International Secular AA Conference 2014: Joe C. and Joan C.

At the first international secular AA conference held in Santa Monica in 2014, there were seven fellowship speakers. We will be presenting all seven speakers over the coming weeks. Today we are featuring Joe C. from the Beyond Belief group in Toronto, and Joan C. from the We Agnostics group in Maui. Both speakers were introduced by Dorothy H. who co-founded the conference with Pam W. and Jonathan G. 

Joe C.


I see one of my jobs here is a real easy job, and that is to… It’s really easy if I share some of my time allotted, I’ll be able to get us back on schedule. I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic. It’s great to be here. It’s an honor to be here. I’m so proud of this committee. This idea came up in a hundred coffee shops, in a hundred towns, and someone did something about it. Someone here in California, everything starts in California, decided we’re going to actually do something about it, and not unless we have troubles or unless it becomes a burden or… They just said, we’re going to do it, let’s do it.

I want to make a special comment that this isn’t just a gathering of untraditional thinkers or non-believers, it’s untraditional thinkers and non-believers, and the people who support us. And just as spirituality maybe shouldn’t be a word reserved for the religious, freethinkers shouldn’t be a word reserved for the non-believer. Because most of us in AA do concern ourselves more with the new person’s salvation, not proselytizing our own brand of salvation. We’re a people not divided by message, but by language. It’s the same message.

Some of us went to the Pacific group last night where they shared the same message and maybe speak a slightly different language. I was made to feel as welcome there as I am here, and I’m glad I went. There is all kinds of stories and there are… It becomes mythical, whether it’s those agnostics, or that group, or those back-to-basics people, but really, there is no them, there’s just us.

Thirty years ago, just north here almost to the day… As a Canadian, I hope you appreciate I had to learn who Cesar Chavez was. I didn’t know who he was. You probably had streets named after him here. But it was November 9, 1984 in San Francisco at the Commonwealth Club, where he said, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”

So that reminds me a few things. I’m worthy to kick this off, but I’m not essential. Something took place long ago in AA and it’ll work… If this had never happened, it would have continued. If none of us had ever been… You can’t stop social change. Evolution doesn’t ask permission, it doesn’t wait for a consensus, it just goes about its way. And I really believe that, although I have a time table in terms of how I think these things should happen and who the agents of change should be, that’s just my crazy little narrative. But evolution is doing fine, thank you very much, and we’re going to be fine, thank you very much.

I also want to say that I have written a few things down, and some of you have introduced yourself to me, and that has meant the world to me, but I’m a reader, not a writer. I’m a listener, not a talker, and all that I’ve done has just mirrored back what I’ve learned, not what I know.

And what I learned was from you, here’s what you started with. I’m not like you and I don’t want any of that. And this is what you got, and this is the work you’ve done. Let’s have a great weekend. The only other person I’ll quote is… What’s her name? Someone will correct me, “All I want to do is have some fun.”


What is it?

Sheryl Crow.

Sheryl Crow, “All I want to do is have some fun.” What’s the next line?

I got a feeling.

“I got a feeling I’m not the only one. All I want to do is have some fun, while the sun goes down on Santa Monica Boulevard.”

Have fun everybody.


Joan C.


My goodness sakes. My name is Joan and I’m an alcoholic. First of all, let me say that the little delay we had made me feel at home, because on Maui we have regular time and we have Maui time. So, I thought, “Oh, this is Maui time. I’m used to that. I’m comfortable.” So that’s good. I also don’t need to worry that I won’t be able to speak for 25 minutes because everybody’s going to be hungry anyway, so that’ll be all right. I’ll just go ahead and tell you how things are with me. You said that I started the We Agnostics group on Maui. Rich and I started it. Rich had the brains and the guts to do it, and I had the credibility. I’ve been sober now for 46 years, so that was a big help too, I think. When our newcomers are told, “You can’t get sober. You can’t stay sober if you don’t believe in God,” and I meet them, I always say, “Just tell them, ‘What about Joan? What about Joan?'” [laughter] I don’t know. Nobody’s come up with a good reply to that that I’ve heard. I am sober today because of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I was born 81 years ago in St. Louis, and my father was a freethinker. We were very close, and he would talk to me about how you always have to think for yourself, that you can’t follow the crowd. If you see something wrong, you have to speak up. You can’t be the one to sit back. He had some really good points that he made to me. 

