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.
The banners with the Steps and Traditions were hanging on either side of the judge’s chair, which was occupied by my new probation officer. He was also the PO for the 30 other men scattered about the courtroom. Some of us were leaving the state prison system and transitioning back to society, while others were avoiding time in the county jail.
The PO, William Nagle, did most of the talking, speaking in the second person. He talked a little about his own drinking, and how he figured out a way to stop, and was now sober 20 years. He introduced a speaker who had been through his program; the man talked about his drug use, his jail time and how Nagle had saved his life. Despite it being called an AA meeting, there was no mention of AA, of the Steps or of recovery. The message was, “Once we were tough guys, doing bad things, now we are tough guys doing good things.”
We attended this meeting four times a week. On the judge’s bench, where the gavel had come down sentencing us to this program, was a sign that said, “The Honor Court is a privilege, not a punishment.”
Aside from the four meetings, we lived on the top floor of a flophouse on Main Street, and on my first day, after I signed my welfare check over, I was given $20 and told to buy some work clothes at the Salvation Army. We slept in a large room with a dozen bunk beds, and the days started at 5am, sweeping the streets or shoveling snow in winter, hauling trash, cleaning parks and delivering meals to shut-ins. On Sundays, we held a car wash in the parking lot of the same courthouse.
I raised my hand and shared that the meetings outside seemed different. I was immediately cut off: “That’s because those people are all faggots who never drank for real!"
Though Bill would scream at me every day, calling me an “ingrate” because of my scowl and lack of street-sweeping abilities, I quickly got used to the routine. It was summertime, and being outside doing manual labor with a bunch of thugs was a good distraction. We could all chain-smoke while we worked. Bill massaged the system so that an old DUI I had from Boston was thrown out, and the DMV arranged for a new driver’s license—my first in two years—so that I could be one of his drivers.
When anyone was defiant, they would be reminded that they could be sent directly to jail to serve out their sentences. A couple of members chose to return to jail, saying it was a better life inside, but I felt pretty lucky. Soon, 30 days had gone by, and for the first time in a decade I was a month clean and sober—at least physically.
I was 22 at the time, and the most depressing part of the program, other than being screamed at and having 1,000 hours of community service to work off, was the “AA” meetings. I assumed this was the way all AA and NA meetings were—a man who knew better than everyone raving about our transgressions, insisting that we become better and repeating that the only way to stop was to do what he said.
One day, a newer member invited me to a local AA meeting. We sat in a musty, smoky old basement, surrounded by people laughing and joking, smoking and hugging. Then everyone quieted down and a man stood up at a podium. He was very light in his delivery, and the room laughed easily. Then a young woman told her long, involved drinking story.
As we left early, to meet our house curfew, a man said he hoped we’d come back again. The difference from what I was used to was like night and day. Nobody yelled—and sobriety looked like it might be enjoyable.
At the next courtroom meeting, I raised my hand and shared that the meetings outside seemed different. I was immediately cut off by Bill, who screamed, “That’s because those people are all faggots who never drank for real! Next.”
The next day, between sweeping the streets and loading up the trucks to clear out the park, I sat smoking with two of the older members. One of them had the tattoo on his inner arm from a concentration camp, the other, in his 50s, was clearly mentally ill. I asked them how long they had been with Honor Court. Neither could quite remember. They said they had been homeless, and that Bill had saved their life. I asked when they would be leaving. They asked me, "Where would we go?"
I asked my lawyer how many of my thousand hours of community service had been paid off in the last month. I was called into Bill’s office (another sign on his desk said, “When I want your opinion I’ll give it to you”) and screamed at again.
“You think you’re better than anyone here, you’re not, you’re worse. By our count you’ve worked nine hours in the last four weeks. You’re not going anywhere.” I called my lawyer again, and after some negotiations, during which I was threatened with both serving my suspended sentence and extra time for a host of offenses, I was assigned a new PO and allowed to do the balance of my community service elsewhere.
It was clearly a shady operation—the welfare checks cashed right over to Nagle, the convenience of the town having clean streets and parks without paying salaries, the direct transfer of prisoners into the program, the institution of trusties and newbies, the casual threats of violence and jail time for non compliance and mainly the fact that the program was run by a very serious dry drunk who never let a day pass without screaming obscenities to at least one member of the crew.
