Heath C Hoffman is a professor of sociology at The College of Charleston. He wrote published as sociological study in the the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography titled Criticism as Devience and Social Control in Alcoholics Anonymous. The full PDF file of the paper is linked below, but I thought I would take a bit from this paper to show how the AA manipulation works. In the article, the author discusses various types of criticism and cites examples of how they work within the AA culture. The example here is “Direct Criticism”. We will take a look at some of their other methods of control, as observed in this paper, on later dates. Here is Part I.

Criticism as Deviance and Social Control in Alcoholics Anonymous

The block quotes are taken directly from the paper. Everything else is my own commentary.

Direct criticism occurs when a member overtly challenges or denounces
a member for his behavior, thoughts, or presentation of self. I documented
eight cases of direct criticism during my research. Of those eight cases,
seven involved the direct criticism of a lower-status and/or marginal
member by a higher-status and/or integrated veteran member. The eighth
case moved laterally between members of equal status. The following case
illustrates the direct criticism of Glenda by a more senior member. First,
Glenda spoke to the group:

“. . . I’m Glenda and I’m an alcoholic . . . I am on house arrest now and I wait
by the phone for the telephone call at 10:00 [p.m.]. Then I think that I could
drink between calls from 10 [p.m.] to 3 [a.m.] . . . I have a sleeping disorder—
I’m an insomniac. I take sleeping pills for that and my son held an intervention
for me because he said that when I take those pills late at night, I talk all this
gibberish and then I wake up the next day and I don’t remember any of it. I’m
supposed to get my prescription filled today and I’m not sure what to do. . .
I go to a psychiatrist—I’m bipolar . . . I take medicine for that. I’m just
having a really hard time. My son wants to keep the medication for me and give
me a pill each night at 10:00 so that I can sleep. I feel so bad that he has to go
through this again. It just makes me cry to think of what I am doing to him. He
is fourteen and I’m his mother and he is holding my sleeping pills for me . . .
The problem is my husband right now. He’s so controlling. The other night he
told me to get out of bed and finish my Fourth Step.4I couldn’t finish it because
I just wasn’t ready yet. He didn’t talk to me for the whole next day. I guess that’s
it. Thanks for letting me share.”

Glenda’s presentation of her problems is deviant because she adopts the
role of victim, challenging the belief among AA members that when they
are upset, “no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us. If
somebody hurts us and we are sore, we are in the wrong also” (AA [1952]
1981, 90). Glenda challenges the communal nature of the AA program by
suggesting she is different than other members because of her insomnia,
bipolar disorder, and controlling husband. This implies that the regular AA
program does not work for her and she requires special considerations and
is not “just another alcoholic,”as is prescribed in AA’s culture. This is not
surprising since Glenda is seeing a psychiatrist and the psychiatric model
treats the client’s problems as stemming from the unique circumstances and
experiences of the individual (Horwitz 1982, 180-81; 1990, 216).

In AA, there is no justifiable cause for anger, regardless of the cause. The author referenced this quote from The Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions:

“It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us. If somebody hurts us and we are sore, we are in the wrong also.”

He did not include the balance of the paragraph. In AA, the individual is always accountable:

“But are there no exceptions to this rule? What about “justifiable” anger? If somebody cheats us, aren’t we entitled to be mad? Can’t we be properly angry with self-righteous folk? For us of A.A. these are dangerous exceptions. We have found that justified anger ought to be left to those better qualified to handle it.”

Greg, the chair of the meeting, placed boundaries around Glenda’s problems, saying, “it sounds like you’re getting outside help for some of your issues,”but he told Glenda that her addiction to alcohol was more important than her insomnia, bipolar disorder, and her controlling husband and was the only problem that should be discussed in an AA meeting. After establishing this, Greg asked the group,“Who’s next?” Wayne, a three-year AA veteran, was the first to respond to Glenda’s remarks.:

“My name’s Wayne and I’m an alcoholic. You know, I was listening to you speak and it seems that you have an excuse for every reason why you can’t work the program. When I came into this program, I was wasted. I knew I could not drink anymore or I was going to be fucking dead. I had to be completely willing to give myself to this program and admit that I couldn’t drink anymore. They say if you think you can drink you should go sit in a bar and take a drink and see what happens. Hell, if you want a drink, you should go out and fuckin’drink. You know how many people I’ve seen come in here and go back out and die? We just buried three last month. Do you think one more’s gonna matter? . . . You have to figure out whether you really want to get sober. You can fuckin’drink—you might fucking die—but you gotta fucking decide where your priorities are. You can’t just fucking make excuses—there are no excuses for drinking. If your ass falls off, you pick it up and get to a fucking meeting. If I drink today,I fucking die. That’s all there is to it. All those excuses are a bunch of shit . . . That’s all I got. Thanks.”

This little speech has it all: pop psychology, self-righteous indignation, threats of death if Glenda doesn’t follow the program. Then he tags Dale, an old-timer, who steps into the ring and really begins to assault this poor girl:

After Wayne finished speaking he collected his cigarettes and lighter and left the meeting. In his response, Wayne reduces Glenda’s problems to the “lowest drink-related denominator”(Bean 1975, 8):either drink or work the AA program and take responsibility for your sobriety. Another veteran member, Dale, joined Wayne in criticizing Glenda.:

“My name’s Dale and I’m an alcoholic . . . In “How it Works,”5it doesn’t say anything about going to therapists, or taking pills, or even working the Fourth Step. It works, and it says it right in there, by being fucking honest. That’s it. It says in there that there are those who have mental disorders, but they can get well too if they have the capacity to be honest. Honesty is all it takes.”