St. Louis at that time was completely segregated. The street cars, the buses, they had a little rope across certain seats and that said “Negro” and that’s where the black people sat. My father always told me that was wrong, so he was way ahead of his time. Unfortunately, he died when I was 10 years old, and it was very difficult for me, because my mother and I were not close. I don’t think we ever really bonded. She was a good woman, but my father and I were close, and she and I weren’t.

My family on that side was Catholic, and I’m not here to do Catholic bashing by any means, but my grandmother who had moved to California, came swooping down to St. Louis and told Mother that my father’s death was God’s punishment for not raising us as Catholic. So my sister, my brother and I, and my mother moved to California.

I was put into St. Mary’s Academy in Los Angeles when I was 10 years old, and I had never heard of the things that they talked about. I’d never heard of purgatory and venial sin, mortal sins, and all that. I was a fish out of water. All these other girls had been raised in the Catholic church, so it was second nature to them. I always felt a little bit out of things. I tried really hard to believe because I wanted to be part of the group. I remember in my bedroom, I even had an altar set up with some flowers, and I would say the rosary and be praying for miracles and be praying for faith, I think. It didn’t really work for me.

I was a very difficult kid to raise, and I feel sorry for my mother. I didn’t get along too well at St. Mary’s. I wouldn’t do any of the homework. I spent a lot of time in Sister Josephine’s office, otherwise known as Old Fish Eyes. [laughter]

I had a lot of questions too. I would question the things they were saying about the sins that you commit and go to hell forever more. It didn’t make sense to me.

When I was in the 10th grade, I was expelled from St. Mary’s. We came to a parting of the ways, and there I was. I thought that sounded good until the first day that school started and I didn’t have anywhere to go. That gave me the thought, “Maybe I made a mistake,” but I couldn’t imagine that I had.

That’s how things were for me. I got a job at the telephone company as a telephone operator, and then I got pregnant and married my first husband in that order, and… [laughter]

Yes, originally I wanted 12 children. My goal in life, I wanted to be an object of pity. [laughter] Yeah, yeah. No I’m serious. I’m serious. Don’t laugh at me. I wanted to be an object of pity. 

I had this Aunt Loretta. She had nine children. She’s a very devout Catholic and she had nine children. Everyone always said, “Oh, poor Loretta. Poor Loretta, she works so hard.” And I thought, “That’s for me.” [laughter]

So, I started reproducing, and I had… [laughter] I had just turned 24 when I had my fourth child. The only problem… There were several problems with that actually. For one thing, when people talked about the cost of raising children, I thought they were talking about the price of baby food. I had no idea. I had no idea how to raise children. Also Aunt Loretta was looking forward to her reward in the next life. Being a non-believer, I didn’t have that, the carrot on the string for me. It was a lot of work, it was really hard.

My husband and I drank a lot. From the time I was a teenager with my first drink, I was never a social drinker. If there wasn’t enough to get drunk, I didn’t want any alcohol at all. In between pregnancies, we drank a lot. Now, fortunately for my children, when I was pregnant, I became violently ill if I drank any alcohol, or if I smoked any cigarettes because I was so… If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. I was a real heavy smoker too, except when I was pregnant. When I wasn’t, then we made up for it. He was a good husband probably only in the fact that he would come home occasionally with a box of four gallons of wine that he got from the winery in downtown Los Angeles. That would give me a real secure feeling. [laughter]

The marriage went from bad to unbearable, and he’d be gone for days at a time. I’d say, “Is there someone else?” “Oh, no, no.” He wouldn’t dream of looking at anyone else. I got pregnant again, and that would be five children. I knew that I couldn’t go through the pregnancy, I couldn’t have another child, or I would never be able to make any changes in my life, and the life I was living was never going to get any better. So, I asked somebody to tell me the truth—and he did. He said, “Definitely there’s another woman.”

