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.
It’s nice to sit down with a glass of wine and read your blog.
Self-help is a great concept, encouraging individuals to take responsibility up to the limit of what they can manage. Moreover it drives a healthy altruism based upon shared experience. It can be successful, as you note, without the need for bureaucracy. No wonder the meddlers, do-gooders and plain old autocrats are envious, therefore dismissive or even downright hostile.
There is no perfect organisation, and some are desperately flawed. AA isn’t perfect because, of course, there are imperfections that supervision might mitigate. But a more traditional hierarchical organisation stifles inovation and expression. I work for a fairly ordinary organisation where certain senior ‘blockers’ manage to hold back progress with a distressing tenacity. There are executives who cannot readily be challenged without career-limiting consequences. None of these faults are unusual, but it is good to avoid them.
The most serious mistake that AA could make is to believe that its model is the best one in perpetuity. It may need to evolve and, if so, must be ready. But that is hypothetical. It’s not the wrong model today.
A mistake that others may be making is to compare apples with oranges. A self-help organisation isn’t a doctor or a psychotherapist. Some people need one, some another. AA can’t do the work of an addiction therapist, but does it claim to? There are horses for courses. One can’t blame the Thoroughbred if he isn’t suited to pulling a plough, or the carthorse for being unable to showjump.
Thanks for that insight Julian
You give a new perspective to the story; how monitoring and control effects work practices.
I wonder if there is a company that operates like AA, with lots of totally autonomous units. Is it possible to be so laissez faire in business? The closest thing I can think of is network-marketing organisations like Nikken, but they give me the creeps as they tend to be a bit cult-ish (incidentally, Scott Pecks gives a useful definition of cults in Further Along the Road Less Travelled).