TRIGGER WARNING. This article contains content about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering for some readers.
By Erin J.
By the time I was 21, I had already completed two failed stints in rehab and was in and out of AA meeting rooms. I’m always hesitant to attach narratives to my past experiences because it’s so easy to package them neatly into little boxes and explain away my actions using the brain I have now. I will say my understanding of me at 21 is that I was, first of all, 21, so all the things that go along with being 21 applied. I was also still drinking sporadically. I hated myself, hated the way I looked, felt misunderstood, and less than all of my peers. When I attended AA meetings I received a lot of attention. At the time there weren’t a lot of young people in the meeting rooms, particularly women my age, so it was a new experience for me. People, mostly men, paid attention to me and for the first time in my life I felt seen. It was a powerful drug. I had a couple of gentleman who were incredibly patient with me and who spent a lot of time trying to help me see that I was worth recovery however one interaction has lingered in my memory since that time.
I attended a downtown meeting on a fairly regular basis in my hometown, and there was another regular attendee that everyone seemed to be friendly with, he seemed fairly innocuous and seemed to have friends in the rooms. We would engage in small talk on occasion and one day he invited me out to have coffee with him in a park nearby. I went with him in his truck and we headed to a somewhat secluded area of a park by the river and took a seat at a picnic table where he began asking me questions about my recovery. It was so long ago I can’t remember the specifics of what we talked about but he definitely started asking about my relationships with men. About five minutes into the conversation I noticed that he was masturbating under the table. I was so shocked that I froze; I don’t remember what happened after other than I asked to be brought back downtown.
The intention of this article isn’t really to get into the nuances of sexual assault but I will say that in retrospect my reactions were pretty congruent with what is understood as a typical reaction to a violation. I blamed myself; I thought I had done something to provoke it, so much so that I thought maybe I had agreed to the interaction somehow without actually saying so. This incident has always stuck with me. For some reason, I haven’t shared this story with many people, I think because I was embarrassed because I felt so stupid for putting myself in the situation. Like many stories in my past, there is a lot of shame attached to my actions, but in this case, my actions weren’t the same as “I stole something”, “I lied” “I hurt someone”. I was seeking recovery and I trusted that the meeting rooms were a safe place for me, and they have been and remain so for the most part. I have developed some life skills and boundaries that have allowed me to interact with people in recovery. Those skills have been hard won and require continual maintenance and have come about through working a program of recovery and through thousands of dollars worth of therapy.
Unfortunately many newcomers to Alcoholics Anonymous don’t often come in with effective life skills and the meeting rooms can be ripe with opportunities for violence, abuse and poor decision-making when it comes to sex, love and relationships. A recent CBS 48 Hours episode titled The Sober Truth featured an expose about the 2011 murder of a young female AA member. What I essentially took from the program was an inference was that Alcoholics Anonymous meeting rooms are filled with rapists and convicted felons. The program “exposed” the fact that many AA members are court ordered to the program, and are then put in contact with other members without criminal pasts who might not otherwise associate with them. In my opinion, one of the fundamental sources of pride in Alcoholics Anonymous comes from chapter 2 of the Big Book:
We are average Americans. All sections of this country and many of its occupations are represented, as well as many political, economic, social, and religious backgrounds. We are people who normally would not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness, and an understanding which is indescribably wonderful.
Tradition Three states that “the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking” which reminds us that membership is open to everyone, regardless of their gender, belief, sexual identity, association, political leaning, or their past. This tradition has been essential to the Agnostic / Atheist / Freethinker movement in AA and from my limited understanding of the organization of AA, a foundation of the program. So in essence, 48 Hours is correct, all are welcome in AA meeting rooms. While I am deeply sorry for what happen to the family and friends of the woman who was the subject of that 48 Hours episode, and for the victim herself who was just trying to find the solace that I also came to AA to find, I do not think that this tradition or AA as a whole is responsible for what happened. I believe it is the individual actions of people in AA that is responsible as well as the silence of other members, and the lack of discussion about this topic in the rooms. Without delving too much into the politics of sexual violence, I will say that for me, the blame lies in a dominant culture where predatory behaviour is trivialized, dismissed and deflected and in this case rather than 48 Hours exploring this larger issue in depth they chose to offer up a sensational piece about AA. Plenty of men (and women) without criminal records commit violent acts or behave in a predatory manner towards women (and other men).
I myself have been just as guilty of this kind of behavior in meetings at times in my recovery. My first decade in and out of AA I spent more time in the rooms looking for boyfriends than I did looking for recovery, and there was no shortage of equally damaged men looking to fill that role. I had very little warning or intervention from other members so today I make it a point of openly discussing this issue with other women in the program. I can’t tell you the number of stories I have heard from women in the rooms who found themselves under the “guidance” of more senior members of the program and inevitably ending up in complicated sexual liaisons. There are meetings in my city I just simply won’t attend because they feel like pick-up joints. It’s whispered about amongst members but it never seems to be addressed directly which could be attributed to the reliance on group conscience as a guiding hand, and if the issue isn’t discussed, it isn’t addressed.
As a response to this issue, and it’s relationship to AA meeting rooms I think it is essential that we start talking about predatory behaviour more openly amongst ourselves as members of AA. I believe we must encourage our friends in recovery, our sponsees and to general attendees at meetings to respect AA meeting rooms as places of healing and recovery, and not encourage or turn a blind eye to members who use them as dating pools and partner hunting grounds. We especially need to be diligent about reaching out to newer, younger members, male and female and help them navigate themselves through early sobriety which mean the topic of sex, relationships etc… needs to be brought up in meetings. This for me is what I appreciate so much about the Freethinkers movement in AA, I believe free thinking and free speech really opens the doors for discussion about this issue that often doesn’t get spoken about in traditional AA meeting rooms. I don’t remember having a lot of women reach out to me when I was new and young in recovery, maybe they did and I can’t remember or I disregarded their warnings (that’s entirely possible) but I feel it’s important for me to have these types of discussions with new men and women in the meeting rooms. I am also guilty of not raising this issue as a topic in meetings and am making a commitment moving forward to do so. I think some of my fear is that many dogmatic, rigid AA members seem to frown on discussions outside of Big Book canon and will say so, and refuse to share regarding the topic if they feel that there is a dogmatic breach in the room. This often influences how a meeting progresses and often the topic gets lost in translation. I have witnessed variations of this when the topic of sex has been brought up.
I know there is no easy fix for this issue and that it is much more complicated than the opinion I am expressing, which is of course, my own. I was nervous about writing this article not only because I am sharing a very personal story but because I anticipate that the subject matter may be very polarizing. In some ways it really comes down to people being accountable for their own actions. For me, being accountable was something I learned how to do through my participation in the AA program and when I attended AA meetings without the distraction of dating, sex etc… the program started to work. Go figure.
In December 2014, after the conclusion of the trial, the story of the murder of Karla Brada Mendez – featured in the 48 Hours episode – was covered by a number of newspapers, including The Fix and the American Bar Association Journal.
Erin J. is a recovering alcoholic, drug addict and practicing Buddhist and is also one of the founders of the first agnostic / atheist meeting in her hometown. She recently had the opportunity to attend the first We Agnostics, Atheists and Free Thinkers convention in Santa Monica, California, where she contributed her time as a volunteer and participated and recorded her experiences in several workshops. You can read some of her work here: Workshops at the WAFT Convention.