Amid culture clashes and global growth, the group turns 60
by Elizabeth Gleick
Alcoholism used to be a secret held close, known only to the sufferer’s loved ones, and carrying a harsh social stigma. But anyone walking the streets of downtown San Diego last weekend would have seen little sign that any of the estimated 60,000 recovering alcoholics and Al-Anon members attending the Alcoholics Anonymous convention there were anything but loud and proud. Celebrating the group’s 60th anniversary, participants from 72 countries sporting first-name-only registration badges flashed smiles and offered greetings to the people they passed along the San Diego waterfront.
Clearly in its prime, the nation’s preeminent alcoholism-treatment organization is also undergoing something of a mid-life crisis. Though A.A. claims nearly 2 million members worldwide, in the U.S. its growth has come at a cost. Founded in 1935 by New York stockbroker Bill Wilson and Ohio surgeon Bob Smith, A.A. is no longer just a fellowship of down-and-out men whose drinking has led them, in A.A. parlance, to “hit bottom.” The veterans are being joined by younger people-and women, gays and minorities-as well as by those who are sent to A.A. as part of a court sentence. The newcomers often bring an array of ancillary problems to meetings, including emotional trauma and addiction to other drugs. As the organization metamorphoses, its supporters wonder whether A.A. can or should be such a big tent. “That’s a real question,” says George Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an expert on A.A. “Where is the line? What is the responsible limit of tolerance?”
At A.A. meetings everywhere-in church basements, on campuses and in hospitals and prisons-certain basic principles hold. Under a cloak of strict anonymity the “Drunk,” to use a popular A.A. word, often admits his alcoholism before the group, acknowledging that alcoholism is a disease for which abstinence is the only answer. Most adherents also believe they will never recover but instead will always be “in recovery.” Though many who feel they have been saved by A.A. cannot explain exactly how or why A.A. works, they do believe they stay sober by helping others stay sober too.
For some A.A. veterans, this role becomes complicated when other kinds of highs are involved. Helen, a member for 21 years, recalls a young woman who told the group at a meeting a few years ago that her biggest thrill had been going to a “shooting gallery,” buying drugs and injecting them. Hearing that, Helen told a friend that her biggest thrill had been going to the cocktail lounge at New York City’s Sherry Netherland Hotel because they had great drinks and hot hors d’oeuvres. “The old-timers are being driven away by not being able to identify with the specifics of young people’s drug stories,” agrees Peter, a six-year veteran. “The issue isn’t getting more people into A.A. but keeping the ones we have.”
A number of younger members do not dispute that they are in A.A. for different reasons. “I definitely think there is a split,” says Rusty, 27, who has been in the program eight years. “The difference is what it’s like being sober between the ages of 19 and 27 instead of coming in at 50 with a marriage, a job and a mortgage. I don’t know a lifetime of disappointment and pain. My friends who came in at 18 and 19 have had incredible success. They get better jobs, and they move on. [Older members make you ] feel you’re doing something wrong to go for it. But it’s not their show anymore.” And whether other members relate to her or not, Dezerie, a 19-year-old from Pasadena, California, cares only that A.A. works. “It’s the people and the spirit at A.A.,” she says. “This is a place where I come and I don’t feel alone anymore the way I used to when I was drinking and doing drugs.”
A.A.’s fundamental principles are also coming in for criticism. For some people, A.A.’s spiritual overtones present problems. (Step Two of the famous Twelve Steps requires recognizing “a Power greater than ourselves.”) Rational Recovery, which began in 1986 as a secular alternative to A.A., claims groups in some 600 cities around the country, many of them filled with A.A. refugees. Other therapies, such as Moderation Management, hold that for some problem drinkers, abstinence from alcohol is not the answer.
A.A. has a longstanding policy of avoiding public debate. But the loosely structured organization, administered by a small staff in New York City and funded by donations and book sales, continues to expand, and now has about 700,000 members outside the U.S. In some places, its uniquely American flavor takes getting used to. “The first time I read the Twelve Steps, I thought, ‘“This is pure imperialism,’” says Slava, a Russian woman who has been sober for more than five years. A South African member who attended last weekend’s San Diego convention said the only place there was no apartheid in South Africa during that brutal regime was at A.A. meetings. In Poland the first A.A. convention in 1984 attracted 27 groups from across the country; there are now 940 groups. Professor Wiktor Osiatynski, chairman of the Commission on Education on Alcoholism in Warsaw’s Stefan Batory Foundation, says A.A.’s rapid rise in Poland can largely be attributed to the Solidarity trade-union movement. “Solidarity was the first event in Poland’s history where people began to realize that they could tackle their problems by organizing themselves, instead of looking to their leaders, to someone else, to solve their problems,” he says.
The ability of A.A, to thrive elsewhere in the world suggests that the organization is adaptive enough to absorb all these cultural shifts. For one thing, if a visitor does not like one meeting, there is often another somewhere else nearby. “People vote with their feet,” says Peter. “At some point a lot of groups won’t be A.A. groups anymore. I won’t be in those meetings.” Jim, a 30-year veteran who is a partner in a top-flight Boston law firm, remains sanguine. “Right from the beginning, A.A. was a cross section that reflected what was happening in society,” he says. “A.A. is strong enough to survive.”
Reported by Sam Allis / Boston, Sylvester Monroe / San Diego, Tadeusz L. Kucharski / Warsaw, Jenifer Warner / Moscow.
(Source: Time, July 10, 1995)