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.

12. Tom
My AA Cult Experience

It's funny how it happened -- I overdosed on heroin. By some miracle I woke up, but I was paralyzed from the waist down, and I was handed my arrest papers while strapped to a backboard. I stayed in the hospital rather than jail. Paramedics thought I had broken my neck, though the doctors never did find out exactly what caused the paralysis. They think it might have been a small stroke, but I've never heard of anyone having a stroke from heroin. Eventually, slowly, I regained the use of my legs. I walk perfectly now.

But it was three months before I could make it to my arraignment. I could walk again by then, but with a limp. I was charged with felony possession of narcotics which, in my state, is a class C felony carrying a 7-15 year sentence. I would have been grateful for any way out of jail time. But in my state, the only way to escape jail sentences for drug-related crimes is to go to a state-run 12-step treatment program. My family had no insurance to pay for that. So it looked like jail for me.

But my lawyer intervened. He asked for a six-month continuance, which the DA agreed to. This would allow me to try a program my father knew about, at a place I will call Serenity Ridge. He knew the folks there because he had done some work helping them sell a recovery magazine they used to print. We called Serenity Ridge, and they said, Yes, bring him on up.

Serenity Ridge is in the middle of a rural area in the northeastern U.S., and spans several parcels that members' families own, property that covers the top of a small mountain. As you drive up the mountain you pass various houses, which at first I did not realize were inhabited by these member-families. Near the top of the ridge is the main house, which is called the Upper House, and where all the activities take place. It doubles as a guest house. About 500 feet away is a small trailer park, which is where I lived during most of my time there.

The Serenity Ridge Group was founded in the late 1960s by Tim T., as an AA group. Quickly, the group turned into a recovery center populated by hippies. As time went on, most of the hippies left, and Tim T. picked up more members during his travels through the southern U.S. These new members packed up their families and moved north to join Tim's group. Hence, many of the members in the group are now third generation -- their grandparents are the ones who joined. They themselves, and their parents, were born into the group.

This, of course, means that probably 60%-70% of the group never had a problem with any sort of addiction. Imagine an AA meeting with ages ranging from 80 down to 12, and all of those in attendance under age 40 never having had any addiction problem. They just inherited their membership in the fellowship from their parents! Also, keep in mind that the group lives together, and everyone donates a portion of their income to the group as a tithe.

Serenity Ridge used to promote itself as a state-approved treatment center. Sometime in the past they had been told they could not do that because they had no medical staff and no one with any formal psychiatric or psychological background worked there. And, apparently, many things had happened there no one wanted to discuss. By the time I arrived, the group had switched to being a religion, one where all male members are considered ministers who can perform the Eucharist. As such, they charged my family $30 a day.

It took only a few days for me to realize that Serenity Ridge was weird. That was when they informed me that twice a week I would have to drink a quarter cup of castor oil and follow it up four hours later with a one-quart enema. And once a week I would have to get up and drink a cup of lobelia tea -- an emetic that is poisonous in large quantities. I was to follow that up with a quart of water, then force myself to vomit. This was supposed to cleanse my system. Of course, these were only suggestions. But a lot of force was put behind them. My protestations resulted in two senior group members taking my inventory for about two hours straight.

The rules the group lives by are fanatical. They seem to put almost as much belief into the old Oxford Group stuff as the Big Book stuff. Ebby Thatcher is held in higher esteem than Bill W. (Tim claims to have know both of them.) The old Oxford Group "Four Absolutes" are still highly touted. [The "Absolutes" are purity, honesty, love, and unselfishness. -- ed.]

The "Four Absolutes" include, prominently, Absolute Purity sexual "purity." No sex is allowed outside of marriage. None. Nada. No masturbation, no birth control, period. Even marital sex relations are controlled. While I was there, married couples slept in separate rooms, and Tim decided who was to be married.

In fact, Tim's suggestions had the force of law. Most books and literature that people in the group read were approved by Tim first. We were totally cloistered. No newspapers, no television, no radios. no one was allowed to eat meat. Toothpaste with flouride was not to be used by members either. And no "normal" allopathic medicines were allowed at all.

I could go to a doctor if I got sick, but I was not allowed to take anything he prescribed for me. On one occasion, they took me to a doctor for asthma. He prescribed an inhaler for me. They sat and listened while he gave me the inhaler and explained how to use it. As soon as we got outside, they confiscated it. I also suffered through a couple of major sinus infections with no real medical help. The only medical help allowed at Serenity Ridge was the castor oil, lobelia with vomiting, enemas, and homeopathic remedies diluted with Everclear, which is nearly pure ethyl alcohol. The folks at Serenity Ridge purchased and diluted these remedies themselves. (More about that, soon!)

Children in the group were raised communally, with little outside contact with the rest of the world. They have rarely been exposed to other ideas. To me, that is a real tragedy. These kids know of no other way of life but the 12 steps taken to an extreme. Members' children do not go to public school -- the group runs its own school. Parents were expected and required to use corporal punishment if a child misbehaved. Child Protective Services has, in the past, been called in to remove children (including Tim's) from the community. At one point, Tim's oldest daughter and the daughter of another member called Child Protective Services and had the place investigated. CPS came and put both of the kids into foster care. There were allegations of sexual abuse, but these were unproven. I never saw any sexual abuse go on there. Since then, the case has gone to court. Both girls have done very poorly away from the group. Tim's daughter wound up coming back. The other girl was in and out of institutions the last I heard.

