“[I]f you wish, you can join us on the Broad Highway.”
It is indeed a Broad Highway upon which the AA beginner sets out. The way is as wide as the eye can see. No restriction of any sort in sight. AA requires no beliefs, not even in God. One can pick one’s own Higher Power. It can be God, the group, anything. One man even stayed sober with a doorknob for a Higher Power.
Members don’t have to do anything. No one has to get a sponsor. No one has to work the steps. They are only suggestions. Membership is so easy that it is only necessary to want to stop drinking. You can even drink and be a member. For the new or prospective member, there is only the suggestion to make a commitment to 90 meetings in 90 days.
Information control is essential to cult indoctrination. The group must become the sole source of information about oneself. Communal cults like the Moonies, Hari Krishna and The Way*1 manage this through physical separation from other sources of information. The Moonies do this initially at three day workshops held ostensibly for “world peace” or some other good cause. During the “workshops,” members use the influence of a unanimous majority and hypnotic techniques to create confusion and distrust of the self in order to get a commitment from the prospective member to stay for an even longer indoctrination period.
In non-communal cults like AA, and the Oxford Group before them, physical isolation may be used. Oxford Group had their “hospital work” and AA has the alcohol and drug abuse treatment center where contact with friends and family is extremely limited. This degree of separation, however, is not entirely necessary. In AA, the commitment to 90 meetings in 90 days can greatly limit non AA social contact. During this period of restricted social contact with “normies,” every effort is made to discredit non AA sources of information. The groupers become the sole source of credible information about oneself.
Imagine, for example, a man who works a 40 hour week. Daytime is spent at work. After work he heads for a meeting. The meeting lasts for one or two hours. He then is invited to coffee. He has the option of turning down the offer of Fellowship, and may want to since he hasn’t seen his family all day. But, in thinking of his family, he may remember a speaker telling of how he almost lost his family for not taking advantage of the Fellowship or how the speaker lost his family altogether because he didn’t put the program first. In any case, the groupers are friendly and welcoming and he may have questions he wants to ask. Rather than spending time at home, the newcomer may be off for another hour or two, perhaps longer, for what can be considered informal introduction.
The groupers do not see themselves as having an ulterior motive. They sincerely want to help and will do their best to help in the same ways they were helped when they were new. They are fully prepared to “freely give that which was so freely given,” partly because they know, at least in the back of their minds, that their lives depend on it.
AA newcomers are also encouraged to stay in phone contact with group members. To this end, the newcomer is encouraged to exchange phone numbers at meetings and to use them. With an obligation to call several groupers every day, calls to non grouper friends and acquaintances decline.
The commitment to devote a great deal of time with groupers severely limits the time one spends with others and, more importantly, time alone with oneself to reflect on what is happening.
The newcomer who does manage to spend some time alone must deal with constant warnings about another symptom of alcoholism, the desire to “isolate.” It is often considered one of the first symptoms of an incipient return to drinking. If someone misses a meeting he usually attends, he will be queried, out of genuine loving concern, as to where he was. If he doesn’t have an acceptable reason, he will be cautioned about the dangers of “isolation.”
For the newcomer, the “language of non-thought” is adopted, little by little. Words gain new meaning and the slogans begin having more and more meaning. As the new language is adopted, a linguistic barrier goes up between the new grouper and “normies.” Normies gradually understand less and less. The newcomer and the groupers understand each other more and more.
Another way the new grouper is separated from others is with the advice to “stay out of slippery places.” This does not mean just bars, but also parties, dinner parties and any kind of get together where alcohol may be served. Since it is more the norm than the exception for alcohol to be served on social occasions, and this is especially true in the social circles of those who drink too much, the newcomer will probably feel it unwise to socialize with his friends. He will depend on the other groupers to fill this gap.
AA and the family
The most sinister form of separation practiced in AA is purely psychological and can be summed up with their slogan “Alcoholism is a family disease.” The first and most important meaning of this slogan is that the alcoholic’s spouse, children and parents are sick too; perhaps as sick as the alcoholic. The alcoholic is, and knows he is, to blame. 157 He is warned that it is imperative, if he cares about his family, that he recover. To this end, he must put the Program first, even before his own family.*2 If he doesn’t, he’ll drink and lose them anyway. The family man who feels guilt over having put alcohol before his family is now encouraged to make up for it by putting AA before his family.
