Parallels Between Under-served Populations in Alcoholics Anonymous and Secular AA Groups

Based on a talk given at the 2018 International Conference of Secular A.A. in Toronto, Ontario by Jackie B. (San Francisco, CA)

“It’s easy to feel when we have a truth that we have the truth.”

– Ernest Kurtz, Author of Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous

I am often asked to speak at A.A. events on the history of under-served or marginalized populations in A.A., since that has been the focus of my archival research over the last ten years. Typically, my goal is straightforward: to bring into the awareness of the average A.A. that while there are no “special” alcoholics, there are alcoholics who have additional personal barriers to receiving the A.A. message.

But today is a different situation. After all, this is not a revelation to those of you who live it. There are a lot of folks here today who knows what it’s like to feel alone and different in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. There are folks here today who know what it feels like to be told unjustifiably that there is no place for them in A.A.

Instead, today I present to you, an underserved population in A.A., the “experience, strength and hope” of other historically remote communities, with the hope that it will help somebody here feel that not only do you belong, but that you are very much needed, for there is still great work for us all to do to reach suffering alcoholic.

The term remote community refers to any hard to reach population in A.A., whether they are far away or right around the corner. The definition of a remote community in current A.A.W.S. literature is “any community where it is difficult to carry the message of A.A. because of language, culture, or geography.” And my talk today is going to focus on cultural barriers, which can be thought of as the customs or beliefs that make it difficult for certain groups of people to connect to Alcoholics Anonymous. It isn’t just a matter of getting these groups in the door. The question often comes up of why certain cultural groups don’t seem to stay in the rooms.

I’m going consider some general trends in A.A. history, but please keep in mind that there have always been individual exceptions and local variations. “Remote Community” is a relative term. What one area or district considers an underserved population might not be a remote community for another area or district. For example, here in Toronto, there are 12 secular groups serving atheists and agnostics. Here, the program of A.A. is accessible to non-believers who have a drinking problem. On the other hand, there are many parts of North America where there are no secular groups for hundreds and hundreds of miles, and that combined with a lack of conference-approved literature for atheist and agnostic members, non-believers are arguably a remote community in those areas[1].

TRENDS IN A.A. MEMBERSHIP

In 1968, G.S.O. began conducting random surveys of the membership. The most recent survey was in 2014, when 6,000 A.A. members from the U.S. and Canada participated in a random survey, available as a pamphlet online at www.aa.org.

Of the surveyed A.A. members in the U.S. and Canada:

  • 89% percent identified as white;
  • 62% were male; and
  • 74% were over 41 years old.

For a long time, from 1968 through the early 2000’s, the largest age group in A.A. was the 31 – 50 year demographic, around 50 – 55%. Then something interesting started happening, for the first time in A.A.’s history, starting in 2011, the largest age group was 51 & older, at 48%, while ages 31- 50 dropped to 39%. That trend continued and as of the last survey in 2014, 53% of A.A. members are over 51 years old, 74% over 41.

As of the last census, 50.8% of the United States is female, with a similar percentage in Canada. For several decades, women in A.A. only represented 20 – 25% of the membership. There was a jump in female membership in the late seventies, and the percentage has been holding firm around 33% – 38% since then. There have been studies that have shown that alcoholism is less prevalent in women, although that could be an issue of self-reporting and stigma, and in the last five years, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has reported an increase in the proportion of women under 30 engaging in heavy drinking and alcohol abuse. According to current NIAAA literature, an estimated 5.3 million women in the United States drink in a way that threatens their health, safety, and general well-being. In comparison, the number of estimated women in A.A. in the United States equal less than 10% of that figure.

G.S.O. didn’t start collecting data on ethnicity until 1998. But the percentages have held firm over the last 30 years: Caucasians are 88 – 89% of our membership, Black and African Americans are 4-5%, Latinos 4 – 5%, Native Americans 1 – 2%, Asians and “others” around 1%. In comparison, people of color make up 38% of the United States population, 22.3% in Canada. According to current NIAAA literature, Hispanics, Blacks and Native Americans/Alaska Natives have a higher proportion of binge-drinking, DUI’s and alcohol-related death, and alcohol abuse is especially rampant in indigenous peoples and the First Nations.

