AA meetings are held in a wide variety of locations. Rooms are rented from churches, schools and community organizations. Treatment centers often give free space. In most cities, AA members, separate from AA itself, band together to establish ”clubhouses“; storefronts or houses used exclusively for Twelve Step meetings and socialization by groupers.
The membership of different groups varies widely. The most readily observable differences are social and economic status and age. In wealthier neighborhoods, of course, the membership is wealthier, in poor neighborhoods, poorer. There are also many exclusive meetings in private homes where an invitation is necessary and “undesirables,” however they may be defined, are not invited.
The size of the meetings also varies tremendously, from perhaps half a dozen groupers to hundreds. The larger and more prestigious meetings consistently have speakers with twenty or more years of Time. In Los Angeles, celebrities also lend prestige and the amount of Time they have is of less importance than their celebrity status.
A more prestigious meeting tends to take on the atmosphere of a great crusade. Members of the cheerful crowd greet each other with hugs and pleasantries, exchange bits of gossip about other members, discuss other meetings and share anticipation of the speaker’s message. In keeping with the traditions of the Oxford Group, everyone is on a first name basis. Larger meetings normally have one or two speakers who give their “pitch.” Sometimes, one speaker meetings open the floor to questions on the Program for the speaker who, having Time, acts as authority.
Most meetings are smaller; usually substantially less than one hundred people. They usually open up to “sharing” for witness and confession by individual groupers after the speaker, exactly as was done at Oxford Group meetings. This “Gospel of Personal Experience,” whether done by just one elder or by the participation of as many groupers as time allows, is the core of all meetings.
the reading of sacred texts
Also part of every meeting is the reading of sacred text. Oxford group, being “more spiritual than religious” used the Bible for readings. Alcoholics Anonymous, being “spiritual not religious,” doesn’t use the Bible at all but the inspired Word of God as expressed through Bill Wilson; the Big Book provides the sacred text.*1
The Twelve Steps are read at almost every meeting. When taking collection, called ”The Seventh tradition,“ the Twelve Traditions are read, bringing a spiritual context to the collection of money.
Among the most popular readings is an abbreviated version of Chapter Five from the Big Book. In it, the recovery program of AA is laid out, beginning with “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path…,” through the Twelve Steps, and ending with AA’s description of the predicament of the alcoholic and the solution to his problems:
|“||(a)||That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.|
|(b)||That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.|
|(c)||That God could and would if He were sought.”152|
In continuing the traditions of the Oxford Group, AA uses elders as preachers. The quality of the speakers varies but almost anyone with more than a few months Time is a passable if not excellent speaker, able to “carry the message” skillfully with sincerity, passion and humor. Better speakers tend to have the worst “bottoms,” both emotionally and behaviorally. Having the worst bottoms, they are living testimonials to the great recovery available to anyone through AA.
To hear the “best” speakers it is usually necessary to go to the more prestigious meetings. Since so few groupers manage to attain 10, 20 or 30 years of “sobriety,” people with a great deal of Time are in great demand. In the competition for speakers, the larger, more prestigious meetings usually win out.
sharing experience, strength, and hope
The speech itself is called “sharing,” just as in the Oxford Group. It is Oxford Group’s “Gospel of Personal Experience” although it is now called “sharing personal experience,” “Twelfth Step sharing,” or “sharing experience, strength, and hope.”
This sharing, more aptly called a sermon, begins with the telling of immorality, misery and ruination at the hands of Devil Drink, now referred to as alcohol or alcoholism. It goes on to tell of “spiritual awakening” in AA. Unlike Oxford Group which attributed salvation and redemption by Jesus through the Oxford Group,*2 AA proclaims “recovery” by one’s “Higher Power” through the Twelve Steps and Alcoholics Anonymous. The general format for the sermon is, “What it was like then, how I got here and what it is like now.” In order to “not preach,” the speaker carefully restricts use of the word “you.” Almost everything is said in terms of “I,” “we” and “alcoholics.”
The speaker opens the sermon by identifying himself by his first name and “disease” or “diseases.” The diseases are usually defined as such by the existence of Twelve Step programs to “recover” from them. For instance, “My name is John and I’m an alcoholic and a junkie.” Using only the first name is thought to protect anonymity and maintain humility. Labeling oneself as “alcoholic,” with or without other diseases, is considered essential for beginners to help break through “denial” and establish humility. It is also considered essential in maintaining recovery because, unless humility is maintained, God will not protect the alcoholic from Devil Drink.
After identifying himself, the speaker may tell a joke on himself or alcoholics in general to warm up the audience before beginning with “what it was like.” He recites his past in terms of the “disease” of alcoholism. The word sin is never used, but it is hardly a medical history as might seem appropriate to those who only know of alcoholism through public statements of people “in recovery” and treatment industry advertising. The word “sin” is replaced with “defects of character.” Unlike the Oxford Group members, who confessed to having been “wretched” or “lost” sinners, today’s AA groupers confess to having been “sick,” “suffering” or “drinking” alcoholics.
The main theme of this part of the sermon is the confession (called “admitting” in AA) of “defectiveness” and “powerlessness” “from the beginning.” Confession of the worst sins are usually made with little sadness, guilt or penance attached and often in a joking, sensationalistic manner.*3 The confession of sins may begin in childhood or with the first drink.
