A.A.’s Success Rate Controversies

Dick B.

A.A.’s Success Rate Controversies

Do They Matter?

Dick B.

© 2006. All rights reserved

An Important Resource Summary

For most of my 16 years of research on the history of Alcoholics Anonymous, I’ve been confronted with countless different statistics on how many AAs succeeded in the earliest days, how many succeed today, and how this or that survey is flawed. As a result, I prepared an appendix to my title Why Early A.A. Succeeded, Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2001, pp. 267 to 293. See http://www.dickb.com/titles.shtml.

If you want to start with documentation, that’s the place to start. And I’ll discuss its contents in a moment. But it gives the various percentages, the names of those who proposed them, and the variations in their figures – past and present.

There are impressive surveys by Vailant of Harvard, Tonigan of New Mexico, VA researchers, Doctors Peele, Playfair, Bobgans, Matthews-Larson, and by Ragge, Trimpey, and A.A.’s own triennial results. There are many which have been conducted by individual AAs. All have some value. All have been criticized. And all leave you baffled as to their meaning and significance because A.A. today has no “membership.” It has no way of statistically polling its attendees. It doesn’t do research. And yet it has repeatedly come up with figures like 75 to 93% in the beginning and 1 to 5% today. I personally attended a huge meeting in Mill Valley, California where A.A. General Services Archivist Frank Mauser declared that one-third of all AAs are out the door in 90 days and fifty percent are gone by the end of the year. And anyone who regularly attended hundreds and hundreds of meetings as I did can confirm the Mauser figure with his eyes. Then there are the roll-calls that are so often held at large conferences, small conferences and retreats, and even some meetings. Over and over, you hear the chair start through the years, calling for those to stand or raise their hands who have 50 years, 40 years, 30 years, 20 years, 10 years, 5 years, and on down to the newest newcomer with 24 hours. Very often there are few if any among the first categories, a bulge at 5 years, a big bulge at 1 year, and a surprising horde below that. And that tells me unequivocally that very few old-timers can be found at the great mass of meetings such as we had in Marin County, California and in a good many others I have attended across the Nation.

There are some who survey as advocates. One was Nancy O. (now deceased) who looked at the people named in the stories in the First Addition, concluded that most died drunk, and began her statistics from there. The problem is that the people in those stories were not the original 40 pioneers. And there are many others who have put other carts before the horses and cry out that early AAs just weren’t successful at all.

The Core Point

Any time the historians, statisticians, mathematicians, and pollsters lose sight of what will help the alcoholic who still suffers, they lose me in the dust of the arena.

Is it helpful to know how well the original 40 pioneers fared, or if there even were 40 pioneers? Is it helpful to know that Bill Wilson’s “100 men and women” did not exist, or even if there were 100, the question is how many made it? Is there any point in giving credence to the repeated statements in A.A.’s Big Book that 50% recovered, 25% recovered after a relapse, and 25% showed improvement? Is there any point in knowing that most of those who come into A.A. go out of A.A. about as fast as they arrive? Is there any point in knowing that A.A. has stopped growing? Is there any point in knowing that the A.A. program of today differs remarkably from the following early land-marks that put it on the map: (1) The Christian Fellowship of Akron and its program as reported in A.A.’s own publications and by its trustee Frank Amos to the Alcoholic Foundation. (2) The contents of Anne Smith’s Journal which was used daily in early Akron. (3) The questionable “six steps” which Bill Wilson described in various ways and claimed were in use before the Big Book. (4) The avowed but missing input of Rev. Sam Shoemaker, Jr. into the 12 Steps and Big Book language (5) The numerous different drafts of the Big Book before it was published, the changes in language, and the deletion of all references to the Bible, Jesus Christ, and the famed Four Absolutes. (6) The program almost immediately developed from the efforts of Clarence H. Snyder in the Cleveland Fellowship starting in May, 1939, (7) the work of Dr. Bob and Sister Ignatia at St. Thomas Hospital, (8) the spinoffs in the 12 years of Bill’s depression that occurred with the efforts of Richmond Walker, Father Ralph Pfau (Father “John Doe”), Ed Webster, and the Detroit Guide, (9) the revisions that came with the editing of Bill’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age by Father Ed Dowling, S.J. and Father John C. Ford, S.J., and (10) the deletions from stories that accompanied Bill’s revision of the Big Book in the Second Edition of the 1950’s.