 Based on these statistics, women, young people and people of color may be viewed as remote communities in A.A. as a whole, and this is why I am confining today’s presentation to these three specific groups in A.A.: Women, Young People and People of Color, specifically Black and African-Americans.

WOMEN IN A.A.

Typically when a talk is given about the early women in A.A., it’s about exceptional cases like Marty M. (New York), Sybil C. (Los Angeles) and Sylvia K. (Chicago). We tend to focus on the individual stories of the early women who stayed sober in the long-term. Marty M. was the first woman to obtain a long-term sobriety of multiple years, although we know now that she did have a few brief relapses later in life. Florence R. of New York City was the first woman to stay sober for a year, and she is the reason why the Big Book was not called “One Hundred Men” when it was published in 1939. Her story, “A Feminine Victory” was printed in the First Edition. However Florence was not the first woman to approach Alcoholics Anonymous for help, just the first that managed to stay sober for longer than a few months. Perhaps the first was a woman named “Lil”, who on her first day in Akron, became sexually or romantically involved with a newcomer man – rumor had it in Dr. Bob’s office. Dr. Bob was reluctant to help other women after that point, convinced that women would only cause trouble to the group. He is attributed as the originator of the old A.A. saying, “under every skirt, there’s a slip.”

According to Nell Wing, A.A.’s first archivist:

“It was difficult for a woman to approach A.A. in the late ’30’s or early ’40’s, and more difficult still to be accepted in an A.A. group. It was generally felt by male members that women had no place in an A.A. meeting where their presence was considered by many to be a disturbing factor.”

A good example of this attitude toward women can be found in the October 1946 Grapevine in an article called “Women in A.A. Face Special Problems” by Grace O.:

 “[…] Once every blessed so often, a woman comes in, works on the program, learns to tolerate and even to like all her fellow-men-and-women, and in general makes herself an admirable member. But for every dozen who do that, there is a basketful who become a combination nuisance, headache and problem.”

“Nuisance, headache and problem” is also good description for how the New York Group re-acted to its first atheist member, Jim B., author of the Big Book story “A Vicious Cycle.” Bill describes the group’s attitude towards Jim, who he anonymously calls “Ed” in the chapter on Tradition Three in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:

“The group was in anguish so deep that all fraternal charity had vanished. ‘When, oh when,’ groaned members to one another, ‘will that guy get drunk?’”

Early on, new women were often sponsored by the non-alcoholic wives rather than their fellow alcoholics. But as more single and divorced women started joining A.A., the wives reportedly became more hostile. According to Bob P., former General Manager of G.S.O. and author of an unpublished manuscript on the history of A.A. World Service, the first woman alcoholic to try and join the Cleveland A.A. group was thrown out by the wives. It became such a problem that the practice of declaring some meetings closed to non-alcoholics began as a way to keep spouses out of A.A. meetings.

In the April 1953 Grapevine, a female member B.D. wrote an article called, “Are Women the Orphans of AA?” and I am reminded of the experiences faced by atheists and agnostics in many contemporary A.A. meetings:

“Women are only tolerated in AA; they are the orphans of AA! I never dreamed there existed so much hostility toward women alcoholics until I started to attend AA meetings. I bless the woman member who steered me to a woman’s discussion group in the hard first months of my sobriety, because without its guidance and intimate group therapy I might have dropped out as countless other women do. “

So emerged a more successful solution to A.A.’s early “women problems”: the formation of special meetings for female members, which offered comfort and understanding to their members, while mollifying male A.A.’s and their non-alcoholic wives.  The first women’s group is believed to have started in Cleveland, Ohio, in June 1941, and was quickly followed by a group in San Diego.

Another parallel between the early experience of women and the ongoing stories of atheists-agnostics in A.A. is that the concern about women coming into A.A. focused not on their physical and psychology safety, but rather on threats that such women were believed to pose to the rest of the members and the groups themselves.

One significant difference between the histories of atheist-agnostics and early women is in the reaction to the formation of their respective “special” meetings. For the most part, women’s meetings were accepted from the very beginning. That has not the case with the majority of secular groups nor the first young people groups.

YOUNG PEOPLE IN ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS

Our pioneer membership, the alcoholics who joined and stayed sober from the period of 1935 to the publishing of the Big Book in 1939, included several atheists, at least one gay man, and a young person: Ernie G. of Akron, Ohio. Known as A.A. #4, Ernie met Bill W., Dr. Bob and Bill D. when he was 30 years old.