Sins of childhood generally cover three main areas; physical, emotional and spiritual, since alcoholism is considered a physical, emotional and spiritual disease. The physical aspect of the disease can include symptoms of “alcoholic thinking” and “reacting wrong” before ever having had a drink. For instance, I remember one speaker who told of being punished as an eleven year old for making a B on his report card instead of his customary straight A’s. He was grounded and forced to stay in his bedroom for the next semester. He then told how he reacted wrong; he became rebellious.
Any childhood misbehavior is held up as a symptom of disease. Another speaker shared a rather popular theme. As a child, he thought he was adopted even though he wasn’t. Among the emotional symptoms of the disease in childhood are having felt lonely, sad, angry and different; as though one didn’t belong. These “symptoms” are described in the context of “abnormal” or “alcoholic” sensitivity as Bill Wilson described his despair as a child at being abandoned by his father to his mentally ill, abusive mother.
While AA attributes all “character defects” to “not working a spiritual program,” AA spirituality is usually mentioned to newcomers in only the broadest terms.
Often, the speaker will tell a story about himself to prove that he has always been defective. This may be at the time of the first drink taken but often predates it. One man shared that, when he was sixteen, a girl he had been going with for a year broke up with him. “I felt abandoned,” and continued, “I’ve always been that way.” Another speaker told how she always had behavior problems. At two and a half, she would lay awake at night. “My father was a psychiatrist so I know it wasn’t anything my parents did.” She knew she was defective from the start. Earlier, however, she had shared that her grandmother died when she was two and a half. Her wise parents told her Grandma was asleep; they didn’t want to upset her. When speaking of themselves in childhood, AA members always describe themselves, with all sincerity, as “bad.”
The portion of the sermon which begins with the first drink ever taken and ends with finding AA is called the “drunk-a-log.” Sermons often begin here and often it is almost the entire sermon. It is here, beginning with the first drink, that the speaker “qualifies.” To “qualify” means to prove one’s authority, wisdom and right to preach to others by telling how incompetent one has been with respect to alcohol. Usually beginning with, “I drank alcoholically from the start,” the speaker tells of loss of control over both drinking and behavior. Except for the seriousness with which the concept is held, the overall message is reminiscent of Flip Wilson’s comic character Geraldine saying, “The Devil made me do it.” The greater the “sins” committed while under the influence of Devil Drink, the more appreciation the congregation of groupers shows for the speaker. The speaker confirms for them the Powerlessness of an “alcoholic” in the face of the “cunning, baffling, and powerful” disease of alcoholism.
In speaking of the individual symptoms of the disease, the speaker offers specific characteristics of alcoholics which vary somewhat from speaker to speaker. Among ones which may be heard are, “I thought it was cool to drink.” “I feel euphoric when I drink; alcoholics are different.” “I was angry at the world.”
Whatever the particular symptoms given, the speaker paints everything in his past, prior to AA, in terms of “unmanageability,” hopelessness, desperation and “disease.” All pre-AA hopes, dreams, emotion and thought are now recognized to have been the result of “the disease.”
To prove their powerlessness, speakers usually admit to futile attempts to stop drinking “alone,” meaning without AA. Jokes are made about their personal experience of the futility of various therapies. Speakers ridicule themselves for any attempts to stop drinking without AA even if they succeeded for months or years longer than they have in AA. They also ridicule themselves for not admitting their disease and its “true nature,” meaning their own Powerlessness.
This is often the point where impassioned pleas are made to the newcomer. “Alcoholics rarely recover on their own.” The speaker may then point to the Twelve Steps posted on the wall. “Look, this is a ‘we’ program, not an ‘I’ program. You don’t have to do it alone. Let us love you until you learn to love yourself.”
The first timer at a meeting may be awed by the sincerity, “honesty” and telling of intimate secrets. This is a direct result of the “humility” of the speaker as expressed through his admission of the “unmanageability” of his life before AA and his “powerlessness” in the face of alcoholism. The theme is expanded in slogans like, “My best thinking got me here,” and “I am my own worst enemy.” The speaker will often admit his motivation for “working with others,” including speaking, is to “stay sober myself.” The speaker never suggests there are good qualities within himself. All good flows from the Program.
The “how I got here” portion of the sermon maintains the humility of the speaker. First time attendees attribute their presence to a variety of reasons: court order, “intervention,” or a friend’s suggestion, among others. Even highly religious persons attribute their arrival to a variety of reasons. The person with Time, however, has always been guided by the direct intervention of God. God got them arrested, had their family intervene or sent an “Eskimo” (an AA elder).*4 to “bring me in from the cold.” Never, ever, have I heard an AA speaker say anything remotely resembling, “I thought I had a problem so I used the brains God gave me and sought help.” The speaker is likely, with all due humility, to instead announce, “I thought. Ha! Ha!” to which the groupers respond with knowing laughter.
The “what it is like now” portion of the sermon is an expression of gratitude toward AA and a demonstration of recovery in AA. This portion usually stresses the sincerely held belief that, “AA saved my life.” Examples are often given of people who, not having found the Program or not having stayed in the Program, eventually drank themselves to death. The speaker holds himself up as someone saved from inevitable “jails, institutions, and death” by Alcoholics Anonymous. Since AA rescued the drinking alcoholic from the clutches of Devil Drink, anything now perceived as good in the speaker’s life is directly attributed to the Program, since without AA the speaker wouldn’t even be alive. “I owe my life to Alcoholics Anonymous.”
