Snake Oil: Something that is sold as medicine but that is not really useful or helpful in any way.
By John H.
Washington DC We Agnostics Group
There are few people as psychologically vulnerable as newly recovering alcoholics. They may be subject to all forms of misdirection and manipulation.
In early recovery I heard phrases in AA like “my brain needed washing” and the tried and true ego deflator, “my best thinking got me here”.
I begged to differ then and I am even more adamant today.
Being somewhat isolated in my own program “bubble” in recent years, I only was vaguely aware of a growing national movement that has been brewing since the 1990s under the banner of “Back to Basics” which has metastasized and morphed to take on many forms in different parts of the country.
Some of this has been aided and abetted by publishers who handle fundamentalist-oriented literature (even Hazelden is involved) as well as part of the ever growing in-patient addiction and recovery industry that primarily is based upon the AA model. Areas and intergroup offices also have gotten hooked into promoting sobriety “tune up” workshops and retreats some of which have bizarre and medically dangerous characteristics. I am also convinced that aggressive political movements by the Christian Right in all aspects of American life have engendered elements of what only can be described as an offshoot of the Culture Wars within the formerly unallied confines of AA.
“Back to Basics” – as currently constituted – is based on the 1998 book of that name (Second Edition 2001, Eighth Printing 2006) authored by a very interesting character named “Wally P.” (such a folksy AA-related name could not possibly be fictional). The outlines and antecedents of the movement were well documented in these AA Agnostica pages by Thomas B. in his very good April, 2014 article A Fellowship of the Religious?
I won’t go over the already well-researched historical ground noted above and will instead focus (in an anecdotal and well-documented way) on what I have observed taking root in my own area based on the origins of this movement as well as the probable negative effects of this surge of fundamentalism on the AA program as a whole and the sometimes dire threat it represents to atheists and agnostics in early sobriety.
Much of what we need to know about the zealotry of “Back to Basics” can be gleaned from a talk given by Wally P. at a “Cocaine Anonymous” meeting in the late 2000s (he apparently identifies as a member of multiple 12 step fellowships in addition to AA): Wally P. Alcoholics Anonymous Speaker. Listening to his talk can be quite instructive.
The key portion is where Wally P. describes the genesis of his “mission from God” to write his book and spread the enlightenment contained in Back to Basics where we suffering alcoholics are “brought to our knees” to seek the intercession of an all-seeing, all-powerful God returning us to Dr. Bob’s original vision, the Akron pre-Big Book six-step program found on page 151 of Back to Basics, that involves the following:
- Complete deflation
- Dependence and guidance from a Higher Power
- Moral Inventory
- Continued work with other alcoholics
All of this is centered on our so-called “bad personality or character defects” and ends where the sufferer (in this case Earl T. in Dr. Bob’s Akron medical office in 1938) goes to the mat with Dr. Bob himself… “When I said yes, we both knelt at his desk and prayed, each asking to have these defects taken away.”
Wally P. came to his mission in a curious way. It seems that in November 1989, with a little over a year of sobriety, he was having trouble with the “spiritual” part of the program and felt compelled to learn more about the fellowship’s Akron origins after seeing a picture of Dr. Bob’s home in Dr. Bob and the Good Old-timers.
Rather than call first to see if Dr. Bob’s house still is standing, Wally “spontaneously” boarded a plane and headed to Akron where he learned that Dr. Bob’s house recently had been purchased by a local group of AA members and was being restored to its original 1930s condition. It seems that Wally “coincidently” had arrived on exactly the day where the one meeting a year that is held in Dr. Bob’s house was taking place.
There were 75-80 people at the house and the speakers’ meeting was being conducted by seven or eight members with 40+ years of sobriety, each of whom had experienced direct contact with Dr. Bob. Also in attendance was Dr. Bob’s daughter Sue. After the meeting Wally was singled out as the person who had traveled farthest to attend the meeting (by accident, according to Wally). They asked him to be of service.
The next thing Wally knows he is part of a caravan heading to Cleveland (home of Clarence S.). He is brought to a forbidding looking building which turns out to be the Cleveland Salvation Army detox. Upon arrival he is told he will be leading a meeting there (he never had spoken at an AA meeting previous to this and, so he says, always was “passing” when called upon). When he demurs he is told by the good Dr. Bob-inspired old-timers to get on his knees and ask for guidance from God. Wally does so, Big Book in hand, and “having had a spiritual awakening” immediately experiences a profound conversion based on his having received a “mission from God”. Wally becomes the Chosen One as a direct result of a “laying on of hands” by people with a direct connection to Dr. Bob.
