Horror Stories
True Tales of Misery, Betrayal and Abuse in NA, AA and 12-Step Treatment

Rebecca Fransway
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This book is here courtesy of See Sharp Press and Rebecca Fransway, Ed.

16. Ginger
Big Book Cult

I think "soul rape" is a good way to describe it. During my voluntary participation in the steps, I felt the effects of maybe not "forceable soul rape," but perhaps "soul statutory rape," or "soul brutalization" in a fanatical Big Book cult, the head sponsor being an AA member named Miguel.

Members of our intense little group spent many self-centered conversations tracing our spiritual lineage back to Miguel and his sponsor, an ex-Jesuit priest and homosexual, Dodd T. Whenever either one of them was in town, they would stay in their sponsee's homes, room and board free. Sponsees grateful to Miguel for their sobriety also contributed cash for his expenses. The most spiritual way to contribute cash was to send it anonymously. But then Miguel would not know of your good deed. I didn't care. It put joy in my heart to secretly send Miguel money. He would mention sometimes that "money from God" came in the mail, and I would feel like I had a connection with God, who was using me along with others to take care of Miguel.

The Big Book cults flourishing on the West Coast are based on an invention of Miguel's -- the "Big Book study." The Big Book study usually takes place in someone's home. Newcomers who come to AA or NA meetings are invited. The Book study cultists do not recognize a separation between AA and NA members. As far as they are concerned, addiction to drugs and alcohol are the same "malady." We were told that Jimmy K., the first NA member, got clean from taking the AA Big Book, crossing out the word "alcohol," and substituting "heroin." Then he just followed the rest of the directions.

The study is given in a series, so that a newcomer can work the steps along with the book study. This type of book study, unlike a regular meeting, is taught by one person. The teacher/sponsor takes the group through the book, line by line. Using this method, it takes about 12 weekly three-hour meetings to go through the first six chapters of the Big Book. Later chapters are taught separately, and only to those who have done their fifth steps. These book studies spread from Sacramento to surrounding areas. Miguel also had a fairly large cult going near Albuquerque, new Mexico, and many, many of his sponsees moved to other towns and started Book studies. The woman who heard my second fifth step (I was told I had not done it correctly the first time) conducted her own studies, and moved to Pennsylvania, starting the Book studies there.

The attitude of the rest of the fellowship toward Big Book studies is usually one of disapproval. That's because quite often those who get sober via the Big Book study will go to regular meetings and tell everyone there they aren't truly sober because they didn't work the steps according to the instructions in the Big Book. However, sometimes the Big Book studies become so popular that the voice of the local fellowship will change, and become much more fundamentalist. This can happen very quickly, since Big Book cultists are much more likely than average AA members to accept secretaryships, and secretaries are the ones who pick the speakers for the meetings. When I was a secretary, I picked mainly other Big Book cultists to speak. Often, the meetings become battlegrounds between this Big Book mafia and the more liberal members of AA.

I once asked Miguel how he got the idea for Big Book studies. He told me that he listened once to Joe and Charlie, AA speakers who go to conventions and explicate the Book. (Joe-and-Charlie tapes can be ordered from online AA groups.) He said his Book study grew from theirs. I've heard the Joe-and-Charlie tapes. Miguel's study is much more intensive and detailed.

In the Book studies, newcomers are taught, as per "The Doctor's Opinion" foreword in the Big Book, that real alcoholics and addicts are allergic to alcohol, and to use even a little on the skin in perfumes, deodorants, makeup, cleaning products, etc, is to tempt the "phenomenon of craving" that results from contact with alcohol. Miguel also claimed that middle-of-the-road AA is not working the program as intended; its members are not doing thorough fifth steps, daily tenth steps, or working with others as God via Bill W. intended. This reasoning appealed to the resentments of many of us who had been ignored by the AA elite, and who had trouble getting sponsors. In the Big Book cults, one never wanted for a sponsor, as having many sponsees is a desirable status symbol in this cult.

In the Big Book study groups, the 12 steps are practiced by strictly adhering to the Big Book instructions. Third steps are to take place saying the exact prayer on page 63 aloud, with someone else. Moral inventories are enormous analyses of past "selfishness" that fill entire notebooks, and fifth steps take at least entire weekends.

