Response to criticism of the 48 Hours episode on Karla Brada. I originally posted this on the 48 Hours Facebook page, here.

The argument that anyone who enters AA is just as vulnerable as they would be in any other public venue is profoundly inaccurate, for several reasons:

  • It has been drummed into our cultural consciousness by trusted sources – from Ann Landers, Dr. Drew, and reality TV to family doctors and therapists – that AA is the only true solution to a debilitating addiction and that the only other options are “jails, institutions, or death.”
  • Most people maintain a certain healthy wariness and personal boundary in public places. People do not go to bars or grocery stores at their lowest, most vulnerable point, specifically to bare their souls to and seek help from the people there. 
  • When one enters a public sphere, one is *not * told *not* to trust his or her own instincts as they are in AA meetings (their “alcoholic brain” – i.e. – “Your best thinking got you here.”).
  • Nor is one told to trust the people one meets on the bus or the mall; while in AA, newcomers who have a hard time turning their will over God are told to start by turning it over to G.O.D (Group Of Drunks).
  • Nor is one instructed to trust the guidance of a sponsor – an Anonymous stranger with no formal training.

I understand that there are so many people with a deep investment in AA who feel enormous gratitude for their recovery – so this protective mama bear response to such exposure is to be expected. Over the years, I have seen so much cold-hearted defensiveness and outright denial from AA members when confronted with glaring problems that result in the victimization of vulnerable people: Victims of sexual, mental, emotional, or financial abuse in the rooms are told to look only at their own role in their victimization; victims and their advocates are accused of being angry, resentful, or intoxicated. (For evidence, you need look no further than the responses to this episode.)

Considering the recent exposure of Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, this 48 Hours story is particularly timely. The cases of Ghomeshi and Cosby have resulted in a public soul-searching about the protective infrastructure we erected around these abusers in order to maintain the wholesome and inspiring stories they reinforced to us about ourselves. How did we allow this behavior to fester? Before the soul-searching, however, came waves of denial, victim-blaming, speculations about dastardly motivations, and accusations of fame-whoring.

Members’ investment in AA is – I’d guess – much deeper than anyone’s investment in Bill Cosby’s legacy. People who credit AA with saving their lives or the lives of their loved ones – and don’t forget the people who make a living off AA and 12 Step programs – are defending their very survival or livelihood. Perhaps they have been complicit – or turned a blind eye – toward abuses they see in the rooms, abuses they’d never tolerate in any other situation. And, remembering their own complicity, take an even more ferocious position against exposure and, thus, accountability.

The fact is that AA Members – and AA’s own board – are taking a position against providing newcomers with information. That’s it; just information – information vulnerable people need to make informed choices about their own well-being. Look at the vitriol ignited by the suggestion of such a simple reform. Information. 

This information, however, exposes and undermines too much. No one wants to feel that they’ve been duped, coerced, or complicit in others’ having been duped or coerced. Perhaps AA members and defenders who have their hackles up could consider that AA is nearly a century old. Times have changed, but AA has not. Won’t. Our social awareness and understanding of addiction has evolved, but AA and AlAnon is still including the outrageouly sexist and outdated chapter “To Wives” in the Big Book, without caveat – among other outdated notions.

We all love stories about grasping neurotics and curmudgeons who finally get just a little more compassionate and accepting of change. We have been telling this story over and over again, since people have been narrating the human experience – think of your own favorite movies or novels. You may accuse those of us who advocate for reform of being drunk of having alterior motives that will result in the death of alcoholics. If so, you must also consider the demise of the wider population of those who are turned off by AA’s collective dementia. If AA has saved your life, please honor it and pay it forward by acknowledging its weaknesses and brightening the light for those who might find community and comfort there.

  • Well said, the fact that AA did not wish to talk to CBS and only let them film a big book sums them up. There is a problem in AA, and it is not a place for young women. I did see people hitting on vulnerable young girls in my time in AA and know of two people who went there specifically to do this. I also became aware of a financial scammer.
    Many in AA are great people and are there for social reasons and to offer support. There is also the crazy religious types and a few predators that cause the big issues. I kind of expect to be attacked and get it myself on my site (from the antis as well in my case) but it is often the extreme people who are out of order when they are on the web. I have met people in organisational roles in AA, and they generally get there by being voted in by hard core 12 steppers, and do not see the need to change anything.
    The whole recovery industry is a joke with rational solutions such as the Sinclair Method being virtually ignored and AA being pushed as the main solution, just because it has been around a long time. Hopefully things will change, ther are more films coming out, and more people telling their stories. Things take time to change, but I am fairly optimistic at the moment that people will look at AA in a different way soon.

  • massive

    SO nice to see you post here. I always loved your intelligence and writing and still miss you posting daily or weekly like the early days of my leaving AA. Thank you Ilse.

    • I second that, when I came on and saw a new piece from Ilse and was thrilled.

  • Violet Streeter

    Ilse, thank you for such a thoughtful piece. I especially admire how you go out of your way to respectfully understand why AA members seem desperate to protect what either has saved them or what they think has saved them. And I like how you understand AA might in fact be a helpful place for some people. This is hardly a display of rigid, dogmatic Anti AA thinking here. I know I can slip into this weird, angry, “Steppers! Grrr!” type thinking when I read a particularly stupid or hateful comment posted by an AA member. But I also know when I slip into this type of thinking, I am hardly helping. Anyone. I am just close to having some sort of stroke. It was a bit disconcerting to read such a thoughtful piece and then to realize it is now burried by the immature and hateful “Eat a bag of dicks” post above, which would be sort of cute if the poster were 17. What is especially unfortunate about the “Bag of dicks” post is that it is directed at a former AA member who, while I do not agree w/ all of his thinking, seems compassionate and aware of the issues in AA. After reading the targetted person’s comments, I find it irrational and weird that he is picked on, especially in comparison to the slut shaming hate I have read recently in regards to the Karla.

  • Onepiece

    Thanks Isle I’m no longer a member of AA and every point you make resonates with me. Especially the resistance to any change, even though it is quite clearly outdated. It’s great to hear these points from sane logical people. 12 steps and the way they are dangerously published and endorsed as being the only way is almost criminal, preying on the vulnerable.

  • Anonymous Nomore

    I’ve never paid “much” attention to “pop media,” so I was kinda surprised when I read references to Ann Landers on various sites. While Ann Landers did say in her columns and books that she had “experts” in various fields to consult for info & advice, one interesting bit of info about her was after deciding viewpoints she presented were wrong, she had no trouble saying she made a mistake. So I wonder if she had been in her columnist role awhile longer, and saw the ways A.A. has been ‘outed,’ would she have decided that promoting A.A. was a mistake? I think it’s possible.

  • Great article Ilse. Your point about AA not be just like any other place in society is spot on. AA has no safety measures in place at all and as an organization turns their back on those harmed by other AA members. In actual meetings members are telling their peers to look at their part in it and to keep their side of the street clean.

    It is great though to now see more exposure of the multitude of problems in AA with more books being written, articles and now primetime TV!

    I appreciate all that you have done to get us to this point.

  • Charlie Moon Burger

    I just found this page, just quit NA after 15+ years – still clean.

    Good writing! 🙂 Really concise, to the point and effective. No kidding.

  • bb

    I’ve only just discovered your blog… and I wish you still updated .