The Underground Railroad

By bob k.

My father Maury was of the World War II generation. Luckily for me, his military service did not take him outside of Canada, as many who crossed the ocean did not come back. Dad spent most of 1943-1945 in Western Canada running physical education classes for airmen, learning how to drink, and defending Saskatchewan. In 1961, at the age of thirty-six, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. The old-timers of that era were World War I guys, Bill Wilson’s age or older.

Thirty years later, Maury’s oldest son (that would be me) came to AA. In 1991 people were already complaining about the watering down of AA, about how soft it had become. “Things were entirely different in the olden days,” we were told. One meeting in the east-end of Toronto was known for its particularly tough talk. It even had a tough-sounding name, “The Gravel Pit.”

At the Pit, the regulars prided themselves in their strict adherence to “the rules,” rules that don’t actually exist. They had a total disregard for the rules of civil behavior, strictures that do actually exist. The Gravel Pit elite spoke proudly of the “two-by-four” treatment, as in smacking some newcomer in the face with a verbal piece of lumber. These “bringers of truth,” as they viewed themselves, would humiliate anyone naïve enough to pose what they considered to be a dumb question. If the question wasn’t dumb, the neophyte was berated for not taking it to his sponsor.

Do you even have a sponsor?

The sponsor-thumping AA elite put on quite a show for the amusement of themselves and each other. Unfortunately, I cannot name a single person who benefited from the harshly delivered “truth.” Dozens took their humiliation, slunk away, and were never seen again.

In theory, the Twelve Steps are about ego deflation, but the professed step-takers showed not the slightest evidence of being deflated. The efforts to bring ego-reduction were always outwardly directed. “Sit down and STFU” was alive and well among the truth-tellers of East Toronto.

According to the two-by-four wielders, their sort of tough talk had been the standard protocol back in the vaunted era when success rates were one hundred percent, or even higher.

In late 1991, I asked my father a question. As someone with a 1961 sobriety date, he would seem qualified to pass a judgment on the mythical era when men were men and AA was delivered via smacks upside the head.

Was AA really so different in the old days?

His response is something that has come to mind many times in the intervening years. There were preachers then, and there are preachers now. My sponsor never raised his voice to me, not once.

Were he alive today, my late father would be 95 years old and sober 59 years. He accepted drug addicts in Alcoholics Anonymous as the new reality. Why expend energy fighting a battle that’s already over?


Folks with low self-esteem can fall into the habit of chasing an upward spike in perceived self-worth through less than noble means. Putting down others might make me feel better about myself, at least for a while. The highest levels of professed spirituality do not seem to stop Big Book thumpers from looking down on the vast, unwashed masses within AA – meeting makers, quoters of the Twelve and Twelve, readers of the dreaded Living Sober, etc.

Those with true God-connection mock atheists and agnostics for their belligerent denial. Freethinkers push back by ridiculing the religious for their lack of logic and science. Big Book Thumpers put down non-thumpers for a lack of diligence in their adherence to the sacred text, and are themselves belittled for having a sacred text. On and on it goes.

From time to time, folks from diverse camps might unite in shared loathing for self-admitted drug addicts. Once more, the self-esteem booster rockets are fueled by the vilification of our fellows.

An Enormous Difference 

It’s difficult to convey exactly how different from one another an addict and an alcoholic are. In one of the feistiest essays ever to appear on this website, the legendary Bobby Beach may have expressed it best:

From the perspective of the “Singleness of Purpose” fundamentalist, drug addicts will bring about the ruination of AA. There is no way of making an AA member of a non-alcoholic drug addict, don’t you know!

Let’s take your average drunk whose fun drinking began to produce serious consequences, then spiraled completely out-of-control. In spite of all of this, the alcoholic was plagued with an obsession to get more liquor. How could our guy possibly relate to some pariah whose fun drugging began to produce serious consequences, then spiraled completely out-of-control. In spite of all of this, the addict was plagued with an obsession to get more drugs.

See the enormous difference?

Freaken Big Book Fundamentalists Hate Freaken Everything!

The two things are as different from each other as night and day, or spirituality and religion, right?

Mythical Access

Those who strongly object to druggies and even the dually-addicted seeking help in Alcoholics Anonymous are quick to pose a question:

Why don’t drug addicts go to the various drug fellowships where they can be helped by those of their own kind?

There is an underlying implication – that such alternatives are readily available, and that the real reason drug addicts come to AA is to make grumpy “singleness of purpose” fundamentalists even grumpier. In the early 1990s, Metropolitan Toronto had a population of over three million souls (pardon the term). In the eastern third of the city, there were two weekly meetings of Narcotics Anonymous. The numbers for CA, CMA, DAA, AAA and HA were zero.

