A couple of years ago, I started using the Keep Coming Back tag for DUI stories involving drunk people who were either driving away from or toward an AA meeting and people with multiple DUIs who were sentenced to yet more AA. Over the last couple of years, the Keep Coming Back series has evolved into a repository of news stories about crimes committed by AA members.
Alcoholics Anonymous actively forges an alliance with the court system and has been doing so for years. They even have a pamphlet encouraging members to 12 Step (recruit) in the justice system which instructs members on the mental gymnastics of playing fast and loose with the traditions in order to justify having people sent to AA against their will. The resulting alliance has been mutually copacetic: AA keeps its rooms full and the courts shunt some of the burden away from their overcrowded jails.
While AA and the courts have developed a perfectly symbiotic thing, the results have been a disaster for vulnerable alcoholics, addicts, the mentally ill, and other unwitting people who wander into the rooms looking for help from this trusted organization, including children. Judges regularly mandate AA for criminals who were brought before the court for violent crimes, domestic abuse, sexual predation, financial predation, even child molestation. And criminals who seek to mitigate their sentencing are often successful if they can convince the judge that they have turned their lives around by attending AA meetings. (“Judge, I may have stabbed that guy in the head, but I’ve changed! I realize that I have a disease and I’m going to AA now!).
So, there’s a couple of problems right there. While Ann Landers is telling you to stage an intervention and send your teenage daughter to AA, some judge is sentencing a domestic abuser to the same meeting. AA’s membership numbers depends on court orders — which means that many of the people in the rooms have problems that are well outside the scope of AA to handle.
But wait, there’s more!
Alcoholics Anonymous prides itself on being a leaderless organization of anonymous people, which means that no one’s in charge; there’s no oversight or accountability; no system of checks and balances; no way of screening people who want to sponsor other people. And, all of these people are anonymous. A court mandated sexual offender can walk into a meeting without anyone having to know. In fact, a sexual predator could walk into a meeting, too, and just bask, anonymously, in the vast array of vulnerability and brokenness.
If that were not bad enough, AA’s own teachings — the steps, the slogans, the protocol — encourage people to believe that they are powerless and that if they are victimized in any way, the spiritually sober thing to do is to look at their part in their own victimization: what did they do to bring it on? It teaches them that anger and resentment are the gateway to relapse and members are chided for expressing anger or harboring resentment.
Add to this the mini-hierarchies that AA fosters within the rooms — through sponsorship and the veneration of old-timers, for instance. People become overly involved in each other’s private lives, listening to their confessions and secrets — even sharing their “sexual inventories” — becoming involved in their personal decisions, sometimes to the point of overriding doctors’ orders.
If someone charged me with concocting a social scenario that would foster abuse, I couldn’t come up with a better recipe.
The stories in the Keep Coming Back series highlight the abuses and crimes that occur in and around AA and the way AA is used as a dumping ground for criminals and people who need professional mental health care. We find a few of these stories a week, and it’s only by chance that reporters include the AA connection — usually for the sake of the ironic twist. But, Alcoholics Anonymous has a relationship with the media, and uses the tradition of anonymity to encourage news outlets to honor it. The more Keep Coming Back stories we find, the more we wonder how many have gone unreported, especially since AA requests and has received special pleading from the media. Is there any other organization — even the Catholic Church, for instance — that is allowed to dictate to the media how it is covered?
Here are a few lines from AA’s open letter to the media:
Anonymity Letter to Media
General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous
A NOTE OF THANKS – A REQUEST FOR CONTINUED COOPERATION
From time to time we write our public media friends to thank them for helping us observe our long-standing tradition of anonymity for members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
First, let us express our deep gratitude to you. [snip] The public media has been a vital part of this effort, and today we estimate that there are more than 2 million successfully recovering members of Alcoholics Anonymous in more than 180 countries.