The first known group “for men and women under 35” was formed in January 1946 in Philadelphia. The group grew quickly, and by the end of their first year they had 30 members. That same year a group started in San Diego. A year later, in 1947, a “35 and under” group started in New York City. On an interesting note, personal accounts from early gays and lesbians in A.A. revealed that young people’s meetings were experienced as safe havens for LGBTQ members too. New York City’s young people’s meetings were frequented by a group of early gays and lesbians that included Barry L., author of Living Sober; LeClair B., an atheist lesbian who became a leader in the field of addiction medicine; and Damien M., who later became an important figure in the Gay Rights Movement.

In an interesting parallel with the current experience of secular groups in A.A., young people’s groups were at first regarded with suspicion by existing groups. According to Bob P., it was not uncommon for young people’s groups to be excluded from local directories or service structures, where they were considered “not A.A.”

But these groups continued “doing their thing” and gradually around the country young people’s meetings were not only accepted, but in many cases admired for their enthusiasm for service. In a 1961 Grapevine article, the Milwaukee Central Office secretary is quoted as saying:

“These young people’s groups are the life-savers of A.A. in our area. The service workers under 35 are where we get most of our best volunteers who keep our Central Office functioning. They’re the ones we can count on most to take on Twelfth Step jobs, institutional work and public information tasks.”

In 1958, young people’s groups banded together to form the “International Conference of Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous”, known as ICYPAA for short (pronounced as “Icky-Paw”). The first convention was held in Niagara Falls on April 26-27, 1958. Less than a hundred people attended. It’s been held annually ever since and typically attracts 3,000 – 5,000 attendees from around the world. In addition, regional and state conferences for YPAA’s are held throughout the year. Most major metropolitan areas have YPAA committees that organize fellowship events, participate in Public Information service, and bid to host conferences.

 YPAA conferences have developed over the decades their own quirky and irreverent rituals, including group chants, special greetings, and a series of audience call-backs to the reading of the Steps and Traditions. Personally, I view these call-backs and reading rituals as a way of claiming the text and old-fashioned language of the Big Book as their own. Much like the rituals that surround sporting events or cultural phenomenon such as midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, YPAA rituals can be viewed as a way of building and celebrating community.

On an interesting note, the 2017 ICYPAA drew criticism from many A.A. members for changing the wording of the Twelve Steps during the main meeting, removing all the masculine pronouns with “God”, as in, “God as you understand God.” The controversy of A.A. groups adapting the language of the Twelve Steps to reflect the values or customs of their members is one familiar to secular groups, particularly here in Toronto, where such a “re-wording” was considered a justification by the Toronto Intergroup in 2011 to delist secular groups from their directory. This delisting then led to an investigation and lawsuit by the Civil Rights Tribunal of Toronto against the Toronto Intergroup for religious discrimination. The lawsuit was resolved in 2017 when the Intergroup agreed to re-list secular groups, which jumped from two to 12 meetings a week[2].

It’s also important to note that YPAA participation, at a low estimate of 10,000 internationally, is just a small sliver of the estimated 240,000 A.A. members under the age of 30. What this means, is that most young people in A.A., undoubtedly like a majority of atheists and agnostics, are getting sober in mainstream meetings. However, I believe that the visibility and service participation by organized YPAA committees and conferences has contributed to the slow increase in young people’s membership in our surveys over the last five decades.

BLACK AND AFRICAN-AMERICAN ALCOHOLICS

Although alcohol use has been documented as a serious health issue in black communities across North America, in higher proportion among urban, working-class and poor demographics, A.A. has never seen a membership equivalent to the percentage of blacks in the general population.  

The history of Black North-Americans in A.A. is a story of principles and ideals in tension with social realities and pragmatism, best exemplified in a quote from a letter Bill W. wrote in 1943:

“Shall we stick, in this case to the counsel of perfection or shall we be practical?”

A.A. is inescapably a part of the society in which it exists. When A.A. was founded in 1935, and for decades afterwards, de facto discrimination was accepted in many places. In the South, Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in public facilities and transportation; in the North, societal norms regarding fraternization between whites and blacks varied from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood.