The speaker goes into detail about the benefits received by working the steps. Among the most important and frequently cited is the finding of Serenity. Serenity, as portrayed by the speaker is not suffering from the feeling presumably experienced only by the drinking alcoholic. It is usually described as a state of “evenness.” This evenness is due to no longer feeling resentments (anger) and self pity (sadness, loneliness, or hopelessness). It also includes not feeling extremes of happiness, or “too” good. The only human emotion that seems consistent with Serenity is Gratitude. This state is referred to as “utopia” in the Big Book.*5
The speaker will tell how serenity is maintained “One day at a time” by working the Steps. He will perhaps give examples of how his serenity was temporarily lost or endangered by allowing an evil internal force (personalized as “My alcoholic told me…”) to come between himself and his Higher Power.
If the speaker has told of “not being understood” in his “suffering alcoholic” days, he will now tell of the understanding found in AA. “I never felt I was understood. I didn’t know I was an alcoholic. Normies can’t understand an alcoholic. Only another alcoholic can understand.”
Related to “being understood” is “belonging.” “I never felt like I belonged. I belong here. I am an alcoholic.” The speaker may tell of the love found in AA and and describe AA as “my real family.” Among the loving acts attributed to AA is “They loved me enough to tell me the truth.” This is another point where the speaker may implore the newcomer to “Let us love you until you learn to love yourself.” Evidence of how the speaker has learned to love himself is often expressed by “I get on my knees every morning and admit my powerlessness,” “I work the steps,” and “I force myself to go to meetings even when I don’t want to.”
There is a sharp dividing line between what is “good” and what is “bad” in AA. Everything good in life is attributed to “working a Spiritual Program.” Everything “bad,” such as emotions other than Gratitude, troubling thoughts, and wanting to drink are attributed, in part, to the “alcoholic self,” not following direction (Oxford Group’s Guidance) from God, one’s sponsor and other elders, not attending enough meetings, forgetting one’s own Powerlessness, not working the Steps, and not “working with others.”
The “what it is like now” portion of the sermon can be summarized as “No matter how ‘bad’ you are and have been, I was worse and AA keeps me ‘good.’ I don’t feel pain. You can be good and not feel pain too.”
The speaker models being good in many ways. He doesn’t show “bad” feelings, instead displaying Gratitude, Serenity and good cheer. When speaking of past trauma, instead of expressing the feelings normally associated with tragedy, he will laugh at himself and often invites the other groupers to join in with a self disparaging joke. Laughing at his own pain and inviting others to join in allows him to demonstrate how he has “recovered” in the Program.
The congregation assists the good speaker with unanimous responses to the slogans and other ultimate truths. They don’t often shout “Amen,” but rather shout “right on” and “yeah,” nod in agreement and burst into applause or laughter at the appropriate moments. This is not to suggest that the groupers consciously work together to respond in a particular fashion but that they all hold the same beliefs and view things from a similar perspective. If a speaker tells a joke about how he “thought,” all the groupers, knowing how alcoholics suffer from “alcoholic thinking,” are compelled to laugh along. A speaker may tell of a tragedy that befell him because he didn’t take the first step seriously enough. Everyone knows what happens when powerlessness is not admitted, so they can nod in agreement. When a speaker says, “When I’m alone with myself I’m behind enemy lines,” the groupers can all relate and laugh along because they know what it is like to be alone with themselves.
Speakers find it important to give certain warnings to the newcomer. These are consistent with the presumed three major components of alcoholism as a physical, emotional and spiritual disease. Under the physical attributes falls the presumed uncontrollable craving that develops after the first drink or perhaps just a sip. The warning slogans are, “One drink, one drunk,” and “Don’t drink or use no matter what.”
Another area, which could be attributed to either the physical or emotional aspect of the disease, is “alcoholic thinking.” Symptoms that the newcomer is cautioned to watch out for (dangerous thoughts) are: thinking you might not be an alcoholic, thinking you don’t need the Program, disagreement with someone with more Time, thinking you don’t need a sponsor or thinking that you can stop at one drink. The speaker often uses himself as an example and may give the warning indirectly. “When I was new, they told me I needed to work the first step. I thought I didn’t need to. Let me tell you, not everyone makes it back.” The speaker may then go on to list AA members who drank themselves to death as a result of not following direction, of not “Surrendering to the Program.”
Newcomers are warned against the emotional symptoms of the disease such as feeling angry, sad, lonely or afraid. These feelings are all ways that “cunning, baffling, and powerful” alcohol impels an alcoholic, against his will, to take the first drink. The speaker may say, “I can’t afford to be angry anymore,” or “Resentment is the number one reason for slipping.” Sadness, loneliness and hopelessness, grouped together as self pity or “being on the pity pot,” are also symptoms of alcoholism and tricks used by “my alcoholic” (the “Evil One” of Oxford Group) to “lead me to the first drink.” According to the Big Book, “Sometimes we think fear ought to be classed with stealing. It seems to cause more trouble.”153 A speaker may caution the newcomer with, “F.E.A.R.: False Evidence Appearing Real.”