Wally has been on his “mission” ever since. It only was reinforced by a diagnoses of Stage Four cancer which has been reduced to Stage One due (according to Wally) to the prayers of other AA members for his recovery. He never mentions an oncologist, but I suspect such a professional was involved somewhere along the way.
Make no mistake about it. These people are deadly serious about this stupidity and Wally P. is on a Mission From God having been “Chosen”.
This total lunacy is, in my opinion, a serious threat to the open and caring version of AA I first knew and grew to love in the same time frame Wally and company were preparing to reform it, taking AA back to its so-called Akron roots. I actually shuddered when I thought about what would have happened to me as a newcomer had I been directed to proceed lock-step to the kind of “Back to Basics” meeting I was surprised to learn takes place at 6:45 AM every Friday just a few blocks from my home.
An early riser, I took my morning walk through the leafy streets of Bethesda, MD and found my way to the second floor of a Presbyterian Church and a well-attended meeting (30-40 members) with copies of Wally P.’s tome on every other chair. I picked up my copy and prepared to settle in.
The leader began by reading about the first step from Wally’s book (with a nearly audible sigh of relief from me). Instead of reading through she asked if people felt like commenting. There was a good mix of men, women, young, old, obvious newcomers as well as people with many years in the program.
When the members started sharing I saw very clearly that in this instance I was with just another bunch of drunks with Step One stories similar to my own. The power of identification was alive and well even here. For that I was very grateful. In that, our common problem is indeed the universal glue that holds us together.
Rigid approaches work for some, not at all for others. I was struggling to focus on that when they started fretting about how “powerless” they were in every aspect of their lives beyond their alcoholism. How “taking their power back”, “failing to keep surrendering in order to win”, “living in the program without any reservations”, and “resisting the reproductive power of the alcoholic ego” and any of a host of other lapses could drag them inevitably down toward that next drink. Oxford Group stuff straight out of the book.
I really was trying to reflect the true spirit of the program despite my reservations with what I was hearing. To focus on the solution (not drinking) as opposed to the problem (rigid dogmatism).
This was just another bunch of drunks who take their AA straight from a book (in this case Wally P’s text) and don’t ask many questions. A perfectly OK approach for them if they are there as volunteers, which appeared to be the case, but I still wondered about the newcomers in the room.
A case in point was a gentleman who appeared to be in his late 30’s who said he had less than 90 days. He indicated that, at first, he had issues with the word “powerless” as applied to aspects of his life other than the abuse of alcohol. However, he said that he had “come to believe” (despite the fact that his rational mind knew that he had power over some things) that in every fundamental way he was in fact “powerless” in just about every aspect of his life.
I immediately wondered how he might react to the proposition that when AA really works that we get power over our lives back. I kept quiet on this score because I had resolved, prior to going there, not to be contrary or oppositional in any way in that particular context.
When it was time for me to share, in the sweetest voice I could muster, I thanked them profusely. As I said, they were on the First Step which made it a lot more palatable and I indicated that despite our differences we all were in this together. I of course identified myself as an atheist with long-term sobriety, as well as being a founding member of DC We Agnostics.
That’s when the most telling detail became evident.
After hearing who I was, none of my brothers and sisters made eye contact with me after the meeting. The lady next to me was reluctant to hold hands which was sort of funny in that we don’t hold hands at our DC version of We Agnostics. After the meeting ended I stood there for a full minute playing with my cell phone and I could have been transparent! They looked right through me.
I was as sweet as pie (my usual smiley, happy self) but evidently was a self-professed heathen fouling the temple by my very presence.
We have a long way to go in this religion-crazed country.
The pernicious nonsense of Back to Basics (which can accidently harm an atheist/agnostic newcomer) is not the only bizarre hallucinatory manifestation in the wider AA world. I was quite surprised to come across the following flyer regarding an AA “Fix Your Recovery” program entitled “Alcoholism: The Invisible Disease” at a Church in ultra-liberal (though quite wealthy) upper NW Washington, DC, a program prominently featured on the DC intergroup website.
Here we find what was quite a revelation to me (after 28+ years of my thinking that AA was a program of recovery from alcoholism) in that, “the Big Book suggests (AA’s) spiritual principles can, when practiced daily to the best of our ability, solve ALL our problems. And that is our experience!”
You really do have to read this stuff to believe it (download the pdf in the link above). ALL of our problems! Now I know for certain where Wally’s miracle cancer cure came from. Could I turn my old Moscow business problems into gold (zolotoy in Russian) at last? What about my kid’s educational issues? Could I get rid of those pesky folks down at Kaiser Permanente and turn my own latter day Medicare-funded health over to this Big Book thing? Had I totally missed out on what life has to offer?
