How Alcoholics Anonymous Lies with the Truth

“To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.”

George Orwell wrote the above words. So much of the insular world of Alcoholics Anonymous is analogous to entering an Orwellian state, and how AA manipulates public perception is a prime example of this. Many are familiar with the 1989 summary of five previous Triennial surveys released by Alcoholics Anonymous, that shows it to have 95% percent dropout rate within the first year. (source:aa_triennial_survey ) For obvious reasons, AA will not release any further summaries. They don’t really need to, because nothing has changed about the organization to make a positive change to their zero percent effectiveness rate. I say zero percent effective, because the natural course of the disease shows that 5% of alcoholics will quit on their own anyway. Sure, 5% of AAers successfully quit for their first year, but if we were to pluck out a sample of 100 alcoholics who started playing golf, or began knitting, or converted to Catholicism – they, too, would have a 5% quit rate after a year. That does not mean that participating in golf or knitting or Catholicism helps a person recover from alcoholism.

I have often heard a true AA believer say something akin to “I know it works, because I have seen too many success stories to doubt it; and every AA meeting I attend if filled with people who have quit for three or five or fifteen years”. I have seen the same thing, and to a newly indoctrinated AAer who just happens to be stepping into a room for the first time, this all looks impressive. It seems even more impressive after hearing the drunkalogs and stories from other members after any given meeting, telling the newbie how bad their drinking problem was, and how they quit because of Alcoholics Anonymous.

There is a reason the room is filled with successful former drinkers, and that is because AA happens to be a place where people motivated to quit drinking congregate. Giving AA credit for their quits is like blaming hospitals for making people sick, because there are so many sick people at hospitals. Still, this does not prevent AA from using this perception to their advantage. Even though AA does not release any more survey summaries, they still take cherry picked data from their surveys and release it to the public in an effort to give the appearance of its effectiveness. Basically, they lie. Let’s take a look at an example of AA does this. I will use their 2004-survey-brochure, which is given to the public, as an example.

Here is a press release of their 2004 survey. It isn’t raw data – it is their manipulation and interpretation of the raw data. Like all good propaganda, it contains elements of the truth, as in this quote, which is taken from this press release:

Length of Sobriety – 36% of respondents say they have been sober more than 10 years; and 14%, 5-10 years. In response to prior queries, 24% say they have been sober from 1-5 years and 26%, less than one year. These totals indicate that more alcoholics in A.A. are staying sober longer.”

This is an example of lying with the truth, particularly with the inclusion of the last line – “These totals indicate that more alcoholics in A.A. are staying sober longer”. They also say that the average length of sobriety is 8 years. This is patently false, and all one has to do is take this data, and plug in the variables from their 1989 survey summary to see that there is no change in the rate of effectiveness:

Assume a new chapter is started with exactly 100 members with a new person filling in the void left when a member leaves. At the end of year one, there will be 5 one year members and 95 who have been there for less than a year. Go forward another year. You will now have close 10 successful quitters of one and two years (actually, 9.5 if you assume the average, but since you can’t split an actual person, I’m rounding up). Fast forward ten years, and that chapter will have a good many permanent quitters. It looks impressive to anyone attending their first meeting. You’ll have close to 70 people (70%) of the room who have quit for 6 months or more. Of those, close to half are at 5 years or longer. Each of them attributing their success to AA. All of them telling you to work the steps and you can do as they did. Now fast forward 20 years, keep the same success rates of 5%, 30% and 95%, the room looks even more impressive. And if you took a survey of only those who are active members, plot them on that bell curve, you will come up with numbers almost identical to the numbers in brochure and press release:

35% have been sober for over 10 years.

16% have been sober between 5-10 years.

28% have been sober between 1-5 years.

22% have been sober less that 1 year.

The average quit time in this example is 8 years, just like the 2004 survey shows. As impressive as these numbers seem to a person looking around the room, they only prove a 5% quit rate.

