Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Charlie Don’t Surrender

March 1st, 2011 · 9 Comments


Over the past day or so, I’ve once again been flooded with mail regarding my Alcoholics Anonymous opus from last July’s Wired. The reason, of course, is Charlie Sheen’s recent decision to come out hard against the organization, which he accuses of being (and I paraphrase) a fraudulent mind-control cult with an abysmal success rate. Skeptics have rejoiced over adding such a high-profile figure to their ranks, while 12-step devotees have bemoaned the damage that Sheen’s rants might do to addicts who require help. Epistles from members of both cliques have shown up in my inbox recently—some to mock, others to plead for help.

I want to point out that I consider myself neither an AA supporter nor a critic; I’m merely a writer who was curious enough to dig through the organization’s history and methods, in an effort to figure out why Bill Wilson’s system has endured and grown for over 75 years. I learned enough in the course of my reporting to know that Sheen’s attacks are wholly unoriginal, especially his insistence that AA’s “success rate” is a mere five percent. (That oft-quoted stat is based on a misreading of a 20-year-old AA member survey.) Yet Sheen is, indeed, correct in asserting that there are many paths to sobriety, and that one needn’t follow the 12 Steps in order to recover.

My main takeaway from Sheen’s tirades is that AA is unique in its ability to inspire such passionate love and hate. Those who stay in the program credit the Steps with, quite literally, saving their lives; those who choose another path to sobriety claim it’s a cult every bit as creepy as the People’s Temple. I spent a long time wrestling with the reasons for this sharp schism, and I don’t think I ever came up with a satisfactory answer. But there is a quote from an early draft of “Secret of AA” that was left on the cutting-room floor, and I think it goes part of the way toward explaining why AA is do divisive:

The rigidity of the program is what turns off most prospective members, especially those who chafe at any tinge of religion. “You have to be pretty strong,” says Lee Ann Kaskutas, senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, Calif. “You have to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to smile and not get upset and not get hurt when someone tells me to get on my knees and pray. I’m not going to argue.’ Because you really can’t argue with them about the philosophy. It’s not up for debate.”

For AA members, the sacred nature of the Steps is precisely what makes the program work. But AA haters, that inflexibility is an insult to their autonomy and intelligence. That’s why Sheen spent part of his Today Show interview mocking the language in the Big Book; he simply can’t bring himself to buy into aspects of the system that he finds distasteful, for the sake of working toward a greater goal.

Again, let me stress that I take no sides in the AA debate—it works beautifully for some, and it skeeves out others. But no matter how an alcoholic or addict works toward sobriety, there is one common thread that runs through every successful recovery story: a sincere knowledge that one’s old course was leading nowhere good. Does Sheen possess that wisdom? For the sake of his five kids, I sure as heck hope so.

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9 Comments so far ↓

  • shothotbot

    In my experience AA doesn’t ask you to believe anything, really, it asks you to try things, namely prayer or meditation, self examination and service. AA claims if you try that for a while, things will change for you.

    I know some people try to force something else on people, but I don’t think you can support that by reading the book.

    I am really confused about the hostility toward AA from some people. We just want to be let alone to do our thing, we don’t recruit, we don’t drag people out of bars or advocate for changes in laws, or even collect money beyond what we need to pay the rent. If it didn’t work for Charlie, OK. If he can be happy with booze or moderate or quit another way or switch to pot or whatever, its none of our business. Why cant he feel the same way about us?

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @shothotbot: Thanks for the insightful comment.

    One of the most surprising things I learned while reporting the AA piece is that it’s such a heterogeneous organization–for better and for worse. People have radically different experiences based on the nature of the groups they attend, even if those groups are separated by (quite literally) a handful of city blocks. There’s a certain organizational genius to that–as I argue in the piece, the Steps are basically open-source code that people are free to build upon, as long as they don’t violate some fundamental tenets.

  • shothotbot

    Yeah, there are a lot of cool things about the organization, though, unsurprisingly for a club made of people who have screwed up their own lives almost beyond recognition, some people might be a bit insufferable. I don’t think people appreciate the reason AA has stayed around for 80 years. I don’t think its because AA works (for whatever subset of people it works for) I think its because AA is poor and it doesnt do anything as an organization other than share and collate information about the groups. AA has no assets and nothing to fight over. No buildings, no pile of money, no donor lists, no programs, no think tank. AA doesnt have any unique spiritual principals, but its organizational principals I think are under-appreciated by the outside world.

  • Maia Szalavitz

    The problem isn’t AA: it’s that at least 90% of American addiction/ alcoholism treatment is based on it and that treatment providers like Drew Pinsky claim that recovery is impossible without it (though now he seems to be wavering on that).