For many years, having wide-ranging recovery options was limited to those residing downtown in major cities. In 2020, the overall circumstances are not so different. The drug fellowships have grown but remain small. Are there CA and CMA meetings in Wichita, Kansas? If so, is there more than one a week? What does the newcomer do the other six nights?

AA secularists face a similar dilemma. How many have access to multiple nonreligious meetings? Outside of the cores of major cities, very few, I’d guess. The all-inclusive NA is the biggest of the drug fellowships, but one can be forgiven for wondering:

If an alcoholic cannot help a drug addict, could a marijuana dependent suburbanite really be capable of leading a down-and-out heroin addict into recovery. The wise words of Mr. Beach notwithstanding, would those two folks not be as unaligned as a crackhead and a boozer?

God’s Will

I’ll try to tread cautiously with this part.

The Godliest of AA’s God folks profess to center their lives around “praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi told reporters that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” The Bigga Booka generously provides a chapter showing agnostics where they went wrong. Page 53 offers the reader a clear choice: “…either God is everything or else He is nothing.” (Please check Box A or Box A.)

Does God, both Manager and Director (yes, capital damn letters!) of the AA traditionalist really send down the fiat to bar AA’s doors to drug addicts?

Let’s journey back to the eastern third of Toronto in the early 1990s. The drug addict seeking recovery had two NA meetings a week within a reasonable commute. Local NA was having only occasional success. Almost no members had over a year of clean time. According to credible sources, people seeking NA recovery were approached to buy drugs in the parking lot.

When these desperate folks appeared at the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous, what were the AAs to do? As there’s certainly almost endless blathering from AA members about their desire to act in accordance with the will of God, a strong case could be made that God’s will is what we’d do, no?

Here’s where the rubber meets the road and theory becomes reality. Would God want us to turn our backs on these folks who are slightly different, or would He (sorry) want us to try to help them as best we could? Once more, turning them away, as the singleness of purpose fundamentalist would have us do, sends them off to face a fate that’s uncertain at best, and fatal at worst.

For the author and for many readers of this essay, God’s will is theoretical at best. God or no God, the humanitarian answer is the same. In many parts of North America, access to recovery alternatives remains quite limited. Leaving aside Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and the downtown cores of other major cities, it remains 1990. Let’s think twice about shooing people off to seek more suited help.

Better options are only better if they are actually available.

The Underground Railroad

I’ve never been a “God’s will” guy, but in recovery I’ve developed a heightened concern for my fellow human beings. If my fellow alcoholics are brothers and sisters, drug addicts are cousins at the very least – stepbrothers and stepsisters, more likely. Of course, many among AA’s membership have been doubly scourged. Some go to AA and NA.

Drug addicts were among those who presented themselves at eastern Toronto AA meetings, even the closed ones, and we coached them what to say.

Introduce yourself as an alcoholic, even if you think you’re lying.

Inside your head, translate the booze problems you’ll be hearing to the drug problems you’ve been experiencing. It’s not so different.

(Sorry, Bobby Beach)

Can an alcoholic help a drug addict?

Skateboard Paul would say yes. Paul wasn’t much of a drinker. He exhibited serious sales skills that were used in his work as a street hustler. Today, he is twenty-seven years sober, owns a construction company, and employs several rehabilitated alcoholics and drug addicts. Paul and some other crackheads who got sober in AA have gone on to found some local CA meetings. Paul remains active in AA and CA.

Mark J. told me one time that he didn’t have much of a stomach for drinking but that he could pop a pill with the best of ‘em. I can remember being a teenager with a stomach poorly suited for a drinker. Through persistence, I overcame that. Mark might have done the same absent his discovery of substances that one can smoke, snort, pop or inject to produce magical transformations. Mark is in his thirtieth year of sobriety. He’s been helpful to both drunks and druggies.

Mark and Paul remain grateful that we smuggled them into AA with our version of the underground railroad. There have been many Marks and many Pauls. I’m pleased we didn’t turn them away. If there’s a God, She’s pleased as well.

For information about the original Underground Railroad, click here: Wikipedia.

Key Players in AA HistoryBob has been a regular contributor to AA Agnostica. His interest in AA’s past led to the publication in 2015 of Key Players in AA History. He has other book projects in the works.


31 Responses

  1. Jeb B. says:

    What a welcome and thoughtful article! In my 41i+ years of trying to apply the actual course of actions Bill W. attempted to document in his early sobriety, I have learned how very self-drafting and destructive closed-mindedness and old ideas, including those of the founders are to the effectiveness of learning to take ordinal responsibility for our own continuing recovery and growth, as well as in offering it experience, strength and hope to anyone, everywhere reaching out to AA for help.

