Drunkalog: The Conversion Narrative

The conversion narrative is part of our American culture (we’re not the only ones, but it helps to narrow things down sometimes). These are personal stories of redemption that we tell each other over and over again, for a few of reasons: first, they serve to instruct the wayward, second, they reinforce the tie that binds the community, and third, they serve to bring the teller into (or back into) the fold: they are proof that the teller has renounced sin and embraced the standards and beliefs of the community. Early American literature is rich with these personal testimonials, most notably, the Captivity Narrative.

Captivity Narratives were written, usually by women settlers, who were captured by Native Americans and ultimately “rescued” (I put “rescued” in quotes because in many cases these women facilitated their own escape, but decorum – and the formula – dictate that they be rescued). Upon their restoration, their first order of business was to write their stories, which invariably follow a standard outline: Times were tough, but I was dutifully or complacenly minding my own business; the savages attacked, and though I fought like hell, I was captured; I ended up in the belly of the devil and was subjected to all manner of debasement at the hands of heathens (not actual defilement, though, in case you were wondering); but I never forgot God; and finally I was rescued; and now that I am home, I am an even bigger Christian than I was before, because I know the difference now; Amen.

I don’t mean to sound so dismissive of these narratives, because I realize that the subtext is usually much more complex than they were intended to be. These ex-captives’ very survival depended on their getting the story right. In fact, another common element of these narratives is that the writing is, without exception, lorded over by a member of the clergy – usually the one and only Cotton Mather. For this reason, they adhere strictly to form: clueless complacency, utter debasement, redemption by the grace of God, transcendence.

This basic redemption narrative outline survives in so many niches, but most pointedly in the conversion narratives of Born Again Christians: I once was lost, but now I am found. If you have the stomach for it, you can see numerous personal conversion narratives at Precious Testimonies (http://www.precious-testimonies.com/General/a-e/BornAgainIndex.htm). You will notice that they follow the script: Here’s me, dorking along through life, until I find myself sucked into a life of profound degradation. But, then I was rescued, an angel in disguise brought me to church and I embraced the light, and now I am redeemed. And not only am I redeemed, but because of where I have been, I am more aware than most of how precious my redemption is.

These days, it seems, the conversion narratives is hardwired. We all know how it goes:

Innocence, Complacency, Debasement, Grace, Redemption, Transcendence .

And we no longer need a member of the clergy looking over our shoulders to make sure we get it right. The self-censorship within communities is extremely effective in making sure that these stories remain true to form. Furthermore, to this day, the conversion narrative serves exactly the same purpose as the old time Captivity Narratives: To instruct (and affirm the teller’s place in the community) and to redeem the teller, to bring him or her “home.”

Despite their unique ability to drive most people into a state of existential nausea, the drunkalogs we’ve all heard time and again in AA meetings and from AAs everywhere, are interesting in that these personal testimonies are, in fact, conversion narratives, which serve the same purpose and adhere precisely to the form. It’s interesting to me, just as a bit of academic trivia. Being kind of a nerd, I can’t help noticing it. And it might not be worth hauling you all through this lecture if – aside from my own interest – the form of the drunkalog didn’t also serve to reveal something important about AA.

Many years ago, I was walking through town with a friend of mine, who had recently extracted himself from a Born Again Christian cult. The story is that when he was 17, he was tripping with some friends, and they decided it would be super funny if, in that altered state, they snuck into a revival tent that was set up in the fairground. Well, they got him, and he ended up living on some compound, marrying a member of the cult, and 20 years later, he’s wandering around town with me, utterly lost, with enormous regrets, scrambled eggs for brains, and no faith in himself. So, we round the corner, and run into the street preacher, who hollered some shit into our faces. My friend answered him quietly, in code, and then rattled off a date. They exchanged a few more words, and the preacher graciously waved us on with a smile and without the fire and brimstone.

I was all, “Whoah! How’d you do that?” This preacher worked the corner across from my apartment building, and I had never seen him give anyone a pass. My pal told me that you just have to know the right thing to say, and the date he gave him was the date he was born again. I haven’t dared to try this trick on my own, because I don’t know the code – except for the date part. Knowing the right thing to say is the key to acceptance, and, similarly, the drunkalog is the right thing to say. It opens the door.

