Is AA a Cult?

By Lisa L. Kirchner 02/23/16

Groups such as The Atlantic Group are altering the AA message and affecting the principle of the 12th Step.

Is AA a Cult?

Alcoholics Anonymous operates in 170 countries worldwide and claims around two million members. But additional treatment options and scandals that have arisen may be taking a toll on its growth. Membership has been stagnant since around 2007, despite increases in substance abuse. In the U.S., heavy drinking alone rose by 17 percent between 2005 and 2014. Has the organization lost its edge, or is it becoming something more like a cult? 

Not All Cults Are Religious

A cult is merely defined as a system of devotion directed toward a particular figure or ideal. This could describe groups such as Heaven's Gate, the Branch Davidians, or the Manson Family, but also the Amish people. A cult turns destructive when it employs tactics such as psychological coercion, charismatic and unaccountable leaders, elitist factions, and a belief that the ends justify the means.

The Cult Information Centre identifies a therapy cult as one with a focus on self-improvement. From the exalted nature of its founders, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, to a rigid adherence to its fundamental text, Alcoholics Anonymous (aka the Big Book), AA would fall under this umbrella. It’s how the group functions that determines whether it’s harmful. Yet the hallmarks of indoctrination—a loss of choice and free will, a diminished intellectual capacity, poor judgment and neurotic or even suicidal tendencies—often apply to this population before any encounter with AA.

Cult leaders are magnetic, it’s how they draw their flock. Jim Jones, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, and Fred Phelps are at least as infamous as the groups they spawned. Neither Wilson nor Smith have ever been associated with criminal acts, but their photos do hang eerily in many AA meetings. Though no one in AA is ostensibly in charge, a system of leadership is in place where established members advise newer members on how to stay sober.

One Story

Stephanie, who did not want her last name used, is a 20-something who’s attended meetings in the Tampa Bay area for three years. Seemingly well-adjusted now—she’s in grad school and has a full-time job—she says that wasn’t the case when she arrived in AA. She’d stopped leaving her house and had to be forcibly taken to her first meeting. Over the following year, and without the aid of the medication she’d been prescribed, her previously crippling anxiety disappeared. Then it came back.

Stephanie returned to spending much of her time in bed in the fetal position, weeping. When her suicidal ideations came back, she finally went to her doctor, who put her on a medication regime for depression and anxiety. The mentor in AA who’d encouraged her to stop taking her meds was not pleased. “My sponsor told me I’d relapsed,” Stephanie says. Then she was released of her volunteer duties at the AA meeting she regularly attended. “I was basically ostracized.”

As this article describes, Stephanie’s story is not as uncommon as it should be. Has AA been operating under the radar, or taken a turn for the worse?

In The Beginning

When Wilson met Smith on June 10, 1935, they weren’t the only drunks trying to get sober. In the preceding years, the Temperance Movement swept the nation as Prohibition followed the end of World War I. When the Roaring Twenties ended with Wall Street’s crash, many lost their sense of security.

During this time, psychology was emerging as a legitimate academic field, and part of the cultural dialogue. William James connected mental and physical phenomena, paving the way for alcoholism to be viewed as a disease rather than weakness. His seminal work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, described a common thread among all religions, and conveyed a belief in god as a rational outcome. In this context, an evangelical Christian society known as the Oxford Group flourished. They espoused a spiritual life directed by a nondenominational God.

Wilson had been trying to sober up for years when he encountered the Oxford Group in 1934. Given a copy of James’ book, Wilson had a revelation. The scientific nature of the god it presented allowed him to join the Oxford Group. He credits using their tools—which became the basis for AA’s 12 Steps—with staying sober. When he met Smith in 1935, it was to fulfill the organization’s mandate to serve others. And it was his first success. Neither ever had another drink, and together they worked to get other drunks sober. But the Oxford Group association was not to last.

The Oxford Group wasn’t specifically for alcoholics, and some of its members actively opposed counting them among the ranks. Finally a contingent in Cleveland—minus Wilson and Smith—started its own meeting in response, launching AA as a separate entity. Wilson later wrote, “most of us alcoholics had been subjected to pressure of evangelism and we never liked it. The object of saving the world—when it was still very much in doubt if we could save ourselves—seemed better left to other people.”

