A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous
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.
In 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.
For those in the Boston area, it is sold by Calamus Books.
It can also be ordered directly from Pagan Press at a list price with free shipping and handling (in the U.S. – at cost outside the U.S.).