Some say: “The Big Book says it, and that settles it.” And maybe that’s fine for today. But it raises havoc with any honest surveyor who dabbles in success rates and statistics for yesteryear and today. I believe any scientist would probably throw in the towel if he tried to assess a single body and a single success rate in a moving target like that offered by 75 years of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Again, the core point is not what was. It’s what was and is that will help the still suffering alcoholic. Is it history? Is it what Dr. Bob did? Is it the Bible? Is it the Creator? Is it Jesus Christ? Is it the Big Book? Is it Twelve Steps? Is it knowledge of all the factors that were poured into the mix. Is it the Oxford Group? Is it Sam Shoemaker? Is it Carl Jung? Is it William James? Is it Richard Peabody? Is it Dr. William Silkworth? Is it Father Ed Dowling, Father Ralph Pfau, Sister Ignatia, or Father John C. Ford? Is it Emmet Fox? Is it the Upper Room? Is it the Runner’s Bible? Is it. Is it. Is it. And the answer is: All of the above, provided the still suffering alcoholic is not sold a bill of goods on what works if it’s not working. Also, provided the still suffering alcoholic is receiving the caring and loving service that only A.A. seems able to provide effectively and inexpensively and over a long time. Also, provided the A.A. hierarchy in New York is not permitted to flood the scene with atheistic, secular, psychological universalism of its own choosing without any regard for A.A.’s very clear religious history. Also, provided the newcomer is not stifled in reading or expression or inquiry any time he or anyone else mentions a church, a religion, a denomination, the Bible, the Creator, Jesus Christ, Christianity, or religious literature.

Do all these things relate to statistics? They sure do.

And I believe the bottom line is to keep the core question in mind, eliminate the controversy, illuminate the facts, and stop censoring freedom of expression in the recovery world.

Who are the Players?

There are as many varieties as there are Heinz pickles. Something for every view. For every advocate. For every detractor. For every supporter. For every researcher. For every alcoholic who still suffers. Boy, there’s enough to drive you back to the bar or the drug dealer if you read them all and conclude that A.A. stinks.

Here are a few:

In the atheist or anti-A.A. or rational thinking crew: Dr. Stanton Peele, Charles Bufe, Jack Trimpey, Albert Ellis, Arthur Brodsky, Ken Ragge, Rebecca Fransway. Michael De Sena. You’ll find all the irreligious failure statistics you need in one or more of these accounts. If you need more, just use the search engines.

In the clerical and religious arena: William Playfair, M.D., Doctors Martin and Diedre Bobgan, and Dr. Cathy Burns. Lots of emphasis there on the Bible, Jesus Christ, sin, and A.A. errors and failed results.

In the science, medicine, academic and psychology arena: William Miller, Ph.D.; J. Scott Tonigan, Ph.D., Enoch Gordis, M.D.; Professor Herbert Fingarette; Joan Matthews-Larson, Ph.D.; George E. Vailant, M.D.; Mim J. Landry. Lots of papers and writing on whether as many succeed without A.A. as with it, etc.

I won’t mention our contentious gang of disagreeing A.A. writers. Some plead that early A.A. was highly successful. Some claim its success rates today are dismal. Some point to the religious answer. Some stalwartly defend the A.A. regime. Some propose a whole new treatment mode or a New Age spirituality. And on and on. You can find them all on my website and through the search engines.

In fact, these days, you can either find them in my comprehensive bibliography: Making Known the Biblical History and Roots of Alcoholics Anonymous, or by marching straight to the Griffith Library, managed by the Wilson House, in East Dorset, Vermont, and see the items for yourself.

What are the Figures?

Take your pick:

100% hopeless, apart from Divine help. Big Book, 1st Edition, 1939, pp. 54-55.

100% effectiveness with non-psychotic drinkers who sincerely want to quit. A.A.’s Jack Alexander Article about A.A., 1991.

93% of those surveyed in Cleveland maintained uninterrupted sobriety. DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, p. 261; Dick B., That Amazing Grace, pp. 7, 29, 66; Mitch K. How It Worked, p. 108; Our A.A. Legacy by Three Clarence Snyder old-time rSponsees, 2005.

80% in Akron and Cleveland where they were about 350 alcoholics, many of them sober 2 or 3 years, with less than 20% ever having had any relapse. Kurtz and Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection, 1992, p. 110.

75% of alcoholics who came to A.A. and really tried, 50% got sober and once and remained that way; 25% sobered up after some relapses, and about two-thirds of the remainder returned as time passed. Wilson’s Three Talks to Medical Societies, p. 13; A Program for You: A Guide to the Big Book’s Design for Living, 1991, p. 15; repeated in many pieces of A.A. literature.

No significant success in New York’s program prior to the Big Book. See the details in Dick B., Why Early A.A. Succeeded, supra; God and Alcoholism, Cured; and Lois Remembers.

Pro: The best studies of early A.A. percentages and cures are detailed in the four studies by Richard K. of Massachusetts, New Freedom: Reclaiming Alcoholics Anonymous; So You Think Drunks Can’t Be Cured; Separating Fact From Fiction; The First Forty.

