Can an AA Critic and a 12-Step Advocate Get Along?

By Juliet Elisabeth 07/21/14

AA critic Juliet Elisabeth chats with author and spoken-word artist Bucky Sinister about why he's so pro-12-steps.


Can a non-stepper and 12-stepper hold a constructive interview? I was determined to find out, so I contacted Bucky Sinister, author, poet, spoken word artist, comedian and avid 12-stepper.

Three years ago, I took a copy of Bucky Sinister's Get Up: A 12-Step Recovery Guide for Freaks, Misfits and Weirdos with me to residential treatment. The title jumped out at me from the bottom shelf of the self-help for addiction section at Border's back in 2010. It was basically a 12-step guide for atheists, so I felt less alone in a faith-based rehab by carrying that book around.  

Sinister addresses The God Problem in 2008's Get Up, a deconstruction of the 12 steps. Advising against arguing about atheism with more religious members, he suggests substituting God with the baby Odin, if you must. I tried this and it worked, only I conjured up unicorns instead, and, like magic, others stopped questioning my faith.  

If you grew up listening to Black Flag, Motorhead, Nirvana or Jay-Z, then Bucky Sinister's voice comes across as one of your friends; not one of your great grandfather's friends from 1939. For example, in  2011's Still Standing: Addicts Talk About Living Sober, he mentions the Fuck-Its: "Recovery is hard. Fuck it. Not drinking is hard. Fuck it. The fourth step is unreal. Fuck it." Little things sometimes mess with our self-control, but it's not impossible to change.  

So why would I, an outspoken anti-12-step writer, want to chat with a vocal 12-step advocate like Sinister? Mainly because I believe there are some steppers who are pro-recovery, not pushy 12-step zealots. Stepper or not, we both had serious addiction problems and we both overcame them.

How did you find your way to the 12-step rooms?

The first person to take me to a meeting was a bartender I knew. She'd served me for years and even given me rides home. There was a super butch lesbian I knew from her punk band who also took me to a bunch of meetings and listened to my freak outs. A Latino skinhead bouncer I knew from around the way pointed me to what is now my home group. I trusted these people. And then, people from my past I hadn't seen in years showed up to help, as they found me in the meetings.

In Get Up you explained the 12 steps in a way that would appeal to today's younger people - the kind of tattooed and artistic musicians, punks, dare I say hipsters, you'd meet in bars today. Do you think more people stick it out in 12-step meetings because they relate to books like yours?

In the Bay Area, our meetings are full of weirdos. It's easy to find us. Actually, it's hard to avoid us. But in other parts of the country, maybe not. So that's who the book is for, really, the people who have a hard time finding their fit.

Have you encountered what we call out here in Ohio, "Big Book Thumpers," or fundamentalists, who believe all the answers they need are in the original Big Book, and hold firm to Dr. Silkworth's words which read: "I earnestly advise every alcoholic to read this book, and though perhaps he came to scoff, he may remain to pray," at the end of the section titled "The Doctor's Opinion"?  

Oh sure. There are a lot of those out here. We go to different meetings. I'm guessing there's more meetings per capita here than anywhere else in the world. There were a lot of bars full of people I didn't want to drink with; thus, there are a lot of meetings full of people I don't want to get sober with. I didn't give up on bars, did I? I looked until I found one I liked, full of people I related to.

There are many paths to arrive at a 12-step meeting, including through rehab or court. Does this affect a person's right to respect of their religious or non-religious beliefs? For example, my rehab had prayer before meals and groups, and the "Our Father" was recited at the end of every group. Christianity for me is a trigger, especially male Gods that imply "male superiority." 

Yes, there's no defense that Bible scripture (the Our Father prayer is in the Bible) is not allied with a sect or denomination. That thing needs to go from any group that says it's not allied with a religion. I think in a few generations it will be gone. Unfortunately for you and me, that's a long way off.

I believe that your writings are an antidote for people who don't relate to the 1939 Big Book's outdated portrait of society and family. Do you think that the Big Book and the 12x12 turn people off to the 12-step program, and does that frustration cause some to return to their dangerous addictions?

I think there should be a lot of books. Anyone who is inspired by mine should write his or her own. We need more stories by and for the drunks. Even as a straight, white, cisgendered male, I don't relate to a lot of those stories.

We have a strong oral tradition of advice and wisdom, and no one feels brave enough to write things down. As far as I know, I'm the only one who's written about the Fuck-Its. My idea? not by a long shot. Why isn't this endemic part of relapse mentioned in the literature? That's why I put it in.

Alternative 12-step books are designed to help someone "work their own program." They seem to help people when the Big Book cannot. Meanwhile, the anti-atheist/agnostic, doom and gloom, sexist phrases remain unchanged in the official Big Book. Would you take action within the organization to update their literature, and in turn help the organization reach more people through its own books? 

I think, over time, the dependence on the official literature will lessen. More so than fighting the official literature, I think my time is better spent writing my own thoughts, and helping others directly. I'm sponsoring five guys right now. We all have to take care of each other.

How do you feel about members who may argue that rewording the steps is not really "working the program"?  

I suggest that maybe things founding members wrote are wrong or poorly written, that they were drunks like us. This sentiment doesn't make friends.

Addiction expert Stanton Peele, Ph.D. has a new book out called Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict, which I highly recommend. In it, he states: There are two competing views of addiction out there. The one you are used to hearing is that addiction is a disease, meaning that is a biological force over which you have no control. This is what we have been told for decades. This view is wrong....The other view... is that addiction is a natural but destructive expression of a person's outlook in reaction to his or her life circumstances." What is your reaction to the idea that addiction is not a disease?

I don't really want my answer to weigh here. It's out of my range. I don't care what it is. I know though, I have to be careful with anything that gives me pleasure. I will enjoy it until it hurts me and has horrible consequences. Whatever that is: mental illness, attitude problem, something else, I really don’t know.

You are a comedian, spoken word artist, and writer. Do you feel this work provides a meaningful alternative to a life of addiction? And how so?

It's all stuff I wanted to do but addiction kept me from really pursuing it. During 15 years of drug/alcohol use: one book. 12 years clean and sober: five books, and I'm now getting work in comedy clubs. It [addiction] was definitely holding me back.

Do you think 12-step recovery and non-12-step recovery people should work together, exchange ideas that work for them, instead of fighting over their differences? 

Sure. Whatever works and helps.

How do you feel about people who feel afraid to leave 12-step programs? I mean, people who are told if the program is the only way to recover, and if they don't do the steps, they will die? Do you think this drives the criticism that the fellowship is "cultish," and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that members leave meetings and relapse because members don't show support of alternative methods of recovery?  

Some people do need it. Others don't. I have no idea how to tell. I don't think I'm going to relapse but the step-work keeps me on an even keel. It's like going to the gym on a regular basis. Keep in shape, you know?

There you have it: An actual conversation between a non-stepper and a stepper that didn't end in name-calling or trash talking.

Juliet Elisabeth is a writer and artist. She is also a former court mandated attendee of Alcoholics Anonymous. Her activist cause for 12 Step alternatives in Ohio is the AARMED with Facts blog.

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