This, combined with adopting the loaded language, can drive a wedge between a man and his sick (insane, not under God control) wife and children. Of course, AA has a solution. The family should be encouraged to work a spiritual program so they can recover too. Of course, this means working the Twelve Steps in Al Anon.
Through various methods, among them hypnotic suggestion, sharing “personal experience” or “scientific fact,” a new member may be led to believe that his family wants him to drink and hence, to die.*3 This is proved by family members refusing to be “in recovery,” disagreeing with “spiritual principles,” criticizing AA involvement or criticizing the new “alcoholic self.” This generates suspicion and distrust between the alcoholic and the family which refuses to become groupers. Where AA can’t control sources of information, it discredits them.
With time, AA becomes the sole source of credible information about oneself. Information from the world of “normies” isn’t credible because they “don’t understand.” One’s family and friends, if they drink, are in need of “a program.” Even if they don’t drink, family members are sick and in need. The only people who can give accurate information, the only sane, understanding people, are the alcoholic groupers because “They’ve lived it,” “They have recovered,” and “They have a spiritual program.”
Information is also controlled between the elder groupers and the newcomer. During hours of informal indoctrination, such as at after meeting coffee, the newcomer has the opportunity to ask questions of the elders.
If he asks the “right” questions, the newcomer gets direct, informative answers. Right questions are ones like, “How do I get a sponsor?” or “Where are there meetings on Wednesday nights?” The groupers will do their best to be as helpful and informative as possible.
Other questions call for the groupers to be helpful but not quite so informative. For instance, if a newcomer should ask about the religious tone of a meeting, he will be answered with the slogan, “AA is spiritual, not religious,” and unlike religious organizations, “AA requires no beliefs.” The newcomer is not told that everyone in the group holds certain beliefs in common. They hold the Big Book above both other religions and science, have special knowledge of God’s Will and believe that those who don’t “come to believe” face inevitable “jails, institutions, and death.” He is not told that his religious beliefs are considered inferior and that, as he becomes more dependent on AA, great pressure will be brought to bear to change his belief system.*4
Information control within the group is far from complete and the newcomer will occasionally see and hear things that contradict the sacred doctrine being held up to him as a way of stopping drinking and growing toward happiness, usefulness and wellness.
Perhaps someone with 20 years will tell of having just beat his wife, “for the last time.” This, of course, will be told in the context of spiritual growth achieved through working the Program. If the newcomer questions the effectiveness of the Program or the speaker’s “recovery,” there are many ways he may be helped to understand. These situations come up so frequently there are many slogans to deal with them. Among them are, “He has Time. What can you say about yourself?” and “Alcoholics are too judgmental. You must consider where he started from,” and perhaps most popular, “Point a finger at someone else, and you are pointing three at yourself.” These slogans and others point out the deficiencies and status of the newcomer. He must be helped to understand. He doesn’t have Time so he can’t understand. It is absolutely untrue that the Program has flaws. It was spiritually inspired. It is also unspiritual to be critical of others, especially of the Elders. He may be told “you must never be critical of others, but always hard on yourself.” The elder groupers may reply by telling how they themselves used to be judgmental and how it nearly caused them to drink and die.
If the newcomer doesn’t accept the wise, helpful words offered, he may be told in a loving way that he is too new or not yet spiritual enough to understand. He may be told, “As the Big Book says, more will be revealed if you work the program.” However, if the newcomer is persistent in seeking explanations of inconsistencies, the groupers may point out the newcomer’s obvious insanity with, “Well then, why don’t you just go drink!” This is very strong language and is only used with the most obstinate cases. However, it does point out the truth of the Program: to think one sees flaws in it is evidence of alcoholism’s cunning, baffling, and powerful influence over the mind. Attempts at critical analysis of the Program, or criticism of the Elders, is merely alcohol’s evil influence. The newcomer obviously wants to drink.
the subtle coercion of a public statement: I am an alcoholic
One of the most potent forces of mind control is the subtle coercion of public statements. The first statement elicited publicly from the newcomer is, “I am an alcoholic.” Depending on the structure of the meeting attended, it may be said at the very first meeting with little or no thought given to the implications. In some meetings, everyone in the room takes turns introducing themsleves by their first name and “disease.” Perhaps 25 or 50 people will identify themselves uniformly with their first name and “I am an alcoholic.” Then it is up to the pigeon. If he doesn’t want to stand out, there is only one choice: to say “I am an alcoholic.” He may have his own idea of what an alcoholic is and feel comfortable stating he is “an alcoholic.” In mind control cults there is rarely if ever any physical coercion. Situations are staged so that people choose “on their own” either the desired course or from only desired options. The pigeon has the option of merely stating his first name. At this point, even this may be desirable for indoctrination purposes. He may then wonder what he is doing there and whether he is suffering “denial.”
