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Is AA a Cult, or a Culture?

By Jennifer Matesa 01/27/14

For every quasi-authoritarian 12-step meeting, I’ve gone to more than a dozen other more equitable ones.


Sitting in an open AA meeting the other day, listening to a qualification from a guy whose story didn’t exactly resonate with me—was it what he was saying, or the macho way he was saying it? Or was it the over-definite generalizations about addiction he no doubt was repeating from generations of men who had come before him; the steroid-pumped catchphrases we’ve all heard a million times (“My addiction is out there in the parking lot, doing push-ups”), and so on?

I listened to others murmuring along with him, some of them rapt with attention, and pursed my lips impatiently. Because I have two degrees in English and have spent years teaching the language on the university level, and because some of the “programs” have not revised their basic texts’ initial do-or-die language in six decades or more, I sometimes turn a critical eye on the literature and language of the fellowships that have saved my life. And criticism is not always welcome among folks in 12-step groups: How dare you take aim at the very fellowship that has always been there for you? A resistance to criticism is one reason often held up as evidence that “AA is a cult.”

But listening to this sober dude that day, and looking around at the intent crowd (some 60 people, mostly professionals, at 4 p.m. on a Monday afternoon), I wrote a note to my friend Ian, a former newspaper reporter and a student of language, who was sitting to my right:

“Is AA a culture instead of a cult?”

The characteristics of cults are pretty stark: If you find yourself in a group with a clearly marked head-honcho, whose flunkies try to coerce you into isolating yourself along with them, cut you off from other social connections, and threaten you or otherwise try to break you down in order to seize control of your money and your movements, then you’re probably dealing with a group operating according to principles of a cult.

Certainly some of AA’s groups could be said to meet at least some of these criteria. There’s an AA meeting in the UK, for example, at which photographs of Bill W. and Dr. Bob are framed and sitting upright on the front dais, presumably to be gazed at by the “audience” while the speaker delivers his or her talk. (I’ve met a few men in AA who almost deify Bill W., but I can’t say I’ve ever met one single woman who has done so. I live in a fairly socially conservative city, and the majority of men I’ve spoken with have a more “fair and balanced” view of AA’s founder. For example, “I like to remember that Bill was obviously an extremely ‘creative’ writer,” one guy I know says of Wilson’s drafting of Alcoholics Anonymous, AA’s basic text—particularly Wilson’s own rather colorfully written story. Another 70-something guy I know has a more acerbic take: when he came into the program 25 years ago and read “Bill’s Story,” he says, “I knew that if a crazy-ass bastard like that could get sober, so could I.”) 

But for every such quasi-authoritarian 12-step meeting, I’ve gone to more than a dozen others that have been much more equitably organized.

I’d never heard about the notorious midtown Manhattan Atlantic Group (AG) of AA until I met Sophia two years ago. Then just 23 years old, she had gotten sober almost two years before while going to art school in Manhattan, and her first sponsor had been brought up in the ranks of the AG. Her sponsor had been strict with her, she said. For example, it’s nowhere to be found in AA’s literature, but Sophia was encouraged—as many new to AA are—to refrain from starting a new romantic relationship in her first year of sobriety. And indeed if Sophia had joined the AG as her “home group” she would have been censured, and harshly, for bucking this “suggestion.” 

“My first sponsor was kicked out of the Atlantic Group for breaking this rule,” Sophia told me. Which is to say the sponsor was no longer welcome to attend that particular meeting. (I have been attending 12-step group meetings almost weekly since 1999, and I’d never before heard of any 12-step group prohibiting anyone from attending.) Then she said something that indicated to me that she had not been exactly damaged by her run-in with the cultlike AG.

“The Atlantic Group didn’t resonate with me. It’s like bars—it’s like drinking culture,” she said. “You can find the culture that works for you. Before I got sober, I didn’t like Manhattan drinking culture anymore, so I moved to Brooklyn.” (And had “Brooklyn drinking culture” managed to “work” for her any differently from Manhattan’s? “I could wear a plaid shirt,” she said, cocking a grin. “I couldn’t do that in Manhattan—not in the Meatpacking District clubs I was going to.”)

So is AA a cult or a culture?—I’d already been thinking about this question before Sophia made this remark.

My app, at 129 megabytes, is the heftiest one on my phone, and I use it with impunity, even during meetings, when, I figure, people probably think I’m checking my Facebook page, and when, it has been “suggested,” I shut my phone off and stow it below my seat cushion for the duration of the flight. (Nobody kicked me out of the meeting or otherwise traumatized me that day for daring to break the suggestion.) 

Cult and culture share the Latin root colere, which means to take care of and make grow. Culture, the much older word, hung onto this meaning and led to the word cultivate, while cult was coined in the 1800s to denote extreme forms of worship. 

