Although I have never been a member of an Alcoholics Anonymous group, I have participated in a few “open meetings” (where non-members can attend) and each one has been inspiring in its own way. The best one was held in a park in Cluj — the meeting room was closed — where six of us sat on old tin cans and bits of wood and shared our stories from that week. There was a great feeling of camaraderie (or community) among them.
What particularly impresses me about AA, and all the different types of 12 step groups that have emerged, is that thousands of meetings take place every day, all over the world. Under normal circumstances, in other words if all these meetings were being coordinated by some central organisation, the result would be a big bureaucracy and all the problems that come with organisations that are too big. (Associations and charities are as susceptible to this problem as companies and government departments are. I’ve seen how ineffective international humanitarian agencies can be in crisis zones, while the public back home are peddled a wonderful success story by the PR people.)
AA manage to avoid all the problems of big organisations (including the risk of becoming a cult, with secretive finances and a dubious leader) by the methodology of their meetings, which is so brilliant and simple that it is still going strong over 70 years since it was started. People who set up AA groups don’t have to fundraise for head office, they are told not to promote themselves (they believe in “attraction not promotion”, i.e. word of mouth), they usually get a free space from a local church and their only costs are coffee. Each AA group is totally autonomous and their only obligation to the AA movement is to follow the guidelines of how to run a meeting and how to “work” the 12 steps. This is the ideal way to avoid the buildup of a corrosive bureaucracy.
The only problem with this structure is that there is no quality control, no assessors travelling around making sure that each group follows the rules. I see this as an advantage as the problem with monitoring a vast organisation is that you end up like the Department for Education where each school inspection becomes a high stress (and sometimes political) event. But it does mean that some meetings are “bad”; some meetings are spoiled by disruptive people and poor leadership. That is one of the risks of this type of organisation, but it’s a risk worth taking as you can easily “walk” if you don’t like your local meeting.
Unfortunately this “weakness” is what many outsiders focus on. If you go to Youtube you can see thousands of videos which are highly critical of AA and 12 step groups, and it seems to be trendy to be critical and sneering about AA. A good example is The Fix, one of the best online magazines about addiction, a place where AA is really understood and appreciated. But they feel the need to go with the trend and display a “cool” level of cynicism towards AA. This article is quite positive about AA (“in AA amazing things can happen”) but they felt the need to pander to their audience by giving the article a sensationalist title “The Calm at the Centre of the AA Storm”. (What “storm” they are referring to is not made clear in the article.)
For a long time I have felt that AA is given a bad rap generally (and I admire them for not sinking to the level of their critics by answering back), but until recently I didn’t know what to do about it. Then I read an astounding book by an American psychiatrist called M.Scott Peck and I was so inspired by the positive things he wrote about AA (for example, alcoholism is a “sacred disease”) that I wrote an article about it for Huffington Post.
I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in Huffington Post but I would like to share with you its last paragraph:
Peck concludes his chapter on alcoholism (in Further Along the Road Less Travelled) with this bold statement: “I believe the greatest positive event of the twentieth century occurred in Akron, Ohio, on June 10, 1935, when Bill W and Dr. Bob convened the first AA meeting. It was not only the beginning of the self-help movement and the beginning of the integration of science and spirituality at a grass-roots level, but also the beginning of the community movement.”
Scott Peck was 69 when he died in 2005. Click here to see his obituary in Click here to see his obituary in the Washington Post.
Rupert Wolfe Murray represents Castle Craig rehab clinic in Romania.