Regular readers know that I’ve been spending the better part of 2010 working on a Wired piece about addiction. Well, the feature is finally live, and now the full truth can be revealed—the article’s central narrative is about the history and science (or lack thereof) of Alcoholics Anonymous, which just celebrated its 75th anniversary. Here’s the essence of the tale:
It was in June 1935, amid the gloom of the Great Depression, that a failed stockbroker and reformed lush named Bill Wilson founded the organization after meeting God in a hospital room. He codified his method in the 12 steps, the rules at the heart of AA. Entirely lacking in medical training, Wilson created the steps by cribbing ideas from religion and philosophy, then massaging them into a pithy list with a structure inspired by the Bible.
The 200-word instruction set has since become the cornerstone of addiction treatment in this country, where an estimated 23 million people grapple with severe alcohol or drug abuse—more than twice the number of Americans afflicted with cancer. Some 1.2 million people belong to one of AA’s 55,000 meeting groups in the US, while countless others embark on the steps at one of the nation’s 11,000 professional treatment centers. Anyone who seeks help in curbing a drug or alcohol problem is bound to encounter Wilson’s system on the road to recovery.
It’s all quite an achievement for a onetime broken-down drunk. And Wilson’s success is even more impressive when you consider that AA and its steps have become ubiquitous despite the fact that no one is quite sure how—or, for that matter, how well—they work. The organization is notoriously difficult to study, thanks to its insistence on anonymity and its fluid membership. And AA’s method, which requires “surrender” to a vaguely defined “higher power,” involves the kind of spiritual revelations that neuroscientists have only begun to explore.
As some of y’all might have guessed, I really went through the wringer on this piece. I spent months attending AA meetings, then reeled off ten drafts before the finished product was ready for Wired‘s august pages. (Three or four drafts is the norm.) The big challenge was getting a handle on the question of efficacy, which has never really been resolved due to AA’s curious organizational principles. And needless to say, the pro and con sides are extremely passionate about their takes on AA; for lots of people, AA is either an life-saving miracle or an insidious cult.
There was a ton of great material left on the cutting-room floor, so I’ll be writing several AA-related posts over the coming days. In the meantime, if you have any questions about the Wired story or AA in general, please leave ’em in comments and they’ll be answered pronto.
(Image via Bat Country)