This was the first of three main talks at a workshop on the history of secular AA at the We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention in Austin, Texas, in November 2016.
By Chuck K.
I am Chuck K. I’m from Chicago. I had my last drink June 3rd, 1982 and on July 6th, 1982 I went to my first Quad A meeting.
Quad A was started in 1975 by Don W.
Don W. had been raised in Kansas in a minister’s family, had come to Chicago, had drunk continuously for years and when he sobered up he found himself at a loss for things to do. Don was a musician, he loved music, he loved to party, he also loved to play cards.
So, once he sobered up he was able to pursue his interest in cards with a passion. And he found that there were a number of Alano Clubs in Chicago and he made the Logan Square group his home base. This was a 24 hour a day club that had full kitchen facilities and was a very large affair. So he would go over to the club where there was a group of guys who played cards all night and he joined in and because Don was a very sociable guy, a very outgoing guy, he immediately became friends with everyone not only in the card group but within the club. And they told him that there were other clubs that had other card games so off he went. Pinochle, gin, poker, he played them all.
And he became very well known within Chicago AA because of his reputation as a card player but also as a musician. He would be invited to parties at these clubs which would throw parties and dances and he would bring his band along and play. So by the time he decided that he had had enough of traditional AA he was a fellow who had a lot of contacts in AA.
Because he had been raised in the church, when he sobered up he felt comfortable going to the Second Unitarian Church in Chicago and he became the choirmaster because of his interest in music. After he had been sober for a few years and he decided that he had had enough of traditional AA he approached the minister at the Second Unitarian and said, “I’d like to start an AA meeting. Can we meet here? Can we use the basement?” The minister said yes. So Don put out the word to his friends and he got the group going and I found out about it through counselors when I was in the hospital.
So as soon as I found out there was an atheist/agnostic group I could attend, I was there. It was the first meeting I went to once I got out of the hospital. I had had my fill of the hospital. I had been an atheist since I was 20 years old. And when I got to rehab in the hospital they told me the usual stuff, you know, “Get God. Get down on your knees and pray, get up in the morning and blah, blah, blah…” And I’m going “What is this shit?”
But I had come to the end of the road with alcohol. I mean, it was pretty clear to me, I went into rehab because I knew that I was losing my mind, I could see that I was becoming paranoid, and I knew it was the booze that was doing it and I knew that this would continue and my life would be over unless I stopped and I didn’t know how to stop and they said you’ve got to do whatever it takes to stop and I said okay.
So this was a Catholic hospital where there was a rehab unit so they had a chapel up on the tenth floor and at the end of the first week I said “Okay, this is it, I’m going to do whatever it takes”. And I went up to the chapel and sat down in there and I said “God, if you are there and are listening to me I’m here, tell me something”. And of course the candle flickered and silence continued. I decided I wouldn’t be impatient and I waited 15 minutes. I figured if the Lord’s there, 15 minutes is plenty of time for Him to speak up and let me know that He’s got a job for me. The silence continued. And that was my last religious act within AA, or an attempted religious act within AA.
When I got to Quad A, I found a group of people very much like myself. A bunch of loud mouth, over educated, left wing radical liberals who were pissed with everybody. It was a wonderful group! And after a few years the group had grown so large that a second group started up and Don went off and helped them get started.
Then we had a lawyer in our group named John K who was really upset that we weren’t in the Chicago directory. He contacted the people downtown at the Service Office and said “What’s the deal? How do you get into the directory?” At first they were reluctant and finally they gave him the forms because John was a tax lawyer and he was very good dealing with bureaucracy. He just kept at it like a bulldog and eventually they gave him the papers that he needed to fill out. He filled them out and turned them in and we were supposed to in the next directory which at that time was printed every two months to keep it updated. We weren’t in the next directory so John went downtown and asked, “What’s going on? This is Don’s group.” “Oh! Don’s group!” Well, everybody knew Don and so the atheist / agnostic group became Don’s group in the minds of many of the people who were in the Central Office. The next directory, there we were.
All of a sudden. Officially listed AA. Quad A: Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics.
Things were fine for six months and then we disappeared from the directory. John went back downtown and said, “What happened?” And he got a lot of different answers, you know, the usual mumbo jumbo: “Oh, clerical error. Oh the printer left it off. Oh, I don’t know I’ll have to check on that. Let me get back to you next Monday”. John, like I said, was a bulldog. He kept up with it and eventually we got back in the directory and we stayed in the directory.
