I was surprised to learn recently that
I may be a party to offenses against certain rights.
That's because some alcoholics consider it a violation
of their rights when people in authority such as judges
and employers prod them into attending Alcoholics Anonymous
meetings, where I have sometimes signed court slips
for them. And since our program also mentions God, some
agnostics are challenging AA's strong influence in treatment
supplied by public funds.
I don't think AA members or groups ever
wanted to violate anybody's rights. It would be hard
to find any group of people more attentive to individual
rights than AA members appear to be. For me, this high
regard for the individual has always been one of AA's
Whether this rights matter is really
a genuine issue or only a teapot tempest, it did remind
me of the time when I thought my own rights were being
violated by a quartet of gospel singers. Though it took
years to learn any lesson from this, the experience
eventually helped give me more tolerance and understanding.
Here's how it unfolded.
It was a Sunday morning in the spring
of 1948, and I was in jail in a small Idaho town, serving
a sentence for being drunk and disorderly. It is still
disturbing to remember my horrible state of mind that
morning. Not surprisingly, I was filled with resentment
toward the police who had arrested me and the judge
who had sentenced me. But there was more. Much of my
anger was righteous indignation about the disgusting
conditions in the jail, where the clogged toilet had
overflowed and everything was filthy.
Yet in a perverse way I'd managed to
get some strange satisfaction out of my plight. I'd
become a martyr in my own mind, the victim of an unjust
society which would allow these terrible jail conditions
to continue. Somebody owed me something, or deserved
to suffer, because of the way I was being treated.
Then something happened to raise my
anger and resentment to a higher pitch. A quartet of
singers--two men and two women--arrived in the corridor
outside the cells to preach and sing gospel hymns. They
were nice-looking, well-dressed people in their late
twenties, but to me they exuded smug self-righteousness.
I saw their arrival as an unforgivable
violation of my rights, since there was no way I could
avoid hearing their preaching and singing. I prided
myself on being an agnostic who had abandoned the hypocrisy
of religion, and I had special contempt for people who
performed their proselytizing services in public. I
also felt that all people should have an absolute right
not to have such preaching and singing shoved down their
throats, even if they were serving jail time, as I was,
for being drunk and disorderly.
Absolute right or not, I was forced
to sit in my jail cell and listen to the songs and Bible
messages. I retaliated as best I could by directing
waves of silent hatred and contempt toward them, probably
displaying an angry sneer at the same time. And in my
own mind, I also took the moral high ground by passing
judgement on the quartet. If they were so good and thoughtful,
I thought, why weren't they concerned about the filth
and degradation of the jail? How could they come to
such a terrible place without being indignant toward
the community for maintaining this disgraceful facility?
Why weren't they out preaching to the city fathers for
improvements in conditions? And what gave them the right
to force me to listen to their preaching and singing?
Why were they able to use public property in this way?
I believed that both they and the jail officials had
violated my rights to be free from religion.
The singers left and I smoldered for
the rest of the morning. I got out of jail that afternoon,
and soon left town and drifted to southern California.
My drinking got worse, though I managed to stay out
of jail. Several months later, I made my first contact
with AA, a rather humiliating experience because the
meeting was in a church in Santa Paula, California.
It took eighteen months and many such meetings before
I was able to establish what has turned out to be continuous
sobriety, beginning in April 1950.
In the process of getting sober, I gave
up my agnosticism and became a believer in AA's spiritual
program. But this didn't put me on common ground with
the young people who had sung to me through the bars
of the jail. Far from it! I even managed to arrive at
the belief that AA had the true and correct spiritual
program while people such as the young gospel singers
were misguided Bible-thumpers who were working entirely
in the wrong way. I still felt they had violated my
rights. And I apparently ignored AA co-founder Bill
W.'s writings about AA's debt to religion and the need
to get over any resentment toward religious people.