One day a check came in the mail. My husband was an electrician from the Electricians Union, and I forged his name and went down to the bank and cashed it. I used the money to get an abortion. It was the coat hanger and catheter type in those days. I almost died from it. I almost died from it. I don’t know why I didn’t.

We had the divorce, and then I discovered bar drinking, and I had a boyfriend or two or more. [laughter] I wasn’t a home drinker. I didn’t drink at home, but I left my children alone a lot. When I came into AA, I think my daughter must have been about 16 or so. When I was really drinking, she…

Anyway… Let me think a minute here now. I’m getting a little bit rattled thinking of my glorious past. [chuckle]

So anyway… Dear. So, there was a lot of drinking. I hear people say that you can’t get sober in AA. They have a lot of reasons why you can’t get sober in AA, and one of them is you have to do it for yourself. You can’t do it for anyone else. I say that that’s not true. I got sober in Alcoholics Anonymous because I knew I was reaching the point where I would be gone for days at a time. I had a friend who would look in on the kids, but Child Welfare was going to come, and they were going to take those children away and put them in foster homes.

I really loved my children. It’s just that I loved alcohol too. So, I woke up one morning and the bed was wet and I was a mess. I looked in the mirror and at that point I was so depressed. I was 35 years old, and I wanted to live until I was 40, and then I was going to commit suicide. I thought the children would be old enough then.

I read the Big Book when I was 18, when I had my first child. I was living with my in-laws at the time, and my father-in-law was an alcoholic and he died of alcoholism. I had read his copy of the Big Book. It stuck in my mind, I think, it was back there somewhere. I also had two uncles who got sober in Alcoholics Anonymous. I decided that I had to quit drinking, had to quit drinking. I couldn’t control it anymore. So, I quit on my own, and I didn’t go into DTs, but I’d see things kind of running out of the corner of my eye. I was really, really nervous there for a while. [chuckle]  I also knew that I couldn’t drink one drink. I never wanted to anyway. I knew that I was also crazy, and I thought Alcoholics Anonymous was for people who had a drinking problem period, but they were normal otherwise.

I thought all you folks… [laughter] 

You can laugh at that. Yeah, so I thought when they find out that I’m not only an alcoholic, but that I’m crazy, they’re not going to let me in.  I told myself if I can’t quit on my own, I’ll go to Alcoholics Anonymous.  I reached the point where I called their father. Thank goodness he never did respond. I was going to have him take the children, and I was going to go commit suicide.

Then I remembered that I said I’d try AA, so I went to my first meeting. Now, my first meeting I was concerned when I heard “the God word”, and I thought, “If AA doesn’t work for me, nothing’s going to work.” I went and I saw the Steps on the wall and I heard  about being restored to sanity, so I just casually asked, “Are there some people here who aren’t real stable or something?” [laughter] I didn’t want them to know. [chuckle] He said, “Yeah, just keep coming back.” [laughter]

They invited me to a meeting the next night. I got sober at the Valley Club in Van Nuys, and they invited me to come back. I saw a sign on the wall that first time that said, “We care.” I will never forget that, that somebody cared.

