The remarkable 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 hugely popular and influential for a couple of decades, before rapidly disappearing. The Oxford Group (actually nothing to do with Oxford) was a form of Protestant revivalism, 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 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, 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 traveled 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).

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 wronged 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.

My AA friend said he found the group dynamic particularly therapeutic: 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 sucking in money, as the Oxford Group did and other groups like Landmark and Scientology arguably 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 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.’ Bill Wilson’s full name was only revealed after his death and, rather poignantly, he himself stopped going to AA meetings, because fellow members always wanted him to talk about how he set up the group, rather than giving him the opportunity to unburden himself of his problems.

The 12 traditions are a masterpiece of organizational design, and seem to have kept AA preserved from the corrupting influences that have brought down so many other 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 2 million members, and over 100,000 groups 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 self-help movements of the 20th century – though, obviously, the lingering whiff of religion still puts some people off.

3 thoughts on “The remarkable rise of Alcoholics Anonymous

  1. Many thanks for this, Jules. AA is a really fascinating case of the fusion of long-established philosophical, theological and medical ideas into a characteristically 20th-century movement. While some who have attended AA object to the religious invocation of a ‘Higher Power’, others dislike the medical reductionism of treating alcoholism as a disease which you either have (for life) or are (and always have been) totally free from. Christian notions of original sin and innate depravity, which can only be overcome through divine grace rather than individual effort are, as you say, clearly in evidence in the guiding principles of AA. The AA division of the world into two types of people – alcoholics (who remain alcoholics whether drunk or sober) and non-alcoholics (who will remain non-alcoholics no matter how much they drink) – is strongly reminiscent of the Protestant doctrine of predestination, according to which one’s eternal fate as a member of either the elect or the damned is divinely and unchangeably pre-ordained.

    • Thanks, yes, that’s true. And there’s the effort to preserve the purity of the group mission – if you’re just a minor alcoholic, its not for you, likewise if you have other substance problems, take them to a substance support group. Perhaps it’s as much about community, and preserving a collective identity, as it is about overcoming alcoholism.

      This reminds me a bit of freeloaders trying to get the community without necessarily having the illness – like the hero of Fight Club, addicted to attending support groups, or Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, whose efforts to pick up a girl lead to him faking it at an incest support group. Dark, but quite funny:

  2. Pingback: Ann Taves on religious / ecstatic / special experiences | The History of Emotions Blog

Comments are closed.