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and Why A.A. Groups Grew and Changed
got drunk, but we stay sober." That is not only a
popular saying, it also emphasizes that "the group
is where it happens." And A.A. groups are splitting
and giving birth to new groups—and new groups are
forming of themselves - at an incredible rate in A.A. today.
In 1985, 3,780 new U.S./Canada groups listed themselves
at G.S.O. in New York. During the same period, 1,345 groups
became inactive. The net gain was 2,435 groups—or about
10 every working day.
only did the number of groups grow, but existing groups
were often bursting at the seams with new members. Some
of them were running out of chairs and out of room to hold
the meeting. (The Pacific Group in Los Angeles counted over
600 on an average Wednesday night and several meetings in
other parts of the country were close behind.)
the same time, the A.A. meetings themselves were evolving.
The Alcoholics Anonymous program of recovery remains unchanged,
and the language of the heart is the same in any meeting,
anywhere in the world. But the variety and diversity of
groups and meetings today would astonish Rip van Wrinkle
if he were an old-¬time member! While there are no records
of exactly how this evolution has come about, it is possible
to trace its broad outlines.
first A.A. groups that broke away from the Oxford Groups
in Akron, Cleveland and New York brought with them the format
of the Oxforders. The opened by reading from The Greatest
Thing in the World by Henry Drummond or William James' Varieties
of Religious Experience or the Bible, and they had a time
for prayer and silently waiting for guidance from God. They
customarily closed with the Lord's Prayer because that's
the way the Oxford Group meetings closed. But they also
shared and gave each other support. They were open meetings,
in that spouses were welcome to attend. Very soon, however,
though the wives still came along for the sociability, they
met separately in another room. The meetings generally had
no time limit; they might last two or three hours. They
sometimes met intermittently at first, but soon settled
down to once a week, at a definite time and place.
emerges so clearly in the chapters on the growth and development
of A.A. in different parts of the U.S./Canada, the reason
for starting the first A.A. group in every city, town and
hamlet was simply to carry the A.A. message—or, having
a local meeting, to avoid having to travel long distances
to attend older groups. The second group in a given locality
might start for one of several reasons. Especially in the
early days, personality conflicts developed in groups—rising out of resentment of a dominating leader or disagreement
over some issue or a rebellious desire to do things one's
own way. It's an old cliche, of course, that ail that's
needed for a new A.A. group is a resentment and a coffeepot
and, indeed, countless groups began just that way. Another
reason was the real need for a new group in a more convenient
location. Downtown groups spawned suburban groups. If the
existing meeting was on the east side of town, the west
siders would decide to start one of their own. A third reason
was a group's need for another kind of meeting. For
example, a group holding a regular weekly closed meeting
would decide to have an open speaker meeting on another
night; and then to precede the speaker meeting with a beginner's
meeting at an earlier hour. In Minnesota, it is not unusual
for a single group to have from 15 to 30 meetings a week;
in Los Angeles, every meeting is a separate group (or, to
put it the other way, every group has but one meeting.)
Under the Fourth Tradition, variety is the spice of life.
healthy group often grew larger and larger until it became
unwieldy, or until participation of members became difficult,
or until it outgrew its quarters. Then, by agreement among
the members themselves, it might divide into two groups—like
an amoeba reproducing itself. This process continues constantly
today. New groups are started, seemingly, to fill out the
weekly calendar. "Saturday night is a bad time for drunks,"
says someone, "so we'd better have a Saturday night meeting."
Or, "I had to go all the way to Blankville for a meeting
last Tuesday night. We ought to have a Tuesday night meeting
during the youth of A.A., a definite time period for meetings
became customary, usually an hour and a half, say from 8:30
to 10 p.m. And, typically alcoholic, the members usually
became as rigid about observing the set opening and closing
times, as they had previously been free and easy. In time,
one-hour meetings became as common as 1 1/2 hour meetings.
As it became convenient to attend several meetings a week,
the individual meetings seemed to become shorter. Also,
the time of day of the meetings began to vary. At first,
they were usually in the evening. In larger cities, midnight
meetings sprang up to accommodate actors, restaurant workers
and other night people. Luncheon meetings began and became
commonplace not only in cities, catering to office workers,
but in smaller towns where housewives and mothers of small
children found them convenient. Early morning meetings have
become extremely popular in recent times; in many places
they are held daily. Sunday morning meetings, sometimes
held following a breakfast, were a feature of the earliest
days in some Ohio cities and today in many places they attract
the largest attendance of any meeting of the week. As streets
in large cities have become more dangerous late in the evening,
meeting times have crept earlier and earlier: to 7:30 then
7:00 then 6:00. Single members often attend a twilight meeting,
go out for a meal afterward, and are home early. In many
towns, "happy hour" meetings from: 5:00 to 6:00 draw large
crowds. The variations in time are almost endless. In many
cases, they represent a new time for an existing group;
but in countless other cases, they are new groups.
meetings came into existence rather early. Typically, the
format was (and is) to take a Step a week. The leader reads
the essay on the Step from the Twelve & Twelve and then
the participants comment on it or relate their own experiences
with it. There are also Step Study meetings in which the
members take turns reading from the Twelve & Twelve,
a paragraph at a time, and go around the room for discussion
before moving on. The group may spend the whole meeting
on one page, or they may get through a whole Step; the progress
is not structured.
