My AA, Right or Wrong
By John L.
Last November I led a workshop at the WAFT convention in Santa Monica, “Our AA, Right or Wrong”. This was a paraphrase of the saying:
My country, right or wrong; if right to be kept right, and if wrong, to be set right. (Senator Carl Christian Schurz, 29 February 1872)
The workshop had a good turnout and far-ranging discussion, although nobody was quite sure what the topic was. Some were afraid of being too radical. We have to go slow, they said. We have to find our own voice first. Change will be gradual, evolutionary.
Others said that we need to be outspoken, that other AA members are more open-minded than we sometimes think. One man said he appreciates militancy.
Pungent criticisms were made of AA fundies, and horror stories were exchanged. One woman was told by her sponsor: “You have two choices: either work the Steps or go out and get drunk.” People told about their experiences in re-interpreting or rejecting AA literature, in finding congenial people and groups.
My main points may not have come across: We should defend AA when it is right, and work to change it when it is wrong. I’ll try again now.
In my book, A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous, I discuss attacks on AA made by Charles Bufe, Ken Ragge, Jack Trimpey, Stanton Peele, and “Orange”. Some of their criticisms are valid, especially when dealing with AA religiosity, but other criticisms covertly reflect vested interests: the therapy, pharmaceutical, or liquor industries. None of these critics come to grips with the true AA, the AA that works: the AA that has saved untold thousands of lives, including mine.
To me the heart of AA is and will always be the 24-Hour Plan — total and life-long abstinence from alcohol, a day at a time — along with the Fellowship. Bufe, Ragge, and Peele all promote “moderate” drinking, which is death for alcoholics.
Right now there are two new books which attack AA for its bedrock principle of abstinence. One (Recover!) is by Stanton Peele, who has received funding from the liquor industry. The other (The Sober Truth) is by Lance Dodes, a psychiatrist, who thinks recovering alcoholics can have an occasional beer.
Customer reviews in Amazon.com often amount to cyber-warfare. John M. and I of AA Agnostica have written one-star reviews of the Dodes book. It would be nice for readers to click our reviews as “helpful”.
Some freethinkers in AA shy away from the idea of changing AA. They don’t want to rock the boat. They want to be accepted. Up to a point, this is sensible. For all of us, sobriety comes first, and newcomers especially should not jeopardise their place in the AA Fellowship. In most places there are no nontheist AA groups, so it’s necessary to get along with the majority of AA members, who, at least ostensibly, are theists.
However, we freethinkers should be willing to acknowledge, at least to ourselves, that some things in AA are wrong and ought to be changed. We should be willing to think about what AA ought to be.
Curiously, in pondering what an ideal AA might be, I have often thought back to the AA of my first sober years in Manhattan nearly half a century ago. Perhaps I idealise those meetings, but for all their faults they had a more robust sharing of experience, strength and hope — a stronger focus on sobriety. The Steps were merely “suggested”, and many members ignored them. Members shared their lives, their challenges and achievements, their joys and sorrows. Our goals encompassed physical, economic, social, emotional, and intellectual recovery, not just achieving “spirituality” or other nebulous virtues.
To be sure, some practices back then were wrong, like smoking at meetings or closing with the Lord’s Prayer (LP). Here AA has changed for the better: it’s been decades since I regularly attended a meeting where smoking was allowed or the LP was recited. The growth of secular AA meetings, our Internet presence, and our recent WAFT conference are changes for the better.
AA has changed for the worse in some ways. In my opinion, and that of others with long-term sobriety, AA has become less effective, less rational, and less free. This is not only a matter of increasing religiosity, but also increasing conformity. In discussion meetings, many people now just parrot phrases from the Big Book. If there is a discussion topic, they doggedly stick to it: someone may have gotten a job, or divorced his wife, or broken a leg, but instead of these he will drone on about acceptance or humility or gratitude.
When I came in, the Steps — either on the window-blind rollers or in meeting books — had the header, “Twelve Suggested Steps”. Now “suggested” has gone down the memory hole, and the header is “The Twelve Steps”. The change is subtle, but significant — and with the promotion of the Steps, the true AA is being obscured. Many younger AA members have never even heard of the 24-Hour Plan, the real heart of AA recovery: A day at a time we stay away from the First Drink.
AA As It Ought To Be
As an atheist I believe that all forms of irrationalism are bad. Religiosity in AA is and has always been wrong; it is irrelevant and detrimental to recovery from alcoholism. Having said that, I would not want an AA without believers, even including Big-Book-thumpers. A strength of AA is its crazy mix of all kinds of people, united in fellowship by a common problem.
At its best, AA has great freedom, both for the group and for the individual — an anarchy that actually works (sometimes). There should be room in AA for religionists and room for us infidels. I believe that AA members should have the right to believe whatever they wish, and the right to discuss their beliefs or non-beliefs in discussion, as part of their lives. But I also believe that official religiosity has no business in AA. Officially, AA should be secular, neither religious nor anti-religious.