Those who get the most approval and are considered to be the most spiritual are those who spend all their free time in 12-step work. It is even justifiable to stay on welfare or SSI in order to preach at AA meetings, give Big Book studies, listen to fifth steps or tenth steps, allow newcomers to detox in homes, and all the other activities approved by this particular culture, or by Miguel.

The goal of the steps is to have a spiritual experience. Yes -- conscious contact with God, was the desired and expected result. If you haven't had a momentous spiritual experience, you must have left something out. One woman, Kay, who is still conducting Big Book studies in Buena, California, told of being lifted from her bed and levitated by God.

The only valid experiences are those had by newcomers part way through the ninth step, just as promised in the Big Book. Sponsees who come in still drinking or freshly detoxed by claiming spiritual experiences are discounted. It wasn't enough to get you sober, was it?, I remember saying to one sponsee, whom I had considered to be pitifully deluded. It was only those who did the work who got the results, according to Miguel.

Thinking that one has a direct line to God because of one's own hard work can cause a lot of problems. So can feeling pressed to confess every little incident one feels guilty about in order to maintain that contact. If one did not practice these confessions, or tenth steps, on a regular basis, the channel to God would get clogged up. The recovered alcoholic would lose his conscious contact, drink again, and maybe die. These confessions would sometimes become ridiculously embarrassing. A couple of men in the Big Book cult confessed to me that they were coming over to be worked with because they had a crush on me. Another man admitted that while making two sandwiches, one for himself and another for me, that he put the biggest piece of ham in his own sandwich.

The most inane tenth steps were confessed lies. I would have an interaction with someone, then go back home and think about what was said. Sometimes it would come up in my mind that I had lied about a motive, a reason for doing something, or how I did it. I once confessed to my sponsor, John, that I'd lied about a dream I'd had about him. Later, when I thought more about it, I realized I had not lied at all. Then I was confronted with this ridiculous question: should I tell him I had not lied at all, or should I just let it rest? Sometimes we'd call each other back and forth all day with silliness like that. To us it was very serious. All character defects and wrongs -- selfishness, dishonesty, self-seeking, and fear, had to be admitted to another human being as per step ten. Any lies had to be "amended" -- admitting to the one lied to that you lied. I once confessed a lie to a store clerk, whom I had told I didn't want some socks. I went back and told her I had wanted them, but could not afford to pay for them.

Sometimes making amends could make a situation much worse. One type of amends that can be very destructive is described on page 77 of the Big Book, at the end of paragraph two:

The question of how to approach the man we hated will arise. It may be he has done more harm than we have done him and, though we may have acquired a better attitude toward him, we are still not too keen about admitting our faults. Nevertheless, with a person we dislike, we take the bit in our teeth. It is harder to go to an enemy than to a friend, but we find it much more beneficial to us. We go to him in a helpful and forgiving spirit, confessing our former ill feeling and expressing our regret.

The problem here is that the person you think you hated probably does not want to hear about it -- I certainly didn't. Yet I have had two people in this cult come up to me out of the blue and admit, I've had ill feelings about you and I regret them. I would get such a terrible, sinking feeling, knowing I had been secretly hated. There was one woman, a former sponsee, who particularly hurt me with this amends. Toward the end of my sojourn in the Big Book cult, I began to speak out against their ways, saying I thought some of the stuff was unhealthy. Verna, who had been my sponsee, asked me about the "hate" amends. I told her the point of amends is to repair damage, that there was no reason to make amends to someone you had not hurt, and that she didn't have to go around making amends to people just because she disliked or hated them. I also told her other things that I thought were wrong with the cult. Then I didn't see her for awhile.

Apparently she'd been sticking with the cult and going to the Big Book gurus for spiritual advice. I would call her from time to time and ask her how she was doing, thinking everything was fine between us. Then one Christmas she came over with a nice card and a little present.. She gave me a hug and told me, "There's something I have to tell you. I've had ill feelings about you, and I regret them. I felt like I'd been slugged in the stomach. I was depressed anyway, due to untreated, clinical depression that was slowly getting worse, thanks to the programming I have been describing.