“Spirituality” is generally treated rather lightly at newcomer meetings because, as the Big Book cautions, “There is no use arousing any prejudice he [the pigeon] may have against certain theological terms and conceptions about which he may already be confused.”154
One of the most popular slogans which gives a warning of a spiritual nature is, “Don’t leave five minutes before the miracle,” meaning Serenity is just around the corner. Also of a spiritual nature, although they may not be presented that way, are warnings of what happens when one doesn’t admit one’s disease, doesn’t work the Steps or doesn’t get a sponsor.
The warnings and aims of a newcomer’s meeting are well summed up by one of the more popular slogans, “H.A.L.T.: Don’t get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.” All four are considered to put an alcoholic at risk of taking the first drink. Hunger and tiredness can be attended to by the newcomer himself but anger and loneliness are emotional symptoms of a spiritual disease which need spiritual attention. The newcomer is cautioned to either telephone an AA member or go to a meeting at the first sign of a bad emotion or wanting to drink. Going to meetings and getting direction from an Elder are both considered spiritual in AA even if they are not presented to the newcomer as spiritual principles.
Little direct advice is normally given at a newcomer meeting but what is given is presented carefully. The most important step in rescuing the “still suffering alcoholic” is to get them to commit to attending more meetings. The only direct advice that may be given can be summed up by the slogan “90 meetings in 90 days.” One popular way of expressing this and exhorting the newcomer to return is “Just stick around for 90 days and we will refund your misery.” The suggestion may also be of the form “If you are new here, you are too new to know if you need AA, so just go to 90 meetings in 90 days and then you can decide.”
Other common suggestions are to begin working the steps, “No one ever drank while working the steps,” and to get a sponsor. Those who doubt they have the disease may be encouraged to “Just stop for a year. Only an alcoholic would have a problem with it or object to it.”
Meetings often include the ritual of giving “chips” and observing “birthdays.” Chips, tokens such as key rings or medallions, are given for “varying lengths of sobriety.” The periods observed in this way are 30, 60, 90, and 180 days. Each honored member usually has a few moments to address the congregation. He expresses gratitude to the Program for making it all possible and exhorts those with less Time to “Keep coming back, it really works!”
Following the giving of chips, birthdays are celebrated. It is a joyous occasion complete with cake, candles and the singing of “Happy Birthday” by the entire congregation to observe the achievement of one or more years of continuous abstinence. For the AA member, it is public acknowledgment of “working a good program” and a celebration of AA’s most intensely held value, absolute abstinence. The AA birthday supercedes the importance of “natal” birthdays, which must be distinguished in conversation to avoid confusion.
While the AA birthday is a joyous occasion marking spiritual progress, “natal” birthdays are seen as a day when the grouper is in special danger of drinking, as are all holidays celebrated by “normies.” Real birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Eve are all days in which one is particularly vulnerable to Devil Drink. One is warned that, at these times, it is wise to stay particularly close to the Program. To this end, marathon, twenty four hour meetings are held on holidays.
opening the floor for witness and confession
Most meetings open the floor for witnessing and confession from the congregation. New groupers, with only days, weeks or months of Time, engage in Oxford Group’s “sharing for confession,” now called “Fifth Step haring.” These confessions, known as “being honest” and “admitting defects of character” are, in contrast to the Twelfth Step sharing of the speaker, usually highly charged with anger, sadness and remorse. Among the most emotional confessions are those of someone who has had a drink of alcohol. The penitent will share his realization of Powerlessness and express great Humility. Humility and self humiliation are always cheerfully applauded by AA members. These are qualities at the heart of AA spiritually and are held as essential to maintaining recovery.*6
If the sharer deviates from AA doctrine, the audience may respond with derisive laughter, boos, stony silence, patronization or expressions of fear for the sharer. Groupers with more Time will “help” the novice. For instance, if someone with three months Time should announce that he has stayed sober without working the steps, an Elder (someone with more than three months) may share how the Steps are but suggestions and no one has to work them if they don’t want to. He will then go on to list all the pitiful examples of those who drank themselves to death because “their disease told them” they didn’t need to work the Steps.
Groupers with Time are interspersed with “beginners.” Those with Time share in the same fashion as the speaker, often thanking the speaker for his wise words and, perhaps, testifying to the speaker’s “having good sobriety.” They will also give their own abbreviated version of “What it was like then and what it is like now,” witnessing to their own miraculous recovery in AA.
There is no sharp dividing line between those who engage in sharing for witness and those who share for confession. A sharer may first make a tearful confession then follow it with praise for the Program. Nor is a great deal of Time necessary to engage in Twelfth Step sharing. The difference is determined by a grouper’s relative status in a meeting. In a treatment center, for example, perhaps no one has even thirty days of abstinence. Under these circumstances, those with the most Time, even if only two or three weeks, tend to take on the role of elder authority and witness to the success of the AA based treatment and the wisdom of AA. They will also point out errors in thought and dispense advice to those with less Time.
One thing clear to the casual observer is the recovery evident in those with Time. They can laugh at things the newer grouper cries about. They have licked the alcohol problem and their good cheer and Serenity bear witness to the difference between themselves and those who have only begun in AA.
