The Midtown group of Alcoholics Anonymous was rogue, even by AA’s standards. The Q group, which took its name from its leader, Michael Quinones, is a more of extreme example of what happens within the loose structure of AA. 13th stepping is common practice within AA, but this group took it from an art form, to criminal. Here is a quote taken from this reprint of an article from The Washington Post. This is only one example cited in the article:

Kristen, now 26, said that for eight years, she was “passed along” from one middle-aged male leader of Midtown to another. She said her sponsor urged her to have sex with Quinones — widely known as Mike Q. — as a way to solidify her sobriety and spiritual revival. Kristen, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used in keeping with AA traditions, also recalled helping to persuade other teenage girls to sleep with older men in the group.

“I pimped my sponsees out to sponsors,” she said, referring to the AA members who agree to watch over a fellow member’s sobriety. “I encouraged them to sleep with their sponsors because I really believed that this would help with their sobriety.”

In addition to 13th stepping, the article describes the more common practice of AAs being encouraged by their sponsors to stop taking doctor prescribed medications:

That young woman told The Washington Post that her sponsor in Midtown refused to continue as her adviser if the woman kept taking prescription medications. The sponsor also directed her to stop seeing a therapist ” ‘because you need one clear voice — your sponsor’s,’ ” the woman said.

This is a frightening story, and is covered in greater depth in this article from Newsweek magazine.

So, what was the reaction to this from those within AA? It fits a familiar theme of denying of accountability from AA World Services, and of personal attacks on those who brought this story to light:

A meeting held on Sunday evenings for nearly two decades at the Church of the Pilgrims near Dupont Circle left the church this year after ex-Midtown members provided “detailed and credible allegations,” said the Rev. Ashley Goff, director of Christian education at the church. Midtown leaders told pastors they were being criticized unfairly by “disgruntled people who couldn’t keep their act together,” Goff recalled.

Does characterizing these victims as “disgruntled people who couldn’t get their act together” sound familiar? I suppose these teenage girls were “constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves” as they were being raped by men decades older than they were.

Despite a stellar reputation and worldwide brand, it has never been more than a set of bedrock traditions. It has no firm hierarchy, no official regulations, and exercises no oversight of individual groups. Disgruntled former Midtown members discovered this in recent months when they tried to get the central AA office in New York to condemn Midtown’s tactics and departures from the traditions, including a highly unusual practice of assigning older men to sponsor young women.

“The assumption since our founding was that groups that did not follow the traditions and concepts would fall away,” said a staff member at AA’s General Service Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity “because we are all alcoholics, and that is our policy.”

The main office does offer “strong suggestions” for how groups should operate, including how to pair each member with a sponsor who shares confidences and helps the member stay sober. AA recommends that “it’s best if a man sponsors a man and a woman sponsors a woman, so that there are not outside distractions,” the staffer said.

No accountability. No expression of remorse. Nothing done that might prevent this from happening in the future. Essentially, some anonymous representative at the AA headquarters said ‘It ain’t our fault, and we aren’t going to do anything to change it. It works if you work it”. He can’t even get through a statement without using the standard “these are just suggestions” line of bullshit. Sure, they suggest that middle aged men don’t fuck teenagers, but each group does their own thing. Pathetic.

The obvious thought that comes to mind is that this is an extreme example, and that the vast majority of AA groups are not like this. For one thing, AA has no hierarchy, so it makes it difficult for a person like (the now deceased) Mr Quinones to exist. Ask an AAer, and you will be told the “group conscience” is what dictates the rules of the group. This is all true, but it doesn’t mean that this cannot, or will not, happen again. Any group that remains unchanged will show repeating patterns, and AA has done nothing to help create an environment that says something this extreme will not happen again within AA. The law of numbers says that it will, and is happening, again. There are simply too many groups left unchecked, and the religious nature of AA guarantees that there will rogue chapters and splinter groups who choose to interpret, and act on the interpretations, differently than the mainstream. This is a scary thought, considering mainstream AA is already so far out and dysfunctional.

AA currently has all kinds of groups, each one with their own group conscience, and their own take the ‘Big Book’, and though they may not be as extreme as this midtown group, they are eerily similar in many ways. In examining these groups, it is easy to see how a splinter group like the one in DC could form.