The organization had nothing to do with AA beyond the use of the name to justify its existence to the court system (a parallel to the practice of court-mandated AA attendance). The entire entity rested on the character quirks of a man who had very real power over all of us. If that wasn’t a cult, it was certainly a cult of personality. This was borne out when Nagle died, and the organization crumbled very quickly, steeped in corruption and scandal, his legacy an office full of dodgy paperwork, court house connections without his pushy spirit, city contracts lacking his aggression and 30 men who were both disturbing and intimidating, on a good day, strolling the town’s streets with heavy brooms.
The creep element of Honor Court was out for all the town to see: scowling convicts pushing brooms and pulling weeds. But later cults of personality I experienced were more pernicious still, thanks to their veneer of civility.
In 1990, I found a meeting on the King's Road in West London. I sat in the front row, and listened to a young man who announced there was no point in talking about his drinking because it was the program of recovery that mattered. It was essentially a lecture about the Steps, but the room lapped it up, and the shares all confirmed that his talk had been “brilliant.” I wondered about the efficiency of spirituality without context, but I was glad to be at a meeting.
Afterwards, an older man approached and introduced himself as David. He asked why I looked so miserable, appointed himself my sponsor and told me that I should stick with his AA group: The Joys of Recovery. He then told me if I did six things every day for 30 days—prayed, called him, read the Big Book etc.—he guaranteed me perfect happiness. He gave me a meeting list, circling some recommended meetings, and starring a few others that I should “avoid like the plague.”
There was an appeal in the smug superiority, the thought that I had gained access to AA's VIP room.
I followed his lead. At first the meetings seemed upbeat, friendly and very clear. They were also repetitive—the same people were repeatedly called on to share, who said that their drinking and early AA experience had been hopeless, but then they found The Joys of Recovery and life was wonderful. There was not a hint of struggle or complaint, and the occasional adversity was always framed with gratitude for the challenge. David and his acolytes uttered the same phrases at every meeting: “I never had a bad day since I stopped drinking,” and “Misery is optional.”
Soon, I noticed a focus on how the message was not being carried correctly away from Joys, how there was “light sobriety” and “real sobriety,” and how we needed to go out to regular AA meetings to "carry the message" to those in mainstream AA.
Anther strongly worded suggestion was to avoid psychiatry and anti-depressants—“alcohol in solid form,” as David intoned.
I was still relatively new at the time, so there was an appeal in the smug superiority, the thought that I'd gained access to AA's VIP room, the shared certainty that this was the true path. I felt included and better-than—if not everyone else—then at least my former self. I couldn’t wait to go home and tell my sponsor how the program really worked.
David, I was soon impressed to learn, had founded Joys. He remained its genial godfather. He sponsored many members, who sponsored many others, and so on. His method of sponsoring consisted of sponsees calling him every day, and being told to pray and call him the next day. He insisted that life was "marvelous."
One evening, after yet another joyous Joys meeting, I sat at the coffee shop with David and half a dozen acolytes, and asked David, innocently, who his sponsor was. The table went very quiet. David explained that he'd had a very capable sponsor who had died—and that he had been set on the path and had all of us, his sponsees, to guide him. I didn’t have the presence of mind to point out that David himself always insisted that not having a sponsor meant that you were not really sober in AA. I was struck, though, at how all of us accepted his quickly-made point.
That evening David took me aside and told me it was time to work the Steps with him. I had known him for three weeks at this point. I had been taken through the Steps already, but he insisted that he could tell I needed more extensive step-work. He urged me to attend to it immediately, handing me an addendum he'd written on how to do the work properly. He suggested that I concentrate on the third part of the Fourth-Step inventory, where we examine our sex lives.
We met in David’s small flat, and he had me read a few pages, stopping me with pointed questions. He wanted to know mechanics: what I was most excited by, what my girlfriend liked, how often we had sex. I answered some of his questions, wondering why he was so interested. Then I suddenly realized that I was a 22-year-old man, being asked intrusive questions about my sex life by a 60-something-year-old stranger. In his home.
He may as well have been licking his lips and rubbing his palms together, as he interrupted me to offer more questions—not advice or suggestions or even, God forbid, his own experience, which it dawned on me extended to masturbatory voyeurism with the newly sober. I told him I was uncomfortable and that his motives were disturbing. He smiled a smile I'd seen before, and told me that my sobriety was in jeopardy if I didn’t marry my girlfriend and proceed to have children.
