PoW: The rise and rise of Alcoholics Anonymous


My name’s Jules, and I’m not an alcoholic. But I did meet a friend of mine last night who is a recovering alcoholic, and talking to him about Alcoholics Anonymous made me think about this fascinating movement, and the key role its played in the history of self-help and mental health over the last 75 years.

AA came out of a Protestant movement in the 1920s called the Oxford Group, which was very popular and influential for a couple of decades. The Oxford Group (actually nothing to do with Oxford) was a form of Protestant self-help, which encouraged self-examination, sharing or confessing your faults to your local group, and then spreading the word to others. In true Protestant fashion, the Oxford Group stripped Christianity down to its bare essentials and adapted it for the 20th century. The ‘group confessional’ was a particular innovation, and led, apparently, to weekend orgies of self-revelation among the affluent and pious, competing to reveal the most salacious sins. The Group also seemed designed for modern mass media, with its simple messages, slogans and mnemonics (one of its slogans was ‘a spiritual radiophone in every home’, which sounds quite Huxlerian). And it tapped in to the modern urge – perhaps the narcissistic urge – to tell your story to a group, to share the inmost core of your being, and receive the group’s acceptance for your most shameful secrets.

Later new religious movements like the Landmark Forum, the Work, or Erhard Seminar Training would take these basic dynamics of introspection and group confessional, and strip them even further of their religious trappings, by taking away any mention of God or Jesus. But they kept the idea of the sudden conversion, the instant liberation from bad habits, which also appeals to the modern hurried sensibility: a new you, in just 24 hours!

Like Scientology today, the Oxford Group made a big thing of its connections to the wealthy and successful – the implication being that membership of the Group could give you an intro to attractive social and business connections (rather like some middle managers are attracted to Freemasonry or the Rotary Club for the networking opportunities they seem to promise).

But despite its rapid success, the Oxford Group had obvious flaws. It was corrupted by power and money. It had a charismatic and very visible leader, the Lutheran pastor Frank Buchman (pictured right), who often seemed to be on an ego trip, and who made serious errors of judgement like flirting with the Nazi Party and imagining what it would be like if Hitler or Mussolini converted to the Oxford Group and established a ‘dictatorship of God’ with the Group’s slogans blaring from every home’s radio. And the Group had an odious ethos of social climbing and donation-seeking – Buchman encouraged Group members to travel first class, in order to network, and public talks would sometimes end with solicitation for funds – although none of this money was ever spent on the poor or the needy.

The birth of AA

One Oxford group in the US helped an alcoholic called Ebby Thacher, in the early 1930s, who in turn tried to bring religion to a drinking buddy, Bill Wilson. Bill also converted, but still occasionally relapsed into alcoholism. He managed to finally kick the habit at a rehab centre when he had a religious experience after being given the hallucinogenic Atropa Belladonna, or deadly nightshade (research into using hallucinogenics to cure addictions is only now coming back into the mainstream of respectable science – see this article.)

Bill then travelled to Akron, Ohio in 1935, where he stayed with an Oxford Group member and alcoholic called Bob Smith. Bill worked with Bob for a month, and he too managed to kick the habit. Over the next few years, the two developed the format of Alcoholics Anonymous: first the 12 Steps, then the 12 Traditions. AA members say the 12 steps stop them from killing themselves, and the 12 traditions stop them from killing each other. They’re really interesting principles, which have stood the test of time without any major revisions.

The first and second steps involve the Lutheran admission that ‘we are powerless and our lives have become unmanageable’ and therefore need help from ‘a Power greater than ourselves’. This is very different from the Stoic idea, for example, that the power and responsibility to help yourself is always yours alone. In AA, the alcoholic’s first step is admitting they have a disease which they on their own can’t solve – they need the help of a Higher Power. It’s not self-help, so much as other-help.

Who or what is this Higher Power? The 12 Steps define it as ‘a God of your own understanding’. Bob Wilson noticed more alcoholics were attracted to and helped by AA if it didn’t make a big thing of religious dogma, but allowed people to bring their own definitions of God – which could simply be the Higher Power of the group or movement (some AA members define God as Group Of Drunks, implying that ‘God’ is really human consciousness organizing itself to heal itself).

What was most important was the idea of people helping each other up, and sharing their stories – AA took the group confessional format of the Oxford Group, and added the idea of having a sponsor who could guide the new recruit through the 12 steps. They also added the idea of ‘making amends’ – going round apologizing to those you’ve done wrong in the past (this is the conceit behind the sitcom My Name Is Earl). And, importantly, they focused on one key sin or disease – alcoholism. They gave their members a sense of collective identity through their battle with their illness. They took something that was private and shameful, and made it into a collective struggle and source of group pride: ‘It’s been ten years since I had a drink’ etc.

That laid a template for self-organized mental health support groups for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, drug addiction, sex addiction, really every kind of personal problem (there’s even a 12-step programme for online gaming addiction, called OLGA). Even if these groups don’t all use the 12-step programme, they still use the idea of a group self-organized to combat a particular problem, who share their stories with each other and encourage each other on.

