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youths, blacks, women, homosexuals, Hispanics
and alcoholics addicted to other drugs now join A.A.
from "Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous,"
by Nan Robertson, to be published by William Morrow in
Bill Wilson could have imagined A.A. as it is today, because
only Bill, among the old- timers of Alcoholics Anonymous,
had such grandiose, improbable dreams. In the summer of
1935, there were only two A.A. members - Wilson, a failed
Wall Street stockbroker, and Dr. Bob Smith, a practicing
surgeon - sitting in the Smith kitchen in Akron, Ohio, through
half the night, chain-smoking and gulping coffee and trying
to figure out how they could sober up other drunks like
themselves. The society they had founded attracted only
100 members over the next four years; it would not even
have a name until 1939. Now there are more than a million
and a half of us around the world - members of the most
successful, imitated, yet often misunderstood self-help
movement of the 20th century.
half of all A.A.'s are in the United States, the rest are
scattered among 114 other countries. Many additional millions
have passed through the movement and been made whole by
its program, but A.A. periodically counts only those who
are regularly attending meetings.
those in the know, there are clues to A.A.'s presence everywhere:
the sign on a jeep's hood in a Mexican town that says the
"Grupo Bill Wilson" will meet that night; a West
Virginia bumper sticker advising "Keep it Simple."
The Serenity Prayer, attributed to the theologian Reinhold
Niebuhr and recited at the end of A.A. meetings, appears
framed on the wall in a South African living room or embroidered
on a pillow in a chic Madison Avenue shop.
A.A.'s meet in Pagopago, American Samoa, on Wednesday nights,
in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, on Saturdays, and in Lilongwe,
Malawi, on Mondays and Friday, They find one another just
to sit and chat between meetings in a doughnut shop and
coffee shop on the main street of Peterborough, N.H., a
town of 5,200 that has four A.A. groups. One of them is
called Our Town in honor of Thornton Wilder, who took Peterborough
as the model for his nostalgic play about American small-town
life. The belfry of a Roman Catholic Church near Covent
Garden in London and a bank's board room in Marin County,
Calif., are reserved for A.A. meetings once each week. Some
groups meet on ships, at sea or port. To these exotic settings
must be added the thousands of prosaic basements and halls
in churches, community centers and hospitals where most
A.A.'s inch their way back to a life of quality.
the last decade or so, large numbers of Americans, mainly
entertainers, have gone public to say they are recovered
alcoholics. Almost all said their motivation, and their
hope, was, by their example, to inspire still-drinking alcoholics
to recover. But the great mass of membership everywhere
is composed of more or less ordinary people. They are neither
movie stars nor skid row bums; the great drama of their
lives has not been played out in the spotlight or in squalid
flophouses. These alcoholics have suffered., increasingly
isolated, in bars, in their own bedrooms, or in the living
rooms of friends who have become estranged by their drunken
behavior. Their recovery has been worked out in private.
the last 50 years, the substance of A.A. - its core literature,
its program of recovery and its ways of looking at life
- has changed very little. But in terms of the numbers and
diversity of its members, A.A. today would be unrecognizable
to its pioneers. In the early years, A.A. members were almost
exclusively male, white, middle-class, middle-aged and of
Western extraction. They were men who had fallen very far,
often from the top of their business and professions.
The A.A. of 1988 is huge, increasingly international, multiethnic,
multiracial, cutting across social classes, less rigidly
religious than it was in the beginning, more accepting of
gay people, and of women, who now form one-third of the
total North American membership and about half of the A.A.
membership in big cities. Increasingly, many turn to A.A.
for help in earlier stages of their disease.
A much more abrupt and spectacular trend is that young people
have streamed into A.A. in the last 10 years, most of them
addicted to other drugs as well as to alcohol. Dr. LeClair
Bissell, the founding director of the Smithers alcoholism
center, in Manhattan, expresses the consensus of the alcoholism
research and treatment world when she says: "There
are almost no 'pure' alcoholics among young people anymore.
