The 12 Steps of Elementary

(By Silver Adept, Practitioner of the Dark Library Arts)

[Added] The “Elementary” in the post title refers to a CBS television program of that name starring Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes, Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, Sherlock’s assistant and singer companion, and contains characters including NYPD Captain Tobias Gregson, Detective Marcus Bell, Alfredo, Sherlock’s sponsor in his 12-Step program, and Randy, who has Sherlock as his sponsor in this same program. This post has nothing to do with the BBC show Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. Apologies for any confusion. [/Added]

Sherlock is ostensibly working a twelve-step program to stay sober from his drug addictions of the past. The way the writers treat him, he can tell Marcus Bell and others that he is definitely an addict, the writers hint that some of the behaviors of an addict may not be under control (with the way he treated Detective Bell without apparent empathy during his recovery from being shot), but it’s not always clear, by what we see and hear from Sherlock, whether he thinks his program is effective, and whether we are supposed to believe his program is effective.

So, based on how the writers are writing Sherlock, I wanted to compare it to the listed steps of Narcotics Anonymous and see if Sherlock is working that program in a recognizable way. Given that addiction and recovery are unique to each addict and their circumstances, we can only guess by what we see about Sherlock and the steps. What goes on in his life off the camera is anyone’s guess. And what goes on in his mind that isn’t narrated aloud is also only speculation. With those limiting caveats in place, let’s look at the steps.

1. We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

Season One and some of Two have shown us glimpses into what Sherlock was before becoming sober and having Joan, the sober companion, in his life. The apparent death of Irene Adler was a strong shock to Sherlock and started him on his path to sobriety. Before that, even as a detective, Sherlock would use, believing he was a lot more lucid than he actually was while on drugs.

2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This is where things get a little less… traditional. Sherlock clearly doesn’t believe in any conception of a deity as the people around him would define it, except perhaps to troll others, but I think he does believe in a power greater than himself. Reason, Logic, and Science are the things Sherlock always trusts, even when they lead him in strange-seeming directions. They anchor his insistence that he is and will remain sober.

3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

If we substitute Reason for God, Sherlock is still on track, as the consulting detective requires himself to be ruled by Reason and Science if he wants to solve cases. It takes Joan, however, to get Sherlock to start attending meetings, as Sherlock’s conception of God doesn’t include social components.

4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

*recordscratch* Here’s where things start to run off the rails. Captain Gregson, Joan, and Detective Bell regularly point out where Sherlock’s personality and his mehods result in physical consequences. There’s an entire Season Two episode devoted to Sherlock’s Protagonist Centered Morality soon after Detective Bell is shot, with a microcosm of that morality appearing in the episode – Sherlock has nothing but contempt for some police practices regarding warrants and searches, yet will not utilize his deduced knowledge that the prosecutor is an addict herself, because that would be unethical in his moral sense. Captain Gregson encourages this behavior in Season Two with an explicit declaration that he cares about results more than personality conflicts. When pushed, or when Holmes clearly crosses boundaries that can’t be handwaved, Gregson will rein Holmes in, but not before.

6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

And this is where things look like the train has jumped the rails and are headed for he nearby town. Sherlock may believe he has shortcomings, but those he will acknowledge he believes he can erase through the application of more reason, logic, knowledge, and science, no gods, capitalized or otherwise, necessary. If we take the tack that Reason is Sherlock’s Higher Power, it’s possible that Sherlock is working these steps exactly as he feels they should be worked – study, work, science, so that shortcomings will be removed. Although there’s very little of “humbly” involved in any of this. Season One Joan often acted as the working social compass to point out to Sherlock where his defects were and what he could do about them, but Season Two Joan seems to be slowly losing this ability and starting to see the world more as Sherlock does.

8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Sherlock does quite well here, although it can take significant prompting from Joan before Sherlock actually does anything about this. The storyline with Detective Bell’s injury shows Sherlock working these steps the most clearly so far – it takes a while for Sherlock to actually admit what he feels about Marcus and his injury, but once he becomes willing to make amends, he tries to do so directly. Being Sherlock, his attempts often don’t look very direct, and it takes Marcus a significant amount of time before he is willing to accept the amends. Forgiveness is a difficult and individual thing, and it would not be unrealistic if Marcus never fully accepted Sherlock’s attempts to make amends.

10. We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Sherlock can admit when his theories of the crime, or his understanding of the motives, or his inquiries into the case have been wrong, but he does not admit his wrongs willingly or well when the are exposed. Joan, he says, is exceptional, and so he makes exceptional effort for her. For the rest of us, though, including the tribunal on his methods, there is no such admission. We are lesser beings, and so do not get the benefit of Sherlock admitting to mistakes.