 I’m a non-believer, I’m an agnostic, so I had the problem with the God thing. It was kind of like back in St. Mary’s Academy again, where I didn’t quite fit in. There was always something different about me because I was surrounded by people who had all these miracles going on. They went to the grocery store and their God found a parking place for them. [laughter]

I didn’t have any of those miracles going on in my life. Life was really tough. I was really poor with those kids. I’ll tell you how poor I was. I had a tooth that was impacted, was infected and I was real smart and I thought, “Kids, if they want to lose a tooth, they start wiggling it a little bit, so I’ll start wiggling that tooth and I’ll pull it myself.” I didn’t know about blood poisoning or anything that you can get from that, so that’s how poor we were.

I don’t have any idea of the time and I’ve got 81 years to talk about, [laughter] so I’m going to have to… I should… I thought I had a watch, anyway. So, let’s see now. I should’ve brought some notes. That’s what I should’ve done. [laughter] That’s what I should’ve done.

Anyway, I went to Alcoholics Anonymous, and I went every day for a year and all that. In those days, we didn’t have detox centers. We had Schreyer’s Dryer in North Hollywood where you could take somebody to dry out if you were afraid they were going go into the DTs. I got a lot of 12-Step calls because I went to the bars alone, so I was never afraid to go out on a call by myself. I don’t think any of those people ever got sober. I also threw in free babysitting. I had two teenage daughters. If they had kids, we’re all set. We’d go to a meeting. And so it did me a lot of good.

I married again after I had been sober about… I don’t know how many years. A few years anyway, and we were married for just a few years.  I was 35 when I went in to AA. When I was 42, my second husband passed away, and he was 42 also, from a heart attack—first and only heart attack he ever had.

But I was sober and I remember being in the hospital and I was in such shock that they wanted to give me something for the shock. I remember saying, “That won’t do any good.” That was all Alcoholics Anonymous speaking, but it was just automatic that even in that time of terrible shock and terrible stress, it just came out. “Well, that won’t do any good. Why take something? It’s going to wear off and you’re still going to be in the same spot.”

So anyway, I got through that. And oh dear, I had a lot of the clever things to tell you. [laughter] And I just can’t remember. When you’re 81 it doesn’t get any easier. So anyway, let’s see.

I married for the third time and we moved to Orange County, California and the meetings there were a little bit different, and they were pretty structured. In AA there was always something different for me. I never really felt like I was part of that group. I knew I was an alcoholic. I knew Alcoholics Anonymous was what would get and keep me sober, but I didn’t quite fit in because I was an non-believer.

Eventually we moved to Maui and I got involved there. There was something in the dealy-bob there that they had about the prison thing. I wasn’t real popular on Maui in the AA groups because of being a non-believer. That was kind of a difficult thing. I found out that nobody… I think just every once in a while somebody would take a meeting into the prison there, but nobody was doing it on a regular basis, and they couldn’t find anybody who wanted to go. I thought, “Well, I can do that.”So, I went the first time with somebody and then I just started going by myself.

I didn’t know that you have to be certified, that you have to have a background check. I didn’t know all that stuff, but after a certain age you can get away with a lot of things. [laughter] You just go in there and people don’t question you like they do when you’re younger. You go in with a positive attitude. “Okay, I’ll sign in and all that.” But eventually I did, and now we have a good group going in and I’m the liaison with the Alcoholic Anonymous on Maui with the women’s prison. We have probably, I guess, there may be between about 16 women that alternate. We have schedules. We have quite a setup. I am good at organizing, I’ll have to say that. I volunteered one time at the AA foundation, and they made a big sash for me. It said “Miss Organization,” because I like things in order. I don’t like to spend time looking for things. 

So, that’s what’s going on there. We’ve gone now for almost for eight or nine years, and we haven’t missed a meeting on a Wednesday night of taking the meeting into the prison. That’s been really good for me. It’s good when you get older, if you have something where you feel that you’re a productive member of society. And that’s my claim is that as long as I’m still doing something, then I’m still okay, everything’s good.

We Agnostics Meeting in Maui

I had a friend, Vernon, who went to a lot of meetings. By that time my husband, my third husband that I married… He died. He passed away 10 years ago, but we were married almost 25 years. He was a believer and he went to AA meetings just about every day.

