Mean and Serene But Not a Marine
One finger pointing at you; three fingers (and a thumb) pointing at me.
My archenemy in the Saturday morning AA had a crewcut and his name was John, so I thought of him as Crew Cut John. Or, That Asshole.
I had moved to Missouri after ten years of sobriety in New York City, so because of what was either constitutional shyness or a desire to hear others (I’m still trying to distinguish between the two), I didn’t open my mouth the first few Saturdays. Others did. They said the things that are often said in AA meetings: One guy identified with the speaker’s pain. One woman could relate to the joy the speaker discovered when he stopped drinking. A guy wrestled with a sense that he would always be alone. A woman worried about losing custody of her kids. One guy said he had trouble sleeping because he was afraid he was going to lose his job. The alcoholics at that Saturday morning meeting spoke of sorrow and joy, loss and redemption, singularity and togetherness and it was good. Or at least I thought it was good until my archenemy spoke.
I have often wondered exactly who these self-selected arbiters of what’s appropriate to say in AA think they are.
“You know,” Crew Cut John said, “there are people in this room I feel sorry for. People who are whining about their pasts, and worrying about their futures, people who can’t seem to stop focusing on themselves.”
“Whoa,” I thought, the first time I heard The Asshole speak, “this guy is pretty harsh.” On the other hand, as someone who had spent a lot of his sobriety whining about his past, worrying about his future and focusing on himself, I had to admit, he had a point.
Then Crew Cut John would continue. “There are people here who would be much better served if they stopped living in the problem and instead started living in the solution!”
People would stare at the floor, or nod, or look away. But Crew Cut John wasn’t done.
“They’re not serving themselves, they’re not working the program of AA, and they’re hurting the group!” Crew Cut John would thunder.
This might be a good place to tell you that I had heard these sentiments before. Anyone who has attended a small number of 12-step meetings has heard them. The sentiments make up that particular fortissimo chorus of AA that advocates for what should and, more forcefully, what should not be shared in a meeting. The usual shoulds include: how one is working the steps; one's connection with a higher power; how sobriety is improving one's life; white light experiences; the importance of service and prayer. Paeans to Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob and the other old-timers are okay. What’s not okay, at least according to this grouchy Greek chorus, is almost everything else: painful breakups, broken computers, sick cats, selfish spouses, past drug use, medication or anti-depressants, being depressed, feeling crummy, struggling with sobriety, over-involved moms, distant dads, cruel men, psychotic women and all other topics that don’t meet the standards of the Crew Cut John fundamentalists.
Crew Cut Johns the world over express their thundering denunciations in different ways, I have learned. There are five basic modes.
*The classic Crew Cut John:
Basically, telling individuals in the group, and the group itself, that there is a right way to share in a meeting and a wrong way, and that many of the people are doing it the wrong way.
*The after-the-meeting-backstabbing Crew Cut John:
People who follow this model often nod with patience and smile wanly as their fellow 12-steppers go on and on about how doctors have failed them, or why bosses don’t understand them, then, over coffee, the get down to some serious inventory-taking and why-can’t-she-just-quit-her-whining-and-work-the-steps action. (Full disclosure: I’m one of these types of Crew Cut Johns).
*The passive aggressive Crew Cut John:
This is the guy who expresses his disdain if not outright condemnation for the violators of His Way of working the program with praise—for someone else. His comments usually follow a speaker’s share, and go something like this: “Thank you so much for sharing. It was so honest, and so in keeping with the principles of the program. Unlike so many of the shares you hear in the rooms these days, which really seem to be all about dwelling in the problem and not the solution, and which can really hurt the group.”
*The It’s-all-about-the-newcomer Crew Cut John:
It’s not that he minds the talk about drugs, or therapists, or mothers, or sick cats, oh no. He’s a tolerant guy, just wants to help everyone. But isn’t our primary goal to help the newcomer? And doesn’t such talk hurt the newcomer? And shouldn’t such talk be banned for the sake of the newcomer? (This Crew Cut John doesn’t really want to hear about the newcomer who actually might identify with a recovering alcoholic who is still struggling with issues other than drinking. This Crew Cut John is fairly positive he knows what will help the newcomer).
*The history-loving, big book-quoting Crew Cut John.
The original writers of the big book didn’t go on and on about their gestalt sessions! Bill Wilson never said a word about self-actualization, never uttered a single complaint about a sick cat or bad boss. So, according to this steeped-in-AA-founders-lore Crew Cut John, neither should any AA member today. (Of course, it should be noted that many of the original writers of the big book relapsed, and that Bill Wilson did take hallucinogens and seek wisdom through séances. Just sayin’.)
