We are people who normally would not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness, and an understanding which is indescribably wonderful… The feeling of having shared in a common peril is one element in the powerful cement which binds us.
Bill Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 17
By John H.
Washington DC We Agnostics Group
AA needs stories. It thrives on them. There has been something of an existential thirst for our stories from the very earliest times.
Where would we have been as a fellowship if Bill had not so eloquently communicated his story to Dr. Bob? Who’s to say? Where would we be as individual members if we had not heard the right thing at the right time that helped us in early sobriety?
Who communicates these things? Spirits, angels, demons or ghosts? Obviously not in the real world as opposed to the fictional universe some members of AA chose to construct. Instead of disembodied givers of “instructions” floating in air we get our knowledge and the “secular miracle” of identification from the diverse characters we meet in the rooms of AA.
In my own case from my first days in AA in the later part of the 1980s I was exposed to an incredibly varied set of personalities, mind sets and beliefs that invariably led to a deeper understanding of and compassion for my fellow members. The knowledge of stories “different” from my own and the growing conviction that I could possibly fit into the structure of the program within the parameters of my own rather unorthodox views proved that there was a place for the unlikely likes of me inside the fellowship.
Regarding my own experiences of “diversity” in AA and in an attempt to coherently document how it “takes all kinds” I wanted to focus at the outset on the early parts of my journey.
* * *
This chapter began very early via introductions from my first sponsor in Washington (the late Jerimiah B.) to the quite nationally famous local fellowship group known as the “Class of 64”. The core members of this group were Hal “Dr. Gratitude” M., Sandy B. and Ed C. all of whom are now deceased. I had interactions with and learned various surprising and quite positive things from these distinguished gentlemen despite their old style program attitudes and my rejection of 90% of what they had to say.
Sitting in a meeting almost three decades ago in the US Capitol Building on Tuesday mornings I used to hear Hal (who was invariably perched on the Dias in his sacrosanct spot at the front of the room looking like a Christian “Jabba the Hut”) explain how, if one maintained an “attitude of gratitude” that it would be far harder to take that first drink. Once I got over what (or to whom) he was implying you might be grateful to I fully understood that it was possible for a lifelong atheist such as myself just to be grateful in general and that gratitude was a calming and centering quality in and of itself without any theological or “spiritual” implications.
Having received the message direct from the source I never bought one of Hal’s tapes or went to one of his lectures on the speakers circuit that were quite a phenomenon in his day. I’m also certain that if he were around and reading this today that he would not be overly delighted with me or my opinions but that’s not the relevant point. I got to hear someone with great practical knowledge of and experience with alcoholics and it provided me with some useful information. I use it to this day.
Sandy B. was just about the most “famous” DC Alcoholic there ever was. His meetings at the National Institutes of Health on Saturday mornings were attended by hundreds and he was “on the circuit” around the US for many years. His gatherings seemed more like show business than AA to me (I only attended two that I recall) and his “philosophy” struck me as a brand of ego driven anti-intellectual populism. I was not a fan.
One Spring Saturday in the early 90s I found myself with my sponsor Jerimiah and my second wife (I had a history of multiple marriages in common with Sandy which was just about the only thing we had in common) at an AA party on a boat pulling out from a marina on the Anacostia River. At the center of it all and most prominent as always was Sandy B. Upon recognizing him I was resolved to avoid his charisma for the duration of the trip.
At one point I saw a middle aged guy sitting alone on the boat who looked a bit “down and out” compared to the very well healed crowd at the event. I went over to him and started a conversation and found he was a “guest of Sandy”, had recently gotten out of the Alexandria, VA jail and was living in Sandy B.’s basement. Wow! I immediately thought of Bill W. and the drunks living in his house in Brooklyn. Not superstar behavior to have someone fresh out of jail living in your basement. So, I guess my harsher judgments needed to be tempered by fact and they were. This guy Sandy really believed in what he was doing and deserved acknowledgement of that. I never became a member of the “Cult of Sandy B.” but, despite my ongoing misgivings about some of his methods, I did respect him in the end. This actually was a fairly clear lesson regarding the proper use of the Big Book’s “contempt prior to investigation” clause that is so often used to mischaracterize us in the conventional program parlance.
Ed C. was lower key and less famous than his other two “classmates” from 1964 but very generous with his time and effort. I first met Ed in the Senate cafeteria in the Dirksen Building in my first week of sobriety and it must have been torture for him to be sitting with an atheist of my type. I could tell I was more than a little disturbing to him (he was a very straight laced old style DC political operator) as an obvious “hippie refugee” in a Brooks Brothers suit. I was raw, profane and combative despite my newcomer’s desperation. My brain was not working well and I wasn’t very nice. He must have hated me given where he was at. However, he calmly explained that while there were 12 steps that he felt were vital to a viable sobriety that what I needed to do at the moment was not drink and go to meetings. I took his message to heart and I’ve been doing just that (not drinking and going to meetings minus most of the steps) for 28+ years. He taught me that you don’t have to like someone in AA to help them.
There are other lessons I learned from people who could not be more different than the members of the “Class of 64’” such as the serial psychiatric patient and DC AA member known as “RJ” who taught me about compassion for our mentally ill members.