At the end of the meeting, someone is chosen to lead the closing prayer. This is usually the Lord’s Prayer but may be the Serenity Prayer. At the close of the prayer, the members all chant with conviction, “Keep coming back, it really works!” This is the end of the meeting but may not be the end of the meeting experience. Groupers get together for coffee afterward and the newcomer is invited.
the effects of the meeting on the newcomer
For the newcomer, much that the speaker says resonates at a very deep level within him. Whether he arrives under his own volition or court order, or even if he has already moderated or stopped drinking, he is in an extremely vulnerable position. The crutch, alcohol, which has been used for so long to reduce awareness of emotions, drown out the ability to think or as a defense against attributing real or imagined misbehavior to himself, is not, at the moment, a viable alternative.
When the speaker and other sharers tell about “what it was like,” the newcomer can relate to the feelings they suffered from prior to AA. Without alcohol to dull mental function, he is likely to be fighting off overwhelming feelings of anger, sadness, loneliness and “badness.”
It is not surprising that someone who has learned to automatically suppress self awareness would be at a loss to explain, even to himself, not only excessive drinking, but any of his behavior. When he hears of the “Powerlessness” and “unmanageability” of alcoholics, that they are victims of a disease, it rings true. His subjective experience is that his drinking comes from somewhere outside himself and lessons of learned helplessness carried forward from childhood leave him with a feeling of powerlessness.
Other characteristics of “drinking alcoholics” described at AA meetings are likely to hit home with the newcomer. Anyone whose self hatred is so intense that he seeks to drown normal mental functioning and self awareness feels unloved. By the same token, the newcomer to AA is likely to feel misunderstood. His self awareness is extremely limited. The problem is not so much an inability of others to understand buy an inability to understand and express himself. For instance, imagine that a problem drinker goes on a binge every time his feelings are hurt. The problem drinker may insist, especially to himself, that his feelings were not hurt. The drinking helps him be “not aware.” If the drinker has achieved his aim of “not being aware” by drinking, he would be unaware of his feelings having been hurt. Any suggestion by someone who actually does understand the situation that his feelings were indeed hurt would prove to him he wasn’t understood.
The newcomer is also likely to feel different from others. Having learned in early childhood that essential parts of his personality are bad and not to be acknowledged, he never has the opportunity to learn that other people have similar feelings and thoughts, or at least would have if they had suffered a similar situation. In AA, these feelings of being different are familiar to all. They are a symptom of “the disease.”
finding oneself a child at home again
The AA environment is a recreation of the addictive family system. The “bad” presented in an AA meeting is the same “bad” taught children in an addictive family system. One’s awareness, emotions and thinking are presented as symptoms of a disease. The ideal modeled by the speaker and other elders is the ideal taught to children in addictive family systems. The AA value of Serenity, an emotional void fillable only with Gratitude, closely matches childhood’s lessons of don’t be angry, sad, afraid, lonely or “too happy.” Those “in recovery” present themselves to newcomers as having achieved this drug like state of Serenity. It can be termed drug like, because drugs are the most efficient and popular way of suppressing normal human emotion.
The speaker also models the ideals taught in the addictive family system by discounting his own thinking. The child wasn’t ridiculed or punished for agreeing with his parents but for having “bad thoughts” or, better stated, questioning his parents’ statements, actions or attitudes. The speaker is a “good child.” He discounts his own thoughts.
One very attractive concept for the newcomer is that, unlike in the past where he could only blame alcohol for behavior when actually drinking, with AA’s disease of alcoholism, he can attribute everything troubling within himself to alcohol. Every feeling, thought, act or shortcoming which he deems “bad” is merely a disease symptom. This even includes before he has ever taken a drink. For example, if he still feels guilty about poor grades in school, even if he didn’t have his first drink until after graduation, he can now blame alcoholism. He is “good” and “innocent.” He is a victim of a disease. He is also in a room full of people who are in unanimous agreement. They agree because they “understand.”
There is a great deal promised to the newcomer. The most clearly and overtly made promise is that “It really works.” This means the newcomer will be able to share the solution found by others to the “alcohol problem” who were, according to their pitches, usually far worse off than the newcomer.
Perhaps the most attractive promise is the Serenity claimed and modeled by the AA elders. According to their statements and demeanor at meetings, they avoid or quickly dispose of “resentment” and “self pity.” They can, rather than feel pain, laugh at the most painful of experiences. Due to their Spiritual Program, they are above normal human emotion.
The newcomer is not necessarily overwhelmed by the meeting nor is he necessarily enthused about attending again. The only important point from the perspective of cult recruitment is that he does attend again, perhaps even making a commitment to attend 90 meetings in 90 days until he is “qualified” to decide whether he needs AA or not.
The first time visitor is often overwhelmed. He may find it extremely difficult to remain unmoved by what he has seen and heard. In the space of an hour or two, stories of wrecked and healed lives are presented. Newer members pour out their anguished hearts and souls. The audience may be moved in quick succession from sadness, to anger, to joy, to gratitude. Wild applause and laughter echos from the walls. The newcomer may leave his first encounter with the impression that the groupers, in spite of holding some odd beliefs and using rather cryptic language, are extremely sincere, open, happy and have found something that “really works.” But this is only a small part of the dynamics of a meeting. The more important, life changing effects of the meeting are much more subtle.
why meetings are important: Solomon Asch
The most important part of recruitment in any mind control cult is meeting attendance. One of the reasons for this is well demonstrated in a series of classic experiments done in the early 1950s by Solomon Asch.155
Various numbers of people in a room were given the job of determining which of two lines was longest even though one was obviously longer than the other. Each participant gave his answer in turn. This would be repeated several times. The catch was that all but the last to announce were confederates of the experimenter. They would all either give the right answer or all give the wrong answer. The purpose of the experiments were to determine the effect on the last person.