Bill W. wrote in that same 1943 letter:

“Along with you, I feel very deeply about this race business.  Save this one question, I suppose A.A. is the most democratic society in the world.  All men should have an equal opportunity to recover from alcoholism – that is the shining ideal. In all the South and in most of the North, whites refuse to mingle with blacks socially.  That is a stark fact we have to face.  Nor can they be coerced or persuaded to so, even alcoholics! I know, because I once tried here in New York and got so much slapped down that I realized that no amount of insistence would do any good.  It would be bound to do harm […] As I long since learned that no man can dictate to an A.A. group, I tell each fellowship to abide by the wishes of the majority of it’s members.  And if a group refuses Negroes socially, it ought to make a superhuman effort to help every single colored case to a group of his own.”

According to Pass It On, the A.A. conference approved biography of Bill W., in 1942 Bill invited two black alcoholics he met at Rockland State Hospital to a meeting at the 24th Street Clubhouse. Because it was New York City, he did not expect the backlash he received. Taking a group conscience that day, the group decided that the visitors could attend two meetings as observers only.  This became the experience that was passed on to the groups and individuals who soon began writing to the A.A. Headquarters asking for advice on how to deal with the influx of black alcoholics asking for helping in their areas, and the tensions it began to create in their A.A. groups. The admittance of black alcoholics as observers but not group members was widely practiced throughout the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s.

Joe McQ., of the famed Joe and Charlie big book study seminars and tapes, was the first black man to get sober in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1962, just eight years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that “separate was not equal” and paved the way for wide spread integration in the South. As Joe put it in a recording of his story, “In 1962, you didn’t want to be the first black man to do anything.” Like many blacks of this period, when he was allowed to attend A.A. meetings it was as an observer, where he was told to sit in the back, not speak and not drink the coffee. But he kept showing up because he loved the Big Book, he wanted what the A.A.’s had – sobriety and a design for living – and as he put it, “he had a right to be there.”

There were also many cultural barriers for black alcoholics to approach A.A. from within their own community, some which continue to this day. According to Joe McQ., some of these barriers included a reluctance to seek help anywhere, but particularly from white people; the sharply divided worlds within the black community of “pious tee-totalers” and “pool hall and street corner drinkers”; and the wide spread perception that A.A. was of and for white people.

Black alcoholics, like many women, were encouraged to start their own groups. Unlike women members, in many places, attending a separate group or a mixed group was not a choice.  It was not until 1945, at the end of World War II, that the first Black Groups began to form. The first Black Group, AA-1, was founded in January 1945 in St. Louis and its existence was kept a secret, at the members’ own request, because they feared a backlash from the white A.A.’s in St. Louis. As the co-founder Harold W. wrote to Headquarters, they were being pestered with “racial problems and prejudices.”

A black doctor named Jim S. sobered up in Washington D.C., and with his sponsor created a “Negro” Group in April 1945, later to be known as the Cosmopolitan Group. Through the intense efforts of Jim and supportive white members in the D.C. area., the group grew steadily. They worked intensely within the jails and with probation officers to find prospects. The group then became the contact point for members and groups around the country seeking guidance on how to integrate or start a black group.

The need for a clearing house of experience led to the creation of the “Negro Intergroup” in the early 1950’s, based in Washington D.C., with a black man named Robert H. as secretary. Robert would travel as much as possible to directly support the new groups. The history of the “Negro Intergroup” reminds me a great deal of what websites like www.secularaa.org and www.aabeyondbelief.org have become, not a separate service structure as some fear, but a place where atheist and agnostic loners and secular groups can seek news, experience and a sense of connection.

Some of the hardships the early black groups faced included securing a venue, paying rent and buying literature, and finding speakers and sponsors with time.  In many cases, local mainstream groups or individual members had to adopt or “sponsor” a Black Group until it was firmly established and could be self-supporting. Many groups started but fizzled out in less than a year. But through the efforts of pioneering Black Groups and the “Negro Intergroup”, there were 25 established “Negro” or “Interracial” Groups by 1952.  And it should be noted, that from many documented accounts received by the Headquarters, many black A.A. members at the time felt safer, more comfortable, and could identify more easily with alcoholics from within the black community.