Drunkalogs vary, but only in personal detail and speaking style. These variations are just embellishments to the basic strict form, which does not ever vary. The form of the drunkalog cannot vary because it is a code, the key to acceptance, the correct instructive. And the form is exactly the form of any other conversion narrative – even all the way back to the Captivity Narrative.

Anyone who’s ever abused their turn with the talking stick by taking the opportunity to question or offer alternative paths to redemption will learn quickly that they have overstepped their bounds. They’ll be snubbed; they’ll be passive aggressively admonished (“Some people think… But we know…”); they’ll get a good talking to from their sponsor… Variation from form doesn’t just get to stand there, sucking up the atmosphere.

I’m not going to go mining for examples of drunkalogs. We’ve all heard them – and if you’ve heard enough, the connection will be immediately clear. There are some in the comments sections of our blog, and all over the web. If you’re curious, go look at the Born Again testimonials I linked to above, and have a look around The Grapevine. And if you still have your Early American Literature textbook from college, go check out the Captivity Narratives that will be on the first onion skin pages of the anthology.

The very fact that the AA drunkalog exists and persists as an example of a unique and rich literary tradition illuminates the fact that AA’s purpose is to perpetuate itself as a fellowship, community, program, organization – as is stated plainly in the 12 Traditions. The drunkalog (I once was lost, but now I am found) is the password for entry into community, not into sobriety, which is incidental. Being abstinent without AA does not earn you sobriety, anymore than “good works” will earn you salvation without belief. True sobriety is your reward. So, the drunkalog has to be strictly about achieving redemption through the program – and thus, sobriety.

Back in the Captivity Narrative days, when community literally meant survival, the ex-captives had no choice but to testify. These women could not survive unless they could find a way to credit the belief system, the foundation, of their community for their restoration. And what’s more, they had to justify the fact that they even survived it – that they lived to tell their tale. Their survival in the belly of the beast calls into question everything their community stands for. How could they have survived without compromising themselves? They have to answer for their very life. The Captivity Narrative serves this purpose.

This seems extreme. It is. Those were the days. But the present day drunkalog serves the same purpose.

AAs are very specific about the definition of “real alcoholics.” The bona fide alcoholics are the ones for whom AA works, and who would die in a gutter without it. Thus, the drunkalog is about survival and salvation, as much as any redemption narrative is. It’s a way of proving one’s bona fides, a way of justifying one’s survival outside the fold. Get the drunkalog right and the community embraces you. Get it wrong, and you will be pitied, patronized, frozen out – and if you are a “real alcoholic,” being frozen out is a death sentence.

The pervasiveness of the drunkalog is a testament to the fact that AA is about AA, and only incidentally about the suffering alcoholic. It teaches the way, reinforces membership, and most importantly, serves to bring the wayward into the fold – if they get it right. And it is yet another clear sign of the fact that this is not recovery from addiction; it is not a program; it is not about sobriety; it is about acceptance and the perpetuation of a religious community.

  • Littlebuddy

    I'm not that familiar with the historical role of Captivity Narratives, but as soon as I read that phrase, one bit of AA history came to mind.
    In 1939 when the big book was first published, and Bill was looking for ways to "promote" the organization, one of the early recruits had an opportunity to go on radio and tell his story.
    The other members literally kept this guy under lock and key for several days prior to his appearance because they feared he would get drunk and ruin this big promotional opportunity. The man did indeed stay sober and told his story on the radio, and was a great success.
    The fact that they had to lock him away beforehand not only says a lot about the lack of confidence they had in their fledgling program, but perhaps it also makes one of the first public drunkalogs a sort of Captivity Narrative in a literal way.
    (The man's name was Morgan, and that story can be found in Ken Ragge's book, and "AA comes of age", probably other places as well.)
    In terms of AA specifically, as I understand it, the tradition of drunkalogs came directly from the practice of having people give testimonials at Oxford Group house parties. AA meetings themselves evolved from those early "house parties". Of course, the Oxford Group founder, Lutheran minister, Frank Buchman would've been well versed in the broader role of narratives, and well suited to orchestrate them for maximum benefit.