Recently on Youtube, I watched a video an AAer had made questioning why a group of people would criticize a “benign and benevolent benefactor”. To him, I would point to the above as an example why AA, like any cult, is not benign. What the numbers do not show, and what is most important, are the consequences of AA’s duplicity. The few successful quitters in that room are impacted little beyond their ability for rational thought, but the hundreds of others who went through the turnstiles with unrealistic expectations of success have been manipulated and harmed. Most go back to drinking, many with the idea that they failed the only thing that could help them recover from their addictions – and they are led to believe it to be their own fault, because they were not “honest with themselves” or they were “selfish” or they “didn’t work it”. The state of being for an X-Stepper who leaves the group is not dissimilar to someone leaving the Moonies or the Church of Scientology, although they are most likely more compromised, because their addiction has been left untreated.


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  • Z

    "Not honest with myself," "too selfish," etc. is also what Al-Anon people say about virtually anything that goes wrong. It can never have gone wrong randomly, and it can *definitely* not be anyone's fault but theirs, because they must "own their part" or say they were "getting something out of it." It's circular and maddening, and also sad to watch because it's so masochistic.

    A few of the most self righteous are capable falling out of script and becoming rather abusive. Then one can see why they talk so much, in such a rote and controlled way, about how they used to be judgmental, they used to compare themselves to others, used not to be able to listen to anyone, and so on.


    A lot of people have called the 12 step groups cultish; another word might be totalitarian. So, to explain what I meant by that, I googled "totalitarian thought" and did not come up with a quick definition, but did get reminded of Orwell's term "doublethink" (in _1984_); the Wikipedia discussion sounded *so* like what goes on in 12 stepping!!!

  • Donald Isbister

    AA with no real contact with (GOD) is the exscue all problem drinkers are looking for finding it in the deceptive cult called AA.??? should be asked people need to see the lies they are being told, but big moneies are being made, and top people in societies are involved with it’s lies. Bill the weaklen W. & Doc the bubble head Bob were in full agreement with the false hood of saying they beleived in (Jah by the way thats the proper way to speak about the one true hebrew (god english interpertion) JAH. They said they followed!! ). ASnother lie! Wake people it’s time to speak or suffer the out come of keeping silient.

    • pete

      sending someone to a.a. is equivalent to telling them they are incompetent fools, with , no control or liability for their actions

  • bob m

    As a person with long term sobriety (30+ years), I can say that AA offers little more than a fellowship of persons with a more-or-less common goal of non-drinking. I have many friends in AA, even though I have never had a sponsor, have never sponsored anyone. I don’t even think sponsorship is a good idea. I also don’t think the 12 steps are very useful. But, I do think that AA offers a safe place for people who want to quit drinking. I have been convening a LifeRing meeting (see for alcoholics who are tired of the incessant ‘god’ talk in AA.

  • Friend

    You should look up the term “strawman argument” then try to make a point without such leaps of logic.

  • Aamir Zakaria

    Wow. I’ll never understand why some people are so eager to discredit something that has literally transformed millions of people’s lives for the better (including my own). It’s sad, actually.

    • Adam Bricker

      Read the last paragraph on the article and you will know why.

      • Aamir Zakaria

        I’ve just reread the last paragraph several times and I still don’t get the point. The statements made are purely conjectural. Statistics are hinted at without documentation of their validity. I myself no longer attend AA, but I don’t consider myself harmed by the process, I don’t feel like a failure, and I don’t feel like an excommunicated Moonie. And I remain sober. If you’re going to write an article like this, get your facts straight. I will re-iterate: irresponsible “journalism” like this can only cause harm by scaring people away from something that is potentially life-saving. AA isn’t for everyone, and I’ve chosen to part ways with it; but I’ve seen the miracle it can bring to some people’s lives, including my own. Alcoholism destroys lives, and there are no easy solutions. If you want to argue that AA is a cult, I would argue that joining a cult is a preferable alternative to drinking. If AA is a cult, however you want to define that, it’s a pretty benign one. There are worse things you can do than believing in a Higher Power.

        • Adam Bricker

          That’s because you’re an idiot

          • Aamir Zakaria

            Ah…you’re true wit and intelligence finally shines through. Best wishes!

          • Adam Bricker

            You have reading comprehension issues. Your problem.