Personally, I found that group dynamic very helpful when I was struggling to overcome social anxiety, which I did after joining a CBT-based social anxiety support group, that met once a week in the Royal Festival Hall. When you share your stories and listen to others’ stories, you realize your problems are not unique, that you’re not a uniquely dysfunctional freak (as you secretly feared), that many others have similar problems. It de-personalizes the problem, makes you less attached to it, makes you able to see it as a collective battle with an external enemy (alcoholism, depression, social anxiety etc) to be fought with intelligence and organization. In some ways, this is like Christians sharing stories of the Devil and self-help tips on how to resist his evil snares – except that, while AA kept the idea of the Higher Power, it turned the Enemy of alcoholism into a disease, rather than a supernatural evil force. They also abandoned any mention of Hell or damnation – if you fall, you just get up, and try again.

Behind the Christian roots of AA, there are older, Socratic ideas: the idea of examining yourself to find any defects or vices, and also the Serenity Prayer, which was introduced into AA in the 1940s, and is now read at the end of every meeting: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.” Bill Wilson wrote that this prayer summed up the ethos of AA, though to me it seems a bit different from the Lutheran idea of being powerless to help yourself without the intercession of a Higher Power. It’s interesting, though, the way someone came across the Serenity Prayer and it was then introduced into the ‘ritual’ of the AA meeting. That’s how religions are created – objects and ideas are found, then bolted on, and you can see different ideas and traditions stuck together.

Like every vibrant young spiritual movement, within a few years AA found itself immersed in internal arguments over how the movement should develop. At that point, in 1946, Bill Wilson wrote and published the 12 Traditions (somewhat reminiscent of the 12 foundations of the New Jerusalem mentioned in Revelations). These 12 traditions fixed AA into a system that Wilson called ‘benign anarchy’. As my AA friend put it, “it’s like a terrorist organization: each cell is separate and they don’t know much about each other”. There’s little central authority, no requirement for membership other than the desire to stop drinking, and a group could be just two people, like the original group.

Wilson obviously learnt from the mistakes of the Oxford Group – first of all, he protected AA from the corrupting influence of money. Every AA group is self-supporting, with no outside financial contributions, so it hasn’t become a machine for making money, as the Oxford Group did and other groups like Landmark and Scientology have done. No AA member is allowed to lend its name to other causes, and it avoids the temptation to seek political influence through its success, as the Oxford Group did. And because it’s anonymous, no member can use the movement as a platform for self-promotion, as Frank Buchman arguably used the Oxford Group. As the 12th tradition puts it: ‘Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.’

The 12 traditions are a masterpiece of organizational design, and have kept AA preserved from the corrupting influences that have brought down so many other spiritual movements: all of which follow a sadly predictable arc of hype, wealth and power followed by disintegration (think of, say, EST, or the Secret, or Landmark and so on). Today, the movement has over two million members, with over 100,000 groups meeting worldwide. I’m told you can find a meeting happening at any hour of the day in New York. And on some flights, you might even hear an announcement on the intercom inquiring if there is a ‘friend of Bill’ on-board. From an outsider’s perspective, AA seems to me to be one of the more successful new spiritual movement of the 20th century. But, as I said at the beginning, I haven’t tried it myself, so would be interested to hear if some of you have more first-hand impressions of it.

**********
A few interesting things I came across in the last week:

Waterstones is launching its own e-reader. Good idea:

David Cameron got a bit Neo-Aristotelian in his latest speech on education, declaring: ‘education doesn’t just give people the tools to make a good living – it gives them the character to live a good life, to be good citizens’.

Here’s the first episode of Radio 4′s new pub philosophy show, The Philosophy Arms. It’s about the ‘happiness machine’, and features another Neo-Aristotelian, universities minister David Willets, defending an Aristotelian conception of happiness.

Here’s yet another Neo-Aristotelian, Martha Nussbaum, talking about her new book, and how she was inspired to become a philosopher when she was sent on an exchange to live with some Welsh factory workers near Swansea and became depressed and outraged by the poverty of their lives, and “the lack of protest”.

Here’s Geoff Dyer giving a recent lecture at Queen Mary University about the essay (skip to five hours in!)

Here’s a Stephen Pinker review of Roy Baumeister’s new book, Willpower – he’s doing a talk at the Manhattan Institute on September 22nd, for any New Yorkers out there.

And finally, here’s a story about a drunken elk getting stuck in a tree in Sweden. Clearly misinterpreted the whole ‘higher Power’ thing.

See you next week,
Jules

Comments:

  • Olly R says:

    Hi Jules, I have often thought that it would be nice if there was AA for non-alcoholics, as its pretty much closer than anything to what I personally believe in – democratised, non-institutionalised, non-dogmatic, non-scriptural, apophatic, non-anthropormorphic monotheism. And confession of perceived wrongdoings or traumas to oneself is something that I think is a very essence of psychological health.

  • Alpha says:

    Dear Jules, I read this article with great interest. There are a lot interpretations on Bill story. May thanks to Bill that I am sober today. It is new position to life and to important sings in my life. The AA 12 steps is in action, new fellowship exist, I learn to love some people. I meet a lot friends in many cuontries and it is a wonderful life.

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