*The politician/lawyer Crew Cut John
This person combines many of the attributes of all other Crew Cut Johns—the disdain for the people who are doing AA wrong, the concern for the newcomer, the great appreciation of those who live in the solution—but he or she tries to actually do something about it by lobbying in business meetings to ban certain subjects from meetings, and/or to inject language into the opening of every meeting that reminds members “to confine your remarks to the subject of alcoholism.”
*The I’ve-had-it Crew Cut John
He can’t take it anymore, all the babble about feelings and drugs and despair. Why aren’t more people working the program? Why won’t they do AA the right way? Don’t they see that they’re not helping anyone? This Crew Cut John sometimes becomes so annoyed and distressed at what’s going on in meetings that he starts his own. If that doesn’t work, sometimes he just quits going to meetings. Sometimes, he starts drinking again.
Now, before anyone accuses me of being a Crew Cut Johnophobe, let me say this: I sympathize with the guy(s). Not only that, I empathize.
Haven’t all recovering alcoholics at least thought what my arch enemy gave such consistent, chronic, unbelievably irritating voice to? Haven’t we all judged and bitched and moaned and uttered silent prayers and judged some more when the mopey loser in the third row raised her hand and opened her mouth and complained—again!—about how her boss didn’t understand her and how her last boyfriend was a louse and her therapist was a godsend and how no one could ever understand the searing awfulness of raising a gifted child and how she just didn’t know if she could ever forgive her louse of a husband, who had divorced her 30 years ago and died ten years ago? Also, why was society so materialistic and why were drivers so stupid and what was the deal with the rude baristas at Starbucks?
I empathize, but I also know the pain and distress that Crew Cut John and his message can cause. I would submit that in their concern for what they’re sure is the sanctity of the AA program and the health and well-being of the mythical newcomer, Crew Cut John and his acolytes are reducing real, breathing newcomers, and oldtimers (full disclosure: me) to shame, silence and a certainty that because what I was feeling was not approved by Crew Cut John and others, I should not speak it. And the more I did not speak it, the worse I felt. And the worse I felt, the more I thought that drinking might help. Weren’t AA meetings supposed to provide a place where I could talk about my pain, and hear others talk about pain, and realize I wasn’t alone, and hear about solutions to my existential angst and crippling sense of isolation? Apparently not, according to Crew Cut John.
Anxious and sad, afraid to voice my anxiety and fear in front of Crew Cut John, I called friends (and my sponsor) back in New York City.
“Desperation gets you sober,” one told me, “tolerance keeps you sober.”
“Maybe you should work the steps harder,” another told me.
“Do they have any good therapists in Missouri?” another asked.
I was still feeling kind of shaky, so I called my sponsor, and told him my dilemma.
“I have often wondered,” he said, “exactly who these self-selected arbiters of what’s appropriate to say in AA are. My feeling is, if you get a group of drunks in a room and they’re trying to get sober, then God is present, and what is said is the voice of God.”
Well, yeah, I said, but what about when people were saying stuff that really, objectively, absolutely (in my opinion) had nothing to do with AA?
“A good opportunity to practice patience and tolerance,” he said.
The next time I attended the Saturday morning meeting, I spoke of how fearful I’d been lately, how anxious, how alone. I said I hadn’t drunk or used drugs in a long time, but still felt bad. I said I had considered anti-depressants, and often worried that I wasn’t working the program correctly.
Crew Cut John thundered his disapproval at the end of the meeting, and he stared at me, but afterwards, a few people who I had never heard speak approached me outside and thanked me for saying what they had been thinking. They asked if they might call sometime, and maybe we could meet for coffee. They said they didn’t feel so alone after hearing me. That felt good.
I moved back to New York City, where I have lived for the past twelve years. At my first meeting back, I sat in a circle and listened as people spoke of broken computers and sick cats and difficult bosses and dying spouses. And I heard a voice.
The voice said, “Why don’t you stop whining and start focusing on the steps? Why don’t you stop dwelling in the problem and start living in the solution!”
The voice was coming from inside my skull. It was Crew Cut John’s voice.
It was then I realized how I had become, or always was, in a way, Crew Cut John. We’re all Crew Cut John. That’s the problem. And the solution.
Neville Flance is a pseudonym for a writer and AA member. He last wrote about The Lord's Prayer.