I want to acknowledge Jeb B. the curator of Denver, Colorado’s Freethinkers in AA group, for the title of this article. While browsing his excellent website, which contains ample relevant information for atheists and agnostics who are successfully sober in AA, I clicked on a page entitled “Why It Works.” This is a page that summarizes Dr. Irving Yalom’s seminal work on the process of group psychotherapy. It struck me that much of what Dr. Yalom describes about group psychotherapy is what I experienced when I initially began attending AA. It motivated me to write this article relating my experience of “Why AA Works.” Thank you, Jeb.
By Thomas B.
Before I went to my first AA meetings, I was pretty sure I knew what AA was all about. I had seen a couple of old B&W movies, depicting AA as a bunch of old men who had been on skid row and talked about God a lot. Thanks to a Jesuit education, I was a confirmed agnostic and somewhat nihilistic regarding myself and the rest of humankind. Increasingly suicidal, my days were mostly spent drunk in a slough of despond and despair.
I was 29 years old when I went to my first meetings and sure enough, all four of the speakers at the Upper Westside beginner and open meetings I first attended on October 19, 1972, were old men, who had been on the Bowery and who talked about their god a lot.
I didn’t drink anyway and within a couple of weeks I was making coffee for the Young People’s Meeting in lower Manhattan and had joined the Midnight Meeting Group. I became immersed within the AA Fellowship and soon had a circle of fellow alcoholic friends with whom I identified and who likewise identified with me. Here were people who drank like I did, had the same kind of embarrassing — or worse — experiences while drinking, and yet somehow together we were now sober and living somewhat productive lives. Utterly amazing !~!~!
Early on, I discerned we were staying sober because we didn’t drink and connected with each other often by going to meetings and socializing with each other after meetings. We stayed sober despite sometimes facing devastating life problems and challenges — loss of jobs, incapacitating illness, the ending of relationships, death of loved ones. Through it all, we helped and supported each other, not only while being sober, but also during relapses.
I consider myself most fortunate to have found a home in the Fellowship of AA. I’ve continued to do so for the past 42 years of ongoing recovery. Of late, this awareness has been boosted exponentially by the growing emergence of secular AA groups and meetings throughout the Fellowship of AA.
I’m quite sure I don’t understand, much less agree with, the “precise directions” that Bill, Dr. Bob and other early members of AA set forth in the first 164 pages of the Big Book. Chapter Five, “How It Works,” enumerates the Twelve Steps, the core ideology of AA. They are dogmatically read, it seems, at every single meeting of orthodox AA throughout North America. Nevertheless, they become more and more irrelevant to my experience of recovery.
The healing connection I’ve always experienced and identify with in the rooms of AA is best summarized by the acronym HOPE — Hearing Other People’s Experience. This is what I suggest is the key dynamic in why AA works. Through identification with other alcoholics’ experiences, drinking as well as sober, when we share our stories and commentary during AA meetings, we receive the human power to stay sober together in the Fellowship of AA.
Though I question the orthodoxy of “How It Works,” I am utterly convinced and greatly relieved to grok, to deeply understand, Why AA Works — it’s the identification of drunks with each other, both in our shared malady as well as through our recovery together !~!~!
The antidote for the deep symptom of denial was identification marked by open and undemanding narration infused with profound honesty about personal weakness. The process of identification was offered without any demand for reciprocity or for anything else.
In a 2002 article, Kurtz further notes, “The secret of Alcoholics Anonymous, the thing that makes AA work, is identification. As Marty Mann is reputed to have said to her fellow sanitarium inmate on returning to Blythwood from her visit to the Wilson home in Brooklyn Heights for her first A.A. meeting: ‘Grennie, we aren’t alone any more.’ ”
In 1975 Robert Thomsen published the first biography about Bill Wilson, Bill W. Thomsen’s work is based primarily on extensive interviews he had with Wilson and relates how early on in AA’s history identification functioned. He describes the Tuesday evening meetings held in the basement of Bill and Lois’ Clinton Street brownstone in Brooklyn Heights during the late 1930s:
There were agnostics in the Tuesday night Group, and several hardcore atheists who objected to any mention of God. On many evenings Bill had to remember his first meeting with Ebby. He’d been told to ask for help from anything he believed in. These men, he could see, believed in each other and in the strength of the group. At some time each of them had been totally unable to stop drinking on his own, yet when two of them had worked at it together, somehow they had become more powerful and they had finally been able to stop. This, then — whatever it was that occurred between them — was what they could accept as a power greater than themselves. (p. 230)
I can’t help but reiterate that Thomsen reports that agnostics and “hardcore atheists” were an integral part of AA from our earliest beginnings.
What Does AA Literature Say
Let’s examine AA literature to discover what it says about this key dynamic of identification. Perhaps the best place to start is to examine what co-founder, Bill Wilson, wrote about identification. The following are several pertinent excerpts from his copious writing that are included in As Bill Sees It: The AA Way of Life under the subject “identification”:
Grapevine, October 1959: This process of identification and transmission has gone on and on. The Skid-Rower said he was different. Even more loudly, the socialite (or Park Avenue stumblebum) said the same—so did the artists and the professional people, the rich, the poor, the religious, the agnostic, the Indians and the Eskimos, the veterans and the prisoners. But nowadays all of these, and legions more, soberly talk about how very much alike all of us alcoholics are when we admit that the chips are finally down.
