An A.A. Appraisal by an Appreciative Insider
There have been lots of drifts, trends, and changes in Alcoholics Anonymous since Bill and Dr. Bob founded the society on June 10, 1935. Most of them took place before I entered the rooms on April 23, 1986 after two days of sobriety, some fifteen years of chronic alcoholism, and sixty years of natal birthdays. I was a late bloomer in more ways than one. But I haven’t had one drink from the first day forward. My life has really changed, and I’m one very happy, thankful dude as I approach my eightieth birthday.
I’ve done the whole A.A. gig—everything but climb into the leadership or employed service ranks. That is to say that I detoxed in A.A. I shook and shivered in A.A. I was ashamed and terrified in A.A. I came early to, and left late from, meetings. I attended thousands of meetings. I served as a greeter, a chair-setup person, a group secretary, a group treasurer, general service representative, frequent speaker, and hands-on sponsor of over 100 men in their recovery. I put my shoulder to the wheel in learning things to pass on—compassion, transportation, communication, Big Book study, step coaching, and camaraderie. Also participating in important sobriety-related side-activities: conferences, conventions, gratitude nights, service nights, unity nights, phone calls to other AAs and A.A. newcomers, newcomer netting, retreats, campouts, dances, study groups, sober club activities, and so on. It was an appealing way of life for someone who had felt disgraced, disgruntled, discouraged, depressed, and down-trodden. And I have never left Alcoholics Anonymous.
Just to make sure you know I’m a veteran insider, I’ll tell you I’ve done the treatment center thing, the therapy thing, the psych ward thing, the jail and penitentiary thing, the probation thing, and all the wreckage-of-the-past sidelights from divorce to tax problems to financial difficulties to health problems to unwanted publicity.
I’m not a professional worker for A.A. or anyone else. I don’t work for a treatment center, a rehab, or a detox unit. I’m not a therapist, psychologist, counselor, facilitator, coordinator, government or non-profit employee, or academic. I don’t lead or belong to a para-church group, self-help group, mutual support group, Christ-centered ministry, other anonymous fellowship, moderation management program, rational recovery group, or any kind of secular support group. I’m just a drunk who got sober in Alcoholics Anonymous and stayed that way because I wanted to (and because I had help).
All the foregoing just to establish that I’m writing about, and appraising A.A. today from, the inside, from within its rooms, from the fellowship itself, and as one who is—in today’s parlance—“recovered” and—in the commendable parlance of early A.A.—“cured” of alcoholism. I speak for myself and my opinions do not necessarily represent those of A.A. itself or any of its groups or members. I don’t write articles or books to or for A.A. or for any organization at all. I just write what I find.
This will not be a comprehensive review of every nook and cranny, or of every benefit to be found, in A.A. It is intended to be a 75th anniversary summary of where I believe A.A. to be today.
A.A.’s major accomplishments for which I am appreciative
Let’s keep this simple and free of controversial facts.
Ø A. A. has grown to about one million members in America and maintained that number.
Ø A.A. is as close as the school or church next door. You can find meetings in almost any community and offices or telephone contact in most communities.
Ø A.A. is easy to find. You look in the yellow pages and phone. You look in newspapers, and there’ll be an ad. You look on the internet, and you can find A.A. in your area.
Ø A.A.’s basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous, is available everywhere—at A.A. meetings, in major bookstores, in libraries, in treatment programs, on ebay, on internet book sites, in the offices of professionals, and in used book sites.
Ø A.A.’s basic text—in four editions—now numbers tens of millions of books in print.
Ø A.A.’s basic recovery program—consisting of Twelve Steps—can be found in its basic text, in innumerable books about A.A., in printed posters on the walls of most A.A. meeting rooms, and widely mentioned and discussed on websites and in a host of guides describing how to “take” those Steps.
Ø In the last twenty-years, excellent seminars have been conducted all over the United States by members who review and explain the basic text and the Twelve Steps in detail.
Ø Despite language suggesting otherwise, there is no formal membership in A.A. No rosters, no roll-calls, no attendance records, no prohibited behavior, no prohibited people or groups, and no enforced requirement for membership.
Ø Meetings of A.A. usually begin with a prayer, a moment of silence, a preamble that explains what A.A. is, a welcome to newcomers, and a reading from the basic text that explains details of the program of recovery.
Ø Meetings, except for a few “closed” meetings for alcoholics only, are generally open to anyone wishing to attend, visit, support, or learn.
