A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous – Review

Freethinker AA

Reviewed by Thomas B.

What a gratifying little book John Lauritsen has written about his 46 years of continuous sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous! I spent a wonderful day this week sitting outside in bright sunshine on the usual rainy coast of Oregon, delighting in his experience, strength and hope. He forthrightly shares his stable recovery through AA that is not based upon any religious or spiritual influence. Rather, as a freethinker, he effectively relates how he found in the Fellowship of AA  unconditional support and the tools he needed to cease his addiction to alcohol. He has thereby been enabled to live a sober, healthy, productive life ever since his first meeting at New York City’s Perry Street workshop in early January of 1968.

Full disclosure here: I remember John from my earliest days in recovery, which included meetings at the Perry Street as well as my initial home group, the Midnight Meeting. What John describes as “True AA: the 24-Hour Plan and the Fellowship,” I also consider as the essence of my continuous recovery process since I attended my first meeting October 19, 1972.

Though he readily attributes that he owes his life to the AA Fellowship, he also advocates for a radical reformation away from what he terms is False AA:

False AA is one of dogmatism, cultic behavior, conformity, intolerance, anti-intellectualism and helpless-without-God religiosity.

I agree with him that this False AA ultimately kills because it drives away nonbelievers. It even alienates believers who are offended by meetings that sometimes take on more the characteristics of a tent revival meeting than that of the big tent arena where all are welcomed and supported to find their own path of recovery that has characterized most of AA’s history and tradition for the past 79 years.

One chapter is a proposal he made in 1976 to eliminate ending AA meetings with the Lord’s Prayer. As he correctly points out this violates the spirit of Unity and is counter to both the 3rd Tradition, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking,” as well as AA’s Preamble, which states that “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, or institution.” Unfortunately, this remains a common practice throughout much of the US and Canada. The 2010 San Antonio International Conference ended with the Lord’s Prayer, as do business meetings of Oregon Area 58.

One of the most informative chapters is the one entitled “Physical Recovery” in which John   relates that his recovery program includes regular exercise, good diet and not smoking. He describes the work of John Milam and Katherine Ketcham, who attest that many alcoholics in addition to being addicted to alcohol are also hypoglycemic, suffering from chronic low blood sugar. As Milam and Ketcham suggest, “Sober alcoholics, therefore, must learn to control their sugar intake in order to avoid mood fluctuations, anxiety, and depression, and recurring impulses to drink.”

In the 1980s I took the 5-hour glucose tolerance test, experiencing the typical spike in blood sugar level after intake of sugar followed by a rapid plunge. Of late, I again notice aberrant reactions whenever I “binge” on sugar. Thank you,John — I recommit to being more constantly vigilant about my intake of sugar and to back it up, I have ordered a copy of Milam and Ketcham’s book, Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities About Alcoholism.

Suggested StepsIn the chapter about Perry Street Workshop — through which I thoroughly enjoined taking a trip down a cherished, old memory lane — John points out a fact that I had never previously contemplated, but that upon reflection I agree is also true in my experience: The hand painted version of the 12 Steps at the meeting is the only one I’ve ever seen that includes “Suggested” as is mentioned in the Big Book.

Perhaps the most important chapters are the two that describe the essence of “True AA”, the 24-hour Plan and the Fellowship.

The absolute essential prerequisite for continued recovery is to not pick up the first drink. a day at a time, the 24-hour Plan. Like John, I experienced in Manhattan meetings over and over multitudinous variations upon the theme of “No matter what, don’t pick up the first drink, whether your ass falls off or turns to gold.” In both the chapter on “The 24-Hour Plan” and a chapter describing the 19th Century successful Washingtonian movement, John elucidates this essential principle of not drinking for 24 hours. John points out that this essential requirement for recovery was given somewhat short shrift in the Big Book, which instead mostly advocates and delineates the need for some kind of mythical divine intervention.

John further quotes from the 1940 pamphlet, “A Manual for Alcoholics Anonymous” published a year after Clarence Snyder started the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Cleveland:

Bear constantly in mind that you are only one drink away from trouble. Whether you have been sober for a day, a month, a year, a decade, one single drink is a certain way to go off on a binge, or a series of bingers. It is the first drink not the second, fifth or twentieth — that causes the trouble.