    When in 2013 we started Freethinkers in AA, Denver, it was because we wanted a meeting where everyone could be honest, accepted and welcomed. We continue to grow and be there for one another and newcomers. Even Bill knew that the problem for the alcoholic is mainly in the mind. In my experience, that is true for every rebellious addict. In our stepwise search for truth about ourselves it is a proven fact that we can find the inner personal power to overcome absolutely anything. I find that to be the great promise of adopting the AA way of life. AND WE GET TO BE HAPPY, feel good about ourselves!

  2. AA is a such a ‘seven blind people and an elephant’ experience. When I’m working the phones at Intergroup and someone says, “I think it’s time for me to go to a meeting.” I say, “Could be a bad idea.” That always gets a reaction. So I tell them, “Going to ‘A’ meeting will more likely than not, give you a wrong impression of AA. Any one meeting could yield a false-positive which will lead to disappointment, or false-negative that misses the broad highway which is AA.” To anyone checking out AA, maybe sober-curious, I say go to two dozen meetings, go to some of those a second time and then see if AA is a fit for you. You made me think of this variety of AA experiences, today. Now, you could go to a dozen meetings from England to Australia in one day thanks to zoom.

    But mostly, I was laughing my ass off; one of your best, Bob. Thank you. We have so much in common – as we’ve discussed before – my mother was an AA member, months-not-years before me, we both came here with a not-so-superstitious worldview etc. Your dad came into AA while Bill W and Jimmy B were still around and he saw Bill give his classic 1965 World Convention talk at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. My mom came into AA in the hippy-era of mid-70s Montreal. These are two very different cultures and the meetings within them seem quite a bit different that one might expect from a five hour drive.

    But I don’t really have anything else to add – nothing was missing. I enjoyed the essay and the comments it inspired.

    • Dean W says:

      Joe, I think your advice about two dozen meetings is great. It used to be pretty common here for people to tell newcomers, “Try 90 meetings in 90 days.” One of my early sponsors told me this, and that if I wasn’t satisfied after 90 days AA would gladly refund my misery. Eventually I tried it, with much better results than I could have imagined. Years later, one of my Psychology professors said there is actually scientific support for the 90 day theory.

  3. Dan H. says:

    A few nights ago I was at a very lively local meeting. Its format includes four fifteen-minute speakers, and I’ve found it to be a refreshing departure from the forty-minute circuit-speaker pitch.

    I couldn’t help noticing when the first speaker mentioned, while describing an incident from his past, that he had been “drinking and doing outside issues.” Then the second speaker did the same thing, and, not surprisingly, so did the third. (The order of speakers is based on the length of their sobriety.) It occurred to me that these relatively new members — all from the same homegroup — had been coached, probably by old-timers whose intent was to preserve AA’s singleness of purpose.

    I would like to continue the conversation in this arena by bringing up three points.

    First, I understand fully the concern that too much drug talk may put off a newcomer looking for a solution to his or her alcohol problem. However, what is a newcomer to make of “I was doing outside issues?”. It has no meaning at all and therefore should be equally off-putting. Furthermore, “doing outside issues” is code, chiefly for drug consumption, and talking in code is either evasion or groupspeak, neither of which lends itself to a program of attraction.

    Second, I detect a whiff of hypocrisy. Our literature brings up the term in the Tenth Tradition: “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues…”. The intent was to make it clear that AA did not involve itself with politics, religion, or social issues in general. On the other hand, most groups that I know of define sobriety — at least regarding birthday celebrations — in terms of “misuse of mind-altering substances” or some equivalent. In other words, drugs are an outside issue, except in how we define your sobriety.

    Finally, how can it be fair, or healthy, to circumscribe what someone can share — and how they share it — when it comes to an issue that has affected them so profoundly? For the purposes of my membership in Alcoholics Anonymous, my drug problem is part of the unmanageability of my life, hence fair game for discussion — especially if I’m relating my alcoholic history. And I know this to be true: If I steal from my employer, I’m moving toward a drink. If I cheat on my wife, I’m moving dangerously closer. But if I inhale a banned substance through a straw, I’m going to run screaming for a bottle of Jack Daniels.

    What, that’s an outside issue?

    • Lena says:

      OMG, great point! I’ve heard meetings where everyone complains because someone who smokes weed got a chip or something petty like that. Hypocrisy indeed…. Thanks for your insightful comment!