Book groups became popular in the late '60's
and early '70's, following the same format as
the Step Study meetings. They now are a part of the meeting-mix
nearly every place.
groups held Participation meetings in which individuals
either volunteered or were called upon to get up and share
their experience, strength and hope for five or ten minutes,
with no discussion. At the other end of the spectrum were
pure discussion meetings in which a topic was chosen and
the discussion focused on it for the full meeting.
were hospital meetings and prison meetings—meetings taken
into the institutions to carry the message to the patients
or inmates. But these have endured and flourished for decades
and have become the beloved home groups for innumerable
the last 15 to 20 years still more specialized meetings
have formed to meet perceived needs. There are "smokeless"
meetings for people allergic to smoky air. There are "workshop"
meetings in which participants get help for their problems
and their feelings through group therapy. There are "Third
and Eleventh Step" meetings for those who want to discuss
spiritual matters freely. At the other end of that spectrum
are meetings for agnostics and even atheists.
there is a need, there is likely to be a group or a meeting.
A.A.'s who worked for the railroad or who commuted
on it began to meet informally at New York's Grand
Central Terminal in the early '70's, and eventually
a group formed, with several meetings a week. A group at
the South Pole registered with G.S.O. in 1976. The "Yea
& Nay" group meets in the U.S. Capitol building
on Tuesday mornings, attended by members of congress and
their staffs as well as other Washington members. There
are groups on warships and ad hoc meetings on cruise ships.
Anonymous does not grow at the same rate everywhere. Throughout
its history, where it was strongest and most populous, it
has tended to grow still stronger, faster. Conversely, where
there were fewer groups and A.A.'s are not as populous,
growth has been much slower and harder. For example, in
1985, Minnesota reported 1,288 groups, ranking 11th among
the 50 states in number of A.A. groups, although it ranks
19th in total population. In 1985, Minnesota added 88 new
groups. California, with 4,763 groups, added 566 new groups.
The province of Quebec, Canada, with 1,333 added 72. Where
A.A. is strongest and most populous, it tends to grow stronger,
faster. By contrast, a state that had only 101 groups in
1985, added 7—a respectable increase percentagewise,
but small in actual numbers. Similarly, two other states
with 106 and 160 respectively, were able to add only 29
between them in the course of the year.
pattern of growth is probably inherent in an organization
that grows only on a one-to-one basis, as A.A. does. Where
the Fellowship is sparse and spread thin—i.e., where
members are few—there are just not that many people
to make Twelfth Step calls. A.A. is not visible enough or
available enough to attract new prospects. But in other
places, exploding with new A.A. meetings, teeming with members
- there, enthusiasm and spirit run high; Twelfth Steppers
are running around like ants on a hot hill; and the poor
drunk can't turn around without running into a friend who
has found this new way of life.
phenomenon of A.A. growth throughout its history has been
that like attracts like. Where a group has been founded
by a woman or where several women members have come in,
other women have been immediately attracted to that group.
A group with a significant percentage of young people has
attracted still more young people. Thus the constituency
of the group changes over time.
is noted elsewhere in this book, the growth of A.A. has
also been affected by outside factors. The proliferation
of treatment centers and rehabs following the passage of
the Hughes Bill poured recruits into A.A. meetings. Adding
to the momentum have been Armed Services alcoholism programs,
court programs for drunk driving offenders, and corporate
alcoholism (or employee assistance) programs. The National
Council on Alcoholism and its affiliates have also accomplished
much in alcoholism education and efforts to decrease the
stigma of the disease. The effect of all this has been dramatic.
It took four years to grow from two members to about a hundred;
another two years to reach 2,000. It is estimated that in
1985 Alcoholics Anonymous acquired nearly200,000 new members,
worldwide. All of these did not stay, of course, but it
is safe to say that suffering alcoholics are coming to A.A.
about as fast as they can be absorbed.
the accounting here of the various kinds of A.A. groups,
you may have wondered why we did not mention special language
groups; e.g., Spanish-speaking, French-speaking, etc. Or
how about women's groups, men's stag groups,
young people's groups, and groups for different professions
such as doctors, lawyers, priests, aircraft pilots, etc.?
These are the subject of the next chapter.