John accepts today, just as he did in his early recovery, that he is still physically addicted to alcohol. Drinking at a young age nearly caused an early death, when he experienced severe DTs. He knows this addiction can only be arrested, never cured. Therefore, a day at a time, he does not pick up a drink — nor does he use any other mood altering drugs, including those prescribed by physicians.

In the chapter on the Fellowship, John takes AA to task for undermining the Fellowship “by a growing and stultifying orthodoxy.” This includes formalized readings from the Big Book, which discourages and limits authentic sharing of experience strength and hope.  He effectively argues that a list of 44 suggested topics from GSO endeavors to control spontaneous discussion so it doesn’t stray too far afield from the orthodox path. He describes poignantly free-wheeling discussions at Perry Street and other meetings, where people shared their victories — getting an expensive haircut, a new job, another relationship — as well as their losses of loved  ones, pets, jobs, apartments, etc. All throughout the meetings, people related to each other, identifying with and supporting what’s going on here and now in member’s actual lives, not just intellectually, but perhaps even more importantly empathically.

Like I am, he’s perturbed when Christniks — my term for Big Book/Bible Thumpers — denigrate what qualifies us as alcoholics in a qualification as mere “drunkalogs”. I still consider myself a newcomer, who needs to experience the therapeutic benefit, as John describes it, of “a catharsis in reliving the horrors of drinking.” So-called “solution-based” discussions are archly described by John  as when “speakers often just parrot phrases from the Big Book, or babble about their Higher Power and ‘spirituality’, telling nothing about lives, past or present.” I totally agree, what kind of experience, strength and hope is that?

I have long held that the essential dynamic of recovery is one alcoholic speaking face to face with another alcoholic. It was this way when Oxford Group alcoholics talked to Ebby in Vermont, who talked to Bill, who talked to Bob, and so-on ad infinitum down to the present day. When I got sober, it wasn’t the steps, or the readings, or the literature, or a sponsor, or any god that got me sober. It was going to meetings and hearing the stories of other alcoholics who like me were not drinking and with whom I experienced support that I too could live a sober life.

At the regular morning meeting I attend, which is also attended by many newcomers from a nearby treatment center, a consistent theme is their gratitude for hearing our stories about how better life is sober. This is the Fellowship in action, and like John I am immensely grateful that I got sober in New York City during the 70s, where I could become firmly engaged within the Fellowship. AA was, and remains for me today, a safe place to describe how I don’t drink, whether my ass falls off or turns to gold.

In other chapters, John critiques the Steps, and discusses opponents as well as alternatives to AA. I especially resonate with his final chapter, “Conclusion” in which he encourages other non-believers  — once a solid base in recovery has been attained, “at least a year” — to feel free to help in bringing about the needed reformation to make AA relevant in the 21st Century to all alcoholics who meet the only requirement for membership, a desire to stop drinking.

I also heartily support his recommendation that AA needs to reexamine it’s reification of Bill W. and Dr. Bob as the only founders of AA. Many voices and a variety of views besides the Oxford Group went into the brew — pun intended — that has resulted in the most widespread method of recovery from alcoholism throughout the world.

To supplement the chapters narrating his recovery in AA as a freethinker who advocates for a reformation of AA, John includes three appendices:

  • “Only with God’s help,” a 1975 article by British writer R.L. Wild published in The New Humanist in London, which contends that AA in Britain would be more helpful if it stopped preaching.
  • A short essay explicating a picture on the back cover of the statute of Giordano Bruno, one of the greatest minds of the 16th Century, who was kidnapped by the Inquisition in 1593 and burned at the stake for heresy.
  • A Freethinker’s Twelve Suggested Steps For Recovery from Alcoholism

Additionally, he has a selected bibliography of resource materials about alcoholism, both in print and online that includes the link to us here at AA Agnostica.

In closing I suppose I really should mention something that I didn’t like about John’s book — it’s a stretch, but while John rightly salutes Clarence Snyder in liberating AA in Akron from the Oxford Group, further suggesting that perhaps he is a more appropriate founder of AA than Bill W. and Dr. Bob, he nevertheless fails to mention that in the same biography he cites, How It Worked by Mitchell K., Clarence also became by the end of his life the prototype for today’s rabid followers of evangelical, pietistic Back-to-Basics AA, replicating early Oxford Group ideology in Akron. These are folks who are so woefully misinformed to ardently believe and proselytize throughout contemporary AA that the only way for “real alcoholics” to become cured, i.e., permanently “recovered”, is for them to surrender on their knees in prayer to and guidance from Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior.

