Reworking the 13th Step

By Amy Dresner 05/20/15

Amy Dresner reviews Monica Richardson's documentary about predators in AA—The 13th Step.

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If you’re not familiar with Monica Richardson’s documentary The 13th Step, you will be soon. It won best documentary at the Beverly Hills Film Festival and is now off to Cannes. Richardson was a former member of AA for 36 years but left after being disgusted by the fact that AA had become a “haven for sexual predators and violent criminals.” Her activism to change AA was the force behind her “Make AA Safer” hotline, her stop13stepinaa website and now this feature-length film. As the lights went down at the Paley Center, the irony that my “date” was a guy 15 years younger that I had 13th stepped when he had only 7 months of sobriety, was not lost on me. 

Richardson was introduced to AA through Tom Catton (author of The Mindful Addict) back as a teenager. By 21, with three years sober, she was the “token teenage speaker” for AA. Now, looking back, she says, “I don’t think anybody who’s a teenager is an alcoholic.”

The film interviews a slew of women who have been sexually abused by men in AA as well as the family members of women, like Karla Brada, who have been murdered by AA members. Brada met Eric Allen Earl in AA. He had nowhere to go so she took him in and was dead by his hands four months later. After the fact, her family dug into his history and discovered he had 22 years of criminal activity including eight restraining orders and a stunning 52 court-orders to AA. Brada’s family are suing AA for wrongful death. 

“Julie” knew a guy in the rooms of AA for three years when he invited her over for coffee at his home, only to slip a date rape drug in her tea and assault her. When Julie complained to her sponsor about the incident, she was met with “Well, what was your part?” 

“Brittany,” a newcomer from Kentucky, was befriended by an old timer at her regular meeting. She was 13th stepped and relapsed as a result. With no money and nowhere to go, she went to him for help and he took her into his home, supplied her $500 a day dope habit and used her dopesickness to hold her sexually hostage.

The film highlights various upsetting stories like this, including Darlene who met and got engaged to a man in AA who later confessed to being a sexual predator, and the story of a woman whose married mother went to AA when she was young. The woman—who chose to remain anonymous and was shot in silhouette—confesses that her mother was seduced by an AA member who broke up her parents' marriage and then proceeded to molest her for the next eight years. Numerous disturbing newspaper headlines flash across the screen reporting sexual assault or violence at the hands of AA members, including young Thomas McGuire Jr., who was murdered by his AA sponsor.  

The film explains that the court is ordering people to AA (which is actually against AA’s traditions), including violent criminals and sex offenders in lieu of jail or prison time—60-80% of AA’s members are coerced by the judicial system. The rooms are “full of vulnerable people” and data shows that AA is only effective for 5-10% of people, Richardson and various experts complain. But in spite of this, it has become the main methodology for rehabs and the go-to for the courts. I adamantly do not believe that AA is the only way to get sober, nor is it the best way for everybody. I don’t think that if AA does not work for you then you are doing it wrong. (Don’t tell my sponsor.) And I agree that the courts should offer a variety of programs, including SMART recovery, HAMS, or SOS, not just AA.

But then those programs will have the same problem as AA seems to have now: a program full of criminals. So what’s the answer? The film offers no solution. Substance abuse groups or programs solely for criminals? Most people in the program have some criminal history, a DUI, assault (yours truly), or possession. When you’re loaded, you’re not exactly firing on all cylinders and sometimes it’s the law that helps you hit your bottom. 

My main problem with Richardson’s film is that it confuses the program with the fellowship or, more precisely, throws out the program because of a few bad apples in the fellowship. Nowhere in the Big Book does it say “Come to AA. There are no weirdos here.” Of course everybody is hitting on everybody! It’s a bunch of sick alcoholics who are terrible at relationships and boundaries and have issues with sex. If you come into a self-help support group full of selfish, compulsive people thinking that it will be a congregation of saints, you’re fooling yourself. If you think that life won’t happen or that men won’t try to get laid and that AA is some sort of asexual utopia, you need to wake up. It is a microcosm of the real world and nobody comes to AA when they are “well.”

But how does AA’s hierarchy, which breeds sexual predatory behavior (or being violated by somebody that you thought you could trust) really differ from any other establishment where power play exists like the clergy, military, or medical professions? It’s not just AA. It’s human nature. One woman called AA “a concentrated pod of dysfunction.” Another man said it was a “society of permanent cripples.” But many of us find solace and solidarity in this fellowship of fellow deviants. It's that critical “me too!” factor that alleviates our shame. 

Richardson claims that nobody reports these sexual atrocities to the police because of the nature of “anonymity” and because every group is autonomous, no board member can or will claim an official position. This results in AA having to police itself which Richardson claims it doesn’t generally do. That hasn’t been my experience. Here’s an example: I know of a young girl in AA, newly sober who got involved with a man 11 years her senior with a bit more sobriety. They had a brief relationship. Unfortunately, he taped her performing a sexual act without her knowledge or consent and sent it out to his friends. One of his friends felt compelled to do something and told his sponsor, which prompted a group of old-timers to confront him. They also discussed with the girl whether or not she wanted to file charges (she decided not to). The man in question ended up so mortified that he left town. Welcome to tribal shaming. 