In 1953, the General Service Conference held sharing sessions on group interracial problems. Bill began the session by saying the following, which would become G.S.O.’s standard response to group inquiries regarding black alcoholics and groups:

“With whatever personal persuasions we have, each of us wants these good people to have, as far as possible, exactly the same opportunity we had. But we do have a lot of different customs and situations in different parts of this country, and this is no place to get up and tell ourselves how very broad-minded we are.  The sole question is this: How can each locality, from the point of view of its own customs, afford a better opportunity to colored people to get well?”

During the 1950’s, there were many members, white and black, who wrote to the office and the Grapevine wanting A.A. Headquarters and Bill specifically to take a stand on this issue. We know from Bill’s writings in the Grapevine, that he was interested in the history of the Washingtonians, a pre-A.A. society of alcoholics trying to help each other stay sober during the late 1800’s. Bill attributed the movement’s demise to its public involvement in outside issues such as alcohol reform and the abolition of slavery in a Grapevine article on Tradition Ten published in 1953. Tradition Ten states “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.” And there was perhaps no greater public controversy during the 50’s and 60’s than the civil rights movement.

Hearteningly, during my research at the G.S.O. archives, I discovered far more letters during this period calling for integration and an end to discriminatory membership practices than there were letters in opposition, and like the larger society it was a part of, A.A. began to integrate slowly, one meeting at a time. By 1960, the New York Metropolitan Groups had integrated, though the process took longer in the South. Joe McQ. shared a story of being asked to leave a meeting in the South as recent as the late 1980’s. Today, though there is no legalized segregation in the United States and Canada, socio-economic segregation can have an effect on the demographics of meetings in urban versus suburban neighborhoods. And cultural factors seem to continue to play a role in many A.A. communities. William White in his book Slaying the Dragon, references outside studies that have shown that whites and black A.A.’s tend to attend groups in which they are members of the majority.

I’d like to end this section by saying that there are some researchers who believe that the level of participation in A.A. by people of color today is grossly underestimated. William White for example believes that if research and surveys were conducted in urban communities they would produce different results than when they are commonly held in suburban neighborhoods. That’s why we talk about remote communities as being relative from locality to locality. For example, both Chicago and Philadelphia A.A. have a higher percentage of people of color membership and participation in the service structure than the rest of the U.S., which has been the case since the 1960’s.

 FINAL CONSIDERATIONS

THE ROLE OF LANGUAGE

Our primary text, the Big Book Alcoholics Anonymous, is a document written over 80 years ago in a language that reflects the culture and experience of upper-middle class men of Anglo descent who were born at the tail end of Victorian era.

It is written in a gendered language style in which the male is seen as the universal and women are the customization, the “other”. When I sit down to read the book with a new woman in the program, especially a younger woman, I am constantly decoding the language of the Big Book to help them identify. Even the analysis of the alcoholic personality, the power driver that Bill is so found of, reflects the experience of men from a professional business background.

We ought not underestimate the role that language plays in attracting and keeping female members. Outside studies have shown that when, for example, an employment ad is written in gender neutral terms i.e. Police Officer versus Policeman, women are far more likely to apply for those jobs. Whether conscious or unconscious, is it possible that women members may be receiving a message that they don’t belong in A.A.?

In a 1962 letter, Ken C. of the Young People’s Group in Halifax, Nova Scotia, wrote to G.S.O. to express concerns about the phrase “potential alcoholic” in the Twelve and Twelve. He writes that the language in the chapter on Step One –

“It almost convinced me that I didn’t qualify.  This coupled with the fact that I was associating with many ‘low bottomers’ gave me a feeling of not belonging. […] Of course we realize that one of the most desperate needs of the newcomer is to have a sense of belonging. […]

“This may seem to some a needless thing to discuss.  Some will say, ‘If he or she is sincere this won’t bother him’ or ‘This guy is looking for an out, he probably wants to drink again.’

“Let’s face reality. […]  Many young people [when] they read this, leave A.A. because they rationalize that they are only ‘a little bit alcoholic’ and that somehow it might go away. The only ones I know of who have realized this hope, are the ones who hit the papers as accident victims, criminals, or obtain a small corner of the obituary column.”

Bill’s response acknowledges the challenges special composition groups face, and the resistance of the fellowship to adapt the language of his writing to the changing times:

“Most of [young people’s] difficulties have arisen from the fact that the more desperate cases in A.A. often patronize them, saying ‘You aren’t an alcoholic.’ Actually I had intended this part of the book to offset that sort of thing […] In this connection, there is another difficulty. My writings, after they have aged a bit, tend to get frozen, so that any change always produces the dickens of an uproar.

