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Republic, April 22, 1991
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Clean and Sober - And Agnostic
off by AA’s religious aspects, new groups
are leaving God out of their battle with the bottle
a recent Friday evening, a small group of recovering alcoholics
filed into the Couth Buzzard Used Books store, in Seattle
Wash., to talk about their struggles with "the beast."
"Haul your beast out of the cellar," group monitor
Jim Petermann urged one woman. "Beat up on her, confront
her. Then lock her back up. Beating up on your beast is
a serious tool."
beast battlers were members of Rational Recovery, (RR),
one of a growing number of self-help groups that have sprung
up in the past few years as alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Drawing heavily on A.A. defectors, these groups are mounting
a direct challenge to the older organization's cornerstone
l2-step program which calls on members to kick their addiction
by trusting a "higher power."
56-year-old, million member A.A. has come under increasing
criticism for what some see as the directly religious tilt
of its 12 steps, four of which specifically invoke "God.
" Some reluctant members of A.A. or similar groups
ordered to attend meetings after being convicted of drunk
driving have sued on the grounds of civil-rights violation.
"They were praying and talking about God half the time
at the meetings I went to," says John Norfolk, a Maryland
man who won a 1988 suit backed by the American Civil Liberties
disease. The newer groups, including RR, Secular
Organization for Sobriety (SOS) and Women for Sobriety (WFS),
lean more on willpower than on any higher power. Where A.A.
calls drinking a disease and urges members to acknowledge
their own helplessness against it, the alternative groups
emphasize taking personal responsibility for kicking the
habit. "We credit ourselves for achieving sobriety,"
says James Christopher, founder of SOS, the largest of the
groups, with an international membership of 20,000. "Some
people in SOS are quite religious, but they don't believe
in an intervening God who would come down and stir their
coffee for them."
also shuns the religious element. Founded in Lotus, Calif.,
five years ago by clinical social worker Jack Trimpey, the
organization has grown to holding meetings in more than
150 cities from a high of just 30 last year. It traces its
roots directly to the ideas of Albert Ellis and his New
York-based Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy. Ellis's
theories, formulated in the 1950s, blame emotional problems
on the distorted perceptions rather than inner conflict
- a view also held by practitioners of cognitive therapy.
Trimpey, himself an A.A. dropout, says RR tries to help
members recognize the sort of "crooked" thinking
that sets up impulse behavior. "The beast" is
what RR members are taught to call the irrational inner
voice that tells them it would be great to have a beer or
a tumbler of vodka with breakfast. To the RR way of thinking,
A.A.'s notion of "powerlessness" is another irrational
idea. "It perpetuates the addictive cycle,” says
Trimpey. "It says, 'I have no choice."' But RR
insists that choice is the essence of the drinking problem.
"You can pick up a container of beer and drink it without
somehow choosing to," Trimpy says.
some alcoholics, the appeal to forces within one's own control
simply works better. "The whole higher-power concept
just never did it for me," says Paul, a 45-year-old
Brockton, Mass., mechanic who bounced in and out of A.A.
for a dozen years before hooking up with a Boston-based
was like hocus-pocus, like magic. When I put my hand on
the door knob at the package store, I'd say, 'O.K., higher
power, where are you?"' With RR he has learned to think
differently. “Now I don't even get in my car to go
to the package store. I think it out (and) say, "I've
been there before. What's going to come of it?"'
of course doesn't discourage that kind of reasoning. But
it holds that alcoholics are never really cured of the "disease"
of drinking, and should attend meetings all their lives.
complain, A.A. simply substitutes one kind of dependency
for another. Jean Kirkpatrick, a sociologist and founder
of the 5,000 member Women for Sobriety, says that that presents
a particular problem for a woman, who is "already dependent
on alcohol, on her husband, on everything but herself."
In A.A., Kirkpatrick says, "she develops new dependencies,
on a sponsor, on a higher power, on going to meetings for
the rest of her life."
RR, Women for Sobriety has other ideas. Its own 13 steps
stress positive perceptions ("I am what I think")
and individual responsibility. Kirkpatrick, who founded
the group after A.A. failed to halt her own decades-long
bouts of alcoholism, says a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay on
“Self-Reliance" finally helped her realize that
by changing her thoughts she could change herself. WFS literature
tackles A.A. head-on, saying that the older group's "philosophy
is to turn over our will and our lives" while
WFS advocates "Taking Charge." A.A. puts "emphasis
on alcoholism," the literature continues; WFS emphasizes
organization justifies its single-sex approach on the ground
that women alcoholics have different psychological and emotional
needs from males. "We try to give women self-value,
self-esteem and self-confidence, which most of them don't
have," says Kirkpatrick. "Hopefully, this empowers
women." (In A.A., she notes,
members introduce themselves by saying, "my name is
X and I'm an alcoholic." WFS members say, "My
name is X and I'm a competent woman."')
off the criticisms, A.A. defenders insist that it doesn't
compel members to believe, literally, in a deity. In practice,
they say, religion plays a relatively minor role. "Realistically,
12-step people have never behaved as if they think the power
is outside themselves," says John Hopkins professor
George Bigelow, a psychologist who runs the schools substance-abuse
program." In fact, most of the steps deal with what
people themselves are going to do."
Undoubtedly, part of A.A.'s attraction is the release from
accountability implied to the appeal to higher forces. Calling
drinking a disease instead of a personal failure also seems
to help some people. "acknowledging an addictive disorder
as a disease has some of the same element of psychological
forgiveness as the confessional," says Bigelow. "
it says, 'It's a disease, it's not my fault."' A.A.
supporters also see nothing wrong with fostering dependency
on the group. "For some people, it's exactly what they
need," says Dr. Edward Khantzian, a psychiatrist at
the Danvers State and Cambridge Hospitals in Massachusetts.
"They need an antidote for the terrible, progressive
self-centeredness that develops with this addictive illness."
critics of A.A. acknowledge that it has worked for thousands
over its more than half a century of existence. Because
its operations are anonymous by definition, there is no
official count; but according to statistics, the organization
succeeds in keeping around 29 per cent of its members sober
for more than five years, a record considered enviable in
the field. The alternative groups will have to prove their
own staying power, but meanwhile there is surely room for
more than one approach. Indeed, one member of the Seattle
RR chapter also belongs to A.A., attending RR's Friday-evening
meetings and A.A.'s sunrise meetings on Saturday and Sunday.
“In A.A. I'm an alcoholic," he says. "In
RR I'm not. I have to remember what day it is." The
double allegiance is fine with RR's Peterman. "This
is an alternative," he says. "We're not trying
to replace A.A. If we help one more person that A.A. couldn't
help, then we've saved one more life."
Ann Leonard in New York
Fisher in Seattle
NEWSWEEK, July 8, 1991)