Let’s take a look at one. Once again, we’ll use as an example our friends over at the Sober Recovery forum for help with this example. First, some background.

“Underground AA” has been around for some time. I have heard about it, and read a piece on it in Grapevine, AA’s magazine. Underground AA is the Opus Dei of Alcoholics Anonymous, and is a place where AA fundamentalist meet. These are “invite only” meetings, and are exclusive to the true believers. They actually break a few traditions of AA, including the one about accepting any person who has a desire to drink, but that is not really my concern here. This has become the subject of a thread started over at the SR forum. Someone asks a question about what underground meetings are, and McGowdog comes in with a response:

In Denver, I went to an underground meeting. Invite only. Alcoholics only. If you don’t work steps, you won’t want to stick around. The once a week meeting is not listed in the intergroup list. If you go there, someone from the group invited you. Before you attend a meeting and/or group conscience, you are expected to have been properly 12-stepped and had the group conscience explained to you. In other words, they do steps yearly within a certain time frame, carry the AA message to suffering alcoholics (drunk, newly sobered up and unrecovered AAs,etc., a yearly retreat… and once you’re in, you get and stay in. That means if the Broncos are playing the Raiders on Monday Night Football, you show up for the Monday Night Meeting.

The conversation continues, with the topic being mainly why a meeting like this is necessary in the first place. The more fundamentalist factions of AA, including the groups where I happen to live, believe that AA has lost its way. It has become too inclusive or liberal or has deviated from the path of what AA was originally intended to be. I think there is merit to this argument, but I personally don’t care. The fundamentalist AA is as batshit crazy as the less fundamental, but for different reasons. My purpose in explaining this is to give context here.

The group to which McGowdog is referring is run by a hardline old-timer who subscribes to the typical AA views. McGowdog refers to him as the “meeting cop”. The following dialog will give some insight to how the seedlings of one of these rogue groups form. Steve steps in and quotes McGowdog, followed up with a reasonable response. McGowdog wrote: “Well I think it’s a shame. It’s a shame we or anybody would need to go “underground” to do what was intended in the first place.” To which Steve responded with:

We don’t have to.

Every now and then I get invited to such meetings, I have taken to politely declining, which usually ends the person inviting me ever speaking to me again, other than exchanging pleasantries, I guess it works for them but feeling separate has been a problem for me, and I do better being one among many. The program I work says keep on the firing line, and like Jim said, a contemporary AA meeting can qualify easily. Where else should I be? I need infinite God rather than Finite Man.

Very true, in the old days AA was underground, many have worked hard to get it out of there, Why would I want to go back?

After some bickering, McGowdog came back with:


Remember: when you can’t get your point across, you should just yell. That makes you more right. Also, this isn’t “angry yelling”. This is “serene yelling”, or “third promise yelling”. McGowdog is good at serene yelling.  Steve responds:

AA isn’t underground, it sounds like your group left and went underground. And I do understand what this thread is called.

So the reason AA had to go underground is so they can make up theories about alcoholism??????

McGowdog responds:

Yeah. And how it’s different than other drugs. And how there are alcoholics, hard drinkers, moderate drinkers, teetotalers, etc.

To get away from the drug is a drug is a drug school. To get away from those who don’t believe that I have a physical craving with booze that only about 10% of the world population gets.

Well, let’s just say I believe most all of the physiological assessements in Carol’s book “Under the Influence”. How about you?

I’m saying we had to go underground to exclude non-alkies and non step workers. We do what’s in the AA book.

Call that a cult all you want.

Next, Steve, who happens to be an old-school AA, is trying to convey a little rationality to the argument:

Doing what is in the Big Book doesn’t make a group a cult, having a Guru who tells people they shouldn’t take Meds does ( which by the way is 180 degrees away from the Big Book). You can defend that all you want, if your group does indeed endorse, remain silent when such things are spoken, then you, not mainstream AA, are potentially killing alcoholics. I am working with a guy right now who left such a group, he is Bi-Polar, his sponsor told him he could not have a spiritual awakening while taking these meds, he drank, slit his wrist, and is now in a halfway house.

Playing Doctor in AA is beyond sick, it is absolutely evil

Steve is right. Talking someone off of their meds is a horrible thing to do. It happens in AA all the time, however. McGowdog responds:

No, I don’t agree with it.