    In my years in AA, I think I only spoke at speaker meetings two or three times, but I said "no" dozens of times. I experienced a lot of shunning for those refusals, but that didn't bother me too much. It kept me from truly "fitting in" with certain crowds, but being an introvert by nature, I tended to prefer discussion meetings over speaker meetings. I found over time, that those different meeting types tend to attract different types of people, and that in itself creates a sort of divide within AA.
    (It seemed to me that discussion meetings attracted more introverted types, and the extroverts preferred speaker meetings, but that's getting off topic…)
    Anyway, as time went by, I got shunned for other reasons that did bother me a great deal.
    I don't think it takes most people very long to notice the similarities between traditional sermons and drunkalogs. At least that was true for me, and in my experience, many AAers routinely joked about such things.
    I read some comments on a discussion group a couple of years ago where someone called them "infomercials", and I thought that was kind of cool too, so I now kind of think of them as part sermon, part infomercial. The tale of descent into the abyss at the hands of devil drink, and then redemption and salvation through AA and god. (in that order, and "as we understood him" of course).
    Maybe I'm straying from the author's broader point about the traditional role of narratives specifically, but the points about fitting in and acceptance within the community resonate with me in a deep way, and these things all tie together of course.
    Long term survival in AA becomes all about fitting in, or following the script. I learned how to fit in quite well early on, and it is quite possible without working the steps, or giving drunkalogs.
    The more "willing" a newcomer is, the more intense the love bombing will be, and the more readily a person will be accepted. The super sponsors in the rooms know how to spot such people. (Sort of like treatment centers that cherry pick clients who will enhance their success rates).

    I see nothing wrong with those desires to fit in, or find acceptance within a community. To me, those things are perfectly natural, especially when people are wounded and vulnerable, as are many who end up in AA.
    The organization is well suited to take advantage of such desires, like any cult, it was designed that way. (it doesn't hurt to have the much lobbied for blessing of the medical community, and the treatment industry either.)
    I just happen to think that the goal of any support group should include a path toward independent living, or psychological autonomy for the individual. AA fails miserably on both counts.
    I imagine many readers here are familiar with this famous quote, and I think it's especially applicable to long term life in AA; "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society".

    Thank you ftg for a very interesting essay.

  • speedy0314

    ftg,

    good stuff & right on the money, as usual.

    it's a post i'm envious [snark] of because it's in the direction i wanted to start taking my own line of critique: as rationally as possible (as a completely empirical approach doesn't seem possible) examine/de-construct the 'phenomena of AA' — much like daniel dennett's approach to organized monotheism in "breaking the spell."

    there's a lot of 'unpacking' to do when it comes to AA/12X12 at so many different levels & in so many different ways. the 'personal' narrative as group identifier permeates the 12X12 experience so thoroughly that a great number of members recognize how ephemeral it is (hence, the perjorative 'drunkalog') while still celebrating & insisting on its necessity.

    in the case of the 'drunkalog' — or any other spirited, 'rah-rah go AA!' qualification — some (if not most) members can step back from their discourse just long enough to see the predictability, uniformity, & sterility of it all. but when 'sharing' rolls around, it's back to the formula.

    your post is a terrific example of a 'bottom-up' examination of AA/12X12 & the AA/12X12 'experience': through the act of a relatively regimented form of personal testimony, "i" becomes "we" … and "we" are "AA".

    and AA has "saved millions of lives" — the personal testimonies of its membership bears that out indisputably. circle closed, proof established, end of analysis.

    only not. because this isn't the 11th century & the circular proofs of anselm of canterbury don't hold up all that well in an age of meta-analysis, neuroscience & particle colliders.

    organizationally (as per the 12 Traditions) AA doesn't define itself by precisely what it is & what it does do — at least in the real world. a fair portion of the traditions are written in the language of negatives & exceptions. where there's real responsibility for taking account of something, that's when god shows up (and we all know how maleable 'god' can be in terms of AA).

    i've sent at least half-dozen e-mails to dr. richard sloan at columbia (professor of medicine & author of "Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion & Medicine") requesting that he take a gander at the 'recovery' industry & its virtual domination by 12X12 methodology. still no bites as of yet. but there are well-respected & highly-placed scientific professionals who are (however tentatively) taking a chisel to the 12X12 monolith here in the US at least (nida volkow, mark willenring, the volpicelli's & the 'u penn method', etc.).