Ø At its best, every meeting of A.A. is focused on the new person—the person who still suffers from alcohol. That person is welcomed, recognized, and assisted to the extent he seeks help. Telephone numbers are usually given to enable cries for further help. Sponsorship in the program is often volunteered by seasoned members who focus on service.
Ø Membership is free. Coffee and refreshments are free. Some literature is free, and the rest is reasonably priced and often provided free to a newcomer by some well-wishing and knowledgeable existing member.
Ø At the meeting level, the groups are self-supporting through donations by those able to provide support. The expenditures are minimal, consisting primarily of a very low-cost meeting place rental, purchase of coffee and refreshments, and purchase of inexpensive meeting schedules and literature.
Ø As much A.A. goes on outside the meetings as goes on in its meetings. Sponsors work with newcomers to support them and teach them the program of recovery. Fellowship at dances, conferences, seminars, conventions, special events, retreats, picnics, “birthday” parties, ball games, and holiday marathon meetings is the norm. Supportive phone calls among members are common. Transportation to meetings and events is usually offered by one member to another. The “meeting after the meeting” often occurs in cars, restaurants, and meeting halls near the regular meetings and sometimes in homes of members. Opportunities to serve as greeters, set-up people, clean-up people, coffee and refreshment tables, literature tables, and leadership as a secretary, treasurer, group representative, speaker, or chair-person are available for the asking and provide a genuine feeling of worthiness and belonging..
Ø There is a genuine emphasis on mutual love and support.
Ø There is a genuine recognition of the “moral” or “spiritual” aims of the program, challenging members to honesty, tolerance, patience, kindness, love, helpfulness, unselfishness, and service to others.
Ø Those who take the Twelve Steps seriously will usually find a path—either to a relationship with God as the basic text suggests, or to a set of moral principles designed to free the taker from resentment, self-seeking, dishonesty, and fear. The program still suggests religious affiliation and practices, the reading of religious literature suggested by members of the cloth, and the practice of “spiritual” principles which originally were sifted from the Oxford Group’s “Four Absolutes”—honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love; and from Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the Book of James, and 1 Corinthians 13, and other portions of the Good Book such as the Ten Commandments.
Ø The element of “filling your hours” with sober, A.A.-related activities is very important in helping the shaking, twisting, lonely, fear-filled, guilt-ridden, shame-faced, bewildered, forgetful, and often despairing person who now—stone sober–must face huge chasms of “empty time” that used to be filled with bad habits, bad places, bad companions, bad ideas, and bad examples. And trouble!
Ø The emergence of interest in A.A. history has, for me, signaled a real change for the better in moving the increasingly amorphous, porous, uninstructed, leaderless mass of new members toward some of the solid, successful, pioneer ideas that originally produced sobriety and a new life. In slightly more than two decades, A.A. has grown from a society which had virtually forgotten where it came from to a society which is more and more being supplied with its history from outside sources—both good and bad. These include books, articles, lectures, seminars, exhibits, museums, libraries, collections, internet presentations, audio tapes, movie and video presentations, and conferences. I count this development as one of the major, welcome achievements of A.A. today. It offers a real prospect of preventing the irreparable schisms in the fellowship, the pointless secularization of its program, and the departure of tens of thousands of disenchanted people who have come to feel like powerless by-standers. Often Christians and adherents to other belief-systems who don’t enjoy the religion-bashing they hear day in and day out in some quarters of their own fellowship.
Any negatives? Of course!
Ø The importance of learning, reporting, and respecting A.A. history becomes clear only to those who see and concede that present-day A.A. is awash in a variety of conflicting tugs—hostility to religion, intimidation of religiously inclined members, promotion of idolatry and nonsense gods, manufacture of ill-defined “spirituality” and “spiritual ideas,” intrusion of mystical and atheistic doctrines, spill-over of therapy and treatment language, the entrance of a wide-variety of members from different sects, denominations, races, creeds, sexes, sexual preferences, atheist leanings, new age influences, new thought popularity, and enforced attendance brought about at the insistence of courts, probation officers, correctional people, professional therapists, and treatment programs. There is much much more. The success rates in A.A. have plummeted from the original, documented 75% to 93% cures to less than 5% today—a reluctantly admitted fact known to anyone who is active in the program. There has been a recalcitrant outflow to other “anonymous” and “self-help” support groups—hundreds of them. There has been a strong constitutional challenge to the practice of government enforcement of A.A. attendance. There has been a widespread shift in the attitudes in the government, academic, and scientific community—a shift from enthusiasm for A.A. to a diversionary focus on surveys, statistics, “prevention,” “spirituality,” grants, funding, “treatment” and development of new and conflicting definitions of alcoholism. There has been a decided hostility by some in A.A. to its acceptance of addicts and others suffering from life-controlling problems even though most entrants suffer from all of these. Tremendous opposition has arisen in religion where A.A. used to enjoy its endorsement. Some churches and clergy condemn A.A. as anti-Christian and idolatrous. Some urge formation of, and attendance at, “Christ-centered,” or Bible-oriented groups such as Alcoholics for Christ, Teen Challenge, Celebrate Recovery, Overcomers, Overcomers Outreach, Inc., NACD, and Alcoholics Victorious, as well as a host of independent Christian groups, ministries, programs, and prison outreach communities. On the opposite end, there are those in Rational Recovery, atheist organizations, secular recovery groups, as well as advocates of medicinal or psychiatric treatment and experimental profit and non-profit entities who see and declare A.A. as an ineffective, confused and undefined religion of sorts, conducted by untrained non-professionals.