They are hooked on booze and other drugs, or only other
is common now at A.A. meetings to hear a young speaker say,
"My name is Joe, and I'm a drug addict and an alcoholic."
dually addicted anger some A.A. members. One with 20 tears
of sobriety says: "This fellowship was formed to help
suffering alcoholics, and alcoholics only. That's why it
has been so successful - we don't monkey around with other
a few communities, A.A. members have formed groups billed
for those "over 30." The message is clear: No
druggies wanted. This development infuriates John T. Schwarzlose,
executive director of the Betty Ford Center for substance
abusers in Rancho Mirage, Calif.: "A.A. is the epitome
of tolerance, flexibility and inclusiveness, but some drug
addicts have told me about being turned away from A.A. meetings
in the Midwest and South when they say they were just addicted
to drugs, Now I tell them to say they are both alcoholics
and drug abusers." In the big cities and at A.A. headquarters,
attitudes toward the dually addicted are much more welcoming.
a long time, Alcoholics Anonymous was believed to be a purely
North American phenomenon. It was thought that its themes
of self-help and voluntarism would not transfer to more
relaxed cultures. A.A.'s Ecuador-born coordinator for Hispanic
groups voiced the early point of view among his Latin friends:
"A.A. is O.K. for gringos, but not for us. In Latin
America... if a man doesn't drink, he's not a macho."
To his surprise, A.A. began to boom among Hispanics in the
1970's. Mexico's membership of 250,000 is now second only
to that of the United States. Brazil, with 78,000 members,
and Guatemala, with 43,000, are next-highest in Latin America.
Until recently, A.A. had been unable to gain a toe-hold
in the Soviet Union or in Eastern Europe. The movement had
been regarded there as possibly threatening, because of
its precepts of anonymity and confidentiality, its religious
overtones and the fact that it operates outside any government
control. Then last summer, the Soviet Union sent to the
United States four doctors specializing in addiction. They
visited Alcoholism-treatment centers, the Summer School
of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University and numerous A.A.
meetings. When they returned home, they took back quantities
of A.A. pamphlets translated for them into Russian. Still,
the only Eastern European nation to embrace A.A. has been
Poland. Its Government finally recognized what is called
the "psychotherapeutic" value of A.A.
the United States, those long familiar with A.A. meetings
notice that there seem to be disproportionately high numbers
from certain ethnic groups. "Alcoholism goes with certain
cultures, such as Celtic or the Scandinavian, that approve
of drinking, or at least are ambivalent about it,"
says Dr. Bissell. "But in some environments or religions,
people don't drink on principle. These abstinent cultures
in the United States include Baptists, some other Southern
Protestant sects and Mormons."
a long time, there was a widely held belief that Jews did
not become alcoholics. The work of JACS - Jewish Alcoholics,
Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others - is
helping to dispel that myth. Jews are present in large numbers,
JACS says, at A.A. meetings in many large cities where there
is a significant Jewish population. But rarely do A.A. meetings
take place in synagogues or Jewish community centers.
Sheldon B., an alcoholism counselor in New York, told of
how a few years ago he approached his own rabbi with the
idea of opening their temple to an A.A. group. He though
that Jewish members in any A.A. group might be more comfortable
about accepting help in a synagogue setting than in a church.
The rabbi informed him that there was no need: "There
are no Jewish alcoholics." When Sheldon B. said, "But
I am an alcoholic, "the rabbi thought for a moment
and them replied, "are you sure you know who your real
Although there are black A.A. groups and mixed racial groups
in large Northern cities, the number of blacks in A.A. does
not appear to reflect the race's proportion in the nation
- 29 million, or 12 percent of the population.
is a great stigma in being black and being drunk, even recovered,
a black Philadelphia teacher declared at a meeting devoted
to the subject. "I made the mistake of telling my principal
that I had a problem. I checked myself into a treatment
center. She used a hatchet on me."
