The novelist E.L. Doctorow said that for him writing a book was like driving at night with the headlights on – he could only see a short distance ahead, but he could make the whole trip that way. Anne Lamott, another writer, extended Doctorow’s metaphor and said that everything we try in life is like following our headlights at night. None of us can see the entire road ahead, but we can follow short, moving sections of illumination. I have been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for over thirty years. I am also a lifelong American citizen. My headlights reveal that my road both in the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship and in American society is a road of dissent.
AA sees alcoholism as a physical, mental, and spiritual illness, a malady that affects the entire person (Kurtz, 1979, p. 199). While AA addresses the physical and mental aspects of alcoholism the crux of the AA program is spiritual, because according to AA’s basic text, “When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically” (AA, 2001, p. 64). Alcoholism also profoundly affects the alcoholic not just as an individual but as a member of society. Bill Wilson described drinking alcoholics as often “disgustingly, and even dangerously anti-social” (AA, 2001, p. 21). Bill wrote that while sobering the alcoholic up is an essential starting point, recovery in AA should eventually work its way outward from the individual to society at large; the truly healthy recovering alcoholic becomes again a citizen of “the world that we rejected, and of the world that once rejected us” (AA, 1967, p. 21). Social reintegration, not just sobriety, is the ultimate goal. This corresponds with psychological treatments for addiction and with well-being in general. Numerous studies have shown strong positive correlations between healthy social connections and both mental and physical health.
Social reintegration sounds great, assuming society itself is healthy. But what if that isn’t the case? Bill Wilson had some great qualities, but he was not much of a social critic. While Bill was no Pollyanna, I know of no evidence that he ever questioned the basic structure of our society. He aspired to upper middle class or even upper-class society, and he apparently greatly admired wealthy people like John D. Rockefeller, from whom he tried to solicit funds for AA (Kurtz, 1979, p. 94-95). My view of American social structure is very different from Bill’s. From childhood I have questioned some basic tenets of American culture. I began reading the local newspaper at a young age and have had serious issues with our political economy from the time I was a child. In my lifetime I’ve also seen a lot of changes in America: increasing economic inequality, attacks on the social safety net, the Great Recession and subsequent bailouts, and multiple tax cuts for the rich and corporations. Experience confirms my youthful suspicions about the fundamental unfairness of our social structure. In my estimation, we live in a very sick society.
I was never particularly well integrated into American society, but even if I had been, why would I want to be reintegrated into such a society? What Bill Wilson considered a healthy reintegration would for me be an unhealthy compromise of my values. AA enabled me to quit drinking and to reintegrate into society enough to stay out of jail, hold a job, be responsible to my family, and contribute to society in other ways. But unlike Bill Wilson, I am a dissident. My values don’t align with typical American values. This affects the way I do AA, especially regarding social reintegration.
As I got and stayed sober, I integrated into the AA fellowship. For me this included acceptance of AA’s mythological and religious elements. AA mythology consists primarily of a loosely Christian theological framework and Bill Wilson’s conversion experience. AA religion consists primarily of meeting attendance and practicing the Twelve Steps, and for me both of these activities included heavy doses of prayer. When I was newly sober AA’s religiosity didn’t deter me. I was afraid that if I couldn’t make it in AA, I would end up dead or in prison, so I was willing to try AA’s quasi-Christian brand of spirituality. As I attended meetings and progressed through the Steps, I became a nominal though still often skeptical believer. I got the AA religion.
My reintegration into American society was more difficult. I resented many of our social institutions before I became an alcoholic, I resented them during my drinking, and I have resented some of them for the three decades I’ve been sober. As Bill Wilson noted, many of these institutions harm or threaten me (AA, 2001, p. 64-65). However, contrary to Bill’s claim, this harm often has nothing to do with any previous selfish action on my part (AA, 2001, p. 62). These institutions harm me as a matter of course based on the principles by which they operate. They pursue profit or power or both and often harm me in their pursuits.
In America, the profit motive is generally seen as delivering the most good for the most people. This principle is taught as immutable law in many K-12 and higher education classrooms and is a bedrock of our culture. Yet I believe this principle is flawed and harmful. The profit motive may produce the most goods, but I can’t see that it produces the most good. Social institutions (primarily corporations) animated by the profit motive have produced immense wealth. They have also produced immense problems: pools of unemployed and underemployed workers, recurring financial crises, relatively high poverty levels, an inefficient health care system, an inferior public education system, and increasing pollution. America today is a political economy that some have called a corporatocracy. Corporations have so much power they may be the de facto rulers of our country. And while America still has a high standard of living, when compared to other nations we score well down the scale on ratings of the overall well-being of our citizens.
