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“AA Should…” is Always Wrong.

25 June 2013

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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 June 2013 13:16

    Tragic. We don’t have court orders that compel people to attend we do offer attendance certificates to those on probation.

    Any way tradition 3 “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking” they shouldn’t be compelled by anyone.

  2. Syd permalink
    26 June 2013 17:17

    Great post. I know that there are unwell people in both programs, but many more in AA. And not all are really in recovery but may be one day as long as there are no gatekeepers to bar the door.

  3. 6 July 2013 07:08

    Thanks for writing this!

    I once attended a group that took a group conscience to “ban” a member who had been convicted of child molestation. It seems a young mother (who happened to be very pretty) wanted to bring her young disabled daughter to the meeting, and thought it should be a “safe place.”

    I told them the child molester belonged there and the child did not. But I guess it felt better for them to do something they thought was noble and right – and they told the guy he was no longer welcome there. Several of us left the group at that time.

    When people say AA is a “safe place” or should be, I wonder what the hell they are thinking. I often wonder where these people drank that they have no judgement about people. Did they ever go to a bar? Did they go home with anyone who asked them? AA is full of the same people as barrooms are. And not all of them are sober. I always tell new women that AA is not a safe place, but it is a great place if you want to get sober.

  4. 6 July 2013 08:52

    Thoughtful, as always.

  5. John permalink
    19 November 2013 16:51

    There is plenty of evidence that you are right on about mandatory AA attendance. I believe the signing of court slips violates several of the Traditions and most of the history of AA. My question is, if many people believe as you and I do, then how can we reverse the trend that has occurred? Each group is autonomous accept as they may effect other groups or AA as a whole.No can tell me that these horror stories do not effect AA has a whole.

    • 19 November 2013 16:59

      Thanks for the comment! As for your question: I have no particular interest in reversing any trends. I don’t seek to guide opinion in AA. I only manage what I do. You’re probably right that AA as a whole is affected. But I don’t have the ability or the position to influence that. Nor am I seeking it.

      • John permalink
        21 November 2013 17:19

        Wow! you enjoy the fact that others kept the Traditions and AA was healthy and available for you but you don’t care to return the favor for the next Alcoholic who suffers? That is startling in its level of self centeredness. Practicing the Traditions is practicing the principles. While we have all been horrible persons, when we come to AA with a desire to stop drinking, we quickly find out that we can no longer do those things and stay sober. A party who is a terrible person and is forced to go to AA doesn’t care if they stay sober so they continue to do bad things. They also don’t care if AA stays healthy. That is why the only requirement for membership is a desire to stay sober is so important. It leads to following the steps and to following the Traditions.

      • 21 November 2013 17:21

        Thank you for taking my inventory, John.

  6. John permalink
    22 November 2013 08:14

    Somebody has to do it.

    • 22 November 2013 08:22

      If you don’t appreciate my writing or my program, you’re more than welcome not to read about it. But I have no fathomable obligation to conform the way I work the program to the opinion of a person who stumbled upon my blog and decided to start leveling accusations, without even the basic courtesy of asking a follow-up question before leaping to conclusions.

      So, you are more than welcome to make positive contributions here. But this is not a meeting, and you don’t own this space. So if you’re going to continue to troll, rather than contribute, my readership will not be subjected to your commentary any longer.

      • John permalink
        22 November 2013 15:13

        My positive comment is: Because you are RIGHT, there are no gatekeepers, no one with authority, no frame work for security, no screening process then we have to be ever vigilant about who we “cooperate” (New York GSO’s word) with because those parties do not follow the AA Traditions. They sentence people to attend what is supposed to be a “voluntary” (again New York GSO’s word) fellowship. These outside entities sentence people who do not have desire to stop drinking (some are not even alcoholic). Our (yes this includes me) “cooperation” leads AA to being a less safe place than it needs to be. A less wonderful welcoming place of recovery and more of a dumping ground for criminals that the courts do not want to pay the costs of jail or heaven forbid, treatment. Jails and treatment centers DO have gatekeepers, parties with authority, a frame work for security, a screening process and they can do a better job of handling these dangerous parties. More importantly, they can do a better job of creating a desire to stop drinking than AA can. We are supposed to welcome them ONCE they have a desire to stop drinking and we can accomplish that at a much greater rate when we aren’t overwhelmed with large numbers of those who do not meet the primary purpose. Feel free to ban me from your blog if you find my contradictory comments so offensive and dangerous. But if you chose to do so, may I suggest that when you lay your head down at night, please ask yourself one question. What is so scary about my words?

      • 22 November 2013 15:17

        John: There is absolutely nothing scary about your words. You can see my detailed response to them in today’s post on the main page. I will not engage here anymore.

  7. AAMember20347292938473929284849292 permalink
    29 August 2014 07:08

    It’s not so much the sexual predation or the physical mirderers or the money thieving that’s the problem…it’s about the emotional stuff.
    Like maybe I can get you to trust me then shut you down in rejection?
    Or I’ll steal your reputation through slander?
    Or maybe I’ll just join a clique where we all have a silent understanding we hate you…
    That’s the real stealing, the real murder…and it’s a game for people with no self-esteem rather than low self-esteem
    If I can be little pieces of other people I’m okay again…….

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