Con: Nancy O. (deceased), former moderator of A.A. History Buffs and then A.A. History Lovers seemed to be the major proponent of the idea that the foregoing figures were erroneous. Though she is deceased, others in the group apparently are working to shoot down the foregoing statistics and substantiate her claims.

As to the figures today: I’ve seen enough surveys by enough honest surveyors to believe that, despite all the weaknesses in approach, a very good case can be made that, for a wide variety of reasons, the success rates in today’s A.A. range from one to five percent.

Who’s right, or what’s right? I can take you to Dr. Bob’s Home and show you the pictures on the wall of the venerable old-timers like Ed Andy and Clarence Snyder and Dr. Bob who lived on and on in sobriety. Or you can go through the records of Ray G., archivist at Dr. Bob’s Home—archives that he takes all over the U.S.—and check the rosters and records for yourself. Also, I’ve placed Cleveland rosters, Akron rosters, and other surveys at the Griffith Library. Check them out if you want the facts. I checked out many personally with Dr. Bob’s daughter, Sue Smith Windows, in Akron before she died.

Who’s right? I suppose you might start by asking what motivates those who deny the successes of early A.A. If they purchase the scrap books from A.A. General Services, they’ll see hundreds and hundreds of news clippings across the nation that point to early A.A. cures and name names and name places. If they look at A.A. literature, they’ll see the same figures. If they read my titles, they’ll find lots of specifics. If they go to Dr. Bob’s Home on Founders Day or to the Wilson House any time of the year, they’ll find plenty to read.

What’s right? I’ll cover that below. For I believe it doesn’t matter who says what or who surveys what or who claims what as to early A.A., its Christian Fellowship, its 7 point Akron program, and its emphasis on the Book of James, the Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians 13. What’s right is to come and see. To look and see. And then to ask, has it something to teach us today.

The Conclusions That Follow

Alcoholics Anonymous is the fellowship where I got sober almost twenty years ago and stayed continuously sober thereafter. From a shaking, confused, troubled, depressed newcomer, I’ve built a new status. I gave A.A. my all. I gave my all in sponsoring others. I gave my all to studying the Big Book and learning exactly how to take people through the 12 Steps. I’ve given 16 years to researching A.A. history.

I’ve done much, if not most of the things the A.A. pioneers did when they achieved cures and their high success rates. I made the A.A. fellowship my headquarters for at least eight of the first years. I went where they went, did what they did, and saw what they got. But it wasn’t just staying dry and going to meetings. Abstinence was the first step in early A.A. There was only one meeting a week. There were no Steps. There was no Big Book. They decided to quit for good. They were usually hospitalized. They were visited by successful alkies. They were led to Christ. They relied on the Creator for help. They studied the Bible. They had old fashioned prayer meetings. They sought guidance from God. They read lots of literature. They were taught the principles primarily from Anne Smith’s Journal each morning. They used devotionals like The Runner’s Bible and The Upper Room. They studied again and again the Book of James, the Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians 13. They sought obedience to God’s commandments. They hung out together—often in one of the homes for extended periods. Most went to church once a week. And all bent every effort to help newcomers and tell them what God had done for them—the cured ones. Look at what Bill Wilson and Bill Dotson both said on page 191 of the Fourth Edition of the Big Book—they just wanted to keep telling people, they said, that the Lord had cured them of their terrible curse. So do I..

Nobody can tell me that early A.A. was hogwash. I’ve learned what they did. I did what they did. And I’ve received what they received.

Now if all the naysayers were correct, would there be any A.A. at all today? Would there be any treatment centers? Any recovery bookstores? Any conferences, seminars, meetings, fellowship, witness? How can anyone say that there was no success in early A.A.’s program.

Wilson sold Rockfeller on finding out for himself. And the Frank Amos reports emerged in 1938 and confirmed the results. Have you read them?

Sam Shoemaker was so enthused over what God had wrought that he wrote repeatedly about A.A., about its program, and about what he felt were the essential ingredients of its “awakenings”—prayer, conversion, fellowship, witness. Have you read his speeches at the St. Louis and Los Angeles conventions? They’re in my New Light on Alcoholism.

The Akron pioneers were so enthused over A.A. that they started highly successful fellowships in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Houston, and elsewhere.

The Cleveland pioneers were so enthused over A.A. that they grew from one group to thirty in a year’s time.

And many professionals favorably reviewed the A.A. success record. They included Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Father Ed Dowling, Sister Ignatia, and countless physicians and psychiatrists as well as newspaper columnists.

Were they all blowing smoke? If so, there must have been a raging fire. Big movements grow from big successes. They die if there is no success. They often continue and change and weaken when they forget where they came from.

Any time the historians, statisticians, mathematicians, and pollsters lose sight of what will help the alcoholic who still suffers, they lose me in the dust of the arena.

Early A.A. came from success. I’m all for knowing everything possible about what they did. Are you?



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