How and Why A.A. Groups Grew and Changed
“I 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.
Not 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.)
At 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.
The 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.
As 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.
A 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 here.”
Somewhere 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.
Step 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.
Big 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.
Some 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.
There 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 members.
In 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.
Wherever 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.
Alcoholics 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.
This 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.
Another 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.
As 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.
In 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.