“RJ” used to go to a meeting I regularly attended on Saturday Morning in the basement of a Catholic Cathedral. He would speak toward the end of each meeting and was obviously schizophrenic with voices in his head and electronic transmitters implanted in his brain. He was totally unthreatening and in the AA way people thanked him for sharing as he got up and wandered out of the room never staying till the end of the meeting. He disappeared from the group and several people made enquiries but no one seemed to know where he was. About six months after his disappearance he showed up one Saturday at halftime and actually stayed till the end. After the closing he walked directly up to me and said, in the clear firm voice of an educated man, “John, I just wanted you to know that I was drinking, went off my medication and wasn’t making sense. I stopped drinking, went back to the hospital and am feeling much better now.” Well knock me down “RJ”, you showed me! I learned yet another wonderful lesson from him about how to try to suspend final judgment until all the information is in. I hope “RJ” is still out there and I wish him well.
John M. was one of the members of our DC We Agnostics group from our 1988 founding until his death in the early 2000’s. He’s the only member I ever met who categorically rejected Step One and stayed sober anyway.
John told a story on himself related to his career. He was a very senior member of the US Intelligence community and held the highest clearances you can obtain. He had very strict rules for reporting his whereabouts on a secure phone especially if he ever found it necessary to miss work. One morning on a work day he was passed out so cold that he did not hear the phone when he was called when late. Three US Marines were dispatched with his supervisor to his apartment and when he didn’t answer the door it was broken down. After finding him in that condition he was bundled into a vehicle, taken to a secret location, sobered up and “debriefed” for several days. He was so important to his agency that they kept him on till retirement provided he “controlled” his drinking. He eventually became totally abstinent and by the time I met him he had been dry for a short time.
He used this dire situation as an example of how he felt his life had not been unmanageable. He said, quite seriously, “My life wasn’t unmanageable, it just required adroit management.” What a guy! I miss him. John was an example of how even the most difficult and hard to reach cases can get and stay sober on their own terms provided they make a decision in the end. This was another great lesson in leaving my assumptions at the door and showing me how AA really works.
Gaston N. was a very well-known radical atheist African American activist and poet as well as one of the founders of the Black Arts movement in the US. He educated me in many ways about many things and became my all-time best AA friend.
We could not have been more different. A white middle class child of the suburbs with Republican parents and US Anglo-Saxon roots going back hundreds of years meets a firebrand from the tough streets of Pittsburgh who came to DC in the late 1950s and knew just about all of the leading African American left wing political figures, writers and artists of his generation. What could I possibly have added to his rich mix? Something apparently, because we became very close.
We learned from each other the value of what it means to be a “lifelong friend” despite some profound differences. We both shared a determination as regards our own sobriety and our responsibilities as individuals to maintain it while establishing a calm reliance on each other that stood (and still stands) the test of time.
When Gaston was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1997 we went with the assumption that he would be with his wife, children and friends for some time to come. Sadly, while he had a brilliant oncologist who did his best there were just two short years left for him. In that time I saw extraordinary courage being displayed by someone who demanded a great deal from life and those around him and was not about to take no for an answer from anyone.
This was a tough deal for a tough man. He fought like the “Guerrilla Word Warrior” (one of his poetry chapbook titles) he was but at the end he had to put down the struggle and find his own brand of rational acceptance of the world as it is.
In those final years we had many conversations in hospitals and in the car going to and from meetings but the most lasting memory I have of those times is from a party at his house right before his death. How many people get to attend their own wake? Gaston did! Just a few days before he knew he would be gone he was king of the roost sitting in his living room receiving famous academics, poets, politicians, old friends, neighbors and sundry AA members. At the end of the evening he pulled me close to his ear. I whispered “I love you man” and he whispered back “I love you too”.
Love and service! Experiences like these (at these extremes) can only be found in concentrated form in AA. From Gaston I learned the true meaning of the word fellowship.
* * *
While I have many later day stories of the living I have told these tales mostly of people no longer with us. The journeys of those still here are ongoing but those of the dead are fixed in time and more subject to reflection in a piece such as this.
What I am trying to indicate overall is that as a result of the diversity found in the program that I am still learning and growing in a way that just can’t be found anywhere else.
However, I see trends within AA that may be a threat to this rich mix. I would hate to be ghettoized in my own little corner of the world and I fear that forces are assembling that could require us, as unbelievers, to band together in a marginalized version of the program of our own. Our AAAA groups are vitally important to us and the expansion of these meetings is a very good thing but I would hate to be cut off from the mainstream by a radical religious fringe. What I mean by “radical religious fringe” will be fully explained in my next article here.
Just like I need to accept conventional members they need to accept me. Just like, after a fashion, I acknowledged the wisdom of the “Class of 64” the program at large needs to accept the viability and importance of the class of 2016 that will assemble in Austin for our second wAAft gathering. They don’t need to be more like us for us to accept them. Likewise we should not feel the obligation to take on their coloration and mouth their psalms to be accepted in return. Diversity does not require uniformity, it requires diversity. I believe that we in our “wing” are up to that challenge. Is the rest of the program up to the same challenge as we put ourselves above ground and raise our voices?
If AA as a whole can’t, for whatever reason, fully embrace us, I fear that future generations of Atheist/Agnostic members will be denied the incredible advantages I have had in my recovery due to the diversity in AA I was able to find and embrace in every corner of this amazing fellowship.
John H. is one of the founding members of the We Agnostics group in Washington, DC that has been meeting continuously for over 26 years. This is the second in a series of articles he is writing for AA Agnostica. He is currently researching the AA “Back to Basics” movement in the USA which will be the subject of his next piece here. After a career of worldwide travels that involved stints residing overseas, John now lives with his wife in Bethesda, MD.