Only one in four of the subjects managed to remain independent and give the correct answer every time, even though the answer was obvious. Some of those who answered incorrectly were “just going along,” but some actually believed the obviously incorrect answers they gave were correct. Every one of them, even the ones who managed to stay independent, began to doubt their own perceptions.
The effect of the majority’s unanimity was to create distrust of one’s own perception. In the vast majority of cases it also changed the subject’s behavior. In the more extreme cases, it actually altered the person’s perceptions.
In everyday life, this can be considered to have little lasting effect. A Jewish person attending a Methodist church service will be confronted with many unanimous opinions directly contradicting his own. He may even wonder, for a moment, whether Jesus is the real Messiah but he is extremely unlikely to change his beliefs. He ultimately trusts his own life, his own thought processes and his own conclusions.
The situation is entirely different in a cult meeting. One of the major differences between legitimate organizations and mind control cults is that, in cults, one of the unanimous opinions is that the potential new member is incapable of exercising good judgment. Any disagreement or disbelief of doctrine is treated as a sign of that poor judgment. In AA, this is expressed as “alcoholic thinking” and “haven’t been around long enough to know.” It is also expressed in patronizing attitudes.
Patronizing attitudes are reflected in the names that members use to describe targets of indoctrination. Scientologists refer to them as “raw meat.” Oxford Group referred to them as “lost sheep.” Alcoholics Anonymous refers to them as “pigeons,” “beginners” and “babies.” Of course, all these terms are used lovingly.
the “critical factor” of the mind
Being a minority of one is far from the only factor which influences the potential recruit. Further explanation of cult mind control techniques calls for the use of a slightly expanded version of the model of the mind used in Chapter Five. As was discussed, the human mind is of two parts, the conscious and the subconscious. The conscious mind processes information and sends it to the subconscious for storage and later reference. One part of the conscious mind, which here will be called the “critical factor,” is responsible for critically interpreting information before it is stored in the subconscious for later use.
Imagine again a Jewish man at a Christian church service. He is likely to hear statements and phrases expressed in either the sermon or in the singing of hymns such as “Juesus is our Lord and Savior,” and “Jesus lives.” Statements about Jesus will be analyzed by the critical factor against ideas already held in the subconscious. They will be found to be not self relevant, to be other people’s beliefs, and will be stored as such. Just hearing the word Jesus would be a tip off that the information being received was about someone else’s religion. Statements about Jesus would be stored for later recall as fact, not about his own reality, but about Christian belief. There is little or no chance that he would be converted to Christianity.
Of course, the response of a Christian in a Jewish service would be identical. The information would be critically analyzed and stored in the subconscious, not as one’s own reality, but as information about Jewish beliefs and practices.
Now, imagine for a moment a person with no “critical factor.” He would store every piece of information unquestioningly in his subconscious as a “bottom line” truth. After leaving a Christian service he’d be Christian. The next day, if he were to go to a Jewish service, he’d leave with the Jewish faith. Witnessing a political debate, he would switch sides as quickly and often as the speakers changed. Every statement would be accepted uncritically. When he “went to check” his beliefs, he would find someone else’s beliefs in place of his own. He wouldn’t even recognize them as “not his.” Thinking they are his, which carries the “automatic” implication they are true, they are beyond questioning.
other ways of bypassing the “critical factor”
Of course, no one is so suggestible. Everyone has a “critical factor” which filters and processes information for storage. The important point for cult recruitment is to bypass the critical factor, the ability to analyze and alter information before storage in the subconscious. In Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, this is done in various ways. Combined with the effect of being “a minority of one” these methods can have profound effects on the personality.
One of the ways the critical factor is bypassed is in the “humility” of the speaker. People are rightly a little suspicious of others who claim to be doing “good deeds” expecting nothing in return. The AA speaker quickly lays this suspicion to rest; “I am doing this to stay sober myself.” There is never any hint that this is not true. Body language proves the sincerity of the speaker. The simple statement of the speaker carries several implications which may bypass the critical faculty with acceptance that the speaker is indeed speaking to stay sober. These are, “Speaking at AA meetings keeps people from drinking,” “The speaker is abstinent,” and “There is no ulterior motivation (and therefore no danger) involved.”
When the speaker discounts himself, it has the paradoxical effect of building credibility. It defies reason that someone would confess to terrible misbehavior and personal inadequacy, and then could turn around and give, with absolute sincerity, inaccurate information about “alcoholics” or “recovery” to the unanimous approval and agreement of a room full of people.
One of the popular ways to establish humility is for a speaker to say he is a liar. How is one to analyze what he has to say? He is obviously very sincere. Starting with stating he is a liar, he either is a liar and is now telling the truth, or he normally is not a liar, but is lying now, so he normally tells the truth. There is obviously great truth and meaning in this statement, judging by the unanimous understanding of the groupers. The problem is to find it. One’s own credibility is reduced; “I don’t understand.” The speaker’s credibility is increased, “What he is saying must have meaning.”