    none of what you've written (or what i've written in the above) is a 'bash' of AA. even though i'm not personally on board with the use of the word, 'cult' is fair game when discussing AA in objective, rational terms. there are a lot of troubling, cult-like aspects to 12-step adherence & practice.

    and if the predominant long-term treatment method for a widening public health concern (alcohol/drug abuse & dependency) even hints of such tendencies, it's well over-due for revision.

    speedy

  • H

    I called it a 'belonging ritual'. I was, also, struck by the formulaic 'sharing'. So many basically said the same thing, almost the same way. Sometimes I think that AA needs approval.
    As for the professionals, that is where the hope [ if I want to call it that] lies. I think of the idea of reality testing. "if you are satisfied with the results you are getting, keep doing what you are doing.' But, it would be unkind to tell a professional that.

    As for the post, it was excellent; and, it makes good sense.

    That sort of thing is one reason why people leave so quickly. Many folks realize quickly that AA is rubbish. Most of the participants in alternative groups have gone to AA first.

  • I know very little about AA, but I thank you for providing this interesting piece.

    As a christian fiction author, I think the conversion narrative in literature can be used in a way which isn't superficial. Conversion is really about repenting of wrongs that a person does against God, and not necessarily getting back into better social standing. St Paul warns that alcohol abuse is a sin that leads to exclusion from the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6), and God will help a person who wishes to freed from it. Prayer may be helpful. If AA isn't really solving the alcohol abuse but just perpetuating the community, then it's not solving the problem though.

    God Bless,

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  • Z

    Really a key point, that redemption / improvement achieved outside this program doesn't count. (It has taken me YEARS to de-traumatize myself from Al-Anon, and most of my amazing to me at the time revelations about it, you've also figured out; I'm thrilled to find such a good analysis of it … I mean, I'd read the Agent Orange, and he's smart, and in a way makes the same points, but your focus on how the rhetoric works is really interesting.

    "Being abstinent without AA does not earn you sobriety, anymore than 'good works' will earn you salvation without belief. True sobriety is your reward. So, the drunkalog has to be strictly about achieving redemption through the program – and thus, sobriety."

     

     

  • Primrose

    Speedy, could I copy a relevant chunk of your letter to Dr Sloan so that I can send it to NICE in the UK asking why the NHS is funding 12 step treatment?

    I am thinking of one particular very, very old timer, with a relapse in the middle of a very long aa career.  He shared very very frequently, and I was aware of quite a bit of moaning about hearing the same thing.  It was interesting the first time, especially with the drama of the relapse; a sort of double redemption story.  He was put on when they had 'newcomers'. 

    Very interesting about sponsors cherry picking good prospects, so the more anxious you are to fit in and please, the more likely you are to be lovebombed and specifically targetted. 

    Do other cults have a similar thing? Is this particular to 12 s?

  • Primrose

    If there are people reading this who have never been to a meeting, you can just go to one as long as it is 'open' and just listen and observe.  I would like to encourage you to go and see how true this all is.

  • humanspirit

    Primrose I'm still not sure that the NHS actually does fund 12-step treatment. If this is true, it is outrageous. But please let me know of anything more you hear about this.

  • humanspirit

    Z AA is a religious program. It has nothing to do with anyone stopping drinking. If you're not drinking, you're sober. That is a fact. Respect to you for stopping – it's a difficult thing to do. The worst thing you could do for yourself right now is to buy into AA's completely ludicrous and irrelevant program.

     

    Good luck, and every happiness to you.

  • poetwomyn

    There was a guy in the meetings i used to go to who seemed to think he had to 'qualify' every time he spoke.  i secretly always thought he was an asshole, saying things like, 'this is the last stop'…presumably before jails, death, and institutions.  i never formally heard him speak, because as i said, i thought he was an asshole, and i really had better things to do than listen to his full drunkalog.  He took up enough time in small groups for me to get the gist of it anyway, and people would marvel at me and say, 'You haven't ever heard his story' when he had a speaking engagement, and i would say, 'no, i am not interested and was treated as though this were blasphemy because he was a highly-respected member of the 'club.'  all i thought was he was the same old asshole giving his drunkalog yet one more time and if i heard it again, my head would explode.

  • Z

    @HS haha, nicotine is my addiction, and I'd be tempted to go out and buy some but I am too lazy. It's a bad addiction, but they don't tell you you must believe in God and so on to stop! Why?