  4. Karl J. says:

    One of the reasons I love this site is that it makes me think, review my own thoughts and keep up with this ever changing world. Thank you for the wisdom and the insights.

  5. John M. says:

    Excellent piece of writing as usual, Bob!

    “The way it was was never the way it was.” — William Faulkner

    • Bobby Freaken Beach says:

      William Faulkner’s alcoholic father repeatedly lugged the family to one of the Keeley Gold Cure centers. The senior Faulkner seemed to have been interested mainly in giving his body a rest from alcoholic drinking through the four-week detox. Many wealthy clients used Towns Hospital in the same way.

  6. Dean W says:

    Wow! Will you be my guru, Bob? Maybe together we can banish that cretin, Bobby Freakin Beach, to the outer darkness where his kind belongs.

    Seriously though, good article. For once I feel fortunate to live in a small city (50,000) in Northern Indiana. In the early 1990s I was attending both AA and NA and we had at least four NA meetings a week here. Now we have over half a dozen, and several more within easy driving distance.

    Part of the reason NA took off here was that addicts had been kicked out of AA in the 1980s. I think the atmosphere in our local AA now is much more welcoming to those identifying as addicts, with the possible exception of a few “fundamentalist” groups. And I think it’s good that we have both AA and NA here. In my experience, many newcomer addicts find it difficult to identify with alcoholics. For many this seems to change if they stay clean. But in this town AA and NA seem to be two distinct brands of recovery without a lot of overlapping attendance.

    I’m not in the least worried about addicts in AA diluting the AA brand. Let the trusted servants in New York worry about that crap if they have nothing better to do. Life is too short and too good 🙂

  7. Pat N. says:

    Thanks, Bob, for a good article. I haven’t run into the “alcoholics only” mindset in years, chiefly because I very rarely attend a nonsecular meeting. I’ve always thought it was a bizarre form of egotism, that we alkies are so g.d. special that only we can understand each other and have a once-in-eternity Program. How could a junkie or pothead possibly know anything?

    In fact, it seems fewer and fewer attendees at meetings have been in trouble with only one substance. I have 3 friends I can think of who apparently never had that much problem with booze – it was other stuff that brought them down. But they absolutely identify with the people in my secular home group, and we all identify with them.

    Pain is pain. The shame, guilt, despair, loneliness, etc. It doesn’t differ from what happens to those addicted to other chemicals. Neither does the hope, love, and practical ideas we can all find in an AA or NA meeting.

    • Bob K says:

      There’s a Facebook group called “Singleness of Purpose.” On a daily basis, there are fresh posts about a single theme. “Drug addicts are effecting the ruination of AA.”

      Endless whining doesn’t seem to be changing anything.

  8. Dan L says:

    Thanks for the great essay Bob!

    My sponsor says, “We are only human. We are perfectly human and therefore prone to dysfunction. The only real dysfunction, however, is the failure to recognise dysfunction. My Dear Old Mom entered the health care professions near the end of WWII. My family is a very large herd of ethnic Irish Catholics where alcoholism is a daily occupational hazard. She has often spoken of war vets who came home from the unpleasantness in Europe and the rest of the world addicted to opiates. She remarked many times that a whole lot of these young guys died because they were not allowed into AA of the late 40’s. Individual AA’s would risk vilification by attempting to help these returned men but they had to do it outside the meetings. The solution… wean them off drugs straight into alcoholism and then drag them into recovery.

    Nowadays we understand whole lot more about addiction and it is certainly not reflected in “The Doctor’s Opinion” or anywhere else I know of with the exception of “Living Sober”. AA can rise to the occasion and we see that right here. Unfortunately many can never grow past “The Magic Program From Not-Religion That Saved My Life.” Sadly this narrow mindedness and failure to adjust to new realities is a Major Manifestation of Addiction.

    It is surprising that there are not more alcoholic/addictive behaviors and attitudes endemic and ingrained in our subculture and Institutional Memory. I don’t know how many times well meaning Old Bulls have said directly to me that “Science changes but not Recovery. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
    Ironically here is the dysfunction that our Fellowship refuses to recognise. Bill W recognised it and spoke about it. For many people it is not even “broke” – it is stupid and meaningless. Having a recovery method that basically denies science, medicine and psychology and hides it under faux “spirituality” does not work easily for many. The fact that our recovery moves straight to moral solution via faith healing for what we recognise is NOT a moral issue. Our literature says it is not a moral failing and then demands a “moral inventory” followed by divine intervention.

    How many times have we repeated the aphorism “Change or Die” or “Grow or Wither”?

    In turn AA seems to want to incorporate this dysfunction right into our liturgy.