So What Happened?

By the 1940s the organization was struggling. The publication of its book in 1939 led to rapid growth, but since AA collected no dues it faced financial pressures. As AA sought to form itself as an organization, its members were aware of previous temperance groups that had burst on the scene, only to fizzle out in equally spectacular fashion. They adopted a charter known as the 12 Traditions, based on principles of past societies such as The Washingtonians—a mid 1800s group that had grown more rapidly than AA, only to disappear within a decade because of internal politics.

According to these Traditions, the organization as a whole is only concerned with recovery from alcoholism, but individual groups run autonomously. “This allows them to form hidden agendas,” says Philip S., formerly a homeless heroin addict, now a small business owner with more than 31 years in AA. “I sometimes wish we did have a governing body.” 

These “agendas” can make any concern for recovery almost unrecognizable. The Pacific Group and Atlantic Groups—big on the alternate coasts—dictate dress and language codes. One Atlantic Group member told me she was advised to date from within the group, and when she started seeing someone from an “outside” meeting, she was encouraged to bring him into the fold. She complied, and when they broke up she stopped going to AA altogether, because the ex was attending with his new girlfriend.

Not all AA subgroups are alike, but what they universally claim is a special gift for imparting the true message of AA. A new entrant on this scene is a group called Primetime.

About 10 years ago, a woman who had tried and failed to get sober since the 1980s discovered Primetime in Los Angeles. Initially a men’s meeting, when one of its founders passed away, his wife carried on the meetings. That’s how Astrid H. found Primetime.

“The top of my head blew off,” she says, remarking that in all the years of going to AA she’d never before heard the message as clearly. Since then, Primetime groups have sprouted up throughout LA, in Oakland, the San Francisco area, and New York City. “The meetings are booming,” says Astrid.

Besides a penchant for dogmatic phrases like “we do not give drunkalogues,” and “Primetime saved my life,” as of this writing, no member of Primetime reported brutish practices such as the ones already described. Yet the dialogue is tightly controlled. The speakers are carefully chosen, and there is an archive of the taped talks allowed to represent Primetime, "otherwise the message can get diluted.”

Primetime’s growth however, is a trend that’s also observable in the Tampa group, as well as Atlantic and Pacific Group meetings. This makes the question of cultish behavior more pertinent than ever. 


“There was a time when AA was the only choice,” says Noah Levine, founder of Refuge Recovery, an organization that offers recovery from addiction through a Buddhist perspective. Given the Judeo-Christian population of the U.S., Levine doesn’t see his group overtaking AA, but he does think it offers a necessary addition to the recovery field. He cites AA’s “fundamentalist view of keeping the male patriarchal, sometimes misogynistic view of women” as another issue AA faces.

Another group, SMART Recovery began promoting cognitive behavioral techniques to address recovery in 1994. Shari Allwood, the group’s Executive Director, says they currently have about 7,000 members. This might seem slow growing compared to AA, which boasted a leap from 100 to 150,000 in its first 16 years, but Allwood’s group doesn’t emphasize ongoing attendance at meetings. “You’re taking power over your life, as opposed to being powerless,” she says. “It’s not a competition, I wish we’d all go out of business.”

It’s a lovely idea, if unrealistic. One AA member in Columbus, Ohio, L.B., a woman in her early 20s with a little over a year sober, put it more pragmatically: “AA is not for people who need it, it’s for people who want it.” This attitude may be correct, if condemning. Between the vulnerable nature of the people who seek recovery and the lack of governance, AA is susceptible to predatory types. 

The point here is not to dispute the efficacy of AA, but to encourage group inventory. If these membership numbers are in any way accurate, turning a blind eye toward fanatical tendencies is not enabling more people to recover, rather, it’s turning people away from 12-step recovery.

Lisa L. Kirchner is the author Hello American Lady Creature: What I Learned as a Woman in Qatar. Her work has appeared in book anthologies, magazines & newspapers including The Washington Post, Salon and Budget Travel.

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