I had to go down and investigate these miracles for myself.
On a very pleasant May Sunday afternoon I found myself at a Methodist Church (a very unlikely venue for me on a Sunday) on Connecticut Avenue in Washington and, after some effort and with the help of a very nice lady attending the meeting, found the basement room where the program was to be presented.
Since it was literally impossible (for a host of reasons) for me to sit through eight Sundays of this, I only was able to catch the final week which centered on Steps 10, 11 and 12.
Since the agenda of the presentation itself is not what drew me there I will be brief regarding that aspect. The leader talked about the following:
- The need, as an alcoholic, for constant self-monitoring and constant checking with a sponsor with numerous examples of this given.
- Oxford Group-based detailed inventories of personal character defects.
- A yearly inventory comparing your current Self to yourself in the previous year.
- An example of a detailed 10th step inventory of resentments done on the same person (a work supervisor) ten times in one year. Any slacking or backsliding on doing these inventories was described as “unacceptable”.
- Reciting on a daily basis (morning and evening on your knees doing Step 11) the St. Francis Prayer where the last line says “It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life”. How that thing is not religious! This was said seriously.
- How the leader, in addition to her sponsor, calls and speaks with at least five other alcoholics every day.
- How day by day, every day we suffering alcoholics need to do a daily inventory of our personal assets and liabilities of discord and harmony to tally up a balance sheet of God’s will (it was not explained how she finds that out) or self-will.
- In addition to the above there have to be AA readings morning and evening.
- In terms of the 12th Step, she told of finding out about a prospect’s religious inclinations and calling them every day for a week before giving up, never waiting for them to call her. AA people only talking about AA things after meetings around newcomers and always bringing post-meeting conversations back to AA with the person with the most experience guiding the conversation, etc.
This is only a partial list of what I heard (attending AA meetings and sharing was not addressed). Since I did not attend the previous seven sessions, this is only one-eighth of this stuff. How one possibly has the time to make a living, enjoy a relationship, raise children, have non-AA friends, or live anything that might resemble a normal life was not explained.
I was polite during the meeting (even though I’m certain my eyes were growing wide and were accompanied by an involuntary headshake or two), I refrained from comment but had a question for the leader I raised after the meeting. What sparked my interest and caused me to go was the flyer promoting the event (see above) and the following excerpts therefrom:
Because we have a God-given right to fully recover, and to be 100% free of alcohol and other mind and mood altering (elevating, sedating, leveling) chemicals or substances, prescribed or otherwise, and because the Big Book suggests (AA’s) spiritual principles can, when practiced daily to the best of our ability, solve ALL our problems. And that is our experience.
Are you thinking the unmanageability in your life is due to an emotional, mental or psychiatric disorder rather than the disease of alcoholism?• Are you considering using prescribed medication to manage your emotions?• Are you currently using prescribed medication in an attempt to chemically manage your emotions, but they don’t seem to be helping…and if you are, is it possible, out of sheer desperation for an answer to your ongoing dilemma, or a desire to change how you feel, that you feigned, embellished, invented or exaggerated your symptomatic report to the prescribing doctor… like so many of us have?
It was now time for me to get to the point. After the meeting when the leader said she did not have a copy of the flyer and could not respond to my question regarding prescribed medication I sent the following to her in an email:
These passages seem to indicate to me (as well as a number of other long-sober members who received a copy to check my reading of this) that you are saying that AA can somehow replace medical treatment of psychiatric illness and “solve ALL our problems”. The implication of your words here seemed to be that members taking prescribed psychiatric medications might be somehow less than fully sober members of the fellowship.
While I consider myself fortunate never to have personally had a psychiatric condition requiring treatment I know many sober members of the fellowship with long term sobriety who require such treatment and benefit greatly from it. I seem to recall some statements many years ago from some members questioning the sobriety of members using prescribed medication for medical conditions but it has been a very long time since I have heard such things in AA. This was of even greater concern because it was published by WAIA (Washington Area Intergroup Association).
The reply I received was not from the leader of the meeting but from a gentleman by the name of Wayne B. who, it turns out, is a well-known AA circuit speaker whose sponsor is Clancy of Pacific Group fame which is from where I’m assuming at least some of this nonsense emanates. His website, where he sells this program is to be found here, Life’s in Session: Are you “in… or out?”. He also sells an AA board game (I’m serious folks and I need to find out if Bill Wilson lives on Park Place or Baltic) and there is a link there for that as well.