Here is a more current example: A.A.W.S. still publishes a pamphlet called “Too Young?” Imagine what your reaction would be if you saw a pamphlet on the rack that said, “Too Jewish?” or “Too Black?” While intending to be helpful, the language of our primary literature, and even some of our current pamphlets, is written from a perspective that places older male alcoholics at the center of A.A., while positioning women and young people in the margins.

VISIBILITY & PARTICIPATION

Our experience has taught us that one of the best ways to attract and retain more members from a culturally remote community is to have groups with more visibility and participation by similar members. William White posits in Slaying the Dragon that:

“ […] the ability of a local A.A. group to attract large numbers of women and people of color depends on reaching a critical mass of such involvement. [Because once a critical mass is reached] 1) incoming women and people of color begin to experience greater psychological safety; and 2) the numbers of women and people of color become large enough that people begin to adapt A.A. for increased gender and cultural relevance.”

What can this teach secular members? Roger C., in his books Don’t Tell and Do Tell!, explores the issue of visibility of the atheist agnostic experience in A.A. I believe that the more visible and active in service our atheist and agnostic members become – the more they share honestly about their experience at the meeting, intergroup and general service level – the more like-minded members will stay and speak out honestly, becoming visible members themselves.

In 1992, Michael Alexander, Chairman of the Board, solicited the Trustees to create reports on “Hard to Reach Alcoholics”. Tony H. of New York suggested that what was needed to reach more black alcoholics was “positive action in nominations and appointments” in service to show that “A.A. is truly for everyone”:

“More blacks will come to A.A. when more blacks are seen to be in A.A. Having blacks represented at all levels of service, the group, the district, the area, as staff members, directors, committee members, and trustees, sends a message to blacks that they belong, that they are wanted and needed here, just as having few or none sends the opposite message.”

Here are some notable moments from the history of participation by Black and African Americans in A.A.’s service structure.

  • In 1950, Jim S., the founder of Washington D.C.’s Cosmopolitan Group spoke on the main-stage of A.A.’s First International Conference in Cleveland. This was a big deal; Cleveland public schools didn’t integrate until 1964. The symbolic act of a black man sharing the stage with white men as an equal participant in Alcoholics Anonymous did much to establish the legitimacy of Black Groups and members from then on out.
  • In 1967, Lou R. of Philadelphia was the first black man to be elected Delegate to the General Service Conference. Lou was an early member of the Parkside Interracial Group, which formed in 1951. From day one, the Parkside Group emphasized the importance of the Twelve Traditions and A.A.’s Third Legacy of Service. Lou travelled all around Pennsylvania with his sponsor, convincing districts to form committees and participate in the election of their Delegate. Black Groups in Philadelphia were highly active in the service structure of Eastern Pennsylvania since the 1950’s, and today, Philadelphia boasts one of the highest proportion of black membership in a local A.A. population. As a delegate, Lou travelled around the country to speak about General Service and the Concepts. Once in 1967, Lou was invited to speak at the Indiana State Convention by a fellow delegate and his invitation was rescinded by the host committee when they discovered he was black.
  • In 1980 and 1985, there was a conscious and determined effort by the International Conference coordinators at G.S.O. to select a diversity of speakers for the Seattle and San Diego Internationals. In the years following the International Conference in San Diego, the San Diego intergroup reported an increase in black participation in meetings.
  • In 1982, Elaine McDowell, a professional in the treatment and mental health field, became the first African American to be elected to the General Service Board, as a Class A (non-alcoholic) Trustee. She served for nine years and was then elected as the Chair-Person of the Board in 2001.

PUBLIC INFORMATION & CO-OPERATION WITH THE PROFESSIONAL COMMUNITY

Probably no one did more for attracting women to Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1940’s and 1950’s than Marty M. As founder of the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism (now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence), Marty travelled extensively, publicly telling her story of how she got sober in Alcoholics Anonymous. Of course Marty’s story carries many lessons about the pitfalls of breaking one’s anonymity and the dangers of affiliation, but we can’t discount the important role her public speaking and her co-operation with professionals, such as the Yale School of Alcohol Studies (now at Rutgers University), contributed to A.A.’s overall growth and women’s participation in the fellowship

