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Sobering Times for A.A.
culture clashes and global growth, the group turns 60
used to be a secret held close, known only to the sufferer’s
loved ones, and carrying a harsh social stigma. But anyone
walking the streets of downtown San Diego last weekend would
have seen little sign that any of the estimated 60,000 recovering
alcoholics and Al-Anon members attending the Alcoholics
Anonymous convention there were anything but loud and proud.
Celebrating the group’s 60th anniversary, participants
from 72 countries sporting first-name-only registration
badges flashed smiles and offered greetings to the people
they passed along the San Diego waterfront.
Clearly in its prime, the nation’s preeminent alcoholism-treatment
organization is also undergoing something of a mid-life
crisis. Though A.A. claims nearly 2 million members worldwide,
in the U.S. its growth has come at a cost. Founded in 1935
by New York stockbroker Bill Wilson and Ohio surgeon Bob
Smith, A.A. is no longer just a fellowship of down-and-out
men whose drinking has led them, in A.A. parlance, to “hit
bottom.” The veterans are being joined by younger
people-and women, gays and minorities-as well as by those
who are sent to A.A. as part of a court sentence. The newcomers
often bring an array of ancillary problems to meetings,
including emotional trauma and addiction to other drugs.
As the organization metamorphoses, its supporters wonder
whether A.A. can or should be such a big tent. “That’s
a real question,” says George Vaillant, professor
of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an expert on
A.A. “Where is the line? What is the responsible limit
At A.A. meetings everywhere-in church basements, on campuses
and in hospitals and prisons-certain basic principles hold.
Under a cloak of strict anonymity the “Drunk,”
to use a popular A.A. word, often admits his alcoholism
before the group, acknowledging that alcoholism is a disease
for which abstinence is the only answer. Most adherents
also believe they will never recover but instead will always
be “in recovery.” Though many who feel they
have been saved by A.A. cannot explain exactly how or why
A.A. works, they do believe they stay sober by helping others
stay sober too.
For some A.A. veterans, this role becomes complicated when
other kinds of highs are involved. Helen, a member for 21
years, recalls a young woman who told the group at a meeting
a few years ago that her biggest thrill had been going to
a “shooting gallery,” buying drugs and injecting
them. Hearing that, Helen told a friend that her biggest
thrill had been going to the cocktail lounge at New York
City’s Sherry Netherland Hotel because they had great
drinks and hot hors d’oeuvres. “The old-timers
are being driven away by not being able to identify with
the specifics of young people’s drug stories,”
agrees Peter, a six-year veteran. “The issue isn’t
getting more people into A.A. but keeping the ones we have.”
A number of younger members do not dispute that they are
in A.A. for different reasons. “I definitely think
there is a split,” says Rusty, 27, who has been in
the program eight years. “The difference is what it’s
like being sober between the ages of 19 and 27 instead of
coming in at 50 with a marriage, a job and a mortgage. I
don’t know a lifetime of disappointment and pain.
My friends who came in at 18 and 19 have had incredible
success. They get better jobs, and they move on. [Older
members make you ] feel you’re doing something wrong
to go for it. But it’s not their show anymore.”
And whether other members relate to her or not, Dezerie,
a 19-year-old from Pasadena, California, cares only that
A.A. works. “It’s the people and the spirit
at A.A.,” she says. “This is a place where I
come and I don’t feel alone anymore the way I used
to when I was drinking and doing drugs.”
A.A.’s fundamental principles are also coming in for
criticism. For some people, A.A.’s spiritual overtones
present problems. (Step Two of the famous Twelve Steps requires
recognizing “a Power greater than ourselves.”)
Rational Recovery, which began in 1986 as a secular alternative
to A.A., claims groups in some 600 cities around the country,
many of them filled with A.A. refugees. Other therapies,
such as Moderation Management, hold that for some problem
drinkers, abstinence from alcohol is not the answer.
A.A. has a longstanding policy of avoiding public debate.
But the loosely structured organization, administered by
a small staff in New York City and funded by donations and
book sales, continues to expand, and now has about 700,000
members outside the U.S. In some places, its uniquely American
flavor takes getting used to. “The first time I read
the Twelve Steps, I thought, ‘“This is pure
imperialism,’” says Slava, a Russian woman who
has been sober for more than five years. A South African
member who attended last weekend’s San Diego convention
said the only place there was no apartheid in South Africa
during that brutal regime was at A.A. meetings. In Poland
the first A.A. convention in 1984 attracted 27 groups from
across the country; there are now 940 groups. Professor
Wiktor Osiatynski, chairman of the Commission on Education
on Alcoholism in Warsaw’s Stefan Batory Foundation,
says A.A.’s rapid rise in Poland can largely be attributed
to the Solidarity trade-union movement. “Solidarity
was the first event in Poland’s history where people
began to realize that they could tackle their problems by
organizing themselves, instead of looking to their leaders,
to someone else, to solve their problems,” he says.
The ability of A.A, to thrive elsewhere in the world suggests
that the organization is adaptive enough to absorb all these
cultural shifts. For one thing, if a visitor does not like
one meeting, there is often another somewhere else nearby.
“People vote with their feet,” says Peter. “At
some point a lot of groups won’t be A.A. groups anymore.
I won’t be in those meetings.” Jim, a 30-year
veteran who is a partner in a top-flight Boston law firm,
remains sanguine. “Right from the beginning, A.A.
was a cross section that reflected what was happening in
society,” he says. “A.A. is strong enough to
Reported by Sam Allis / Boston, Sylvester Monroe / San Diego,
Tadeusz L. Kucharski / Warsaw, Jenifer Warner / Moscow.
Time, July 10, 1995)