As a black Milwaukee social worker explained: "The
black community is afraid that if blacks admit their alcoholics,
it will reinforce the white stereotype that they are shiftless...The
black community likes to think that oppression causes their
alcoholism...Other oppressed minorities use the same argument.
"Who wouldn't drink?" they say.."Our lives
are so goddamed awful.. .Oblivion is the only way out of
Homosexuals are coming into A.A., and in sophisticated communities
are welcomed. Some recovered alcoholics have formed all-gay
groups, just as there are special groups for women, doctors,
agnostics, lawyers, airline pilots and others.
up in Alabama, I was taught to hate myself," one gay
member told an A.A. meeting. "I was a nigger sissy.
In A.A., I learned that God loves us all. My business in
A.A. is to stay sober and help you if you want it."
A.A. surveys do not inquire whether members attend religious
services or if they believe in God. There are no questions
about ethnic or racial origins, sexual preference or whether
alcoholism runs in the family. But a family predisposition
to alcoholism is reflected strikingly within A.A. Often,
speakers at meetings begin: "My name is Mary, and I
am an alcoholic...and my father [or mother] was an alcoholic."
Longtime A.A. members believe that it is hopeless to drag
another into sobriety if the alcoholic is determined not
to be helped or refuses to believe he is ill. Even so, the
courts in some states are sending thousands of offenders
to A.A. meetings instead of to jail. But the A.A. program
sometimes catches on even with unwilling alcoholics.
are many things outsiders believe A.A. to be that it is
not. It is not a temperance organization or Prohibition
society. A.A. does not want to save the world from gin.
Nobody invites you to join A.A. You are a member if you
say you are, or if you walk into an A.A. meeting with the
thought that you have a drinking problem and you want to
stop. There are no papers to sign, no pledges to take, no
obligations to speak
no arms twisted. The attitude of members toward those outside
who drink moderately is, "I wish I could drink as you
do, but I can't."
A.A. is not a religious cult. Some members are agnostics
or atheists. Many choose to believe that their "higher
power" is their A.A. group. Most members prefer to
call A.A.'s program "spiritual." Yet God is mentioned
directly or indirectly in five of the Twelve Steps, which
A.A. uses to help heal individuals, and this sometimes repels
outsiders who might otherwise be attracted. (Boiled down
to six instantly understandable principles, the Twelve Step
program might read: We admitted we are licked and cannot
get well on our own. We get honest with ourselves. We talk
it out with somebody else. We try to make amends to people
we have harmed. We pray to whatever greater Power we think
there is. We try to give of ourselves for our own sake and
without stint to other alcoholics with no thought of reward.)
A.A. does not work for everybody. But then, nothing does.
About 60 per cent of those coming to A.A. for the first
time remain in A.A. after going to meetings and assiduously
"working the program" for months or even years.
Usually, they stay sober for good. But about 40 percent
drop out. These statistics refute a widely held notion that
A.A. is always successful or an "instant fix."
Even so, its success rate is phenomenally high.
Freudian analysis and religious faith, for example, may
be two great ways to heal the human spirit, but they do
not work on their own for alcoholics. The vast majority
of doctors, psychologists and members of the clergy who
are familiar with A.A. as well as almost all experts in
alcoholism, make A.A. their No.1 choice for a long-term
program of recovery. A.A. precepts are built into the programs
of every respected intensive alcoholism treatment center
in the country, including those of Hazelden in Minnesota,
Smithers in New York and the Betty Ford Center. John Schwarzlose
of the Betty Ford Center expresses a typical opinion. "Patients
ask how important it is that they go to A.A. after they're
through here. I say, “I can give you a guarantee.