Here are my thoughts on what changes should be made:
1. Revisions in AA Literature
It’s not too much to ask that AA literature should be truthful and conducive to recovery from alcoholism — but AA literature is filled with statements that are false and harmful. As nonbelievers we rightly object to Bill W.’s claims in the Big Book and elsewhere that no-one can achieve sobriety without help from a supernatural being — that we are powerless without “God”. We know this is false, because many of us have achieved good, long-term sobriety through our own efforts and the help of others. We are not powerless to stay away from the First Drink.
Some AA literature may need only minor revisions; other literature should at least be quarantined. Let’s start with Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as the Big Book (BB). The best part of the BB is the personal stories, but even these were tendentiously edited to make it seem as though all of the recovering alcoholics owed their sobriety to finding God or at least having a “spiritual awakening”. The first 164 pages contain much that is untrue and much that is harmful, written in bad prose. Revising the BB would be futile and pointless. It is now more harmful than helpful, and should be phased out.
The first part of the Twelve and Twelve, commenting on the Steps, is as bad as the worst parts of the BB, and should be quarantined. However, the second part, dealing with the Traditions, is better. Between the two parts, the quality of thought and prose is so different that a dual authorship may be assumed. Credit should be given to Bill’s unacknowledged editor and co-author, Tom Powers, who worked beside him in Stepping Stones. As a writer Bill needed help. Once in GSO in New York I read letters he’d written entirely on his own; they were almost illiterate.
Living Sober, by far the best AA-published book, needs only slight revision and updating. Actually, Living Sober was revised in 2012, mostly for the worse. In the original Living Sober (yellow and tan cover), the Steps were half-heartedly mentioned in one brief chapter, “Trying the Twelve Steps”; the Steps themselves were conspicuously absent. In the revised Living Sober (blue cover) “THE TWELVE STEPS OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS” came back, printed following the main text.
When I recently re-read the main AA pamphlets, I found them better than I’d expected. But even in the best of them, standing out like a sore thumb, are pockets of religiosity, which have nothing to do with the topics of the pamphlets. Either AA is a religious organisation or it isn’t. Since AA claims officially not to be religious, it should prune this unnecessary religiosity from its pamphlets.
2. Revisions in AA History
AA history is fraught with contradictions and omissions. To take just one, crucial example: When and by whom was AA founded? This is not obvious. In his AA history, Ernest Kurtz gives no fewer than four founding moments, and he omits the most important one: when Clarence Snyder held the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Cleveland on 11 May 1939. This was the first meeting of a group with the name, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the first time since the Washingtonian movement (mid-19th century) that alcoholics themselves, free from religionists, organized to help each other achieve and maintain sobriety.
Officially, AA was founded on 10 June 1935, when Dr. Bob had his last drink (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age). But this is preposterous. Having a last drink is not founding a movement or an organisation. In this shameful episode, Bill gives Bob a beer so that his hands won’t shake too badly as he performs surgery. It should be obvious that a doctor with shaking hands, recovering from an alcoholic binge, should not endanger another person’s life by performing surgery.
Officially, AA was founded by Bill W. and Dr. Bob, based on their insight that recovering alcoholics can help each other. But in actuality, this mutual help, alcoholic to alcoholic, was the heart of the Washingtonian movement a century earlier. And such mutual help was present in various temperance movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And to give the Oxford Group credit, alcoholics within it did help each other get and stay sober, and did so before Bill or Bob even got sober themselves.
I don’t expect honest revisionist histories to be published by AA as “conference approved” literature, but they should be done. Such histories should treat Bill and Bob fairly. Some AA critics have raised serious and seemingly well documented charges against Bill W. AA historians should investigate these charges and report on them with unflinching honesty. If Bill gets knocked off his pedestal, so be it; after all, he was the one preaching about “rigorous honesty”. The true AA, as described in the AA Preamble, will survive.
Revisionist historians should go beyond Bill and Bob, to study neglected areas of AA history. There may have been other recovering alcoholics who did more than they to make the true AA what it is. One example: the 24-Hour Plan, which, along with the Fellowship, is a pillar of AA recovery. The earliest description of the 24-Hour Plan I’ve found was in the “Akron Manual” of 1939 or 1940. Does it go back further? It is true that the Washingtonians clearly understood staying away from the first drink, but I have not yet found any reference to the day-at-a-time element.
One would hardly know it from official AA literature, but AA developed many of its best features in its spectacularly successful first years in Cleveland: the emphasis on fellowship rather than “spirituality”, rotating leadership, sponsorship, etc. The 24-Hour Plan also? During this year, Bill and Bob made frequent trips to Cleveland to see what the secrets of success were. What were they? I suggest that future AA historians focus their efforts on Cleveland, not just Akron and New York. An excellent contribution in this area is Mitchell K.’s biography of Clarence Snyder, How it Worked.