Capitalism, unless it is highly regulated, may be incompatible with any equitable or sustainable political economy. Political scientist Robert Dahl noted that while capitalism can help establish democracy early in a nation’s development, once universal suffrage is attained capitalism becomes antidemocratic. The economic inequalities that capitalism produces translate into increasing political inequalities, undermining the already extremely limited power the average citizen can exercise through voting (1998, p. 178). The environmental effects of capitalism are even more alarming. Many environmentalists believe that capitalism, with its demand for continuous GDP growth and the resulting pollution and resource depletion, is completely unsustainable and threatens to make our planet uninhabitable.
I obviously don’t share Bill Wilson’s bourgeois approval of American society. So again, why would I want to be reintegrated into such a society? The answer is simple: reintegration might be necessary for my sobriety and my happiness. I don’t want to be destroyed by alcoholism and I want to enjoy life. I must earn my bread in society, and I have no desire to become a hermit. Bill Wilson described our desire for society as a basic human instinct (AA, 1952, 42). Social scientists agree, saying the desire for social inclusion is part of human nature. It’s in our DNA. We are literally programmed to need groups. Nature apparently designed social exclusion to be painful, whether that exclusion is a snub on the schoolyard or political disenfranchisement. I need to feel that I’m a full-fledged member of the AA fellowship and a full-fledged member of American society. I hope I can become more integrated in both the AA fellowship and in American society, and I find myself naturally and unconsciously trying to do so. I believe these reintegrations require me to embrace my role as a dissident in both AA and in America. I believe that being a dissident is my place in both societies, that ironically, I belong as a dissident. If I am willing to be a dissident, and if both societies are willing to tolerate my dissent, then my reintegration can become more complete.
My membership in the AA fellowship has recently undergone a radical transformation. After about twenty-five years of sobriety I became an agnostic. This was a painful experience that happened gradually over about five years. I lost the AA religion, or more accurately I think I simply outgrew it. Although I no longer believe in the AA mythology, I still believe in and need the power of the AA fellowship. The power of one alcoholic helping another is fundamental to AA; in fact, I think it is more fundamental than AA’s mythology. I have discovered that I am now a dissident in AA. I helped start an agnostic group in my city and I talk freely about my agnosticism in traditional AA groups.
AA and America have always tolerated some dissent. AA has no formal process to punish nonconforming AA members or groups. The secular movement within AA is established and growing. AA recently published literature specifically for agnostic and atheist members or potential members, after decades of refusing to do so. This could be very significant considering how Bill Wilson denigrated agnosticism and atheism in early AA literature. America’s tolerance for dissent is difficult to gauge. America was founded by dissidents, but our nation’s treatment of subsequent dissidents is chequered. While the founders felt justified in dissenting to the point of starting a war, the ruling elites have expected later generations to be content with dissenting at the rather undemocratic ballot box. But democratic ideas and aspirations are hard to extinguish, and they keep flaring up.
My participation in the AA fellowship encourages true democracy. AA is the most democratic social institution I have experienced. At the local group level AA is a pure, participatory democracy where all members can vote on the group’s decisions. Above the group level AA is a representative democracy with few limitations on who can become an elected representative. America is a different story. Voting is an ineffective way to affect society when the corporatocracy dominates the political system. Under our current system political candidates often need massive amounts of money just to get elected. This tends to leave them beholden to their benefactors instead of to the greater good. Even Bill Wilson cited the old adage that ‘Whoever pays the piper calls the tune’ (AA, 1952, 164).
Despite the shortcomings of both AA and America I am grateful to both societies. AA probably saved my life. At the very least, it improved my life immensely, and I hope to positively influence our fellowship. There is also much to be said for America, and I hope to positively influence our nation. I hope both societies become more open to my dissenting beliefs, but I will try to do the next right thing no matter how others react. In the Harper Lee novel To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus Finch, the white lawyer defending a wrongly accused black man, says that “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” (1960, p. 109). I ultimately answer to my own conscience, and I believe my conscience will be my greatest source of illumination as I try to follow my headlights, stay on the road, and complete my journey.
Alcoholics Anonymous (1952). Twelve steps and twelve traditions. New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.
Alcoholics Anonymous (1967). As Bill sees it: The A.A. way of life… selected writings of A.A.’s cofounder. New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.
Alcoholics Anonymous (2001, 4th ed.). Alcoholics anonymous: The story of how many thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism. New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.
Dahl, R.A. (1998). On democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Kurtz, E. (1979). Not-God: A history of Alcoholics Anonymous. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Lee, H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. New York, NY: Warner Books.
About the Author, Dean W.
I got clean and sober in 1988. In June 2018 I helped launch the We Agnostics group in Elkhart, Indiana, where I live with my wife and our Rottweiler. I’m something of a jack of all trades – I’ve worked as a warehouse foreperson, an autoworker, a tool and die maker, a high school substitute teacher, and a college adjunct instructor, among other things. I recently applied to the MA in English program at Indiana University South Bend.