“AA Should…” is Always Wrong.
I just read a horrifying and tragic story on ProPublica about a young woman murdered by a violent felon who was court-ordered to AA. Whenever anything like this happens, I am saddened and shaken. I love AA, and it is in general a wonderful, supportive, inclusive, and welcoming place. A place where people who ‘normally would not mix’ are friends and associates, working together to recover from alcoholism. It is a place where camaraderie and friendship and caring and mutual dedication are the rule, not the exception.
But make no mistake: there are dangerous people in AA. I know murderers, rapists, child abusers, and thieves. The people I know who have done these things have also served their time, recovered from addiction, made what amends are possible, and changed their lives. They’ve dedicated themselves to spiritual progress, sobriety, and accountability. And I don’t judge them. Because yes, many of us have done unforgivable things. But forgiveness is neither my power nor my responsibility. I have done things that some people may find unforgivable. But in AA there is a home for me. As there is for anyone who has a desire to stop drinking.
As a member of AA, I welcome any person, anyone, through the door. Nothing anyone has done excludes them from membership, as long as they want to quit drinking. And even those with no desire to stop drinking are welcome at open meetings. We shut the door on no one.
But as a citizen of the United States of America, I oppose court-ordering of offenders to AA. I have seen people recover that way. And that’s fine. But AA is not a medical organization. It is not a halfway house. We don’t run centers or clinics. We have no training or structure. We have no security. Except for a few administrative workers in the business of printing the meeting books, we don’t have any employees at all. Some people object to the courts ordering people to AA because AA has a spiritual component. And that’s a reasonable first amendment objection. But for me, I do not believe that AA is equipped to handle court-ordered members, and I do not believe we should recognize the authority of a court to order attendance.
Whenever I hear about these stories, I hear attendant statements that “AA should warn people!”, “AA should refuse to let violent offenders join!”, “AA should…”. On whose authority? No one is in charge! There’s no “AA minister” who leads the meeting. It’s just someone who showed up that day. I’ve done it, dozens of times. No one from any AA central services ever declared me fit to run a meeting. I received no training. There is none. Nor should there be. That’s not what AA is for.
“AA should…” is always wrong. Because it’s a nonsense statement to begin with. It presupposes that there’s a body of leaders with authority and accountability. There never has been, and there never will be. I don’t have to inform anyone to start an AA meeting. I don’t have to apply for permission. No body endorses a meeting or a group. There’s no administration. If I put up a sign on a lamp-post that says “AA meeting here, 8pm” and anyone shows up, that’s an AA meeting.
I have said before, and I do again, AA is not a “safe place”. You cannot assume that the people there are good people. In fact, most of us have criminal records. Most of us have done terrible things. Most of us are reprobates in one way or another. And yes, most of us are recovering and recovered. Most of us work to be better. Most of us behave well. But not all of us.
This is why I say that women new to the program absolutely need to go to women’s meetings. There are predators in AA, and like most places, most of the predators there prey on vulnerable women. And I’ll even go so far as to say that many, many men can act out sexually in wholly inappropriate ways that are hurtful, even when it doesn’t rise to the level of predation. I’m certainly not proud of all of the sexual decisions I’ve made in my life.
It’s natural for people on the outside, you normal people, to look at AA when these things happen and say, “Why didn’t anyone do anything? AA should…”. But it can’t be done. People in the rooms have to be careful. Because there is no one with the authority to keep the wolves out. Sometimes, meetings take it upon themselves to banish known threats. And that’s appropriate. There are a few sheepdogs. But there is no framework for security. No screening process.
But these events are incredibly rare. There are millions of people in AA. Gather any group of millions, and there will be a few predators. For the most part, AA is a wonderful, welcoming place of recovery. But commonsense precautions must be made there as everywhere. There’s no sentinel at the door. And there never will be. Because as soon as someone sets themselves up with the authority to check who is entering, they have excluded themselves from the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. Which state that all are welcome, if they wish to stop drinking.