A.A.W.S. publishes numerous service pieces and workbooks that contain shared experience on co-operating with professionals and speaking to the public, available at www.aa.org, and secular groups should not hesitate to make use of them. Members of local C.P.C. (Co-operation with the Professional Community) committees inform professionals and future professionals about A.A.— what we are, where we are, what we can do, and what we cannot do. They attempt to establish better communication between A.A.’s and professionals, and to find simple, effective ways of cooperating without affiliating. Members of local P.I. (Public Information) committees convey A.A. information to the general public through activities such as giving A.A. information talks at schools and civic organization meetings, providing A.A. literature to schools and offices, and insuring local media have accurate information and providing them with A.A. public service announcements.

The participation of women, young people and people of color in these committees can make a significant impact on the public and professional perception of A.A. as an inclusive society. I personally believe that atheists and agnostic members recovering in secular groups will have a significant role in future P.I.C.P.C. work, dispelling the erroneous belief that A.A. is a religious organization.

CONCLUSION

Our history is full of exceptional men and women like Jim B., Marty M., Ken C. and Joe McQ., who persisted and broke down barriers for future alcoholics. But these are exceptional cases, and there were many, many more alcoholics who understandably did not recover in an environment where they were marginalized or rejected.  I personally do not fault any of these newcomers who chose not to return or could not stay sober in an unwelcoming environment. I don’t believe it’s a matter of “not being desperate enough.” In my personal experience, and the experience of many others, psychological safety, the ability to identify, combined with a sense of connection and belonging are vital parts of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous. A newcomer’s willingness to work the Twelve Steps often depends on all these factors being present.

I would like to finish with a quote from a talk Barry L. gave in Montreal at the 1985 International Conference:

“I think the Third Tradition is about people who are not connected, who have felt for a long time that they didn’t belong. Who felt alienated, different, one way or another. Whether we actually were or not is unimportant; we felt alienated, isolated and ostracized. We felt different and outside. We were looking for a place to belong.”

For me, studying and sharing the history of culturally remote communities is about looking honestly at our past, not to wring our hands at our failings, but to learn from our mistakes and grow towards greater inclusiveness and effectiveness, like any good A.A. does in our individual recovery. It has helped me to deeply value our Traditions, especially our Third and Fourth Traditions. It has taught me that as alcoholics, we struggle in different ways but what brings us together is more important than what sets us apart, and that as Bill states in Tradition One in the Twelve and Twelve, we must hang together or die separately. I thank you for the service you are doing for Alcoholics Anonymous by being here, being visible and insisting on being your most authentic selves. I am grateful that your stories are being acknowledged by the Grapevine and the General Service Conference in our new literature.  Hopefully with more visibility and participation, by and within the secular A.A. groups, we can insure that the hand of A.A. will truly be there when anyone, including the atheist and agnostic alcoholic, reaches out for help.

Thank you.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“2014 Membership Survey.” New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. Service Material. 2014.

“AA Guidelines on Public Information.” New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. Service Material. Revised 2018.

“AA Guidelines on Cooperation with the Professional Community.” New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. Service Material. Revised 2018.

AA Grapevine Digital Archive. New York: AA Grapevine, Inc., n.d. Web. www.aagrapevine.org

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2004. Print.

  1. , Roger. Don’t Tell: Stories and Essays by Agnostics and Atheists in AA. AA Agnostica, 2014. Print.

C., Roger. Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA. AA Agnostica, 2015. Print.

C., Roger. “Toronto Intergroup yields to agnostics in AA.” AA Agnostica (2017). Web. www.aaagnostica.org

National Institute on Alcohol Use and Alcoholism. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. www.niaaa.nih.gov.

General Service Archives Collection. New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

Formanowicz, Margda & Moser, Franziska & Sczesny, Sabine. “Can Gender-Fair Language Reduce Gender Stereotyping and Discrimination?” Frontiers in Psychology. Vol 7. No. 25. (2016)

Kurtz, Ernest. Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. Center City, MN: Hazelden Educational Services, 1991. Print.

The Language of the Heart: Bill W’s Grapevine Writings. New York: The AA Grapevine, (1988)

P., Bob. Manuscript of A.A. World History. Unpublished Manuscript. 1985. N.p. Web.

SEPIA Archives Collection. Philadelphia: South Eastern Pennsylvania Intergroup Association of A.A.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2014. Print.