I didn’t need this egregious myth in my first year of recovery — I need it considerably less so in my 42nd year of continuous recovery.

Nevertheless, I am incredibly grateful that throughout my recovery I continue to find in AA like-minded individuals, such as John. I am also grateful we can gather here on AA Agnostica to share our experience, strength and hope, thereby continuing to experience the 24-hour gift of a “daily” reprieve from alcohol addiction.

———-

A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous is available at Amazon, but it won’t ship until June 1, which is the  official release date. For those in the Boston area, it is sold by Calamus Books. It can also be ordered directly from Pagan Press for list price with free shipping and handling (in the U.S. – at cost outside the U.S.). Contact info@paganpressbooks.com for further details.

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A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous – Review — 21 Comments

  1. I appreciate the review and admire the fact it does take courage to step outside what is regarded as normal in AA and share your beliefs about the matter. However the program of AA is fundamentally a spiritually based solution which is repeated over and over in the big book. I came into AA being an agnostic and naturally the idea of prayer and the like was difficult for me at first, and admittedly I still have times in my life where I doubt the existence of a higher power. However I’m failing to see the need to change AA or to “make it acceptable in the 21st century” or what that means. If the only solution offered is to just not drink then many people would just get it on their own. I don’t mean to show contempt, I have just gained an amazing amount of clarity In life because of this spiritual way of life that has kept the thought of a drink out of my mind for some time now.

  2. Thank you, Thomas, for your very generous review of my book. Perhaps I was too kind to Clarence Snyder, but then I was intent on making a point, that AA came into being by busting out of the Oxford Group. Clarence certainly did become more religious in his old age. although I’m not sure he should be blamed for the present-day Back-to-Basics fundies. He was too intelligeht.

    I’m just back from a regular AA meeting — all discussion. It was like old times. The initial speaker led into the topic of “spiritual awakening”, and we went around the room discussing that. People talked about their lives in the real world — No one even mentioned the “G” word — I described my “spiritual awakening” as the sudden, intense desire to live, as I was close to death in DTs — and in general it was a satisfying meeting. I’m all for secular AA groups, but there can also be real fellowship in regular groups, even now.

  3. Thank you for this article. I am an adult child of an alcoholic; my father entered recovery when I was twelve. What I remember most clearly about that time was how incredibly, intolerably dogmatic he became. I know AA helped him enormously, but it just as surely ruined our relationship. Or rather, he did that – but False AA certainly lent a helping hand. I’m glad to have this called out, and I wish success to anyone who is working to reform this element of what is otherwise, to my eye, a remarkably successful community and set of principles. Best wishes to all in their recovery.

  4. Thank you, Thomas, for your review of this new book, and thank you, John, for remaining true to your principles all these years and for your willingness to share your history with us.

  5. Thanks to you for the review and John for the book and being there when I came to downtown AA in the early 80’s. I’m another who is sober today because of the love and tolerance that was evident at Perry Street, Living Now, St. Lukes, the old Midnight and Alanon House. I’m sure our paths have crossed. I now live uptown and make the occasional meeting at P Street. I’ve always loved the “there’s no wrong way to get sober” sign.

  6. “Where men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken, and have there given reins to passion, without that proper deliberation and suspense, which can alone secure them from the grossest absurdities.” David Hume

  7. I agree with Roger that sharing experience, strength and hope, together with taking one day at a time, are the most important aspects of the program. To these I would add learning how to control one’s emotions and how to take things in stride.
    As for the “false” AA, I think it’s been religious and dogmatic since it began, with a few pockets of rationality here and there, and so I think it’s the “true” or real AA, and we’re just going to have to deal with it.

    • I agree that many, and perhaps even most AA groups have been religious and dogmatic. But not all. Looking back, I’m grateful for all of the pockets of rationality, and pockets of intelligence, I’ve experienced in my life, in and outside of AA.

      Regarding the True and False AA, I argue in the book that both are present to some degree in most AA groups. Perhaps I should say, in most AA members. Some believe that they owe their sobriety to HP and “working the Steps”. Maybe. But then again, perhaps they are sober *in spite of* their religiosity and Step work. What is undeniable, is that they are sober because of the True AA: the Fellowship and staying away from the First Drink.