With the speaker’s sincerity established through “humility,” he is virtually unchallengeable since he says he is guilty. Planting thoughts in the pigeon’s subconscious becomes much easier.
As done by a skilled hypnotherapist, a skilled AA speaker presents statements in a certain order. A statement which otherwise would be rejected has a much better chance of slipping into the subconscious if it is immediately preceded by two or three unchallengeable statements. For example, a hypnotherapist, while inducing trance may say, “You can feel the weight of your body pressing down against the chair. Take now of your hands, whether they feel warm or cold. Now notice how your breathing is becoming deeper and slower.” The first two statements are unchallengeable and the mind is expecting another unchallengeable statement. In the third statement, the instruction to “notice how your breathing is becoming…,” normally slips by the critical faculty and the subconscious will act on it. The client will notice how his breathing is becoming deeper and slower.
This same method is used by AA speakers. In keeping with proper humility, speakers make some statement about themselves. “I thought I could stop alone.” This statement is unchallengeable. Anyone listening would have no basis to make a judgment except on the already established sincerity of the speaker. The statement is likely to be followed by, “Alcoholics usually won’t admit they can’t stop alone.” This is also “unchallengeable.” The newcomer has little frame of reference for the characteristics of alcoholics in general and must defer to the sincere “authority” and unanimous majority. “If you think you can stop on your own, let me advise you, you don’t have to.” Again nothing challengeable. The pigeon is now ill prepared to challenge any statement. Should the next statement be, “Let us love you until you learn to love yourself,” even if a person thinks, “No thanks,” several ideas may be planted in the subconscious. “Let us love you” implies that the speaker and other groupers are willing to love the newcomer. It also implies they are capable of loving. Another implication is that with AA, one will learn to love oneself.
One of the more important suggestions implanted this way is done with the ever popular slogans, “Alcoholics Anonymous requires no beliefs.” “The Steps are but suggestions only.” The speaker, having made these “unchallengeable” assertions, now will likely tell how a dearly beloved friend died because he didn’t work the Steps. The suggestion implanted in the subconscious is not that it is unnecessary to work the Steps, or to believe, but that one will die if he doesn’t work the Steps.
Another method of bypassing the critical faculty is the use of double binds. This is the use of a statement such as; “If this is your first meeting, and you are wondering if you might be alcoholic, let me assure you that you are. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.” Another example would be, “If you come into these rooms you belong here. Well, maybe one person in a million doesn’t belong here but, if you think you’re that person, then you really do belong here.” The only way out is to discredit the speaker but the speaker has already established his sincerity by discrediting himself. The only simple, “logical” conclusion is that one is an alcoholic and “belongs here.”
At an AA meeting, the tendency is for the newcomer’s critical faculty to be overwhelmed by hypnotic suggestion, double binds, being “a minority of one” and possibly also being in an extremely emotional environment. He is also likely to be in an overwhelming, almost impossible, struggle to understand the language. Everyone speaks in slogans and words seem to have different meanings.
the use of slogans
The most complex and most trivial of life’s problems are reduced to slogans in mind control cults. One of the hallmarks of these groups is their slogan ridden language. slogans are thought by members to contain great wisdom and ultimate truths and are used to express enduring doctrinal values. However, in spite of the perceived value of the slogan, it short circuits critical judgment and thought. For this reason, the jargon has been called “the language of non-thought.”156
In AA, a simple statement like, “No one ever drank while working the steps” conveys the concept that working the steps prevents drinking and that the person who has been drinking was at fault. He wasn’t working the steps. Of course this statement is about as true as any such simple statement can be. Its truth and wisdom stops further inquiry into the reason for someone’s drinking, offers the doctrinal solution for drinking and deflects consideration of any imperfection in AA. Of course, other unused but truer statements might be, “No one ever drank while scuba diving” and “No one ever drank on a space mission.”
AA’s most popular slogan is “One day at a time.” While this is presented to the public as nothing more than a core belief about AA’s method of maintaining abstinence “one day at a time,” it also serves much wider purposes. Alcholics are thought to concern themselves too much with the future and the past. It is a “disease” symptom. For instance, a relative newcomer may question being sick, having to attend meetings and carrying out cult duties for the rest of his life. Of course, this is “alcoholic thinking.” To help the newcomer, he is gently reminded, “One day at a time.”
The difficulty of early abstention was moderated by taking it “one day at a time,” and the experience translates well to other difficulties. No matter how empty or painful life in the group may become, life’s problems can be handled “one day at a time.” Of course following this slogan wholeheartedly excludes planning for the future or even having a vision of the future. It also makes leaving most unlikely.
Another popular AA slogan, “K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple Stupid,” reminds the grouper that it is stupid to see the complexities of life. This serves a vital purpose. As long as the grouper sees things in the simplest terms, “alcoholic thinking” can never fully take over. “Spiritual growth” is assured. Another way of phrasing this slogan which would have the same meaning in practice would be “You’re stupid. Don’t even try to think. You’re only causing yourself problems.”