A lot of women fell in love with Miguel. I had fallen in love with him too, and for awhile that really kept me going. "Love" raises the endorphins and gets people to do the most amazingly foolish things. Miguel was always available to talk, and a woman would get the feeling that he could stare into her soul and know her fully. As assertive top dog in any Book study, and having that charismatic I know what I'm talking about aura, he would make offhand comments in the groups that showed who had won his approval and who hadn't. I remember an aging womanfriend of mine (who I know secretly loved Miguel) making an innocent comment at one of Miguel's book studies. Miguel looked at her coldly. That's either honest, or it's not, he said, thereby calling into question her honesty. To Miguel, spirituality had a direct relation to "rigorous honesty." Funny thing about spirituality -- it was usually the youngest, prettiest women who were often approved of as "the most honest" and so forth.

Many men loved Miguel too, and many of them as well as some women began to act and sound just like him. While giving their own Big Book studies, they'd take on many of his mannerisms and voice inflections. I told my weekend-long fifth step to a woman who not only sounded like Miguel, but also looked somewhat like him -- a smaller, feminine version of Miguel. She confessed to me that she loved Miguel too. The "love" women, and men, would feel for Miguel was obvious but never widely spoken of except in the cloistered arena of a fifth step or tenth step. And though I too was wholly in love with Miguel for awhile, I was afraid of him, of saying something that might show I was spiritually unfit in some way. Although I'd loved Miguel, I'd never spent any time alone with him, except on the phone. I really believed I had a spiritual link with him, and that I could tell, with my step 11-promised sixth sense (Big Book, page 85), when he was coming to town and what he would need.

It's funny how you can think you love someone and yet fear him deeply at the same time. I was terrified of Miguel's disapproval. I felt that I could barely even talk to him, for fear of his disapproval of some inept thing I might say to expose myself as unspiritual. There was a certain way the spiritually fit had to talk. If you said "I" too much, or talked about your life, that was self-centered. If you complained about something, you were angry and in need of a moral inventory and a confession. Talking about something you liked was "ego." The only time it was okay to complain was if you were complaining about your own defects. If you talked about what others were doing, that was gossip. The only really safe topic was to talk about how to be of service, or to ask questions, or give advice about the spiritual needs of sponsees. Sometimes when Miguel was in a room full of people, I could sense tension and fear so thick it felt like you could cut it with scissors. The presence of my own sponsor, John, who in turn was a sponsee of Miguel's, would make that even worse, since John was quite verbally abusive. No one could relax until he left the room. yet in between spurts of loving Miguel, I loved John with all my heart too, in spite of the fact that he once told me I was selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and frightened, and had been that way since the day I was born. He also, in a meeting, called me a small-town slut. He treated all his sponsees that way, though, so I felt part of the family. He's tough, but he's a good sponsor, people would say. Anyway, most of the time, I was quite willing to find and admit my own defects.

After making a habit of finding defects, it was easy to realize that nearly everything one does is based in selfishness of fear. In fact, one of the most celebrated lieutenants in this Big Book cult, a man privileged to be one of Miguel's first sponsees, wrote a list of things people might find themselves doing or saying that showed their defects. He would pass it around to sponsees as a daily 10th-step check. Here are a few examples from the chart: "Resentment, dishonesty, selfishness, fear, arguments/discussions, melodrama, worry, 'don't like' something, lies, anxiety, self-concern, annoyed, crocodile tears, asserting 'rights,' speeding, retaliating, feigned interest, trips, criticizing, restless, sugar-coating, TV, unresolved 'issues,' boredom," etc. The list went on and on. After looking at even part of it, it is fairly easy to see how totally defective one is. You can hardly draw a breath without being selfish!

One of the worst aspects of the Big Book cults is the disapproval of psychiatric and pain medications. Big Book thumpers routinely went off meds or bravely refused codeine after trips to the dentist. One woman I know went off her Stelazine (a medication to control the hallucinations of schizophrenia). She had been told by Miguel that her visions were from God and that she could learn to live with them.

She tried, but some of them were so scary she ended up shunned by most of the group for being unhappy all the time. She eventually ended up drunk. While a member of the Big Book cult, I should have been treated for depression, which would have helped a lot of the obsessive thought and resentments I was having, resentments that I was foolishly treating with continued confessions and amends. This type of repressed anger and self-humiliation became a vicious cycle. By the time I left the Big Book cult, I was suicidal.