Ø Some think the conflicting forces will divide or destroy A.A. In fact, they often foster divisive meetings, studies, and ideas. I’m not a sociologist, but I don’t agree that A.A. is on a one-track road to oblivion. I point to the Y.M.C.A., Freemasonry, the Salvation Army, the Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, the innumerable proliferating Protestant denominations, the two major political parties, the Service Clubs, the lodges, and the secret college fraternities. All have had better or different days. Most have been buffeted with the loss of charismatic leaders, successful and dynamic programs, large memberships, and popular support. Yet these large organizations adapt, resist, modify, struggle, change, and even vigorously overcome opposition. Their very size and funding have meant formidable armies of victory. More important, they survive whatever change may be seen in their form and programs. A.A. will also be likely to survive. A few think the “Washingtonians” are an example of what could happen to A.A. Or they point to the “Oxford Group’s” virtual demise. Or to the temperance movement. But they can’t see the differences, and they dote on a parade of horrors. But the Washingtonians rejected God and went into politics. That may never happen in A.A. The Oxford Group depended largely on the vitality of one man—Dr. Frank N.D. Buchman—long dead. But the A.A. founders worked hard to see that their society survived their individual deaths. The temperance movement is another story, but I haven’t seen any decline in pubs, bars, cocktail parties, or beer factories. And I’ll let others deal with the significance of that part of our history.
Ø Regrettably, a host of critics ignore, distort, misreport, and modify A.A. history. Moreover, they toss in their respective prejudices against church, clergy, religion, particular denominations and creeds, the Bible, Christianity, Jesus Christ, and even the Creator Yahweh. Sometimes, you wonder how close they are or have been to the things they most criticize and how long it’s been since they’ve seen or helped a wet drunk They intentionally omit mention of early A.A., God, Jesus Christ, the Bible, Quiet Time, Christian literature, Rev. Sam Shoemaker, Anne Smith, Christian Endeavor, or other elements that shaped the very form and content of the present-day program. The secularism that is rampant in America is rampant among some revisionists in the recovery community, particularly among those who don’t believe in much of anything, who have cast off their prior affiliations, who certainly don’t seem to believe in the efficacy of Divine Aid—of which Bill and Bob spoke so often, or who claim that neither the Oxford Group nor the Bible nor Christianity had any effective role in the A.A. program or its early successes. They seem paranoid about losing book sales, clients, government support, insurance company money, grants, support from secular-minded colleagues, and the supposed legions of people who might be driven away by the very mention of God. There is no answer to this trend or the efforts or the opinions other than the facts themselves. And within A.A., there is a minority group of angry, prejudiced, authoritative speakers and writers—Bill Wilson years ago called them “bleeding deacons”—who write (without authority) on the stationary and in the name of A.A. intimidating manifestos, who threaten litigation, or who intimidate individuals and groups daring to read something other than recent A.A.-published materials, or daring to study or discuss the Christian roots of the A.A. program, or hold meetings which discuss the religious history and origins of A.A., its steps, and its literature. Don’t kid yourself about the existence of these powerful, negative agents and efforts. Many of us have files of such letters and remarks. And some informative websites have detailed the obstreperous activities
Line up and take your potshots at this insider if you care to.
But I don’t think A.A. is going down the tubes in terms of program, or support, or members. It’s too venerable. It has too many good features. And its governing forces—such as they are—just don’t have the power or support to junk the day-by-day enthusiasm and activities in favor of some universalized, secularized, sanitized hand-holding society of “opinion-less” newcomers and ex-drunks. That’s just not the history of alcoholic “tolerance.” Most of us have preferred breaking laws and windows and throwing chairs to tolerating intrusive authority figures. We didn’t always just drink to solve our problems—no matter how ineffective the attempted solutions may have been.
