My AA Is Not a Cult

By Michael Anderton 04/25/14

It is facile, cruel and technically incorrect to use the word "cult" to describe any particular AA group; it also mirrors the dynamics that laid the ground for our 12 Traditions in the first place.

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Most 12 step stories go from horror to joy, problem to solution. Mine is a little more complicated—according to a certain website, I was "an AA cultist!”

The word “cult” is as sticky as a lump of mud, and just as misshapen. Throw it at a group of people with some anecdotal scare talk and it will stick. Try to find a consistent definition on the Internet, and you’ll be sadly disappointed (give it a try). I got clean and sober in 1991 and I don’t remember hearing any talk of cults in AA or NA in the USA or Europe. It is a relatively recent phenomenon and such talk has been focused mostly in AA. The groups and members who have the cult mud thrown at them are not new – some have been around for decades. It is the label that is new. So the trend has not been that a new type of AA group or member is emerging, but rather the proliferation of the use of the word “cult.”

The current “cult” controversy is nothing new, it’s just a new label—a continuation of the process that caused the original creation of the 12 Traditions.

Rivalries in AA actually date back to the 1930s—with the Akron and New York groups both convinced they’d got it “right” and that the other was somehow less AA. New Yorkers were afraid Akron would scare away newcomers with religion. Bill Wilson and Bob Smith were accused of trying to make a quick buck with the Big Book, and Wilson was accused of serious financial wrongdoings at one point. In other words, the Traditions emerged in the 1940s out of a similar environment to that which we have today. Some groups thinking they’re “more AA” than others, and believing that the other groups or their leaders are actually damaging AA and its reputation. Of course each new generation says, “Yes, but this time it’s different."

The concept of dangerous cults became prevalent in the popular imagination starting in the 1970s, and particularly since the rise of the Internet. Sometime in the last ten years, alcoholics and addicts began to realize that the label could be used to attack groups or members they didn’t like. Given how unfashionable AA principles are in this day and age already, it isn’t much of a stretch: necessity of belief in a Higher Power and self-defeat and confession of wrongdoings (“Don’t they use that in Scientology to get power over people?”) Plus of course: submitting to the power of the group, over the power of the individual, as discussed in AA’s well-known first Tradition. So add in a little charismatic leadership, highly structured meetings, or too much use of the word God, and you’ve got a great label to throw around to show you’re right and “they” are wrong because they’re a “Cult.” 

Who “they” are is another issue. Names get bandied around like Back to Basics, Primary Purpose, Pacific Group and so forth. Each country, state and region has their own list. Ironically these groups are not a cohesive “they.” They do not particularly interact, nor even agree on many of the things the individual groups do. 

The truth is, that for all the alarm and scaremongering, nothing much has changed. The world is widely peppered with lesser-known groups who the “cult” labelers would probably leap at deriding if they only knew of their existence. This is just the same old AA battlefield that has existed since the late 1930s, but with new types of derogatory labels being used. The same Traditions that stopped AA from blowing itself apart in the 1940s will prevent collapse in this new millennium. Now, as then, AA is not divided into “us” and “them,” or “proper AA” and “false AA.” It is in reality a collection of vastly different groups, a diversity which I find a cause for celebration.

The word “cult” has also been rather creatively applied by those more fearful of this diversity, an issue eloquently discussed in an article on one AA-related website, called We Don’t Swallow Spiders. The article explains that a dangerous cult is dangerous because of the negative results of membership. There are also some common features of dangerous cults. However it is not these common features that make the cult dangerous, it is the negative results.

Common features include charismatic leadership, strong group cohesion, sacrifice for the greater good, and dedication of time and energy. These features are not in themselves dangerous, and are found in many mainstream organizations such as the Catholic Church, many Protestant denominations, elite military corps and investment banks, and even children’s summer camps! The danger in dangerous cults is when they cut members off from their families, remove them from mainstream society, demand excessive financial contributions and cause physical and mental damage to the member.

It would be laughable to ask the family member of someone who’s successfully joined AA or NA, "Is your husband (or wife) a worse family member now they’re sober?” Similarly you’re unlikely to find any member paying thousands of dollars (or any dollars) to “get to the next step” in AA. And as for asking the family or employer “has this AA group or sponsor damaged the now-sober alcoholic?” Well…if you’d asked my parents or family that question about me or my sister, they would laugh in disbelief.

On a more serious note, the brandishing of the label “cult” does have a dark side. There are members of AA who are so enamored by the power of this word to scare, that they are trying to form a legislature of AA. One group of vigilantes have taken to publishing a Cult Directory online and maxing out their Google-rank to ensure the blacklist proliferates. Their implicit claim: that they are guardians of freedom in a cult-threatened AA. It is reminiscent of McCarthy’s method of protecting freedom by limiting it. They want to protect AA freedoms by denying the freedoms of the AA members they disagree with. They want to make AA more loving by verbally attacking, intimidating or humiliating various AA members in public. Those who show support for “blacklisted” groups or members are themselves in danger of being blacklisted.

These tactics of intimidation and “naming and shaming” for the sake of love and freedom are, although self-contradictory, becoming more common—as I and my family experienced a few years ago. I was accused on a public website of abusive behavior and of being a cult leader. A Europe-based AA group was being accused of repeatedly causing the deaths of vulnerable AA newcomers. In reality it was simply another AA group. One that I, and some of my friends and family, got sober in. These accusations were repeated and built on a number of times. Thankfully I had a few years’ sobriety and experience under my belt before this online bullying took place. It didn’t cause me to leave AA or damage me. However I know other people who began to feel nervous about practicing the program that had helped them get and stay sober, all because of some sensationalist online gossip. My own sister was the subject of one such online public attack. She—and others—have now left and are drinking. I can't help but feel that these attacks chipped away at their foundation.

These attempts at enforcing legislation show why AA’s Twelve Traditions maintain such a delicate balance. The self-righteous enforcement above is a movement against the whole philosophy of freedom in AA. AA’s philosophy of freedom is that the AA World Service Office in New York does not manage or legislate against the groups around the world, but only pools and distributes experience. The blacklisters would have the office turned into a body that legislates against those they dislike.

Perhaps one reason the AA World Service Office does not comply with these demands is that they are the home to the AA archives, the oldest 12 Step library in the world. Next time you’re in New York give it a visit. It is a library full of decades of stories of AA controversies between groups who were convinced the other side was wrong, or that Bill Wilson was an evil manipulative leader, or the Big Book a way of making a quick buck. See for yourself—the current “cult” controversy is nothing new, it’s just a new label—a continuation of the process that caused the original creation of the 12 Traditions.

In the final analysis, and when I think back to my own drinking and using days, all of these temporary arguments—about how to sponsor or run a group—pale in comparison with an alcoholic or addict’s painful drawn out death and living death, and the effect it has on those who love them. More than anything addicts and alcoholics need the freedom to stay alive. Just as AA and its related 12-Step fellowships have survived in the past thanks to the Traditions, so they will survive in the future, ensuring that every new generation of addicts and alcoholics are, like me, allowed to recover and remain clean and sober, in the way that they choose.

Michael Anderton is a pseudonym for a member of AA.

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