Throughout most of my three years with the Big Book cult, I had made little progress toward having a regular life. I'd taken cleaning jobs to barely support myself, and rented rooms where I held, of course, Big Book studies. I was praised widely among the Big Book crowd for my spirituality, my willingness to work with anybody, my lack of materialism, I would spend entire afternoons and weekends listening to fifth steps. I had many sponsees, but no car. I rode my bike around town. Unfortunately, I could not easily get to out-of-town meetings by bike. At the same time, I slowly began to notice that those who preached Big Book recovery were not always working the program themselves. Once I learned that a young man John and I co-sponsored was going to speak at a speaker's meeting out of town. I asked John if I and my new sponsee could ride along with him to the meeting. He was supposed to call and let me know. He never did. Finally, at the last minute, a sponsee of his, with this ugly job thrust upon him, called. There was no room in the car for me. Some of the younger women, who had nice clothes and their own cars, and who could afford trips to the beauty parlor because they worked full-time, were being taken. There was no room for my chubby sponsee and I.

I also noticed these other prettier but less spiritual women were getting laid, and I wasn't, not in the Big Book cult, anyway. Of course, I had a good dating life among the much less spiritual guys who liked to talk about themselves and who had other blatant character defects. Being a good listener, quiet and undemanding, acting happy all the time, and more than willing to cook for them, the less spiritual guys thought I was the greatest! But really, I was mainly dating them to lure them into the cult. Yes, I was willing to get laid for God! How I wanted a Big Book guru -- one of those guys who was completely recovered and knew what he was talking about! I wanted to be a Big Book mistress -- perhaps have Miguel himself move in (or if not Miguel, my own sponsor, John, would do) and together we would construct a Big Book study empire -- just like the house Bill W. describes in the chapter, A Vision for You. I would be the eternal Big Book goddess -- cooking food and dispensing spiritual pearls for the pitiful newcomers who came our way. But in spite of having many friends and men to date, I was lonely. It seemed like all the Big Book dons were going after young, voluptuous women or more mature women with nice homes, jobs, cars, workout clubs, and clothes. And some of them were dating several of these women at once, which occasionally caused a "Big Book scandal."

In one such scandal, one of the Big Book lieutenants -- the same one who wrote the tenth-step guide, above -- was found to be 13th-stepping about three women at once, all of whom knew each other. One was a newcomer with less than three months, who was a beautiful but very emotionally disturbed 19 year old. The news got around after she did a confession of her part -- she wanted love -- and a flock of angry women showed up at the "sex inventory" section of his Big Book study and just sat and stared at him.

As a result of this mass criticism, the whole group was castigated for "gossip" by Miguel. It seems he had found himself in a similar situation in Albuquerque, and so he empathized with his spiritual son. Gossip was the problem. If it hadn't been for gossip, no one would have known the fox was grabbing the most delectable morsels from the hen house.

On another occasion, Miguel's sponsor, Dodd T., came to town. I invited him to dinner a couple of times and introduced him to my friends, some of whom he would work with. Once I walked into my living room, and there was Dodd, with a gay friend of mine, Petey, sitting on his lap. He's my spiritual granpa, Petey said. It soon became apparent that the people Dodd wanted most to work with were the younger, better-looking males. He seemed not to have much patience with women. In fact, I think he hated women. He once said that spirituality is passed from men to women, because men, being more honest, were more spiritual.

One day my friend Andy came over brooding after having spent the day with Dodd T. Andy seemed to have a lot of problems. He had been sober for six years, but was often disturbed, depressed, or just quiet. I asked what he thought of Dodd T. Did he think Dodd could help him. He said, No, he didn't help me. I think he wanted to suck my cock. I don't known why I was shocked, but I was. Later, after Dodd T. left town, some other members of the Big Book mafia attempted to help my friend, Andy.