If you go back and read what I originally said about it, this was our “AA Meeting Cop’s” stance on it. Just like you said. He has an old idea that you can’t have a spiritual experience while on meds.

He didn’t kick the guy out. The guy just said srcew it and left our group.

I wish I could change our “Guru’s” mind. Before long, I may not have this “underground” group to go to anymore anyway.

I’ll be doing AA on my own and nobody will have to worry about being “killed” by our group.

Who ever started this “are potentially killing alcoholics” stuff anyway?

Sounds like a ploy for more power and control to me. Do it my way or you’ll die! Don’t listen to them, they’re killing alcoholics.

Really? I thought booze did that.

Steve quotes him saying “Sounds like a ploy for more power and control to me. Do it my way or you’ll die! Don’t listen to them, they’re killing alcoholics. Really? I thought booze did that.” To which Steve writes:

And A$$holes telling them that they should stop taking their meds

Next, McGowdog responds with the most important line in this dialog, and one that gives an insight into how the cults of personality within AA are formed:

You know, you’re probably right. He is an a-hole much of the time.

He’s 30 years sober and I’m 5 years sober. What am I supposed to do? Kick him out? Have him write inventory?

This guru is high on the AA totem pole, and though McGowdog knows he can be full of shit, he still does nothing, and follows him like a….well, a dog. Think about this quote when someone tells you AA has not hierarchy. He goes on:

He didn’t exactly tell anyone to stop taking their meds, either. But in reality, he might as well have. The guy who’s also bipolar got the message and left the group. I took him to another very strong group and they told him to limit his shares to 5 minutes, he got upset, left and drank. Now he’s going to another meeting and is working with someone besides me.

Whenever you hear someone from AA say, “I have never heard anyone tell anyone else to stop taking their medication”, remember this quote. McGowdog let this one slip, but this is the reality of AA coercion. He could have easily said “this guy never told people to stop taking medication”, and it would have been literally true, but factually bullshit. Don’t let an AA make you think that people aren’t talked out of taking their doctor prescribed medication. It happens all the time. He goes on:

There’s a bunch of things I don’t like about this “guru” of ours. Another guy from the group, one of my peers, just about left our group, but had it out with the “guru” and decided to stay put. I had a talk with him during lunch about a month ago and he pretty much defended everything I threw at him.

The fact of the matter is, our group is not growing like it should and I think it’s headed for trouble. I don’t know what to do really.

But he’s the guy who really took me under his wing when I came back. He says if I left the group, it would be devastating to him and the group if I left.

“He says if I left the group, it would be devastating to him and the group if I left.”

Every member, at any level, is subject to manipulative coercion. McDowdog is no exception.

Steve finishes with some rational advice:

I hate to use the take what you want schpeel….

Ok, take what you think is good, get a few people who feel the same way and start a new group. Going solely on your posts I gather you would be quite driven if you took on such a thing.

You can have your conviction and keep the door open Patrick so that all who seek to recover can find a way that works. Gurus are bad in AA. Look at the life of Bill Wilson, he had the title of Guru thrust upon him. It wasn’t pretty then and it isn’t pretty now. If you are having misgivings about your group I bet others are.

This is scary stuff. AA is nothing but a bunch of factions, and those factions have gurus, and those gurus have people who follow them without question, at least not to their face. Thirty years in AA gives a person tacit authority to do and say a lot of things. All it takes for an AA chapter to form is two people who have a desire to start on to do so. If one of the people happens to be old-timer and a guru, he will attract followers. The chapter will grow, much like the DC midtown chapter, which grew to over 400 members.

Sure, there will be some voices of reason, as with NavySteve, who will stay away from these types, and hopefully talk some sense into those like McGowan who are enamored by authority. Still, this underground group, as with the DC midtown group, will be allowed to grow unchecked, and with zero accountability. Those who get sucked in under this gurus wing will be manipulated beyond simply not taking their medication. They are in for a mind fuck of some sort. Some things will be common, like working the group in lieu of spending time with family, or, as McGowdog put it – “That means if the Broncos are playing the Raiders on Monday Night Football, you show up for the Monday Night Meeting”. Some will be of the more crazy variety, and though it may not be as extreme as the DC group, they will have their own style of cult-like fun.