The example that Don gave us of working within the structure of AA and being known by the people in AA has been useful to us as we continued and expanded. There are now 11 different meetings in Chicago. Every night of the week, in the city, outside of the city. All of the groups call themselves Quad A but we differentiate ourselves by either Quad A Schaumburg, Quad A Evanston, Quad A Monday Night. There is a wide variety of sub designations. But we all go with the identity of Quad A. It enables us to say two things: It says we belong to AA, the first two A’s are Alcoholics Anonymous, the second two for Atheists and Agnostics tells people that we have an emphasis on that, but we begin every meeting by saying, “This is Quad A, Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics and anyone else with a desire to stop drinking”.
Everyone is welcome. At my Monday night home group we have a number of Christians who attend because they like the meeting! And they’re welcome. As time goes on there are a number of us who have done a lot of work with the Central Office. I was working on the local Grapevine which is called “Here’s How”. It comes out every two months. Because I was there as all of the God articles floated into the office and we had to make decisions about what we would print, I was able to say, “Well, you know, this is a little top heavy here”. And people on the staff listened and we were able to hold down on some of the craziness that is involved in many people’s minds. We didn’t reproduce it in print and we were able occasionally to introduce a secular piece, a secular point of view. And I got to know a number of the people in the office and so when I talked to them I was no longer the crazy atheist. I was Chuck, the guy working on “Here’s How”.
When we redesigned the website a couple of years ago, Bill M from our group went down and participated in all of the meetings and set the thing up. We have a filter on our website in Chicago so you can go in and you can find out what day of the week a meeting will be, you can put in a location, north side, south side, you can put in, if you want, a Spanish-speaking meeting, you can put in, if you want, an LGBTQ meeting, and another filter that is on there is “atheists and agnostics”, very specifically. And that’s the result of Bill working with the committee as they redesigned it.
And so we found overall that our atheists and agnostic groups in Chicago, Quad A, are treated like any other set of groups in Chicago. And I think that is the result of the Don W heritage and the fact that we’re involved in the overall city-wide program. It’s important for us in our groups to maintain our identity as members of AA.
Different groups have different ideas about the Steps. My Monday Night Group is fairly traditional. We go through the Steps twice a year and then we have topic meetings the rest of the time. We feel the Steps provide a nice framework for change. We read the Steps as they were originally written but we also use the wording from many of the alternative Steps so that people at the meeting can see that there is a number of different ways to approach the Steps and work them. And of course we tell everyone that these are just suggestions.
The Evanston group on the other hand doesn’t believe in the Steps at all. They don’t believe in anything. They come in and sit around the table around seven o’clock and then they start talking. I’ve been at that meeting and heard a fellow go on for half an hour about the Belmont Stakes and his experience at the track and how much people were drinking in the infield. It’s just the strangest damn meeting. But there is a core group of people who attend that meeting and stay sober doing it that way and they are Quad A, they are AA.
So we’re fairly flexible. We don’t have a dogmatic approach to it. If you say you are an AA you are an AA because what’s the only requirement for membership?
A desire to stop drinking.
So that’s our story in Chicago. The experience has been good and it’s certainly something that has been the result of our involvement, of our hard work, and our individual and group commitment to our sobriety, which has saved my ass and I hope has saved yours too.
Chuck K is a Chicago writer of fiction, poetry, and journalism. Fiction online: Scholars and Rogues.com, Smokebox.net, Blue Lake Review, HYPERtext Magazine. In print: Off the Rocks (New Town Writers), Edge (Tahoe Writers Works), Do Tell (AA Agnostica); poetry in After Hours, Slab, Third Wednesday, and various anthologies; journalism in Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times, Reader, Windy City Times.
He taught reading and writing in Chicago’s public schools for thirty years. He also worked as an advertising copywriter, a public relations writer, and the theater critic for the Oak Leaves newspaper. Chuck currently co-hosts the Weeds Poetry Open Mic in Chicago every Monday night. He’s written two unpublished novels and is seeking representation on a third, Boom! August 1968.
As noted above, this talk was part of a workshop at the recent Secular International AA Convention. You can see the a list of panels, workshops and speakers right here: Agenda 2016 Convention.