Second, we respectfully request that you continue to cooperate with us in maintaining the anonymity of A.A. members. The principle of anonymity is a basic tenet of our fellowship. [snip] If an A.A member is identified in the media, we ask that you please use first names only (e.g., Bob S. or Alice F.) and that you not use photographs or electronic images in which members’ faces may be recognized.
Again, we thank you for your continued cooperation. [snip]
Public Information Committee of Alcoholics Anonymous
[Emphasis is mine.]
Not only does AA get a pass in the media, but AA’s cohort, the criminal justice system, is rife with people who are invested in the program. Either they are members themselves or they make money off 12-Step treatment, which always uses AA as aftercare. A few months ago, Speedy wrote a few comments teasing out the fruitlessness of bringing some sort of legal action against AA, and our resident AA scold, JD, responded to the idea thus:
I’m just glad you’re just talking about suing the bad AAs instead of talking firebombs.
Great idea, though Speedy is right on about some of the difficulties that make it a silly course of action that no worthwhile mouthpiece would consider taking on in a million years. It would give them something to laugh with the buddies at lunch though, so you’d at least be accomplishing more than chewing through the same old drivel daily.
You do have some idea how many judges and lawyers are solid AAs, right? They are a firewall against this kind of thing. And the members in all the media. Plenty more in government than you can imagine. Plenty in the medical and all science professions, lots of people highly placed throughout business, ect. Like any facinated groupies you keep track of entertainers, but there are a ton you’ve no clue about.
All very willing to counter any fantasies you’d like to bring into court.
[JD is concerned about being selectively edited, so please be sure to note that I have linked to the comments in question and the whole discussion is available to provide the full context.]
Keep Coming Back is updated regularly with new stories, so keep coming back. I hope that this archive will make it clear that AA’s policy of anonymity is at best anachronistic. But at this point it serves more to protect this organization from oversight and accountability. If it protects anyone anymore it’s AA as an organization. It shields them from scrutiny while leaving vulnerable people without recourse. AA claims that it must honor its tradition of anonymity, but by building this alliance with the courts, AA is breaking the very tradition it claims to be upholding. The second half of the 11th tradition is about maintaining anonymity, “we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.” But the first half of this tradition reads: “our public relations policy is based on attraction, not promotion.” I suppose you could read that as “Thou shalt not advertise,” but to my mind, there’s only a small difference between putting up a billboard and meeting personally with court officials to encourage them to sentence people to attend AA meetings. (The difference, of course, is that the face-to-face meeting is more of a classic hard sell– think Amway.)
AA’s 3rd tradition has to do with membership. It begins, “Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover.” The updated version reads, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” It seems that the spirit of this tradition, the heart of AA, is that its members are willing — that they have a desire. Why would AA allow the survival of its organization to depend upon the forced participation that the coerced simply don’t qualify for, according to its own tradition? It may very well be that there are some court-mandated attendees who genuinely wish to quit drinking. But the predictable result of AA’s alliance with the courts is that people, whose primary problem is that they’re violent or predatory, end up in the rooms among those vulnerable people who genuinely believe that they are trusting themselves to a righteous organization. AA is deliberately violating its 3rd tradition at the expense of its honest members (who are instructed to trust the group because they cannot trust their own alcoholic thinking). And, again, AA is relying on its tradition of anonymity to shield itself from the results of its aggressive disregard of its own traditions about membership, affiliation, and attraction.
I worry that making Keep Coming Back more publicly accessible will inspire a campaign to squelch the kinds of stories we dig up. As it is, most media outlets regularly publish paeans to AA as filler. My hope, however, is that KCB will become a resource for people who are fighting forced AA — whether by the courts or family interventions. I hope it will alarm the cultural icons who believe they’re doing a great, no-brainer public service by advising people to attend AA. Maybe people in policy-making positions will start looking into AA more keenly. Perhaps judges who send teens to AA will realize that their colleagues are sending domestic abusers there, too. I also hope people in the media see this and start thinking twice about honoring AA’s demand that it be protected from scrutiny.
The comments section below is mostly a free-for-all, not to be confused with the KCB Archive.