The film interviews many experts regarding the nature of “alcoholism.” Some, like Dr. Lance Dodes, supervising analyst emeritus with the Boston Psychoanalytic Society, former director of substance abuse treatment at Harvard McLean School, and author of The Sober Truth, says it is not a disease as “a behavior cannot be a disease.” Others like Fix columnist Stanton Peele claim that if it is a “disease” then why are we treating it with spirituality or prayer and not science? Neuroscientist Garni Barkhoudarian claims that alcoholism is a personality disorder. So obviously the jury is still out on what causes alcoholism. My personal belief is that people’s substance abuse can be born of many different things: genetics, trauma, an attempt to self-medicate, psychiatric problems, loneliness. So, yes, it is like treating all types of cancer with the same protocol. One size fits all is not the answer. And this is why I encourage my sponsees to do other programs like harm reduction or CBT if AA doesn’t help or feel like a good fit. And absolutely seek outside help with psychiatrists and therapy, if needed. 

Laura Tompkins, addiction specialist, claims that AA tells you that you “cannot trust your own thinking” and that it is a cult religion because you “can never criticize the group.” Many ex-AA members claim that their drinking got worse in AA because of the mantra of “powerlessness” and its self-fulfilling prophecy. Steven Slate, an addictionologist, claims he never felt powerless during his using. (Really?? Lucky you. Then why get sober?) To all of these things I say, use your brain. I question everything. I attempted to drink moderately after a seven-year hiatus without AA and it did not work for me. Even in the Big Book it says, “if you can go out and drink like a gentlemen our hats are off to you.” I would not be abstinent if I did not have to be. I’m abstinent because of my own experimentation, not because AA told me I am powerless.  

Gabrielle Glaser, whose views I have countered previously on this site (oh, and here as well), is prominent in the film. She portrays herself as a self-proclaimed expert on AA but doesn’t seem to know that much about the program personally. “I thought AA was run by trained professionals.” Where the hell did you get that idea? Maybe outpatient hospital groups might be run by a social worker or an accredited counselor but a free self-help group that meets in church basements with shitty coffee? Come on.

Then, the film goes on to attack the rehab industry and how 30 days is typical treatment time, not because it’s effective, but due to insurance restrictions. We are told that many registered sex offenders are allowed to work as counselors, the only requirement for training being that they are in recovery and get a clean TB test. How are more rigorous background checks, required training or insufficiently longer treatment programs of companies that are charging $40,000 a month a problem with AA? I don’t follow. 

Next, AA sponsorship is criticized. Dr. Lance Dodes makes an interesting statement that the manner of untrained counselors (i.e., sponsors) is confrontational as in “do as I do” versus trained professionals who would never take that approach. Again, I say don’t check your brain at the door. I’ve had uber authoritarian sponsors and I’ve dumped them. I prefer sponsors who give me “suggestions.” But I’ve also been in a lot of therapy with clinicians who co-signed my bullshit and asked me “how I felt” while lining their pockets. Sometimes, a little confrontation or tough love is what I need. 

Then the religious nature of AA is put under the microscope, with its numerous mentions of God, Higher Power, Creator, etc. To this I say, there are atheist AA meetings. The religious nature of AA is off-putting to me as well and I refuse to say many of the prayers or use the word “God.” At its core, for me, AA is cognitive behavioral therapy (acting yourself into right thinking, contrary action) while putting the locus of control outside of yourself. If the notion of prayer and God give you some serenity and alleviate the pressure to feel like you must control everything, great. If you prefer meditation so you can disconnect from your thoughts, feelings and compulsivity, equally great.  

A final stab at AA comes in the form of an ex-member claiming they overheard some men bragging that they convinced a girl to stop taking her bipolar meds and once she fell into a manic state, they all had sex with her. Other ex-members relay stories of fellow members killing themselves because AA said no medication. Nowhere in the Big Book does it say not to take medication. I go to my sponsor with my alcoholism and my doctor with my psychiatric or medical problems. And if you do any different, you are a robotic idiot. AA is not or should not be Scientology or Christian Science. Stay away from the fundamentalists. Take what works for you, toss the rest. 

The only person actively in the program, who’s still a proponent in the film, is a dimwitted guy with 28 years who answers everything with canned 12-step platitudes, which further serves to support the theory that everybody in AA is a brainwashed cult member who can’t think for themselves.

The film ends with Richardson going to the AA headquarters where she is denied access to members and is basically stonewalled in her attempt to question what’s happening in AA or how to make AA safer. (This scene was also done on Penn and Teller's Bullshit! TV show back in 2004.)

I applaud her effort to shed light on what’s obviously a terrifying problem. Hopefully, this film will bring awareness and shake things up so that changes will be made and AA can one day truly be the safe haven it could and should be. But in the meantime, I keep my wits about me, remember that the “goods are odd” and use it as an opportunity to work on my own boundaries.

What do you get when you sober up a drunk horse thief? A sober horse thief. AA is slowly making me less of an asshole but everybody is not so lucky. I’ve met some wonderful people in AA and I’ve also met some sociopathic predators. This film is a chilling reminder that just because somebody is “sober” doesn’t mean they are a “good person."

Amy Dresner is a columnist at The Fix.

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