11.We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Taking Reason as Sherlock’s Higher Power, he certainly has a line of work that improves his conscious contact, and would probably consider his uncovery of the truth of crimes to be both the knowledge of the will of Reason and the power to carry it out, a power which rests upon the privileges he has regarding wealth and free time, allowing him to choose which cases he works, And the liberties he takes regarding the proper procedure of the law and collection of evidence, which are backstopped by Captain Gregson willing to justify his means with his ends. Marcus Bell could not do what Sherlock does, nor could Joan Watson.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

And this is kind of a zigzag. As I think I’ve shown here, the “practice these principles in all our affairs” part isn’t necessarily being done by Sherlock, at least as we would probably understand it. Perhaps to Sherlock, he is doing these steps well. The “carry this message to addicts” part, on the other hand, seems to be working well for him. Of those he encounters, Sherlock usually makes a brief mention of the place he went for treatment (Season One) or a comment about being able to find meetings (Season Two).

The sponsorship episode should be a logical extension of the steps, a signifier that Sherlock has been working the steps well enough to understand them and help someone else stay sober. The way it actually plays out on screen, though, is to make it look like Alfredo is pushing Sherlock into sponsorship and trying to guilt him into doing it, while Sherlock, the only person who knows whether Sherlock is ready, is trying to tell Alfredo that he’s not prepared for this. It seems like a match made in hell, especially after the speech Sherlock gives about what kind of sponsor he is going to be.

Then, as of the end of “Dead Clade Walking”, we see how Sherlock is as a beginning sponsor. He’s starting to appear to understand the need for empathy in working with others, and leans heavily on Joan’s experience as a sober companion to try and provide a coherent way of being a sponsor to Randy. Sherlock still doesn’t want to be involved with Randy, in the terms of knowing things about his life that are unrelated to his sobriety, but he does show concern for Randy in a paternalistic way, and as a reflection on him (he’s aware of his vanity, but it doesn’t seem to change his approach). Sherlock is still choosing to express his empathetic responses though others, whether by taking to Joan or by suggesting going to meetings with Randy. While Sherlock continues to want to frame his relationship with Randy as strictly about his sobriety, the question that remains is whether Sherlock will be able to genuinely express his empathy to anyone not named Joan Watson.

Before opening up for comments, I want to mention again that addiction is a completely individual experience, and that we can only talk about the things that we explicitly see on the screen. The writers for the show for Season Two seem to be less interested in showing us the way the recovery and sobriety process are working for Sherlock and more interested in the mystery elements. In doing so, we think they’re missing out on a lot of things that made the first season interesting.


12 thoughts on “The 12 Steps of Elementary

  1. froborr February 6, 2014 at 9:40 am

    What show is this? I’ve watched the first season of Sherlock, and I don’t recall anything resembling this or recognize most of the character names.

    And now I’m going to apologize in advance, because you’ve stumbled across one of my berserk button topics:

    It really ticks me off that 12-step programs are consistently depicted in media as the only way to kick an addiction, given that there is no evidence that they work any better than any other program, or indeed that they do anything at all. People in 12-step programs are exactly as likely to return to their addictions as people who participate in a different program, and once you correct for availability of a support network, people in programs are exactly as likely as people who don’t participate in programs. (That is, there’s some reason to think that having a group of supportive people around you does help, but if you already have that, joining a program won’t add anything.)

    A number of the assertions made by 12-step programs have no evidence for them, either. Addicts can and do quit on their own (given a supportive network of family and friends, they are as likely to do so as program members, as I said). Addicts are not helpless (REBT, an approach which relies on the assumption that using is a choice and teaches the addict to use cost-benefit analyses to choose otherwise, has the same success rate as 12-step). Addicts are not forever marked, such that any use of their drug-of-choice inevitably means a return to abuse (this holds somewhat for highly addictive substances such as cocaine and nicotine, but for less physically addictive drugs such as alcohol, it is possible for former addicts to learn to consume in moderation–the aforementioned REBT approach uses this, rather than total abstinence, as the goal for alcohol abuse).

    Basically, 12-step is exactly what it started as: faith healing. Unlike some pseudoscience, it doesn’t actually do much harm (in particular, if someone lacks a support network, it can provide one), but it’s also not actually a real treatment.

  2. Ana Mardoll February 6, 2014 at 10:04 am

    froborr, it’s Elementary which is NOT Sherlock even though they’re both currently airing and it’s all very confusing. Elementary has Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, if that helps. 🙂

    Great post, Silver Adept! I am REALLY frustrated at where this whole sponsorship stuff is going (to the point where I haven’t even watched the latest episode because it’s really bothering me), because it seems like nobody in this mess is caring about Randy as an Actual Person as opposed to a Learning Potential for Sherlock. ACK.

  3. lonespark42 February 6, 2014 at 11:47 am

    That is, there’s some reason to think that having a group of supportive people around you does help, but if you already have that, joining a program won’t add anything.

