Over the past 15 years, there has been a rising tide of criticism of Alcoholics Anonymous. Earlier criticisms (e.g., Stanton Peele's The Meaning of Addiction) focused on the divergence between the scientific evidence on alcoholism and addiction and what AA front groups, such as the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the American Society of Addiction Medicine, present to the public as "science." Chaz Bufe dared to question whether Alcoholics Anonymous was a cult in Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? For the first time since the 1960s , critical articles began appearing in the print media. And numerous alternative organizations appeared, including Women for Sobriety, Rational Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, and SMART Recovery. In this rising tide of direct and indirect criticism of the Step groups, one thing that has been lacking is an anthology of personal experiences -- individuals' stories of manipulation, abandonment, and betrayal at the hands of those who have been touted as holding the one and only answer to drinking and drug problems.
The reformer and activist who has met the need for such an anthology, Rebecca Fransway, was an AA member for many years and has her own 12-step horror story to tell, not just inside AA, but also outside AA. After leaving AA and doing not just better but extremely well, she began speaking out on addictions issues, both through a university TV station and on the Internet. To say she was not warmly received by 12-steppers is putting it mildly.
A small number of groupers (12-steppers), not limiting themselves to the usual threats and personal attacks, began a campaign of menace, intimidation, and attempts to get her fired from her job. They even went so far as setting up a web site and Usenet newsgroup, not for the purpose of arguing against the points she made, but rather to ridicule her. Their vendetta against this grandmother was the result of her insisting that people follow medical advice (rather than advice from 12-steppers) for the treatment of depression, for suggesting that the 12-step approach isn't the only way to resolve an alcohol/addiction problem, and for pointing out the inherent hypocrisy and inconsistencies in the 12-step "program." Rebecca has shown great courage in refusing to knuckle under to this pressure. The latest result of her work is this collection of personal experiences from scores of individuals who became caught up in step mania.
These stories are not what one would ordinarily expect from people "in recovery." They are not the Wednesday-night-prayer-meeting-type witnessing typical of AA meetings and of AA members who speak to us in the media behind the mask of "anonymity"; and they are not the glowing testimonials found in AA's "Big Book." While a number of those represented here are still members of 12-step groups, their tales are more similar to the stories of those who have been betrayed by the leaders and congregations of their churches than they are to the usual tent-revival-like tales of wreck and ruin followed by salvation via Alcoholics Anonymous.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about this collection of stories is that these accounts aren't a collection of rarities; rather, these stories illustrate the common results of what happens when desperate people go to what they believe is a source of help and are indoctrinated to distrust themselves, to believe that they are "powerless" and to believe that their own defenses -- their anger, insight, and reason -- are their enemy.
At the time I wrote this introduction, The Guardian, an English newspaper, reported that:
Vulnerable alcoholics seeking help for their addiction are being subjected to sexual and other abuse at the hands of long-serving volunteers from the world's largest alcohol support group. An internal memorandum circulated to every Alcoholics Anonymous group in the country reveals that volunteer members are increasingly being investigated by police forces examining allegations of sexual abuse.
It's of great interest that while knowledge of such abuse has been common in 12-step groups for decades, AA chose to address it -- and not publicly -- only after it came to the attention of the police.
Similarly, after the data in AA's own triennial membership surveys showed that only a tiny percentage of people with drinking problems "keep coming back" to meetings and that only some of them manage to remain abstinent, AA responded only with an internal report from which no action flowed; and when researchers became aware of the internal report ("Comments on A.A.'s Triennial Surveys") and made public reference to it, AA responded by refusing to release any further copies of it, and by refusing researchers access to the raw data from AA's surveys.
Clearly, one cannot look to AA to put its own house in order.
One hopes that the stories that appear in this book will lend many additional individuals the courage to speak up. One hopes that these stories will draw attention to the very serious problems that AA has attempted (successfully, so far) to sweep under the rug. While reform is not to be expected from within 12-step groups, one now hopes -- even expects -- that it will come from without. Through this book, Rebecca Fransway is doing a great service to those who are considering joining or are being forced into the step groups; this collection of stories will reveal to them that "the loving hand of AA" is often quite different from its wall-poster image.
The gift that Rebecca and the scores of personal accounts in this book offer is the knowledge that, no, you are not crazy; no, you are not alone, and yes, there is life after leaving the step groups.