3. Revisions in Practice
One of AA’s greatest strengths is the freedom it gives both groups and individuals — a freedom that is overlooked by its critics. Unfortunately, in recent years this freedom is being eroded by a growing and intolerant fundamentalism, causing legitimate secular AA groups to be delisted.
Still, especially in large cities, it is amazing how very different AA groups can be. In Manhattan, where I got sober, one group was dominated by the old upper class. Another group consisted of men living in the Salvation Army shelter on the Bowery. Some groups had members who were well educated and articulate. Others had members who could barely read through a paragraph of the BB or 12 & 12 (but they did their best). Primly pious members of some groups were mainly concerned with fluffing up their own spirituality. Other groups had radicals and nonconformists, artists and writers and other creative people. The Perry Street Workshop, my first home group, was heterogeneous, but the leadership core consisted of intelligent people with good sobriety, who knew more about alcoholism than most doctors.
Although I have my own ideas on what an ideal AA meeting would be, I cherish AA’s infinite variety. Anyway, here goes:
To begin with, the ideal AA meeting would not have readings. To be sure, this would eliminate reading from the BB, 12 & 12, Living Sober, the Grapevine, or the Holy Bible. But then, why couldn’t non-religious AA groups read from the works of Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Robert Ingersoll, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, or Karl Marx? — all of whom are much better thinkers and writers than Bill W. One possible exception might be a description of The 24-Hour Plan, as described in the “Akron Manual” of 1939/1940. This would be appropriate for a beginners meeting.
The ideal AA meeting would not have prayers. At first I liked the Serenity Prayer, which does speak strongly to alcoholics, especially in early recovery, and I would not object to its being displayed on a wall — but I’m sick of it now, having heard it thousands of times to close or open meetings. The group recitation of a prayer, any prayer, is a religious ritual, which offends and excludes the non-religious.
I have great respect for AA’s Twelve Traditions, which are, in Charles Bufe’s words, “a blueprint for organization according to noncoercive anarchist principles.” For over three-quarters of a century, the Twelve Traditions have kept AA alive. But they are not above and beyond criticism. Take the second Tradition:
For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
This is confusing, contains gratuitous religiosity, and absurdly implies that a “loving God” expresses Himself in group conscience meetings. If so, then He changes His mind from time to time. First He allows smoking in meetings; then He bans it; and so on. I would re-write the second Tradition as follows:
Groups reach decisions democratically. After hearing all viewpoints, in a full and unhurried discussion, they vote. Our leaders are no more than trusted servants; they are not rulers.
A troublesome issue is the Steps, the elephant in the parlor. Are they essential? Although AA has been branded as a “12-step program”, in my opinion it is not. The true AA, as described in the AA Preamble, is a fellowship, in which we share experience, strength and hope in order to get sober, stay sober, and lead good lives in sobriety. I object to the Steps, not only because of the “god” references, but also because they falsely imply that alcoholism is caused by character defects, rather than the other way around. Alcoholism, the continued intake of ethyl alcohol in a susceptible body, does cause character defects: deformations of the personality. With time and total abstinence, the true and good personality of the recovering alcoholic returns. The process may need help from other people, but in my opinion, the Steps are a poor tool for the purpose. I would like to see the Steps de-emphasised and eventually phased out.
A lot more could be said on all of these areas, but I’m going to wind up. Our forces — we atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, etc. in AA — are gathering strength. At the same time, the religious fundamentalists are preparing for battle. This is a time to be bold. Let us be honest, principled, and steadfast.
Akron Manual (1939/1940).
Bill Wilson: Alcoholics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.
Mitchell K., How It Worked: The Story of Clarence H. Snyder.
Ernest Kurtz, Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Matthew J. Raphael, Bill W. and Mr. Wilson: The Legend and Life of AA’s Cofounder.
John has written many a fine piece for AA Agnostica. And here they are:
- Group Conscience Follies (May 31, 2015)
- Sober & Out (October 8, 2014). A review of a book by the AA Grapevine for gays, lesbians and the transgendered in AA.
- Sophrosune: A Higher Power for Freethinkers (August 10, 2014).
- Perry Street Workshop (February 16, 2014). This is where John attended his first AA meeting in 1968 and he still considers it his “home base”.
- Physical Recovery (February 17, 2013).
- Washington Forebears of Alcoholics Anonymous (July 15, 2012).
- The Program (February 28, 2012). John writes about the importance in his recovery of the 24 Hour Plan.
- A Proposal to Eliminate the Lord’s Prayer from AA Meetings (November 17, 2011). Written on an Olympia manual typewriter, this proposal was circulated by John in New York City way back in 1976.