states, “While ACA is similar to other Twelve Step programs, our emphasis on the family system and the Inner Child or True Self sets ACA apart from all other fellowships” (2006, p. xiv). The goal of the ACA Twelve Steps is to help the participant arrive at their new identity, the True Self. Throughout the text, members are encouraged to begin working the Steps as soon as possible. Each of the ACA Twelve Steps provides readings, questions, and activities to challenge participants to reflect on family dynamics and roles, evaluate their own behavior, and discover new ways of healthy living. According to the interviewed group members, the family tree exercise found in Step One was incredibly insightful. Readers are asked to draw a family tree and map the roles and relationships of the members of their families. This exercise helps participants understand the extent of the issues and the generational nature of trauma. Collectively the Steps help the participant understand how the identity of the “adult child” was formed and offers tools and actions for transformation into the True Self.
Group members also reflect on how the ACA Twelve Steps provide a vocabulary and language for their life experiences and healing. The words in the Red Book help participants name and label the issues they struggle with. The text provides phrases and vocabularies that build a language of recovery and healing. Some participants shared that there was a learning curve to the acquisition of the language, but that acquiring the language was important to their recovery. One participant stated,
In Chapter 8, there is a review of key terms that caught my attention, but it took a long time to understand: inner child, false self, loving parent or reparenting, critical parent. I returned to this page over and over and over, and it took a long time to understand them. Now I have them and will never lose them.
This participant share demonstrates the power in the recovery language in building a new identity. The new identity is formed by understanding and using the new language. The action of working the Steps and speaking the language of recovery all happen within the atmosphere and support of the ACA community and its members.
SENSE OF COMMUNITY AND BELONGING THROUGH WEEKLY MEETINGS
The ACA Red Book emphasizes, “The primary purpose of ACA is to create a safe setting in which adults who grew up in dysfunctional homes can feel safe and find a way to share their stories with others in a meaningful manner” (2006, p. xvi). The Red Book points out repeatedly the importance of attending meetings and developing relationships with other group members. Participants are reminded, “You cannot heal in isolation.” Community and a sense of belonging are imperative to the formation of the new identity, the True Self. Within the meetings, participants can experience the power of the collective identity, being a part of a group that shares a common experience and intention to heal. A group member shares in the Red Book, “The descriptions can vary among people sitting in ACA meetings listening to the stories of others impacted by chronic loss and abandonment in their growing up years.” She goes on,
Yet, the commonality of the adult child experience overrides any sense of separateness. … The experiences of growing up with loss and abandonment were universal. The healing that would come with having witnesses to one’s pain and an avenue in which to find choice in the present day was exhilarating. (2006, pp. xx-xxi)
Through meetings, participants can practice living in a new identity by sharing, listening, and writing about their common experience and their actions to improve.
The ACA Red Book creates these collective healing spaces by functioning as a handbook for how to start and maintain a weekly meeting. An entire section is dedicated to the details of ACA meetings, including “Sample Meeting Formats” and “Group Organization/Procedures,” which lays out the steps participants can take to get a meeting started. During an ACA meeting, a portion of the time is allotted to reading the ACA Red Book aloud, then members share experiences related to the readings. The text of the Red Book is at the center of discussion within the community, driving personal action and social involvement. In the meetings, the participants share how the literature and program are helping create a new identity. According to the Red Book,
The ACA meeting might focus on reading and discussing ACA literature or a recovery-related topic. We talk about our feelings and our life experiences and how the literature, Step Work, and other ACA recovery work in our lives. We share about personal change, working the Steps, and connecting to our Inner Child (True Self) and Higher Power. (2006, p. 561)
Over thirty years ago, the small and growing community of ACA members recognized a need for a text that would help survivors of childhood trauma recognize their struggle and give them a path towards healing. The ACA Red Book was written to meet this need. This case study demonstrates that the ACA Red Book meets this need by helping readers create a new identity, the True Self. Group members create this new identity by naming and recognizing the effects of trauma in their lives, as outlined in the Laundry List, and working towards the life described in the ACA Promises. They accomplish this transformation by working the ACA Twelve Steps and acquiring the language of recovery. Lastly, the ACA Red Book text provides the structure and instructions for starting weekly meetings that build community and a sense of belonging to a collective identity with a common experience. The ACA Red Book functions well to serve to needs of the trauma community in creating a new and healthy way of living.
ACA Is. (2015). Retrieved November 12, 2019, from adultchildren.org/literature/aca-is/.
Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families, World Service Organization, Inc. (2006). Adult Children of Alcoholics: Alcoholic/Dysfunctional families. Lakewood, CA.