The government agencies, researchers, grant-makers, and scholarship programs may continue to search for some scientific cure for alcoholism—a drug, a war, a community awareness program, a government-sponsored educational campaign, new types of rehabs and treatment facilities, drug courts, TV ads, posters, new therapies, and new genes.
But nobody stops drinking until he wants to. Nobody has eliminated temptation since the Serpent introduced himself to Eve. Nobody can ban temptation. And nobody has eliminated the great Tempter—at least not yet. Most importantly, God has never seen fit to remove free will from our menu.
We can be stinkers. We can be drinkers. We can be smokers. We can be abusers. We can be liars and cheats and thieves. We can be angry. We can be afraid. We can deny God. We can ignore the Bible. We can refuse to confess Jesus Christ. We can refuse to go to the doctor, the lawyer, and the priest. And we can fail to listen to the host of critics around us—friends and family who alternately enable us yet warn and scold us; society which alternately educates and punishes us; religion which alternately condemns and ministers to us; and scientists who conclude we have bad genes, bad behavior, bad diet, bad vitamin programs, insufficient exercise, mental problems, secrets, and that catch-all ogre: self-centeredness. Boy do those labels let us off the hook of responsibility.
I think we have free will. In fact, I know we do. It’s God-given.
Nobody in my family ever stopped me from drinking, though some prayed for me, warned me, belittled me, and ignored me. One even joined Al-Anon—proclaiming that she didn’t cause it, couldn’t control it, and couldn’t cure it. That seemed to let both God and me off the hook.
Nobody in my church ever stopped me from drinking. Some of them were alcoholics too. The minister had a father who had been a drunk and apparently saw the same disgusting behavior in me, but did nothing to quell it even though his dad had gotten sober in A.A. That group finally ignored me when the going really got tough. But they didn’t stop my drinking and probably didn’t even think it possible.
I give a lot of credit for my sobriety to the San Francisco Chronicle and its devastating publicity about me. I give a lot of credit to the District Attorney’s office across the Bay and its relentless but unsuccessful quest to imprison me for a good long time. I give a lot of credit to a State Bar investigator who zealously pursued my pursuits and influenced my resigning my lawyer credentials. But I give the greatest credit to fear, to nine months of depression, to a week’s blackout, and even to my former wife—who nudged me into A.A. in the face of my final, bewildered despair and illness.
Most of all, I give the credit to A.A. Alcoholics Anonymous was there. It was a phone call away. It was a few blocks away. It never shamed, judged, or excluded me. It never even silenced me. It was there, and I gave it all I had. I didn’t like saying: “I’m Dick. I’m an alcoholic.” But I finally concluded I must be an alcoholic because I quacked the same way all the other ducks in the room quacked. And I’d just been in the same puddles most of them had waddled into. They didn’t really care what I decided, and I found they worried more about their own problems than my shortcomings. And they had a common understanding that drinking was a “no” “no” that could lead to death, insanity, or jail—true or not.
Temptation had been my problem. Early A.A. saw that problem in its frequent study of the Book of James and the dire consequences of giving in to temptation. Submission to God for help had been my problem. And early A.A. saw that problem in its frequent urging that we submit ourselves to God for guidance, obedience to His commandments, forgiveness, love, and healing—all in the Book of James, and elsewhere in the Good Book. Failure to resist the devil had been my problem. And early A.A. saw that problem in its explicit quotation of the verse in James that said: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
I did, and he did.
For me, the first step was complete abstinence—just as it was in early A.A. The second step was resisting temptation—just as it was in early A.A. The third step was turning to Almighty God for help: in prayer, with thankfulness, in obedience, in trust, and in study. That was a big one in early A.A.; and you started it with an initial and mandatory acceptance of Jesus Christ as the Way. And after eight months of suffering in A.A. without a drink, I set my own and similar course within A.A.—objections or no—learning the A.A. program, helping newcomers, relying on God, studying the Bible, applying the principles of restitution, praying often, and sticking with the ship.
No matter that it was named Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s the one I chose to sail on.
Top that. I can’t, and I haven’t found it necessary to try. Life is too good to spoil it with booze. God is too good for me to turn my back on Him.
Dick B. is an active A.A. member and uses his pen name to conform to A.A. Traditions. He is a writer, historian, retired attorney, Bible student, and recovered AA. He has published 23 titles, and over 60 articles, on all aspects of early A.A. history. He frequently speaks on panels and at seminars, conferences, and conventions all over the United States.