The worst treatment at Serenity Ridge is the constant emotional abuse. Hot seat sessions are common. They also call these sessions haircuts, a term which is also used at treatment centers. One member will have his inventory belligerently taken by four or five other group members for an hour or so. They often videotape these tongue lashing sessions and play them back. This is supposed to point out how the person was arrogant when they were correcting him, of how he didn't want to surrender his will, or how he was a perfect example of self will run riot. These sessions are classic cult-style ego busting. I've seen them do it to adults, I've seen them do it to children. The decisions as to who would be hot seated were arbitrary, although there seemed to be scapegoats.

There was one guy named Rudy, for instance. At a meeting, someone would accuse him of not paying attention (although it was clear to me that he was paying attention). Then everyone would start yelling at him, saying they were trying to help him, he was resenting them for it, and he needed to do a fourth step right then and there. Another time, there was a neighbor kid in the trailer park who got hot seated by four adults, all male. They surrounded him and began telling him he was arrogant, he needed to get humble, and he needed to start working the program better. This happened to a 12-year-old kid who was born there.

Meetings were held three or so times a week. These were supposed to be AA meetings, but most had little to do with recovery. The topics included The End Times, the importance of the Oxford Groups' Absolute Purity, in the sexual sense, the Mythology of the Holy Grail, Edgar Cayce, and Homeopathic Medicine vs. Regular Medicine. They also did what they called "Big Ten," which was, basically, a hot seat meeting that would go on for as long as 24 hours straight in order to crush any mental barriers one might be able to put up.

This sounds like just another nutball fringe group. But this guy, Tim T., claims to be running his group the way Bill Wilson intended AA to be run. That's not too far-fetched a claim, if you look at the Oxford Group, from whence AA came.

According to Tim T., drug guru Timothy Leary not only tried, but succeeded, in contacting Bill Wilson. Tim T. once told me that he, Wilson, and Leary drank Morning Glory seed tea, a hallucinogen, together on at least one occasion. Tim also claims to have co-authored 12 Steps and 12 Traditions with Bill W. Tim has written several books published in his own name, and I'm sure a linguist could figure out whether he did write some of the 12 & 12 as well. I know that some of the history Tim told me is true. For instance, Tim did know Bill Wilson, and in all likelihood Bill was his sponsor. I've seen in Tim's library his copy of the first edition Big Book, with Bill and Bob's signatures inside. I have seen pictures of Tim and Bill together at the Serenity Ridge Community. I have seen a copy of a short note written to Tim by Bill giving the Serenity Ridge group and community his blessing and approval.

In retrospect, I think Tim T. was drunk most of the time. He was always carrying around these little squeeze bottles of the various homeopathic remedies diluted in Everclear. All day long he would squirt these remedies into his mouth.

To the credit of mainstream AA, most of the surrounding AA groups thought the folks at Serenity ridge were absolutely nuts. Very seldom did any of the group members go to outside AA meetings anymore, although on occasion Tim's son would attend meetings nearby. His father no longer was even invited to speak at speaker meetings, but that could be because he was getting senile and the other group members didn't want to let him out.

Tim was 83 years old when I knew him. He was divorced and had remarried a 50-year-old second wife. He had a 50-year-old son from his first marriage, and three daughters from his second marriage, aged 19, 17, and nine. All except his first wife were members of his group.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother in law, and a man's foes will be those of his own household.

This is the exact quote thrown at me by one of my sponsors at Serenity Ridge when I pointed out to him that a close relative of mine, who had been in AA for 10 years, did not agree that I needed to do all the things my sponsor insisted on -- abstain from sex, take enemas, make myself throw up, stick to an organic vegetarian diet, and pray one hour to Jesus daily. It was suggested to me that I cut off all ties with my family if they did not buy into and support my following these rules, which I had no interest in doing.

My sex sponsor was 30 at the time he sponsored me. The folks at Serenity Ridge thought he would be a good sex sponsor since he had masturbated as an adolescent. They thought that was an extremely serious problem, and declared that one was not even supposed to think about sex. Any sex thoughts that popped into my mind were supposed to be taken care of imediately by confessing them to my sex sponsor. But I spoke to him as little as possible on the subject, and I was lucky, because they didn't press it. During the first couple of months, they did ask me if I was having any sexual thoughts while I was there, or if I had masturbated, but I just answered no across the board whether it was true or not. After that, the issue kind of died.

I always kept myself out of the indoctrination process, a skill I have, which is lucky for me. I knew all this was kind of wacky, so I was able to protect myself psychologically. A lot of people don't manage that. The evidence for that is the entire families who have been at Serenity Ridge for generations.

Finally, I started objecting to the vomiting as medically dangerous. I have spent time at the hospital with bulimic girls, and I've seen what forced vomiting does to the system if you do it repeatedly -- abscesses on the tonsils, enamel chewed off teeth, etc. One of the head honchos at Serenity Ridge said Oh. Well what are you? A doctor? I replied, No, but you aren't either, and I've seen what vomiting does. They kept being arrogant about it, so I told them I was leaving. They said, That's fine, you can leave, but don't expect any family support.

When I finally escaped from Serenity Ridge, I entered one of the hard-core "therapeutic" communities, the kind of place where they hang signs on you and scream at you. It was still a blessing after Serenity Ridge. There were rigid, structured rules, but at least you knew what you could get in trouble for. At Serenity Ridge I constantly waited for the hammer to drop, because what they could nail you for was totally arbitrary.

The latest news about Serenity Ridge is that Tim T. has been telling folks that since wine used in the Eucharist is not really wine, but the blood of Christ, and since all male members of his group are ordained in his church and can perform the Eucharist whenever or wherever they want, they can, basically, drink as much wine as they want so long as it is consecrated wine. And he has been recommending drinking large quantities of consecrated wine as a remedy for stress.

Can you believe that?