    Steps for not smoking:

    1. Realized I was addicted.

    2. Noted that it causes hangovers.

    3. Noted it may cause wrinkles.

    4. Conducted unscientific study which determined smoking causes stress.

    5. Was overcome by strong desire for stress reduction.

    Now, there are more serious reasons not to smoke, but these motivate me. Notice the absence of self recrimination, reliance on God, and so on.

  • Primrose

    I know of people who have been offered 6 months rehab in Wales, and almost all rehabs follow the 12 step model.  I know people in aa who have been in NHS funded rehab, where they did the first 3 steps and were then chucked into meetings.

    The Samaritans recommend another alcohol line that does recommend aa meetings.

    I will come back to this.

    In the meantime, do let me know if you find a UK rehab that is non 12 step-based.  I would like to talk to them about the aa insanity.

  • Ez

    Primrose, not a very active on line forum, but you might find the site in general a helpful start http://www.smartrecovery.org.uk/

  • Primrose

    Thanks, Ez, will look now.

  • Primrose
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  • oiyoi

    One of the most frustrating things was the Al-anon meetings where everyone wanted to just regurgitate their conversion story. There I would sit, wondering how the hell this was to help any of the actual issues I still faced, while people blathered on about how “reformed” they had become. One big cultist circle jerk.

  • One thing that always stuck me odd, is that no one ever identifies the concept of “sharing” or “drunkalog” as that of an “AA ritual” perpetuated by AAWS corporate policies. In other groups that manipulate people that are being exposed, these words are always used. A quick google of “AA ritual” will see who is talking about it and what they are saying. Anyone doing research on the AA growth phenomenon happening at this time will only find those comments.

  • Jill

    Ilse,
    Very interesting! I especially agree with that part at the end – AA is about acceptance.
    The one line that I hear constantly repeated in drunkalogs is :
    “And that’s when I knew that I was different.”

  • mark

    AA is made up of hundreds of thousands of people and thousands and thousands of groups all around the globe. This means there will be groups you relate with and others you dont. The drunkalog does more to separate people than bring them together. What keeps a solid group together is the solution. If you are reading this and you only attend meetings where people talk about the way they do or used to drink, find another meeting.

    • Eradicated-Self

      “The Solution” you speak of is directly responsible for the Problem. “Find(ing) another meeting,” just won’t do. Unless maybe you start your own group and only accept newcomers. That way you won’t have to worry about relating, and you yourelf can dictate, bully and force others to relate from the Piranha chair.

  • LOve

    Wow…This piece is so academic….I remember telling SPONSER that the only “promise” I’ve seen consistantly in AA, is….more AA. The sense that AA, the Big Book, and other facets, including the redemption drunkalog, becoming a historical oddity a hundred years from now, similar to tent revivals always struck me as possible. People will look at Steppism as a historical fotnote. Either that, or steppism will grow in power to resemble modern Later Day Saints…who knows…

    • LOve

      Toward the later, unless the court system stops mandating AA attendance and, or, Treatment centers close, and I doubt either of these circumstances will come about…

      • LOve

        What sucks is I want to leave AA. I see it for what it is, and yet I am afraid the drinking/drugging will return, if I stop going entirely (I only go a day a week, after two years in the rooms. Started having doubts shortly before the end of the first year). I talked to my mom about my dilema, and she says I am not an alkie, and don’t belong there. I trust her (she’s me mum, for Pete’s sake, no one knows me better)…I’m scared to stop going for real, and no, I do not have a plan in place for future drinking (however, definitley no drugs, ever. period.)…

        • causeandeffect

          Don’t worry, Love, if I can do it, you can too. In fact the vast majority of people who successfully quit drinking, do so with no program at all. Check this out

          “About 75 percent of persons who recover from alcohol dependence do so
          without seeking any kind of help, including specialty alcohol (rehab)
          programs and AA. Only 13 percent of people with alcohol dependence ever
          receive specialty alcohol treatment”

          http://www.spectrum.niaaa.nih.gov/features/alcoholism.aspx

          Crazy cult religion is not needed to quit drinking or any other behavior. It’s all just billshit. Keep reading and deprogram yourself, then you will gain the confidence to walk away. And I can’t begin to tell you how good it feels when you do.