I had been close to Andy since coming into AA. We had both been English majors and we hung out together a lot. For awhile, I had quite a crush on him because he was a kind, good looking man who played the guitar very well, and he was nice to me. Eventually, though, he went off to France. Meantime, I got caught up with the Big Book mafia. When Andy came back from France, he got involved with a woman he'd met out of town. He fell in love. She got pregnant, then dumped him. He was heartbroken. He became more and more depressed. He also confided to me that he was deeply disturbed by a scene in the movie, Misery where Kathy Bates bashes the feet of a helpless captive male so he can't get away from her "loving care." Andy'd had obsessions about that scene ever since he'd watched the movie. I should never have watched that scene, he would mutter, with his hands to his forehead. Now, of course, I realize that Andy was beyond the help of AA, and that he needed a therapist and possibly psychiatric care. I doubt a single AA member recommended that to him, though. He would go to daily meetings and talk about how he felt, but that didn't seem to help him.

One night Andy and I were out biking, as we often did, having coffee downtown and going on small-town adventures. For the first time, Andy took me back to the house where he rented a room, and we had sex. I cared for Andy in a more friendly, settled-down way by then, and I hoped that this new path in our relationship would help snap him out of the depression over the woman who had rejected him. I would be disappointed. After that, Andy avoided me for a few days. I was a little disturbed, so I confessed my part of the incident to my male Big Book mafia sponsor, John. Later, I made amends to Andy by letting him off the hook. I ran into him downtown and said, Hey, don't worry about the other night. Let's just be friends like we always have been. Andy seemed quite relieved. He was still very much in love with his old girlfriend, and I think he'd hoped sex with me would help.

Later, Andy called me and was all upset about his old girlfriend. He'd called her on the phone, and she'd hung up on him. He told me he thought she started hating him when she found out he had genital herpes. And he was having an outbreak now. When Andy told me this, my stomach sunk. We'd had unprotected sex only a little over two weeks before. Was this Andy's way of telling me I was exposed? I thought that was pretty lame, but I knew it would be unspiritual to be angry. I just looked at my part. I'd had unprotected sex hoping to help someone. Hmmm, not good enough. I'd had unprotected sex because I was lazy and wanted a man. There, that sounded more selfish and would be good enough for John. I called my sponsor and told him my inventory. (The real truth was quite innocent. I hadn't had sex for awhile, I cared about Andy, and as far as protection went, I trusted God. Foolish maybe, but not selfish or defective!) I also confessed fear that I might have herpes.

John gave me the number of a medical hotline. I called and learned that if I was going to break out with genital herpes, I would have already had symptoms. Oh, the relief I felt! I swore off unprotected sex. But by then, because of my tenth-step inventories, my sponsor, John, knew all about what was going on with Andy.

Since Andy hung around at my house a lot, another Big Book guru, Dirk, started preaching to him and driving him around town in his Jeep Explorer. Andy by this time was nearly helpless with despair, and willing to try anything. Dirk told Andy he was unhappy because he'd never "worked the program." He told him he might as well go out and drink. Dirk and some of the other thumpers, my sponsor John included, hammered at him about his faults. They told him he was selfish, dishonest, and frightened. They would take him to breakfast and tell him that . They told him he had to turn his will and his life over to the care of God and work an honest inventory, or he would drink and die.

Finally, Andy started drinking. After he started, Dirk actually took him to a bar, bought him a drink, and said, Go ahead, drink. Notice you are powerless to stop. Notice the phenomenon of craving. When you come back, if you live, you must turn your life and will over to the care of God.

Most sane people know, of course, that my friend should have fled AA, sought real mental health care, and, of course, not drank. But I think Andy was too far gone emotionally to have any idea of what he needed, or what options he had. I now believe this is a case where Big Book thumpers literally drove someone to drink.

Andy was soon drinking around the clock with another AA member who was drinking. My sponsor, John, laughed when he found out: What did I tell you, he gloated, he never did his sex inventory, and now he's drinking! John actually believed Andy was drinking because he'd had sex with me without telling me he had herpes! Eventually, Andy came over to my house wanting to stay and detox. He sobered up, then took off in his car. I heard he went up to the town where his pregnant ex-girlfriend was. Later I heard he was sober there, and that she was letting him visit the baby.

There are so many more true tales of folks spiritually abused in this group that it's difficult to know which to share.