I started to object and he raised his hand. “I’ve forgotten more about AA than you will ever know,” he started to scream. “You know how lucky you are that I’m even talking to you! Your relationship with this girl is not sober.” And that was the end of that.
Later, at more reasonable meetings around London, it transpired that David and the Joys were well known. I went directly to all of the meetings David had told me were “sick.” Many stories were told: One member was cautioned to never share about her attempted suicide; another was told to put the equivalent of $20 in the basket; sponsees were urged to “vote with their sponsor,” at business meetings about AA policy.
One meeting in particular, the Monday night Pont Street Group (tucked behind Harrods), was filled with glamor and beauty all united by powerlessness. The meeting was also infested with Joys people—including David in his customary back-row chair. The Joys people would be called on to express their opinion of how AA should be, condemning the majority of the room for their failings.
I asked one non-Joys regular why their behavior was tolerated: He told me they were harmless and needed help—and that in AA desperation gets us sober, but tolerance keeps us sober. “We might not be allowed to share in their meetings, but they are free to share in ours," he said. "You can tell they’re in pain, and if they ever want help, we can provide it.” So that was what being sober looked like.
David died, and The Joys of Recovery became so shrouded in controversy that they changed their name (A Vision For You, The Big Book Study Group), and have migrated into Detroit and Ireland, though the Irish General Service Office of AA considered that off-shoot to be outside the structure of AA.
When I moved to New York 20 years ago, I knew just enough to stick to regular meetings. I heard about local versions of Joys, but they conveniently stayed in their own cocoons of self-congratulation—occasionally venturing out to speak in the second person and distribute complex step-work charts, amid curious claims of doing all 12 Steps every morning. As the years went by, most people in AA seemed to treat them like an anomaly—a cult-lite, if you will.
One day, I happened upon a meeting called The Big Book Study Group. The meeting calls for a moderator—rather than a speaker—who shares their specific experience of going through the book with their sponsor. Three highlighter pens are used to denote sections that confuse, are agreeable and are disagreeable. The meeting begins with the reading of a prayer, taped into the first page of the book. It is not an AA conference-approved prayer, and it calls for the suspension of judgment for the process of the group. The moderator then goes through each line in the book, offering explanations of the hidden meanings. If you ask one of these devotees to sponsor you, they will say they are "not a coffee-shop sponsor,” and that unless you are serious about your recovery, they will not be able to help you. I asked someone what the hell was going on, and they told me this was the Atlantic Group. They had migrated.
As well as the Pacific Group, AG is linked to the abusive Midtown Group. Members now sit among us at more regular AA meetings. They have many tell-tale signs. One is that they call themselves “recovered alcoholics,” referring to the first hundred members of AA who described themselves as such, and forgetting that of those hundred at least 70 died drunk. When they speak at a meeting they always say, “My sponsor has a sponsor who has a sponsor who took him through the Steps as laid out in the Big Book.” They speak of being “God-powered,” of being “an alcoholic of the hopeless and doomed variety,” as if there were any other kind. They openly sneer at the oldest of AA notions—"Just don't drink and go to meetings,"—though for many alcoholics, myself included, that is often all that a newcomer can focus on. They use the phrase, “You’re not really sober if...“ and talk of being “transformed.” (Cue their nickname: “The Transformers.")
The ironies of these groups are legion. I’ve noticed one larger-than-usual cluster of members who came in after a season of drinking, at the age of 13 or 14. Nothing wrong with that, but being now “oldtimers” in their early 30s, they tend to lack empathy or experience for people who drank for years, missing the sense of fellowship that founded and informs all of AA. This false sense of a hierarchy lends itself to a patronizing charity on the part of sponsors, rather than the very spirit of the 12th Step—to keep our sobriety, we have to give it (our experience, strength and hope) away. In their faux-tough-guy, undeserved harshness "recovered" mentality there is a lack of the very kindness that first attracted me to AA.
But there’s not a single person I’ve met in AA in 35 years who has the right to tell anyone what to do
Then there is that underlined, quoted and revered Big Book containing dozens of AA stories, the first qualifications in AA. Every story maintains a similar blueprint: an extensive history of drinking, followed by a brief happy ending. Not a single story in the four editions of the Big Book begins with the oft-expressed sentiment that "a drunkalogue is not worth your time, so let's just get on with the recovery." Neither do the stories laboriously recount step-work. So it follows that not one of those first hundred “recovered” members—nor any other Big Book contributor—would be vetted to speak at AG. The book contradicts the Transformers' central point.
