AA Cults I Have Known
Alcoholics Anonymous has long been vulnerable to a creeping fundamentalism with cult-like tendencies. One longtime member recounts his brushes with some pernicious corruptions of the fellowship.
A couple of years ago I went to the Atlantic Group in New York. It was springtime, and the moneyed Upper East Side was in full bloom. The AA meeting, known as AG, was holding its anniversary party. The large Christ Church on Park Avenue had members milling about in its courtyard, sipping the Starbucks coffee the group serves, a few smoking on the sidewalk. The men wore suits and ties. Inside, a beaming young woman offered me a name tag, and wished me luck in finding a seat. I knew the meeting was well attended, but the church was overflowing with members.
AG is well known in New York AA. Depending on who’s talking, it either represents “Real Recovery” or an off-putting, overly rigid interpretation of AA doctrine. AG members have strongly worded suggestions about sobriety: You should have a sponsor who has a sponsor who has gone through the 12 Steps with another AG member; when you speak at any AA meeting you should wear a suit and tie or the female equivalent; the use of anti-depressants is discouraged; and the use of profanity is not allowed during qualifications.
"It’s the difference between rape and sex. It’s technically the same, but the spirit of it is the difference between hell and heaven."
This big Tuesday night meeting is the social centerpiece of the AG way of life. It is structured with several minutes of introductory comments and news about the group from enthusiastic members standing at the altar, before the hundreds of members in pews. Then two newer members get up and share their stories of recovery for 15 minutes. And then comes the keynote speaker—vetted before the event—most usually a member practiced in entertaining large crowds. Afterwards there is a prayer, and a formal line-up to thank the three speakers for their service. Recordings of the speakers are available for purchase.
AG began in 1992 as an offshoot of the Pacific Group in Brentwood, California, which was founded by AA legend Clancy I., who got sober in 1958. Members of the Pacific Group often refer to PG as “the single biggest weekly AA meeting in the world”—a tellingly dubious claim, given that there are over 114,000 AA meetings worldwide.
PG has a reputation like that of AG, only more so. Adherents insist theirs is the only true path of recovery, and demean “AA lite”—groups that focus merely on drinking stories and complaints. Those who are uncomfortable with PG point to the insularity of the group, the rejection of AA members lacking enthusiasm for PG rules, and the notion of “better than” sobriety. As one regular AA member said, “If sobriety is grace, and grace is an undeserved gift, how can I be arrogant about this gift of sobriety?”
Another member had a harsher take. “It’s the difference between rape and sex. It’s technically the same, but the spirit of it is the difference between hell and heaven.”
Every year, to celebrate their anniversary, AG invites Clancy to speak at their meeting, hence the enormous crowd. On this evening, he told a story very familiar to AAs from the many tapes and conventions he has spoken at over the decades. He was entertaining, pausing for laughs and dramatic punctuation.
Midway, he used the word “goddamit.” A young man piped up from the balcony to say, “Excuse me Sir, we have no profanity at this meeting.” It was clear he was attempting a teasing tone. It was also clear he had misjudged the room. The enormous hall froze, not unlike in an abusive household when a child calls out their cruel father.
At that moment, as I fiddled with my name tag, I thought it would be a great chance to see long-term, revered sobriety in action. How would the man whose AA tapes had helped me stay sober 20 years earlier gracefully handle this interruption.
In the event, there was no empathy for the psychology of the newly sober young man. Instead, Clancy played to the crowd. He expertly waited a few beats of pin-dropping silence, then leaned in to the microphone and said, “Shut up Bitch.”
And then, hundreds of sober men and women burst into laughter. Some applauded, as if they were watching Louis CK take down a heckler. The young man turned bright red, and awkwardly raced out of the church. Of the several hundred attendees—many of whom claim to be “recovered” from alcoholism, and that their most important action each day is to “carry the message to the alcoholic who still suffers”—not one followed the young man outside. Instead, they turned their attention to Clancy and lapped up the rest of his honed speech, in which he assured the room that their brand of sobriety was more solid, more real and more lasting than any other.
Cults have leaders, deprive you of worldly goods, cut you off from family and friends, and demand an absolute devotion to their precepts. AG and PG only have the first and last of these attributes. But both the cult of personality—the near deification of Clancy and a handful of pretenders to the throne—and the insistence on one "true path" of sobriety are 12th-Step work at its worst, causing vulnerable men and women to be forever turned off the low-key, profoundly helpful AA meetings in the majority.
The Atlantic Group did not exist when I first got sober, but Clancy's moment of righteous wrongness reminded me of the beginning of my first AA meeting, which was held in the same district courtroom where I had been arraigned for attempted murder.