In a previous post (donewithaa.wordpress.com), MA revisits the age-old “Is Alcoholics Anonymous A Cult?” question.
While I’m less eager than most in this debate to invoke the word ‘cult’ in association with AA/12X12, I can understand why others are inclined to come to that conclusion. Whether they use ‘cult’ in the most heated pejorative sense of the word or in a matter-of-fact lay sense of the word, in many ways (to my mind at least) the shoe does seem to fit more than not. Any dictionary definition of the word readily utilizes terms like ‘religious’, ‘belief’, ‘community’, ‘non-scientific’, & ‘esoteric’ in explicating its usage. Perhaps most troubling for me are the following forms of definition taken from three separate dictionary sources:
“8. any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific.” (Random House Dictionary)
“4. A usually nonscientific method or regimen claimed by its originator to have exclusive or exceptional power in curing a particular disease.” (American Heritage Dictionary)
“4: a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator ” (Webster’s Dictionary)
Now, AA/12X12 adherents & advocates can repeat the “it’s spiritual not religious” mantra all they want (among one of the finest crafted tautologies in the English language in my [humble] opinion), but they have no ground to stand on when it comes to the ‘disease’ issue. The “my disease”, “this disease”, “I have a disease that tells me that I don’t have a disease” language is so common at meetings that honestly disputing it is impossible. In one of the most tortured defenses of AA & the ‘disease’ definition, official AA historian Ernest Kurtz, PhD. writes:
“On the basic question, the data are clear: Contrary to common opinion, Alcoholics Anonymous neither originated nor promulgated what has come to be called the disease concept of alcoholism. Yet its members did have a large role in spreading and popularizing that understanding. …
As is often stated in introductions but too rarely recognized in analyses, Alcoholics
Anonymous is its members [bold emphasis added]. That membership tries to live their program’s Twelve Steps, guided by their fellowship’s Twelve Traditions. The Tenth of those Traditions reads: “Alcoholics
Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.”  The nature of alcoholism is an “outside issue.” Thus, Alcoholics Anonymous as Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on it, as most members will tell anyone who asks.
1 – The writing of this article was subsidized by a grant from the Behavioral Health Recovery Management project, a partnership of Fayette Companies and Chestnut Health Systems funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services Office of Alcoholism and Substance
If I’m reading the above passage correctly (and with Ernest Kurtz, that’s always a challenge), Kurtz is saying Alcoholics Anonymous never formally defined alcoholism as a disease; however, Alcoholics Anonymous is its membership & its membership defines alcoholism as a disease.
(Think that 10 times fast & see if your head doesn’t explode.)
The tortured, convoluted history of AA member & publicist Marty Mann’s machinations with Yale ‘Dr.’ E.M. Jellinek (see: www.roizen.com regarding Jellinek’s dubious academic credentials) to establish both the ‘disease theory’ of alcoholism is fairly well documented. That the AMA’s recognition of this definition went to a highly controversial vote & won only by the slimmest margin is also fairly well documented. That Mann utilized AA funds & the response information from AA members only to support Jellinek’s findings is again fairly well documented. Finally, that Mann also used AA funds to establish the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism (now known as the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence [NCADD]) as the formal public relations arm of AA is another matter of verifiable public record.
Finally, (for those “original program” types in da house) we go to the horse’s mouth. Here’s what Bill Wilson himself had to say with regard to ‘alcoholism’ & ‘disease’:
“Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick.” (Alcoholics Anonymous – 4th edition, “How It Works” – pg. 64)
Bill explicitly states that alcoholics are “sick” in a three-fold manner (mentally, physically, spiritually) and in the most important area of that triumvirate (spiritually) they are suffering from “disease”.
Put bluntly, AA/12X12 trying to distance itself from the ‘disease’ concept is (as if it were possible!) more disingenuous than its continued disavowing itself of its ‘religious’ aspects. As AA proponent William L. White clearly outlines in his book “Slaying The Dragon”, the ‘disease’ notion of alcohol abuse & dependence has a history dating back to the 18th century with Benjamin Rush (Surgeon General of George Washington’s revolutionary armies). While its popularity waxed & waned over the ensuing years, it was always to some degree part of the public consciousness. AA simply took the existing concept & with Mann & Jellinek’s efforts put it into overdrive. The ‘disease’ concept of alcoholism & AA are inseparable — despite the sophistry of Ernest Kurtz & 12X12’s more duplicitous defenders.
All that in mind, let’s go back to the horse’s mouth — the sanctified, inerrant words of Bill Wilson:
“To be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live on a spiritual basis are not always easy alternatives to face.”
(Alcoholics Anonymous – 4th edition, “We Agnostics” – pg. 44)
“Unless each AA member follows to the best of his ability our suggested Twelve Steps to recovery, he almost certainly signs his own death warrant.”
(Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions, “Tradition Nine” – pg. 141)
Let’s count ’em off:
- We’ve got a person “claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease” (see “How It Works” pg. 64 — referenced above)
- We’ve got the same person (later, an entire worldwide organization) claiming a “nonscientific method or regimen … [claiming] exclusive or exceptional power in curing a particular disease”; better (or worse, depending on your perspective) — “a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator “
- We’ve got an explicit death threat accompanying even the mildest rejection of the prescribed ‘cure’
AA/12X12 proponents can prattle on all they want about how ‘the program’ isn’t ‘treatment’ or ‘cure’. As demonstrated above, they are at best equivocating & at worst willfully misrepresenting their own texts & philosophy. They are just plain lying.
I’ll say it again: when it comes to describing AA/12X12 I refrain from using the word ‘cult’. I believe contemporary usage of the word comes with more than a fair amount of pejorative baggage & is not really all that helpful in truly deconstructing the myth of 12X12 efficacy.
But — & this question is directed at any AA (or any [fill-in-the-blank]A) member — how do you consider all of the above & not come away with at least some concern that you’re engaged in a cult or a cult-like organization?
In the event that the inevitable “AA does not call alcoholism a disease” response to this post hits the ‘Comments’ section, let me head that one right off at the pass. From AA’s own website & available in pamphlet form at virtually any meeting or treatment facility:
“We who are in A.A. came because we finally gave up trying to control our drinking. We still hated to admit that we could never drink safely. Then we heard from other A.A. members that we were sick. (We thought so for years!) We found out that many people suffered from the same feelings of guilt and loneliness and hopelessness that we did. We found out that we had these feelings because we had the disease of alcoholism (emphasis added).” – Is AA For You? copyright 1973 & 2008 — Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.