    Anyway that is my two bits to share for today.
    Thanks Bob

  9. Doc says:

    I got sober in 1969 and drove 180 miles to my first AA meeting. It was a low-bottom meeting with most Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, and Blacks attending. There wasn’t a lot of Big Book talk, just advice on how not to drink. About a year later, my first home group was formed – a bilingual group in the border town of Nogales. It was a small group – 4 or 5 at each meeting – and no real Big Book talk. Even though one of the members was a Catholic priest, there wasn’t a lot of god talk either.

    After several years of sobriety, I moved off the ranch and into the city where there were multiple meetings per day, not just one a week. It was here that I found that as an atheist with several years of sobriety I was not welcome at some meetings.

    My current home group is a small Native American meeting which has a talking circle format. The local intergroup refuses to recognize us as an AA group.

    • Victoria says:

      That is a loss for the local intergroup of AA! Bill W talk so many times about inclusion of other people not exclusion! Do what helps you stay sober.

  10. Chris L says:

    Did not like the style of this article at all. Tried twice, but could not get thru it. I guess I need to be an old timer or history buff for it to be relatable.

    • Lisa M. says:

      I like it that Chris L felt comfortable posting that he did not like the style of the article. But did he like the content? Would he write his own with whatever style he likes? I like different “styles” as it were!

      • Bob K says:

        I always feel awkward when I feel like criticizing one of the essays posted here. It feels a bit disloyal. Nevertheless, I think it’s important that we speak honestly. I have no problem with Chris expressing his view.

  11. Lena says:

    I loved this!!! Such a fun read and so much truth. And hearing some historical context for AA was very helpful in understanding what is said at the meetings today. Thanks so much Bob. “Bigga Booka…” LOL!

  12. Murray J. says:

    Thanks Bob. A great article. AA, whether traditional or secular, is facing a stark reality. Home many “pure” alcoholics under age 60 are there? The reality in 2020 and way earlier I speculate is cross addiction, multiple addictions whatever you care to call it. My home secular group, Beyond Belief Suburban West in Mississauga, does not turn away those addicted to substances other than alcohol. They are made to feel welcome and part of. Heresy? Yes, thank goodness.

    • Hilary J. says:

      Indeed, I doubt there are many alcoholics born later than 1960 who have never used any other drug. I only turned to alcohol in my 40s after decades of abusing various substances. I feel unwelcome at AA meetings where they read the “singleness of purpose” card and discourage any mention of so-called “outside issues”. Our Vancouver group, Sober Agnostics, states in our preamble: “We are open to people with any and all addictions, not exclusively alcohol.”

  13. Kathy O. says:

    Thank you Bob. You give me hope.

  14. Debra says:

    Beautiful. It’s all chaos, be kind.

  15. Gilles D. says:

    Je suis francophone et membre des AA depuis décembre 1972. J’aimerais connaître d’autres membres athées, agnostiques ou autre afin de pouvoir échanger nos expériences avec AA. Je demeure au lac St-Jean et il n’y a pas de groupe laïque dans ma région.

    • Bob K says:

      AMATEUR TRANSLATION “I am French and a member of AA since December 1972. I would love to get to know other atheists, agnostics and the like to be able to share our experiences with AA. I live in Lac St-Jean and there is no secular group in my area.”

      More or less.

  16. Sheri H. says:


  17. Hillary B. G. says:

    Really enjoyable, BK. Thanks xo (HBG)

  18. Richard K. says:

    I was introduced to AA Agnostica about a year ago. I am not an Agnostic. I am an Alcoholic. This was the best article l have read since l was introduced to AA Agnostica. I hope l don’t upset anyone by saying God Bless you Bob K.

    I can’t add anything to this beautiful and compassionate man. They say AA is a program of attraction not promotion. I would love to meet you some day.

    • Bob K says:

      Richard K, you are truly a man of tremendous insight and discriminating taste. After that comment, feel free to bless any damn thing you like.

      More seriously, I am very touched by your kind words.

      Many thanks.

  19. Lance B. says:

    Quite possibly my new favorite post of all time. Of course there have been quite a few before.

    • Bob K says:


      Thank you so much.

      Addicts in AA have been submitted to a certain amount of discrimination, and the “humbler me” realizes that it’s the essay’s subject matter that is driving the strong positive reaction.

      When you’re bullied, it’s good to have friends who stick up for you. As an atheist in AA, I’ve been both attacked and defended. There’s a special place in my heart for the wonderful folks who disagreed with my worldview but stood up for my right to express it.

      I’m more than a little blown away. I had no expectations of reactions like yours. Again I thank you.

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