At the same time, with the scientific revolution, the word culture was appropriated to refer to the material that scientists use to grow samples in Petri dishes. And that’s how I think of 12-step groups: samples, cultures, growing in a big worldwide Petri dish.

Some sections are healthier than others.

Fleming, in his Nobel Prize–winning discovery, found that his cultures of staph bacteria that had been taken over by a mold in the air—penicillin—had been destroyed by the mold, while the groups of staph that had not accidentally picked up the penicillin were flourishing.

Of course, organisms such as bacteria and mold have no independence or willpower. Must it be noted that human beings do? Sophia chose to eschew Park Avenue AA culture and to go downtown for meetings. Which shows that, even at 21 years old, just making rent with a job waiting tables, having already spent a third of her life drinking and using drugs to numb out all sorts of family “dysfunction”—and, according to her, having taken AA’s first step, which asked her to admit she was utterly powerless over alcohol—she still managed to retain use of her willpower, and she escaped becoming a “victim” of the PTSD, depression, trauma, and “related psychological problems” that some claim are the risk of 12-step recovery. She just turned 25 and has three years off drugs and alcohol.

True, the first step is designed to lead recovering people to acknowledge their vulnerability, and it’s also true that acknowledging complete vulnerability can be inordinately frightening. But admission of powerlessness and vulnerability is not necessarily a self-immolation into the hell of PTSD. Not, that is, unless an individual is intent on remaining a victim.

Brené Brown’s groundbreaking research on shame (which she discusses in more detail in her books and in her viral TED talk) has shown that admission and exploration of human vulnerability—our feelings of powerlessness, be it over alcohol or drugs or our finances, relationships, violence, world politics, our own disastrous sense of self, etc.—is the route into healing all sorts of shame. And as Brown herself has repeatedly said (and as it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a university researcher to understand, though researchers and clinicians have been studying this issue for a long time), shame feeds addiction and addictive systems. 

Those systems include the drastically unequal system of economics and opportunity under which our country operates. It is often said that “addiction does not discriminate” between rich and poor, and while that may be true of drug and alcohol addiction (though I have my doubts and would like to see the research), research shows that the traits that make effective CEOs also make awesome addicts. In fact, perhaps it’s the addiction to consumerism and power—in other words, acquisition and control—that creates the very inequalities that, it has been suggested, lead the underclass into drug addiction. Just because they may no longer be snorting lines of coke in downtown bathrooms à la a Bret Easton Ellis novel doesn’t mean the rich and powerful aren’t engaging in other addictive behavior that ruins others—and society, and themselves—as much as drug addiction can.

So yeah, when you read stories about Clancy (the founder of the Los Angeles Pacific Group, precursor to the Atlantic Group) shaming a newcomer who dared to comment on Clancy’s qualification—and about how none of the other hundreds of attenders there followed the fleeing newcomer to speak to him about his shame—those are clues that the newcomer had found himself inside a group that was resistant to healing. Good for the newcomer for getting the hell out of there.

So what promotes healing?

The people in Brown’s studies who were able to overcome shame were the people who, as she puts it, “have a strong sense of love and belonging.” It was this care and community that allowed them to avoid numbing out with drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, you name it.

The AG (and the Pacific Group, and Washington, D.C.’s Midtown Group, and other such groups) could look like they promote “love” and “belonging.” But do the rhetoric and the behavior match? It would seem that groups like these are more oriented toward conformity and rule-enforcement. That shows not that the entire world organization itself is a cult but that there is a great deal of diversity, and that the bacteria is growing somewhat more densely in a few parts of the Petri dish. 

In other sections, the penicillin dominates. Sophia, for example, recently moved to another east coast city for a graduate program and came home for a month-long stay over her winter break. The “love” and “belonging” she experiences in the meetings in our part of the city (along with her boyfriend, who is not in a 12-step group but who supports Sophia’s participation in hers) is what made her return for such a long vacation. 

“There are new young women who have come in during the four months I’ve been gone,” she said. “I feel like I’ve made friends since I’ve been back [for winter break] that I already don’t want to leave. There are so many young women here, and they’re all friends, and it’s amazing.” 

After the speaker finished that day I stood in line to thank him, not because I liked what he had to say or because I had been “trained” by one of my sponsors to stand in line, no matter how long the queue, and thank the speaker (in fact, one of my sponsors had thus trained me). I did it because the love and belonging I’ve found in recovery has taught me that, no matter how bitchy, argumentative and complaining I feel, I can always find something for which to show gratitude. It’s a “suggestion” that has worked well for me so far. 

Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. Her forthcoming nonfiction book,The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober, is due out Fall 2014.

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