  8. Thanks for the wonderful review.
    I got sober in the Greenwich Village area in the mid 1980s (St Lukes, Perry Street, Living Now, Potpourri, etc). Regarding “Suggested Steps”, my very first NY Intergroup meeting book (from 1983) had the steps on the back, and the word “Suggested” was on there. I believe they removed it not long after that. I still drop in on Perry Street from time to time, and I love seeing the “Suggested” on the sign on the wall.

  9. Back in 1970 the 12 steps window shades had “as suggested” in red block letters underneath the 12 steps title.

    This has disappeared as had the word suggested. I rarely hear this word at my meetings.

    This was very important to me in my early days.

    Anyone else notice this?

    Marnin

  10. Speaking of “freethinkers,” (BA DA BING, BA DA BOOM), east Toronto folks and east of Toronto folks, come and join us at the “Whitby Freethinkers” meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, on Monday nights at 7:30pm. Whitby Central Library, Meeting Rm. #2, about 5 minutes from the 401.

    I’m quite proud of our closing prayer – I wrote it myself. “Thanks for coming; we hope to see you again next week!” (I’m like the Reinhold Niebuhr of heathens )

    • At our Monday night ” Beyond Belief” meeting here in North Vancouver our closing prayer is real simple. We simply say “that’s it, we’re done”.
      You can imagine the facial expressions on the face of aa cops when they visit; priceless!

    • “Thanks for coming; we hope to see you again next week!”
      Perfect. What else does a person struggling with addiction need to know? Nothing but, “You are welcome.”

  11. I have completely given up on Alcholics Anonymous and do not intend to try to bend the program to fit my worldview. I feel better than I have in years and no longer need to worry about how inane and petty the nuances and minutiae of what they think and what I think. I don’t believe any shame-based recovery program is appropriate regardless of what they believe.
    Thanks for the memories!

    • Why try to bend it to your world view?
      AA ‘principles’ are not the laws of physics.
      Ignoring them will not result in the sort of unpleasantness one encounters when defying the law of gravity.

      The big advantage AA has for me is that it is a very large and diverse body. I don’t know where else I could meet so many interesting people who share my affliction.

      The dogma is, of course, simplistic nonsense.

  12. Thanks for the book review. I like the concept of the False AA discussed here. Having been in 12 step since 1990 it’s hard to relate to the newcomer. A newcomer friend of mine told me when he first came to AA he thought it was a cult. And he’s a regular church going Catholic. A fellow in a meeting yesterday said an oft quoted slogan: “If the God stuff drives you out of AA alcohol will bring you back.” Well, It’s not God that drives people out of AA, its us. It’s AA members. Mostly the False AA. It’s impressive that any freethinkers survive the weeding out that AA does to nonconformists. Hopefully AA will stop blaming God for driving people out and look at themselves.

    • Good question. Here’s from my note on the front cover:

      Son of Temperance. Nathaniel Currier 1848, “The Pledge”.

      The young man is a member of the Sons of Temperance, which was founded in New York City on 29 September 1842. He is proud­ly standing beside the pledge:

      NO
      BROTHER
      SHALL MAKE, BUY, SELL OR
      USE AS A BEVERAGE, ANY
      SPIRITUOUS OR MALT,
      LIQUORS, WINE OR CIDER.

      The Sons of Temperance was originally a closed, all-male society, with secret passwords, signs, rituals, etc. It lasted longer than the Washingtonian Society, which had pretty much died out by 1850. The Sons of Temperance had 73,000 men in 1882, and still exists today, if not in its original form.

      I used this image because I liked it for aesthetic reasons — it fits well into
      the cover design. The young man seems so proud to be sober! It gives a positive feel to a title that might otherwise seem grim. I’d like to believe that the spirit of the Sons of Temperance is still present in the best of AA meetings. Likewise, the spirit of the Washingtonians.

  13. thanks, thomas, i await its release! I’m almost thru Don’t Tell. It’s really a good thing to be able to keep reading one book after another. It kind of was that way early on in my recovery, as I went thru the various AA books, and I was desperate enough for recovery to put up with all the god stuff, in the regular AA literature, especially in the 12X12, but it was important to have *something* to read. Now as I have come out of the closet, it is equally important, and this stream of new books which confirm my choice to do so is every bit as much a lifesaver.

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