    AA’s traditions say that no one can profit from it or make money as a 12-step sponsor— but that is exactly what virtually every addiction treatment program and “sober coach” in the U.S. does, despite their vehement denials of it. Every time a program teaches people about the steps or promotes the idea that AA is the only way, it is violating that tradition.

    The reason AA is so controversial is because it is routinely forced on people, despite the organization’s own disdain for that and despite repeated court findings that doing so is an unconstitutional “establishment” of religion.

  • Matt

    Religious people underestimate how insulting the language of the Big Book can be to an atheist or agnostic. Some atheists are willing to change their viewpoint on that if they want to quit drinking, most aren’t. It also depends on how much emphasis is placed on the book itself within the particular meeting or AA community, but lots of people are turned off by it.

    I was. I spent my frst couple years of sobriety in AA. The last few I spent away from the community for that very reason. Even after years of sobriety I kept being pressured to “try spiritual methods.” Eventually the groups became more of a source of stress than help. I think groups are very helpful in staying sober. Too bad there aren’t more widely available secular options.

    I think much of the hostility come from the fact that AA is often court ordered and AA actively promotes itself to courts and medical professionals. They claim they don’t, but they do in actual practice through their “cooparation with professionals” committees.

  • Jay

    My experience with AA had none of the “rigidity” that you and some others describe. In fact part of what attracted me was that the steps are “suggested” — that word precedes the recitation of the steps in the Big Book, and that concept reverberates throughout the program I was introduced to.

    Of course, many members believe that anything less than total adherence will fail. But as the article states, opinions and experience vary widely. Many who strictly follow the program relapse anyway, and many who play it loose stay sober anyway. I’m the latter: I’ve been sober 23 years without doing everything required. I can’t praise AA enough. It’s ridiculous to call it a cult … it requires no dues, doesn’t cut members off from the outside world, discourages recruitment, welcomes dropouts back. Like any group, it has some obnoxious members who make it easy for naysayers to dismiss as typical (there’s a word for that: bigotry).

    The Big Book is very easy to harrumph at and toss aside. It is enormously sexist, and expounds psychological ideas that by today’s standards are crude. Its language is formal and stiff. Anyone wishing to ignore the powerful, profound insights and wisdom that fill this book will find ample excuse to do so. As we say at meetings: if you don’t like what we have, your misery will be cheerfully refunded.

  • AlaTeen

    The reality of recovery is that the big step is to stop driving yourself to drink by trying to neurotically control the uncontrollable. Systematically eliminate the stressors you’re placing on yourself and growth can happen. AA does this through the language of religion and spirituality, so people not into that have a hard time fitting in, but it works for so many because at its core it’s doing what psychological approaches do, but in a more casual setting.

    I think people claiming that AA isn’t rigid is very silly- the narrative accepted by all when someone relapses is that they didn’t work the program hard enough, rather than perhaps the program didn’t work for that person as well as it does for others. The belief that the program cannot fail only be failed generates a cargo cultism around parts of the program that weirds people out and doesn’t help anyone. And it creates the appearance of rigidity to outsiders.

  • Rowan

    The thing is that there’s a big difference between AA as it’s written down, and AA as it’s practiced. I go to meetings in Philadelphia, and there are definite geographical subcultures: West Philly, South Philly, Center City, Kensington, Fairmount, and Roxborough, just off the top of my head, and they all have different approaches. And AA is so strongly based on fellowship and peer pressure that certain attitudes or slants get reinforced and alienate people who don’t agree.

    Center City is the most open-minded and non-denominational, and it’s where all the gay meetings are; the attitude there is “whatever keeps you sober today, honey” and its slant is either Unitarian or Buddhist, depending on who you talk to. South Philly has a Christian slant and a heavy emphasis on the Big Book; Kensington has a stronger Christian slant; West Philly’s message seems to be “Just don’t drink and go to meetings and you’ll do just fine.”

    And all of these approaches work for large groups of people, or they wouldn’t still be around. All of these groups have people with decades of sobriety. The one thing they all have in common? “I tried everything I could to stay sober and nothing worked but this group.” That’s the only good reason to go to AA.

    The other thing that’s universal is that every group has assholes, saints, and a huge mass of people in between just trying their best.

  • Rowan

    Oh, and there’s a chapter in the Big Book addressed specifically to atheists and agnostics, and another two chapters in the 12&12, and a pamphlet, and another whole book called “Came to Believe”. Atheists absolutely should not feel excluded. If some militantly religious asshole makes you feel excluded, they’re really not doing it right.

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