In the spirit of fairness, a verbatim excerpt from his response follows:
Hi John, my name is Wayne B. I am in no way connected to the Back to Basics program, nor is Kerry, nor is the workshop Kerry presents. As a matter of fact, it is a composition from our AA history, and Bill W’s successful recovery from “Spiritual” depression.
I am in fact the man who did the research into this subject, and it is I who formatted the workshop, the flier, and the content of the workshop you seem to have issues with.
I will tell you what I will do… after you have sat through, as an attendee, ALL 8 sessions of the workshop with Kerry, I will be happy to answer any and all of your questions regarding these concerns you have. Until you have done so, your objections are unfounded and unnecessary.
Since I do, and you don’t, have experience being misdiagnosed several times as having mental illness, and being subjected to years of unnecessary medication since my symptoms were directly due to a spiritual dilemma, as evidenced by the fact I am sober 37 years, and have been off medication… all 9 of them, ever since, I think it is compelling and prudent that you would be interested in and have an open mind as to how these misdiagnoses are taking place in epidemic proportion in our fellowship.
If you don’t agree with the workshop, that’s fine. If you are concerned about others, even when YOU YOURSELF state you have no need for medications, leaves me to wonder why you are overly concerned about this.
Well, as I said in my reply to Wayne, I’m not about to sit through eight of those sessions (as you can see he won’t fully address my questions until I drink the entire bottle of snake oil) though I could probably learn a thing or two more about this type of extremism. I’m polite but not that polite and am “overly concerned” with the essence of this which, if you suffer from mental illness and they get their hands on you, could indeed kill you.
I’m not a medical doctor and neither is Wayne. I really was stepping through the looking glass here and half expected to find further craziness such as “Christian Science” or a Scientologist with a psychiatric conspiracy theory and a visit from some Thetans. It’s that weird.
However, there is a serious issue here of so-called AA guru’s (Wayne has 37 years, is a circuit speaker and a Clancy acolyte) setting themselves up as medical experts without any scientific qualifications of any kind while spewing uninformed assumptions about things like the nature of depression and other serious medical issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s an “outside issue” if ever I saw one. It lends itself to being used as a wedge to further the Right Wing religious agenda on display here.
As atheists and agnostics in AA I feel we have a duty to expose and confront such madness wherever and whenever we find it. This is the sort of thing that kills people like us (with or without mental illness) by driving us away when confronted with a rigid approach to AA that has real hazards associated with it.
There is a rising tide of inherently damaging religious dogma that is setting back the program decades. Can you think of any Right Wing political movement that literally wants to take us back to the 1930s or 40s? Dr. Bob has been dead nearly 65 years. Bill Wilson has been dead 44 years. Many of us think it’s time to evolve without totally dismissing the true breakthroughs of Wilson and Smith which involved Step One, the power of identification, sharing and helping another alcoholic.
Here in the United States we revere our founding fathers. The Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial glow in the morning sun despite the fact that both Washington and Jefferson were slave-owners. Our country, over time and with great struggle, totally rejected some of their operating principles and world views without undermining their truly innovative and vitally important contributions to human history. As a fellowship AA needs to grow in the same way with respect and admiration for our founders, but absent blind adherence to methods and beliefs more suited to the 1930s, 40s and 50s than the modern world. I won’t live to see the change but the change can at least begin with us and begin now.
It’s time to move on to the next level here and tell the truth. When the fundamentalist AA person says “spiritual” they 100% mean religious. When they say “God as you understand him” they 100% mean the Christian God that THEY understand. When they say “suggested” they mean “mandatory.” If you reject this (any of this) they flatly say that you are condemning yourself to an alcoholic death. They might as well take an atheist out and shoot him or her. That’s the truth!
This isn’t the AA I know and love and fortunately all is not lost yet. There are many members who are believing Christians and liberal at the same time, but I strongly feel they are, little by little, losing ground to the fundamentalists. We may very well find, after more time has elapsed and further investigation has been done, that there is a coordinated, nationwide effort to turn AA “Back to Basics” that manifests itself in many ways other than the “program” by that name.
Once the fundamentalists get you shadow boxing with their perversion of the language, “St. Francis isn’t “religious”, “voluntary is mandatory”, “GOD is not GOD”, “We love you but are sad to report you are condemned to death”, you literally don’t know which end is up and the vulnerable and unprotected (the ones that aren’t driven away to continue their drinking) can end up totally in their grip. I strongly believe that this sort of indoctrination is the aim of many in this wing of AA. The world of science, light and reason is under assault by the forces of medieval superstition.
They need to be resisted.
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 third in a series of articles he is writing for AA Agnostica. After a career of worldwide travels that involved stints residing overseas John now lives with his wife in Bethesda, MD.