Anniversary Post: Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous PropagandaOn this day in 1935 — Exactly 80 years ago! — the two most famous drunks in history met and formed the most successful cult in American history. Those two drunks were, of course, Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith. I don’t think these guys really meant to do evil in the world. But that’s what they did. Rather than approach alcohol addiction as a health or social problem, they approached it as a religious problem. They explicitly when back to the Oxford Group — a movement of people who considered themselves sinners and who wanted to purify themselves. This is where the vaunted “Twelve Steps” comes from.

If you’ve spent any time actually reading the official AA discussion of the Twelve Steps, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, you will find just how arbitrary they are. While reading the book, about halfway through the steps I had a sudden realization: it was a first draft. You probably know the experience of writing an essay, being about a thousand words in, and realizing that you are making exactly the opposite argument you started out making. It’s a profound experience: discovery through writing. But Bill Wilson and his followers didn’t do that. They just forged ahead, contorting their arguments more and more to get to the end without having to rethink the system.

A Orange (who has written more thoroughly about AA than anyone I know of) wrote, “Those statements imply that the original members of AA looked long and hard for something, anything, that would work to save alcoholics from self-destruction, anything to break the cycle of addiction, and that the Twelve Steps were what finally worked for those pioneering alcoholics.” But that, of course, is not what happened at all. “The truth is that a newly-sober alcoholic named William Griffith [Bill] Wilson — a down-on-his-luck former Wall Street hustler who put on airs of having once been a prosperous stock broker — just sat down, in December of 1938, and wrote up twelve commandments for the new religious group that he and fellow alcoholics Doctor Robert Smith and Clarence Snyder had started.”

None of this would matter, of course, if AA and the Twelve Steps actually worked. But they don’t. In fact, AA uses a kind of tautology, “It works if you work it!” So to them, people stay sober as long as they go to meetings. But the correlation clearly works the other way around: only people who are sober go to meetings. And, at this point, the vast majority of people who go to meetings do so only because they are forced to by the criminal justice system. If it weren’t for this, I doubt the group would attract 10% of its current members.

The other side of this is that Hollywood has pushed AA in a big way. You think Scientology is the biggest cult of Hollywood? No way! It’s AA! And make no mistake: AA is a cult. Some have claimed that it isn’t, because it doesn’t have a charismatic leader. But that is a misunderstanding of the movement. Bill Wilson (“Bill W”) of legend is that figure. He’s the one who wrote the Twelve Steps and they are consecrated. No one is allowed to say, “You know, that ninth step may not be such a good idea. Most people don’t like ex-druggies dragging them into their own little trips.” No. The Twelve Steps are perfect. They can never be questioned, just as the divinity of Jesus cannot be questioned. AA is a cult.

The only credible research I’ve read on AA’s effectiveness found two things. First, it found that AA was exactly as good as nothing in terms of how long it kept people off drugs. Second, it found that people in AA had relapse episodes that were roughly three times as long as those who were not involved in the program. That’s not too surprising. Consider first that AA tells addicts that they are powerless. But even more important, if you fall off the wagon, you know you are going to have to go back to the group and tell them what a terrible sinner you are. I know that would make me keep using for as long as possible.

AA is a great pox on our society — a kind of court mandated torture used on people who like drugs too much. And it has been harming our society for 80 years.

4 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Alcoholics Anonymous

  1. It’s helped some people to be sure. So has prison, born-again Christianity, or being in the military, among other approaches. That some people are helped by these things doesn’t mean we should force them on anyone, or ignore the harm they can do.

    Johan Hari has a stunning new book out called “Chasing The Scream,” about the drug war. There’s an amazing bit in it. Remember those rats who sucked coke-infused water until they died, proving how dangerously addictive coke was? Well, the guy who did that experiment redid it later. He realized rats were social animals and isolated rats in empty cages, sure, they’d OD on coke. So he redid the experiment with rats who had other rats to play with or mate with, fun rat toys, etc. Those rats showed some mild interest in coke; none OD’d.

    The random success rates addressing harmful addictions of AA, churches, etc., have nothing to do with their methods and everything to do with giving bored people something to do and others to interact with. We are a ferociously anti-social culture, where everyone is supposed to hate everyone else above/below their economic status. Addiction meetings give attendees an opportunity to disregard class and bond with others who have similar problems. It’s probably no accident that the cult of AA really took off right as unions were dying.

    • Very interesting about the rats. I will have to check that out.

      The truth is AA does not disregard social class. Different meetings attract different kinds of people. A poor person showing up to an upper class meeting will find herself ostracized. Of course, this isn’t the case according the AA lore. But that’s the way it is. In fact, that’s why NA came into being. The alcoholics didn’t want to hang out with the junkies and eventually the junkies decided that were better in their own way.

      The issue with AA is not that it helps. We have to think in terms of opportunity costs. There is no reason to think that people in AA are doing better than they would be if they were using some other option. But it is true that when someone stops using drugs, they have a lot of time that they need to fill up. Meetings can be helpful. But I’ll bet taking a college extension course would be better.

      As for the union theory: it’s brilliant! But I don’t buy it. ;-)

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