Then there's the methodology—a repetition of homilies, a close reading of that book, and a strong suggestion, at times insistence, not to seek outside counsel, especially involving psychiatry or medications. One of Clancy's well-worn anecdotes is: "Yeah, I saw a shrink for a while. Every Wednesday night for years. He came to our meeting. Boy was he a mess." Cue laugh track.
More chronic alcoholics I have known have been attracted to AG's certainty, only to be disappointed by the robotic mantras and sponsors who offer assignments, rather than listen. One friend suggested it was because his sponsor lacked the ability to empathize with his experience as an alcoholic. How many alcoholics in need have turned up at these meetings, assumed this was the way AA meetings are really held, and walked away only to drink again? How much anti-12th-Step work has the Atlantic Group managed in the last two decades? For all the shock-tactic provenance-lacking statistics about AA (one in nine members stay sober, etc.), that's a number we can never know.
In sum, the Atlantic Group is as close to actual AA as the Honor Court or the Joys of Recovery. Indeed, it's referred to so much as "AG," that it seems divorced from the acronym it insists it has perfected.
But what position does AA's General Service Office take? Like a timid wife in an abusive household, the GSO invoke the Fourth Tradition whenever a complaint reaches them: "Each group is autonomous," they intone—not addressing the second clause of the tradition: "...except in matters affecting AA as a whole."
It may seem innocuous, especially to those who don’t rely on AA. But the real problem with these groups is that while they claim a monopoly on an excellence of sobriety—my powerlessness is better than yours—they are not technically AA meetings. They break most of the traditions (One, Two, Five, Eight, 10, 11 and 12—another article unto itself). They convolute the Steps. They make up their own prayers and they shred three of the AA Concepts (One, Five and 12).
I asked one AA member, who contributed a story to the most recent edition of the Big Book, why he always recounts his extensive drinking history when he speaks. He reminded me of what Bill wrote about our dynamic: “When one alcoholic has planted in the mind of another the true nature of his malady, he will never be the same again.”
He also reminded me of the reason that real AA worked for me—after antabuse, rehab, psychiatric hospital, jail, counselors and DUI class all failed. “I tell you what I do to stay sober. I suggest you do the same. But there’s not a single person I’ve met in AA in 35 years who has the right to tell anyone what to do. All we can do is tell you what we do.”
And that’s the difference. The better-than, slicked up, professional AA practice reminds me of all those professionals whose job it was to try to help me when I was desperate, with their clip-boards and quotas, legal threats and health warnings, their superficial concerns and patronizing smugness.
The creepiness of this approach came to an inevitable point in 2007, when the Washington Post and Newsweek reported on the Midtown Group—the Washington DC AA group led by Michael Quinones. According to police reports and press interviews, Quinones was a grand-sponsor who strongly discouraged members from seeking psychiatric help or taking anti-depressants. They did, however, encourage underage female members to sleep with middle-aged male members, including Quinones. The group was also known as The Q Group, after their leader. After the allegations came to light, several of the churches hosting their meetings ended their arrangements. It was a shocking story of sexual predation.
A remark from the man who sponsored Quinones was telling. According to the Washington Post, Clancy Imislund, managing director of Midnight Mission in LA, spoke directly about the situation. “There probably have been some excesses,” he said, “but they have helped more sober alcoholics in Washington than any other group by far.” Note that last jab at other AA meetings, and the shrug about what, in his state, would be legally considered statutory rape.
He continued, “It had been an issue [the sexual exploitation of teenage girls] but wherever you have a lot of young, neurotic people, they’re going to cling to each other.” Note the fault of those “young, neurotic people,” also known as newcomers seeking experience, strength and hope.
That Clancy, of course, is the same man who told a trembling newcomer at that packed AG meeting to “Shut up, Bitch.”
Amid all this ugliness, superiority and ego gratification, it’s helpful to return to AA’s history, the implementation of the traditions and concepts to ward off such aberrations of AA and to bear in mind that the founders, while very much human, knew what they were doing.
The last time Bill Wilson visited Dr. Bob, before he died, Bob’s final words to him were, “Let’s not louse this thing up. Let’s keep it simple.”
Benjamin Aldo is a pseudonym for a contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about AA’s 78th anniversary.