This the standard practice of pulling the person away from any outside help, and convincing the person that they don’t need to take their doctor prescribed medication. To hell with professional advice. According to Dale, all Glenda needs is “honesty”, as defined by AA. In AA honesty is defined as admitting to moral failure. He continues:

“Now, you have to decide whether you want to stay sober or not. If you want to drink, go out and drink. You have to really want this. It’s not easy. That’s why so many people go back out [and drink] . . . No one has ever died from insomnia . . . If you stay up long enough, eventually you’re going to sleep. That’s a fact … I don’t know about medications and all of that, but I know one woman we had in here. She had 19 years sober in the program—19 years dryin’ the program—and she was using pills and had all sorts of reasons to take medication. She got so crazy you couldn’t understand a word she was saying in meetings. We had to kick her out of here because nobody wanted to be in the same meeting with her. I don’t want that. Do you want that? I don’t want that for me. People think they can just take a pill and everything will be better. I don’t buy that. Hell, if there was some pill that could make me feel better, why the hell would I come back here? I’d say screw you all. “

Glenda interrupted Dale and said, “Yeah, but I have rheumatoid arthritis . . .” By interrupting a member who is talking to her, Glenda engages in “cross-talk.”As a result, Greg, the meeting chair, stopped Glenda from finishing her remark, saying, “Just listen. Don’t talk.” Dale continued his criticism of Glenda.

Dale is not qualified to give out medical advice, and he knows nothing about Glenda’s conditions that caused a trained physician to prescribe medication to her. His only qualification in dispensing this advice is a lot of time in an organization that promotes the idea of God (or doorknob) healing all that ails a person. What he is doing here is promoting faith healing. He continues:

“. . . I know [Dale says sarcastically with a slight grin on his face]. You’re different. I was different when I came in here, too. I had special problems and worries that other people didn’t have . . . I’m also curious why you gave your fourteen-year-old son your pills to distribute to you. If your husband is so controlling,why don’t you give the pills to him? I bet I know why. Your son will actually give you one each night. Your husband won’t. The truth is you really want those pills. That’s why you gave them to your son. . . No one can make us do anything. We each make those decisions to let people control us and make us feel certain ways . . . You said that your husband made you work the Fourth Step—nobody ever makes us do anything. We give other people that control over us. I don’t know if your husband is your sponsor or if he is a member of AA, or not. [Glenda interjected that her husband is not her sponsor.] I know I sure as hell wouldn’t want my wife to be my sponsor. When we aren’t getting along, the last thing I want is for her to be giving me advice . . . [Dale asks Glenda] Are you happy? Are you sober? Glenda responds, “Yeah, I’m sober and I’m happy that I’m in a meeting today.”Dale continued, “Well, maybe your husband has something to offer that none of us in these rooms could do for you, but I seriously doubt it.”

Her husband has less to offer her than this AA group does. They, not her husband, have her best interest at heart.

There are some great women in these rooms with a lot of sobriety. And it’s free. You shouldn’t worry about bothering them—that’s what they’re there for….You need to get one of these women to be your sponsor and you need to call that sponsor every day and when you’re feeling bad or feel like drinking you need to get your ass to a meeting… I hope you stick around.”

The rant ends with “don’t call your family, don’t call a medically trained physician, call someone in this group”. Whoever she calls will echo exactly what Dale just told her.

While Dale’s response to Glenda is relatively critical, by the end Dale tries to reintegrate Glenda into the group and encourage her to work the AA program by getting a sponsor, calling that sponsor, and going to meetings when she feels bad or wants to drink alcohol. Dale’s criticism of Glenda is based on the assumption that all alcoholics are alike—Glenda is not special or unique and she must practice the same AA program as every other member. It is in this way that criticism is more than just a punitive response to a deviant AA member but a means of reintegrating the member into the group by explicitly telling her how she should act differently to conform to the assumptions and rules of AA. While Wayne and Dale were critical of Glenda, other members voiced empathy for her, describing how they also experienced the urge to drink while on probation. Others relayed their experiences of being alcoholics who use medications to treat their psychological disorders. One member even came to Glenda’s defense, criticizing other members for offering advice rather than “experience, strength, and hope”as is prescribed. “My name is Harley and I’m an alcoholic. We can sure give a lot of advice in here, but that’s all it is— advice. I don’t know what’s going on in your [Glenda’s] head and you don’t know what’s going on in mine. We are all different in similar circumstances. People in these rooms can give you all the advice in the world, but they don’t really understand what’s going on in your life….”In this instance, Harley becomes a partisan supporter for Glenda, challenging the moralistic comments of Dale and Wayne, helping Glenda to save face (see Arminen 2001, 244). Members do not generally exhibit or attract this degree of criticism in meetings. In fact, AA newcomers are often given some latitude in their speech events. However, Glenda was not a newcomer for she had already compiled eight months of sobriety. Glenda was not closely tied to AA members in a social network outside of meetings because, even though she had a sponsor, Glenda had never called her because she did not want to “bother”the sponsor. Having challenged the AA program and its universal treatment regimen, Glenda’s marginality to the AA group left her unprotected by long-standing and deep social ties to other members.

“Having challenged the AA program and its universal treatment regimen, Glenda’s marginality to the AA group left her unprotected by long-standing and deep social ties to other members.”

The above quote by this sociologist is important, because it shows what happens when a member does not subscribe to the program. AAs can say “these are suggestions” until they are blue in the face, but in practical terms they are not suggestions. There are consequences to not following lock-step with the group. This dialog is also a perfect example of who controls the AA group, and more importantly, how they control the group.

End of part I