Other slogans are used to obscure the obvious. The only thing more common among AA members than abstinence is binge drinking. An AA member is constantly confronted with other groupers “slipping,” “relapsing” and being “out there.” What is most disconcerting is when those with more Time drink. Even those with many years of Time may find this disturbing. The real danger, however, is that someone new, either because of an “alcoholic fog” or “spiritual ignorance,” might come to the conclusion that the program doesn’t really work or at least not really well. Many slogans are used to obscure the reality from newcomers and old timers alike.
“Keep coming back, it really works,” as mentioned earlier, takes a prominent position in many meetings as an after prayer chant. In meetings where doubt as to the effectiveness of AA has been vocalized, elder groupers may ad lib at the end of the chant, “If you work it!” This affirms the perfection of the program and clears up matters for those who may be confused. People in the program, even if they have been working at it for years, don’t drink because of a fault in the program; it is their own fault; they weren’t really working it.
“I am a miracle” supports the deeply held belief that each day an alcoholic doesn’t drink is a miracle performed by God through AA. Drinking is to be expected among those who are “Powerless over alcohol.” What one is supposed to consider remarkable is not how often AA members binge but that sometimes some of them don’t for many years. All members should be grateful for the time that AA gives them sober.
One particularly insidious slogan, which becomes more true with time, is “Only another alcoholic will understand.” As the “loaded language” is adopted, communication with non members becomes ever more difficult. For instance, if a new AA member manages to abstain for two weeks then drinks over being fired, he will be told, or perhaps has already learned, that, “I drank because I am an alcoholic.” No other response is acceptable. While this phrase has great meaning to fellow groupers since it expresses the predicament of an alcoholic at the mercy of Devil Drink, it means virtually nothing to humanity at large. A family member or friend who inquires about the drinking episode, if told “because I am an alcoholic,” will have extreme difficulty “understanding.” He will perhaps think, “Of course you drank becausee you are an alcoholic. And an overeater would have overeaten.” If he further inquires as to the cause of the drinking, he may be told, “I didn’t admit my Powerlessness.” Now the family member or friend is entirely lost. He really doesn’t understand. The new grouper now understands the wisdom of this slogan. If he wants understanding he must get it from other AA members.
This is entirely different from what the pre-cult conversation over a drinking binge would have been. The problem drinker would have likely answered “I don’t know” or “because I got fired.” Of course, neither is a complete answer but some degree of communication and understanding would have been possible. Adopting AA language makes being understood by a “normie” almost impossible.
a short glossary of terms in the loaded language
Loaded language, the language of non-thought, entails more than slogans. Individual words are given meanings or shades of meaning entirely separate from their normal usage. For example:
alcohol demonic creature from “spiritual” world, great dark force, opposite of spirituality. Only some people are susceptible to its cunning, baffling and powerful effects. Those who are susceptible need a spiritual program or they will either die or be institutionalized for life.
alcoholism a physical, emotional and spiritual disease. Alcoholism kills. There is no cure. “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” One must work a spiritual program one day at a time to avoid death.
spiritual program a program of living in accordance with God’s plan. Alcoholics must be careful to distinguish it from religious programs which may be very nice but are relatively useless for the alcoholic. Religious programs require beliefs. Spiritual programs are better because they are suggestive only. They only need to be suggested because alcoholics who don’t follow them die. As far as can be determined, AA and other Twelve Step programs are the only really spiritual ones.
God supernatural being more powerful than Devil Drink. Giver of the Twelve Steps, a guide to living in accordance with His will. Unlikely to save alcoholics who are too willful to work a spiritual program. All available evidence indicates that God is unlikely to help those whose willfulness causes them to depend on a religious instead of a purely spiritual program.
abstinence similar to Standard English, refraining from drinking alcohol. This is stricter in AA because mouthwash, breath freshener and freshly baked bread all contain alcohol. The wise alcoholic in a spiritual program usually avoids all of them. Abstinence is Absolute.
dry drunk painful state characteristic of alcoholics who abstain without benefit of a spiritual program. Also characteristic of members of a spiritual program who don’t take their program seriously enough. A state of insanity similar to that of the drinking alcoholic. One should be careful to note that no matter how happy, well adjusted and successful those without the program may seem they are really just “whistling in the dark.” They don’t have a program.
sobriety a special state of Grace gained by working the Steps and maintaining absolute abstinence. It is characterized by feelings of Serenity and Gratitude. It is a state of living according to God’s will, not one’s own. It is sanity.
These meanings are not usually directly presented to the newcomer and may not ever be directly stated. For example, no grouper would ever refer to alcohol as a “demonic creature.” It is just treated as such. A grouper will tell of what alcohol did to him, not what his use of alcohol did to him. Alcohol, a liquid that is no more capable of thought or independent action than a bottle of drain cleaner, is labeled “cunning, baffling, and powerful.” It is given a life of its own. Alcohol is considered to seduce and overpower human beings: “John Barleycorn calling me from the mantelpiece.” When a grouper drinks himself to death, groupers take it as a warning, “The alcohol got him.”
The newcomer may give up trying to understand the loaded language. He may attribute his difficulty in understanding to the “alcoholic fog” they imply he is in. Perhaps he will consider it wise to attend 90 meetings in 90 days. They say that is the smart thing to do. He can decide then.
This is the goal of the meeting with respect to the newcomer. He questions his own competence and wonders whether the AA members, apparently having recovered from that incompetence, have something to offer.