When you leave here, if you don't go to A.A., you won't
has no ties with political parties, foundations, charities
or causes, nor does it sponsor research into alcoholism.
unlike most tax-exempt organizations, A.A., whose current
annual budget is $11.5 million, does no fund raising. Nor
does A.A. accept money from outsiders. The funds supporting
headquarters services come mainly from A.A.'s huge publishing
empire, which distributes authorized literature to members.
group is self-supporting, passing a basket at every meeting
to help pay for coffee, snacks, literature and rent for
the meeting space. Those present often give a dollar. Others
may just drop a coin in the basket. Some cannot give anything.
member may donate more that $1,000 a year to A.A. Nor may
a member bequeath more than $1,000, or leave property to
A.A., which has never owned any real estate.
reason we discourage gifts and bequests," says Dennis
Manders, a nonalcoholic who served for 35 years as the controller
at A.A. headquarters, " is that we don't ever want
some person dropping a million bucks in the A.A. hopper
and saying, 'Now, I'm going to call the tune."
half of the groups contribute nothing at all for headquarters
services. Many members feel that carrying the expenses of
their "home group" is enough. This kind of autonomy
and decentralization typifies Alcoholics Anonymous.
The average A.A. member, according to surveys, attends four
meetings a week. After about five years of regular attendance,
some A.A.'s go to fewer and fewer meetings. They may stop
altogether when they feel they are able to function comfortably
without alcohol. However, some speakers at meetings are
full of cautionary tales about how they drifted away from
A.A. and drank again, sometimes disastrously and for long,
periods of time, before returning to the fold.
movement works in quiet and simple ways. Members usually
give of themselves without reservation; exchange telephone
numbers with newcomers; come to help at any hour when a
fellow member is in crisis; are free with tips on how to
avoid that first drink. Most people in A.A. are flexible,
tolerant of eccentrics, suspicious of "rules"
and "musts." The lack of ritual can be a surprise
to beginners. So is the absence of confrontation, finger-pointing,
blame-laying, angry debate and chronic whining.
The essence of A.A. can only be guessed at in big, showy
gatherings, such as its international conventions every
five years. It is in the intimacy of the neighbourhood meetings
that the truth, the flavor and the inkling of the reasons
for A.A.'s success can be grasped. The members may meet
in groups as small as 2 or 3, or as large as 200, but the
usual attendance is somewhere between a dozen and 40 people.
In New York City, the most active single A.A. spot anywhere,
there is a choice of 1,826 listed meetings held by 724 groups
As A.A. grew and diversified, the stigma of alcoholism gradually
faded. There were many stages along A.A.'s road to respectability,
beginning in the 1940's, that gradually transformed the
public's perception of the society of recovered drunks from
a butt of disbelief and even ridicule to that of an accepted
and admired organization. None was more significant than
the action taken by the American Medical Association. In
1956, the AMA’s trustees and its House of Delegates
declared that alcoholism was a disease, thereby validating
a central belief of A.A., from its co-founders on, that
it is a sickness, not a sin.
Now the Supreme Court of the United States is debating the
legality of the issue. Last Dec.7, the court heard a challenge
by two Vietnam War Veterans against the Veterans Administration
for excluding "primary alcoholism" (in which drinking
itself is the root disorder) from the list of illnesses
and disabilities that allow veterans more time to claim
education benefits. Extensions can be granted to veterans
hindered by physical or mental problems "not the result
of their own willful misconduct." The justices are
expected to hand down an opinion before the Court's term
ends in June.
structure of A.A. is a little harder to grasp than the disease
theory of alcoholism. It is close to the truth to say that
A.A. consists of a million Indians and no chiefs. And that
it is less an organization than an organism that keeps splitting
amoeba like, into ever more groups. If a member doesn't
like how things are run in his group, he can start another
one with people he finds more compatible. This has given
rise to an A.A. saying: "All you need to start a new
group is two drunks, a coffee pot and some resentment."
There is a structure in Alcoholics Anonymous, but it would
set any conventional notion of how to run a business on
its head. Basically, the local groups are boss and the board
of trustees and the staff at the General Service Office
are supposed to carry out their orders. The board of trustees
is made up of 14 A.A. members and 7 nonalcoholics.
Although alcoholics hold all the top administrative jobs,
they never handle money. A.A.'s financial operation is run
by nonalcoholics. The reason is that Bill Wilson and the
early A.A.'s were afraid that if anybody running A.A. fell
off the wagon, that would be bad enough, but if he were
handling finances as well, the results could be disastrous.