White, William L. Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America. Bloomington, IL: Chestnut Health Systems, 1998. Print.

Wing, Nell. Grateful to Have Been There: My 42 Years With Bill and Lois, and the Evolution of Alcoholics Anonymous. N.p.: Perseus Distribution Services, 1998. Print.

 [1] In April 2018, the 68th General Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous in the U.S.A. and Canada recommended that the pamphlet “The God Word” – currently published by the General Service Board of A.A., Great Britain – be adopted by A.A. World Services, Inc. with minor editorial changes. 


[2] For more on the history, resolution and ongoing mediation between the Toronto Intergroup and the Civil Rights Tribunal of Toronto, see Roger C.’s article “Toronto Intergroup yields to agnostics in A.A.” at https://aaagnostica.org/2017/02/02/toronto-intergroup-yields-to-agnostics-in-aa/

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  1. Christine L. October 28, 2018 at 11:39 am - Reply

    There is one additional book which I recommend that has some insights on the subject.  It is:

    Charlotte Kasl. Many Roads One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps.  Harper Perennial, 1992. Print.

  2. life-j October 28, 2018 at 11:30 am - Reply

    Jackie, thanks for this. I’m glad I got to attend your talk. While living in the Bay Area I had a number of opportunities to cross the racial divides in this country which I am grateful for, but I do observe issues of non-inclusiveness where I live now. They are not severe, but still, they’re there. And while I on a number of occasions have spoken up against the non-inclusiveness of black people and gay people, I am already sufficiently marginalized myself, even with 30 years sober (though that does give me a slight edge) for being a non-believer, that it is hard to keep it up on others’ behalf too. We do have a long way to go still, so thanks for doing this. I hope to be in shape to attend the symposium in February too.

  3. joe c October 28, 2018 at 9:21 am - Reply

    I have been looking forward to this essay … well, since I heard Jackie share this with the few in Toronto. Hey, there were four interesting meetings to choose from in the same Sunday August 26 time slot so we couldn’t all be in the same place at the same time. I’m glad this can now be enjoyed by the many and preserved as a go-to or link for others who see the value in the perspective and context that our larger AA history provides.

    I know that Jay and Bill,who orchestrated the first era of AA History Lovers Symposium in Sedona, could see it was time to rotate the stewardship of this annual gathering to Jackie B and I look forward to the first of Gen-next History Lovers. In 2019, “The Broad Highway” Feb 1-3 in Los Altos is on my things-to-do list. I continue to encourage those with an interest in AAs past or future to make a weekend of at least one of these content-rich weekends. Think about penciling these dates in and check out this link. Maybe I’ll see you there.

    httos://www.aahistorysymposium.org

    Just to pick out one observation:

    “We ought not underestimate the role that language plays in attracting and keeping female members. Outside studies have shown that when, for example, an employment ad is written in gender neutral terms i.e. Police Officer versus Policeman, women are far more likely to apply for those jobs. Whether conscious or unconscious, is it possible that women members may be receiving a message that they don’t belong in A.A.?”

    Its not surprising that AAs slow-to-adapt approach to messaging has spawned Women for Sobriety in the 1970s, Secular Organizations for Sobriety in the 1980s and others of course. AA today, doesn’t mean to marginalize women, youth, non-theists or others from a variety of ethnic, cultural or sexual identity or orientations. But our reticence  to adapt to the times may be a factor in our demographic digression from the diversifying society just outside our meeting doors.

    “Language,” as Jackie pointed out ought not be sacred. While we hear about singular ness of purpose, let’s not allow maintaining our integrity to be mixed up with failure to adapt. As has been articulated, AA is founded on principles – make those sacred if you like – but principle are fluid and I wonder if we show them the respect they deserve when we neglect the upkeep of the language that articulates our principles.

    Just because some of us from underrepresented populations overcome AA’s language-barriers, I think about others who have not, or cannot. I don’t think sticking to our principles ever meant making some alcoholics feel uninvited to the party. Language makes a difference and demographic tell us how we’re doing. I see more good than bad been done by AAs stewards but renewal is ongoing.  I think about it in AA-as-a-whole terms but I try to remember to act locally.

    A great read like this helps me think about the language I use and how I can help make make AA inviting to all who seek our help. Thanks again Jackie and Team-AA Beyond Belief.

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