AA Today p. 10: Dr. Bob did not need me for his spiritual instruction. He had already had more of that than I. What he did need, when we first met, was the deflation at depth and the understanding that only one drunk can give to another. What I needed was the humility of self-forgetfulness and the kinship with another human being of my own kind.
Twelve and Twelve, p. 155: The unique ability of each A.A. to identify himself with, and bring recovery to, the newcomer in no way depends upon his learning, his eloquence, or any special individual skills. The only thing that matters is that he is an alcoholic who has found a key to sobriety.
AA Comes of Age, pp. 69-70: You see, our talk was a completely mutual thing. I had quit preaching. I knew that I needed this alcoholic as much as he needed me.
Even the more devout co-founder, Dr. Bob acknowledged the healing power alcoholics experience connecting with each other. Just before he died, he made these concluding remarks in Cleveland at the first AA International Convention in 1950:
None of us would be here today if somebody hadn’t taken time to explain things to us, to give us a little pat on the back, to take us to a meeting or two, to do numerous little kind and thoughtful acts in our behalf. So let us never get such a degree of smug complacency that we’re not willing to extend, or attempt to extend, to our less fortunate brothers that help which has been so beneficial to us. Thank you.
What does Living Sober — perhaps the most secular of conference-approved literature published by AA in 1975 — have to say about identification? Though it does not specifically mention the word, page 34 certainly describes the process of amazed identification that a newcomer experiences at AA meetings. It concludes:
Those of us sober in AA a few years can assure any newcomer at an AA meeting that it is real, very real indeed. And it does last. It is not just another false start, of the sort that most of us have experienced too often. It is not one more burst of gladness soon to be followed by hurt disappointment.
Instead, as the number of people now sober for decades in AA swells each year, we see before our eyes more and more hard proof that we can have a genuine and enduring recovery from the loneliness of alcoholism.
I note that all literature cited above, with the exception of Ernie Kurtz’s writing, was published no later than 1975.
An ironic conclusion I’ve derived from our literature and my experience of AA is that between 1935 and 1975, AA was somewhat more progressive and inclusive than it has devolved to become during the last 40 years throughout many parts of North America. Wilson died in 1971 — during the first 36 years of AA’s history and for several years thereafter, I surmise his strong and charismatic personality was able to keep AA fully inclusive and open to all who sought to get sober in AA, especially for us atheists and agnostics. Bob Pearson, General Manager of GSO from 1974 to 1984, described Bill as being, “perhaps the most permissive person I ever met… He was maddeningly tolerant of his critics, and he had absolute faith that faults in AA were self-correcting.”
The rise of the so-called “Back to Basics” movement, which focuses solely on how early Oxford Group meetings in Akron functioned, has caused present-day AA to become decidedly more dogmatic through it’s rigid interpretation of “How It Works”. To my mind, this is why our secular AA movement is so essential for the continued evolution of AA. We are responsible to insure that the doors of AA stay open always for any alcoholic who desires to stop drinking.
Otherwise, AA may continue to devolve and become an ever smaller and less relevant organization. Joe C. discusses AA’s need to become more relevant during the 21st century in this recent AA Agnostica article, A Changing Landscape. If current flatline trends of AA membership since 1992 continue, perhaps within a hundred years AA members will be as quaint and irrelevant in North America as Amish folk are today.
In the spirit of our legacy of Unity and with more of us becoming involved in the General Service structure of AA as GSRs, DCMs, even Delegates, we who are sober in secular AA, can actively participate in assuring that the doors of AA remain widely open for all alcoholics, regardless of belief or lack of belief. This is in full accordance with our history, Responsibility Declaration and Traditions.
Let me close with a quote from the Big Book. In “A Vision for You” there’s a passage on pp. 152-153 that is one my favorites:
It is a fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. There you will find release from care, boredom and worry. Your imagination will be fired. Life will mean something at last. The most satisfactory years of your existence lie ahead. Thus we find the fellowship and so will you . . .
This “precisely” describes what I am immensely grateful to have experienced initially when I first came to AA in 1972 and identified with fellow alcoholics who were sober. More importantly, it describes what I continue to be most grateful for today in AA, because since 2012 I keep experiencing identification through the emergence of the secular AA movement.
Sober from his primary drug of addiction, Colt .45 — preferably by the case lot — since October 14, 1972, Thomas is grateful for the full life he has experienced in recovery for over 42 years. He’s been active at the group level throughout his recovery and in 1978 was the co-chair of the first New York City Young Peoples Conference. He is a co-founder (with his wife, Jill) and current GSR of Portland, Oregon’s Beyond Belief group. Retired from a 30-year career in addiction treatment, he and a fellow Vietnam Veteran colleague, Vince Treanor, were instrumental in establishing the correlation between addiction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during the 1980s.
He’s been an active participant on AA Agnostica since early in 2012 and has had the following articles published:
- First AA Meetings (June 2, 2013)
- One’s Religion is An Outside Issue (July 28, 2013)
- A Fellowship of the Religious? (April 20, 2014)
- Book Review: A Freethinker in AA (May 21, 2014)
- Tradition Two: A Flaw in AA Service Structure? (September 28, 2014)
- Several Reports from the Santa Monica Conference
- Sponsorship in AA (February 22, 2015)
- PRAASA 2015 (April 12, 2015)
- Bill Wilson’s Experience with LSD (May 10, 2015)
He and his wife, Jill, live in gainful retirement on disability in Seaside, Oregon with their dog Kiera, and two cats, Savannah and Elsa, writing and helping to expand secular AA throughout Oregon.