One of my sponsees, Shelly, had been separated from her husband. She was half nuts from a serious detox, terribly lonely, and vulnerable -- like many newcomers to AA and NA. She became mesmerized by Dirk, the same Big Book thumper who drove Andy to drink. Dirk took Shelly under his wing. He would call her, give her spiritual advice, and drive her places. I warned her not to take his attentions seriously, that he took many newcomers out in his brand new Jeep Explorer, but she was mesmerized. She ended up giving him a blow job in the Jeep during one of their excursions, parked near a tomato field. He told her not to tell anyone. Afterward, he stopped calling her, and he began to ignore her at meetings.

Later, I could tell something was wrong with her. Shelly had been thrilled with sobriety, and now she was glum. It was easy to get the story out of her. When I called to confront Dirk, he blithely said they didn't go all the way.

This woman probably weighed less than 100 pounds. I don't think she held him at knife point and made him unzip his breeches. He accepted oral sex, told her to keep it a secret, and trashed her like an expired credit card. It's one thing to make a mistake, another to clean it up properly, which he didn't do and never has. He's still driving newcomer women around, showering them with attention, and they are still, vulnerable and lonely as they are, falling in love with him. People in the know gossip about it, but I am the only one who ever came close to calling him on it. Anyway, the consensus of the group was that she was a hot little number who couldn't keep her meathooks out of men's pants, and that there's nothing in the Big Book saying newcomers can't have sex with old-timers.

Anyway, turned off to AA, she's now out drinking again. Dirk is now bringing guru-type spiritual conventions to hotels in the wine country and the Sierras, charging money and preaching. Last I heard, he still has women from miles around coming to see him for his spiritual wisdom. A former sponsee of mine drives a couple hundred miles every week or so to spend an hour in the glow of his spirituality.

Wouldn't it have been nice if Shelly had been safe with the men of AA? And then, if she were determined to get laid and maybe hurt, let a bar-room pickup do it? What kind of liability would there be if a therapist had sent her to AA for this kind of treatment?

From five years in AA, this is only one of the many cases I know about. Multiply it by the tens of thousands of meetings, most of which have at least one predator-in-residence. Such scandals are not unusual, but rather regular occurrences, and have been for at least 60 years of AA's existence -- and everyone in AA knows it!

Once I realized how many people whose love and approval I longed for were breaking the same rules I was stringently keeping, I began to feel really screwed. I began to feel the amazing anger you sometimes see in people who feel they got spiritually raped in AA. At the time, I did not understand the strength and the righteousness of this rage. I kept taking inventory, finding my fault. Every time I did this, I transferred emotional investments into the sponsor or group. Of course some of it was my fault. I wanted love, approval, a group to belong to. But I also really believed I needed to take those actions, follow those directions to stay sober. For years, counselors had continually sent me to AA. Nevertheless, I had periodically become depressed, then drunk. When the capos of this Big Book mafia came along, paid attention to me, took me through the book and told me I had kept drinking because I hadn't "done it right," I believed them. What else could I think? No one in AA had any other answer, and the counselors kept sending me back to AA.

Anyway, my depression deepened, and as I began pointing out the hypocrisy of the Big Book mafia, I began to be shunned. I tried to get another sponsor from the less rigid part of the fellowship, but she turned out to be crazy. Still sober, but disgusted, I left AA altogether, after five years that had resulted in a sobriety filled with anger and despair.

Eventually, I had to get drunk to avoid sitting in front of a train on the railroad tracks out back of the old hotel I lived in. Actually, this turned out to be one of the best choices (of those I was capable of) that I could have made. Because if one thing will cut off your associations with AA members, drinking will. As far as many AA members are concerned, if you drank you "didn't try hard enough" or "left something out." One woman I'd been friends with for years, when she heard I drank, asked me, "What did you leave out?"

Thank goodness for information encouraging self-recovery. Without access to it, I don't know what might have happened to me. Fortunately, a friend of mine who had deprogrammed himself from the same Big Book group in the same way as I would, loaned me a copy of Jack Trimpey's The Small Book. Oh, how we laughed at the blasphemies therein! I spent three days of detox, that should have been miserable, pissing myself laughing. Everything that I needed to know about what had happened to me, and about what I needed to do, was right there.

I have now been sober on my own for three years. Its great to be sober and free!