My commitment to AA and sobriety was strong, however,
and none of these lingering resentments got me into
But the time did come when I took another
look at that Sunday morning experience. It took a kindly
nonalcoholic friend named Les to help give me this new
Les was a graduate of a college founded
by an evangelist known for his rigid fundamentalism.
We had become friends while working for a large corporation,
where I was public relations manager and he held a sales
training position. Though Les was still a religious
man, he no longer shared fundamentalist views. Yet he
acknowledged that he had obtained a fine education at
his college and had received excellent preparation for
graduate studies. He seemed to remember his undergraduate
years in the same way I thought about Navy boot camp:
it was a valuable experience, but not one I'd like to
As we talked, Les's reference to this
strict religious background made me think of the gospel
singers who had invaded my privacy in the jail back
in 1948 (it was now 1965). It seemed to me that they
would have been right at home in this school. So I told
my friend something of my own background: how I had
found a spiritual program in AA and--finishing rather
scornfully--how I objected to the practice of forcing
prisoners to listen to singing and preaching against
I paused in my tirade, expecting Les
to agree with me. But he said, with a thoughtful expression,
"You know, Mel, you might be too hard on those
people. Did you ever stop to think that they might have
been praying for you? And maybe it was their prayers
that helped get you to your AA program."
Here was an idea that had never occurred
to me. And I didn't really have an answer, except to
admit that Les could be right. After all, I had learned
in AA that prayer works, that it changed people and
situations. Many of us in AA also believe in praying
for others. And if my prayers have power to change lives,
how could I say that the prayers of roving gospel singers
might not be just as effective? It was arrogant and
egotistical to believe that only AA prayers work.
That was more than thirty years ago,
and I've lost track of the friend who steered me to
this new viewpoint. But from that moment on, my thoughts
about the gospel singers changed. While I still don't
believe it's right to force religious teachings onto
jail inmates, I've dropped any blame in the matter.
Sure, my rights were violated. But real honesty would
have compelled me to admit that I was in jail because
I had been violating the rights and safety of other
people in society. And how safe would anybody's rights
be if everybody in society lived and behaved as I did?
I also began to develop a touch of gratitude
for that Sunday morning experience. Of all the people
in that town, the four young singers were the only people
who cared enough to visit the jail in the hope of helping
us. None of my drinking companions came to see me in
jail. I suspect that most of them were laughing and
joking about my plight, and didn't care whether I lived
or died. None of the bar owners whose establishments
I had patronized came to see me, nor did any other fair-weather
But these four young people probably
did care about those whom they considered to be lost
souls. And it's almost certain that they did pray for
me, as Les suggested.
Today, when I think of these four singers,
I pray for them in my AA way, thankful now that there
are all kinds of caring people in the world to offset
the evil and destruction that are all around us. I also
see it as a very minor problem that they violated my
rights. The larger issue is that I and other men in
that jail were in terrible trouble with ourselves and
life, and these singers wanted to help. I disagreed
with their approach, but they were at least on the right
track in their desire to help and their belief that
God has answers for people who are in deep difficulties,
as I certainly was.
Now, ironically, I hear that I may be
violating people's rights because my Fellowship and
the Twelve Step approach are sometimes being imposed
on people without their consent, at least according
to our critics. And come to think of it, I have visited
jails and talked to inmates about the AA program when
other inmates were within earshot and thus forced to
listen. Maybe these unwilling victims of my preaching
felt the same way I did when the gospel singers arrived!
Well, we've always said that ours is
a program of attraction only, so we should be willing
to drop or modify any practice that violates individual
rights or smacks of too much coercion. If we are being
criticized for too-close involvement with courts and
employer programs, we should heed Bill W.'s reminder
that "our critics can be our benefactors."
We should also concede that AA should not be offered
as the only way out of alcoholism.
But like those young gospel singers
I resented for so many years, I never really set out
to violate anybody's rights, nor would most of my AA
friends. What most of us really want is to offer every
alcoholic the same recovery and new life that was given
to us. And I hope I'm not being offensive by declaring
that every suffering person should have that opportunity
as a God-given right!