AA Cults I Have Known - Page 2

By Benjamin Aldo 11/25/13

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.

Drawing with giant Kool-Aid in an AA meeting with AG and PG and 12 steps on the wall, AA cults
Don't drink it. Art: Danny Jock

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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.

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Benjamin Aldo is a pseudonym for a New York writer in long-term recovery.