The philosophy has endured.
The manner in which A.A. directs its collective affairs
and sets policy can be seen most clearly - or in all its
democratic confusion - at its yearly General Service Conference,
the closest approximation to a governing body of A.A. About
135 people attend, including 91 delegates elected at regional
A.A. assemblies in the United States and Canada. Also on
hand are the trustees of the board and representatives of
the head- quarter’s staff.
day-to-day business of Alcoholics Anonymous has been carried
on since 1970 in a brick building at 468 Park Avenue South,
in midtown Manhattan. Whatever policies are decided at the
conference are carried out by the headquarters staff. Their
jobs are divided into specialties such as literature, treatment
centers, prisons, public information and cooperation with
professionals - doctors, counselors, social workers and
teachers, for example - in the alcoholism field. And just
in case somebody should become overly fond of a specialty,
all the top staff members, except the general manager and
the Hispanic coordinator, regularly rotate jobs every two
years. The same frequent rotation occurs at every level
in A.A. Officers in local groups usually step down every
seven nonalcoholic trustees, who are often experts in some
profession, such as medicine, law, banking or social work,
serve a special need. Joan K. Jackson, a sociologist with
long experience among alcoholics, explains: "We can
use our full names in public. We are not perceived by outsiders
as having any vested interest. Privately within A.A., our
greatest function is as gadflies and questioners."
What makes A.A. headquarters run is the A.A. World Service
publishing empire. It now brings in $8.8 million annually
or 76 per cent of A.A.'s yearly corporate revenues. It is
the cause of some trepidation among those who have taken
what amounts to a vow of poverty. Each year, A.A. distributes
7 million copies of more than 40 pamphlets (mostly gratis
for members), and almost a million and a half copies of
6 books and two booklets. Seven million copies of the Big
Book (A.A.'s central text, published in 1939, whose formal
title is "Alcoholics Anonymous") have been sold.
Last year alone, about a million Big Books were purchased,
virtually all of them at A.A. meetings, alcoholic rehabilitation
centers or through mail orders.
the time of his death, early in 1971, Bill Wilson was earning
about $65,000 a year in royalties from the Big Book and
three other books he wrote for A.A. Last year, his widow,
Lois, received $912,000 in royalties. Under the terms of
the agreement Bill concluded with A.A. headquarters in 1963,
she was allocated 13.5 per cent of Wilson's royalties. Another
1.5 percent went to his last mistress, who died a few years
has been almost no negative publicity about Alcoholics Anonymous
over the five decades of its history. Extensive research
turns up only a handful of critical views in the press.
Writing in The Nation in 1964, Jerome Ellison charged that
A.A.'s conservative top councils had lost touch with the
ever more diverse rank-and- file. The same year, Arthur
H. Cain, a New York psychologist, in a book and articles
for various magazines, called A.A. a "cult" that
enslaved its members to self- righteous sobriety. Bill Wilson's
reaction was typical of the man's tolerance. The co-founder
trying to calm the ensuing fuss at headquarters, said: "In
all the years, this is the first thorough- going criticism
our fellowship ever had. So the practicing of absorbing
stuff like that in good humor should be of value."
It was the first public criticism, and it proved to be one
of the last.
Privately within A.A., there has been a growing dissatisfaction
with headquarters. Some members say staff members are becoming
frozen in bureaucracy and are overly sensitive to pressure
from the most rigid and narrow-minded members, particularly
old-timers, who regard the Big Book and other authorized
literature almost as Holy Writ.
anything is going to destroy A.A.," says Dr. John Norris,
a nonalcoholic physician, friend of Bill Wilson's and for
many years chairman of A.A.'s board of trustees, "It
will be what I call the 'tradition lawyers." They find
it easier to live with black and white than they do with
gray. These 'bleeding deacons' – these fundamentalists
are afraid of and fight any change."
The New York Times Magazine, February 21, 1988)