When we married, I was sober 10 years, he was sober 20, so he was 10 years ahead of me. He went to meetings all the time. I had just about stopped going to meetings, but I always told Vernon, I said, “If you ever meet anybody who is having a problem with the program because of the religious aspects of it, be sure to let me know and I’ll talk to them.”

One night he called me, invited me over for dinner, and he invited Rich over too. And we met and that’s how we started. So we talked about it, and this is my recollection of how it went.

One of us had heard something about another organization out in Hollywood, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, SOS. So, I went over to Hollywood to meet the fellow there. I had the literature, and we put the thing on the internet, ran something in the Maui News, and we had the meeting place and nobody came. We sat there and waited.

Then, finally we heard about the We Agnostics meetings. I thought, “Oh boy. They’re going to run us out of town, tar and feather us.” But Rich, “Oh, no.” So anyway, we got that going, and from the very beginning, just a couple people started coming in, and then more started coming in. Today,  we have three meetings a week. We have Saturday and Sunday morning as an open in a park and under a beautiful tree, and Wednesday evening. We’re going to be starting another meeting in the afternoon. We get between, I’d say, between 15 and 30 people coming to the meetings.

Unlike St. Mary’s Academy and unlike when I first came into Alcoholics Anonymous, I no longer have that feeling in AA that there’s something a little bit different about me, that I don’t quite belong. I don’t quite fit in. I don’t miss a Saturday or Sunday morning. These are my people. I have found a home and we’re there. We’re a very close-knit group. We still get a lot of remarks and things. I know I took literature into the prison, the new pamphlets that came out that don’t impress me too much, but I figure they’re better than nothing. That gave me a chance to talk again to the women in there that, “In case you are having problem with the spiritual aspects of the program, that I’m a non-believer and it works for me.”

When we first started the We Agnostics meeting on Maui, we listed it in the bulletin. We said, “We Agnostics, non-religious.” Well, that was a mistake. [laughter] AA is not a religious program, not a religious program at all. So, Rich changed it. Now, it says, “We Agnostics, no prayers,” and that’s alright. But even during those years…

Oh no, I will wrap it up. But I want to say that I quit going to meetings except this one meeting, Kihei Morning Serenity. I would go once a year to get my chip and to remind them that I was here, and I was still sober and I was a non-believer. [laughter] I like to carry the message. So things are going well for us.

When I get home, I’ll think of all the brilliant things to tell you, but… [laughter]

Every day I do the best I can, that’s all I can say. This is unbelievable, and it has to carry on. We have to carry on. After the meetings, especially at Kihei Morning Serenity, we have what I call closet atheists.  They come up to me and say, “I agree with you, there’s too much religion,” They wouldn’t say anything during the meeting, but they started showing up at our We Agnostics meetings. That’s where they’re coming from. They’re coming out of the closet and we’re becoming more accepted all over, all over the country.

Did you see that in Shasta, California? $2 million dealy-bob from the courts, because they forced this man, a prisoner, to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings? So it’s coming out now. Times are changing and we’re right in there with this convention. Two years from now, we’re going to be even… We’ll have to have a bigger place, I’m sure. So anyway, thanks for listening to me, and thank you so much for asking me.

And that’s all. Thank you.


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Diana R.
Diana R.

I really enjoyed listening to both Joe and Joan–both are so refreshingly honest and I love their sense of humor and optimism. Thank-you for sharing these with us.


A very enjoyable podcast, thanks AABB. I remember listening to these two speakers in the early days of walking the secular AA path with a lot of hesitancy and uncertainty. When I listened to Joe C and Joan C I knew that long term secular sobriety is not only achievable but perfectly natural. It is very difficult if not impossible to argue against this fact when you hear the living human sober proof. I now know that you don’t need to believe in god to either get sober or stay sober. I also see the importance of avoiding the dual… Read more »