    Well, ok. But I’m under the impression that a lot of people who are finally ready to try getting clean have burned a lot of bridges, and that’s assuming they had a decent support network to begin with. So it definitely seems worthwhile on that level. (That seems to also be one of the major functions served by religious groups… and plenty of other groups…)

    I wished I was watching this in S1, but now it sounds like a lot of squandered potential. (

  4. froborr February 6, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    I’m under the impression that a lot of people who are finally ready to try getting clean have burned a lot of bridges, and that’s assuming they had a decent support network to begin with. So it definitely seems worthwhile on that level. (That seems to also be one of the major functions served by religious groups… and plenty of other groups…)

    Sure, but that’s my point–plenty of groups serve this function. 12-step isn’t magic; what positive effect it does have seems to be entirely due to the group rather than the process, so it bugs me that the media constantly portray it as being The Only Way. Especially since it’s not only predicated on a falsehood (many addicts feel powerless, but if they actually were no addiction would ever end) but explicitly theistic and (given the model it follows of sin, confession, absolution) implicitly Christian. There are real-life cases of people being court-ordered specifically to attend 12-step programs (as opposed to being court-ordered to seek treatment), to boot–as clear a violation of church-state separation as I’ve ever heard, and all because of an assumption in the media that “recovering from an addiction” necessarily means “12 step program.”

  5. froborr February 6, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    …And now I see that Elementary is mentioned right in the title. Which… if I knew it existed, would have been really obvious. Still, might have helped to mention the show in the first paragraph as well?

  6. anamardoll February 6, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    Still, might have helped to mention the show in the first paragraph as well?

    It’s talked about pretty regularly on Shakesville and Ramblings (and I think Chris links to my Elementary deconstructions in the weekly round-ups), so I think Silver Adept felt pretty safe in assuming it was common knowledge. 😉

  7. Silver Adept February 6, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    @ froborr –

    Makes sense – I probably should have included a paragraph at the top talking about which show I was talking about and the dramatis personae. Maybe that can be mod-ified in?

    This particular analysis goes the 12-Step route because the recovery program for the Sherlock in Elementary is an all-but-name Narcotics Anonymous program (since NA officially doesn’t want their name to be used where it might be seen as an endorsement of something). I didn’t know the names of other types of recovery systems, so that’s interesting and welcome information. REBT sounds like it would be a far better program for this Sherlock character than the 12 Steps.

    The writers downplay the explicitly religious elements of the 12 Steps programs, because it would be wildly out of character for the Sherlock they have built for him to believe in those religious elements.

    I’ve also seen those court orders requiring 12-step programs explicitly, and had much the same reaction about separation of church and state.

  8. christhecynic February 6, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    I probably should have included a paragraph at the top talking about which show I was talking about and the dramatis personae. Maybe that can be mod-ified in?

    It can be. If you write it and give the word, I’ll put it there. I usually indicate substantive revisions (as opposed to, say, fixing typos) like this:

    [Added] Added text. [/Added]

  9. froborr February 6, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    Cognitive-behavioral therapy (of which REBT is one application) is actually an entire school of therapy; one of the areas where it’s shown some success is addiction treatment, and it also works well for some people for mood and personality disorders. (I had good results with it for depression, AvPD, and PTSD when I was younger, but I think I’ve hit the limits of what it can do for me, which is why I’m glad that my most recent two therapists used more of a relational approach, even if it was really disconcertingly different at first.) It’s probably the most empirically driven school of therapy, which I appreciate. (And imagine Sherlock would, too.)

    The core assumption is that experiences cause thoughts which cause feelings which cause behaviors, and therefore if someone is struggling with their behavior or feelings, they can gain control of both by learning to control their thoughts. (Marcus Aurelius was basically a cognitive-behavioral theorist two millennia ahead of his time.) An example with addiction is preparing a cost-benefit analysis of using, and carrying it around with you so that you can read it whenever you feel a craving. Or with anxiety, I practiced so that (most of the time) when I start feeling anxious, I can identify precisely what the scenarios I’m afraid of are, assign probabilities to each step, and short-circuit the fear by recognizing that they’re actually pretty unlikely. (The hard part was learning to shut up the “but what if they DO happen anyway?” voice.)

  10. fairyhedgehog February 7, 2014 at 12:47 am

    @froborr I’m totally with you on this. It bugs me no end that the standard 12 step program which is put forward as /the/ way to end addiction is based on turning your life over to a being who is, in my view, totally imaginary. The AA (or NA) program may have a weasel-words let-out clause in the phrase “God as we understand Him” but that really wouldn’t be enough for me if I needed the program because I don’t believe in a higher power of any description.

    @silver adept I have no idea if the original Sherlock would have believed in some sort of a god. I seem to remember that Doyle had some very weird spiritual ideas but in this series I can’t see Sherlock as being at all religious so maybe it’s just as well that the writers have chosen to gloss over that aspect of the AA program.

  11. Steve Morrison February 9, 2014 at 10:21 pm

    In “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger”, Holmes says: “The ways of Fate are indeed hard to understand. If there is not some compensation hereafter, then the world is a cruel jest.” As far as I can recall, this is the most religious thing the canonical Sherlock Holmes ever says.

  12. storiteller February 10, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    Even if the new season of Elementary has gone off the rails a bit, I wish Sherlock at least attempted this level of characterization. I enjoy the show, but the characters on it really need to call Sherlock out on his jerkiness like they have in Elementary instead of brushing it off or even celebrating it.

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