Often, out of deference to the room full of friendly faces gazing at him, he will splutter in embarrassment, “I guess I am an alcoholic.” All groupers smile knowingly and affectionately. They understand that this is a milestone in his “recovery.” The pigeon has no idea.
This public admission of being an alcoholic, whether the newcomer knows it yet or not, is the beginning of the acceptance of the authority of AA. Since he is an alcoholic, and has publicly acknowledged himself as such, he must defer to the unanimous opinion of the experts on alcoholism gathered about him for defining who he is. In AA, by definition, an alcoholic is someone who must work the Steps and follow other “suggestions” or die.
“Unless each A.A. member follows to the best of his ability our suggested Twelve Steps of recovery, he almost certainly signs his own death warrant. ... We must obey certain principles, or we die.”158
A newcomer would reject out of hand being told that if he didn’t work the Steps he would probably die. To get by this, groupers continuously acknowledge the Steps as “suggestive only.” They then proceed to tell how they nearly died or how others died because their diseased minds told them they didn’t need to work the steps. Another way the newcomer becomes afraid to not work the steps is through sincere, genuine fear expressed by the elders through body language. For example, if a newcomer says in casual conversation that he doesn’t need the Steps, he’s staying sober just fine without them, the groupers will fall silent. Bodies stiffen. All eyes, filled with fear, apprehension or disapproval, will focus on the newcomer. Without verbally contradicting the newcomer, the message is given. Once the message has been non verbally transmitted, the ice may be broken by an elder reminding everyone, “Like the Big Book says, the Steps are but suggestive only.” This is a reminder to the groupers of the Big Book injunction against “preaching” and other forms of open coercion. It is also ostensibly support for the newcomer’s position. Everyone knows the Steps are suggestive only. No one has to do anything they don’t want to in AA. While the newcomer gets verbal “defense” for not working the Steps, he is alos reminded it is a suggestion. He knows that, as a suggestion, it is the opinion of the unanimous majority that if he continues to be obstinate in not following it, he is “signing his own death warrant.”
In adapting to his new “social circle,” the newcomer learns which comments bring approval and which bring disapproval. People are so kind, friendly and understanding, it is, at the very least, impolite to upset them. The only way to avoid this is to agree. One quickly learns to at least express, if not quite believe, only acceptable ideas.
sharing at meetings for “recovery”
In the interest of “recovery” the newcomer is also encouraged to share at meetings.*5 First time sharers usually have little to say but they have had others model sharing for them. The nervous newcomer can feel safe announcing how much Time he has. Announcing, “I have three days” will be interrupted with a round of applause and perhaps shouts of approval. He is rewarded for telling how he has found the truth of a slogan or other piece of doctrine. Sharing how the Program is working for him always brings warm applause and caring attention. Also much approved by the congregation is any statement of confession or any statement derogatory towards himself: He is “getting honest” and showing “humility.”
However, any statement contradictory to AA doctrine, even if it doesn’t bring immediate boos or derisive laughter, will bring explanation, warnings and “understanding” from the elder groupers who share later. The “understanding” usually takes the form of, “He is still new and hasn’t learned yet.” The warnings are usually given indirectly, the elders all “coincidentally” focusing their sharing on other people they know who hold the same opinions. These “other people” either have died or are drinking and will die soon if they don’t see the light.
Sooner or later the newcomer comes to see the importance of working the Steps. To this end, he must find a sponsor because, “This is a 'we' Program,” and “It is dangerous to take the spiritual path alone.”
The newcomer must ask an elder to be his sponsor. Among the suggestions on how to pick a good sponsor are to find someone who “has what you want,” meaning someone you hold as an ideal. Also important is selecting someone who has a similar social status, drinking history and interests and at least a year or two of Time. The newcomer is often cautioned against picking someone with too much Time because they are sure to be too spiritually advanced and recovered for the newcomer to relate to.
The newcomer, believing doing so will keep him sober and allow him to share in the recovery he sees in the meetings, is now ready to work The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous...