My most recent post, which examined the thought control of AA based on Robert Lifton’s criteria from his study of totalism, started a pretty good dialog over whether AA is truly a cult or not. Some really good and interesting points were made, among them this once from Cuda:
“Rather than debate whether AA is a “Cult” or not let’s just ask, “What isn’t a “Cult?”
Most Religions fall under this umbrella joined by most, if not all, spiritual fellowships. AA is on this list. The Oxford Group is still around under a different name. What about The Masons? Knights of Columbus, etc… What about Fraternal Orginizations? Moose, Elks, Rotary? Ad infinitum!!
Who isn’t a “Cult” by these standards is the question. In fact, if that’s what a “Cult” is, I’ll take it. A lot of good comes from these “Cults” as you call them.
I believe if anyone has the desire to call AA a “Cult” in the same fashion that we would refer to The Branch Davidians, Peoples Temple, Heavens Gate, etc… you’re really scraping for fuel to keep your torch lit.”
I understand Cuda’s point, although I think comparing Rotary with a cult is like diagnosing someone a narcissist because they will on occasion perform a selfish act, or might be proud of his or herself for a particular accomplishment. A healthy ego does make person a narcissist, just as secret handshakes esoteric rituals does not make a group a cult.
Steven Hassan is an exit counselor and expert on cult deprogramming. In his book Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves, he created the BITE Model, which is an acronym for the four primary components mind control: Behavior Control, Information Control, Thought Control, Emotional Control.
Here is a pretty good paper regarding how AA fits into the BITE Model. I’m sure many of you have read this already, but I thought it would be a good topic of discussion:
Mind Control Tactics of Alcoholics Anonymous
In deciding whether or not our beloved alcoholism cure “Alcoholics Anonymous” is a cult, it is important to come up with a definition of the word “cult.” The word itself tends to draw controversy. When any particular group is labeled a cult the term is hotly disputed by members, supporters, and sympathizers with the organization. There are exceptions to this–the most notorious of cults are not likely to be defended. These would be Charles Manson’s Family, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and the like. These are the examples that often come to mind when the term “cult” is used. These are the most extreme examples of a destructive cult and mind-control organization. On the other hand, the loosest definition of the word is likely to label an innocuous group of model railroad enthusiasts a cult.
The specific definition that I’m using to describe the cultic properties of AA is the BITE model that has been developed by Steve Hassan. Cult expert Hassan is the author of “Combating Mind Control” and “Releasing The Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves,” two highly acclaimed books dealing with the issues of mind-control, spiritual responsibility, and exit counseling for ex-cult members. The BITE model is used as a guideline to determine what extent a particular group practices mind-control tactics for the purpose of diminishing a member’s personal identity. The acronym stands for Behavior, Information, Thoughts, and Emotions. In examining an organization we can look at these four categories and consider how, why and to what extent these aspects are controlled by the group, in order to determine its level of mind-control over the members.
I consider the BITE model to be a very useful tool in defining cult-like characteristics because it creates a clear distinction between groups that may be dangerous and lead to behavior and ideas that are destructive, and groups that provide real benefit for their members and ultimately our society. Being able to look at an organization and determine the level of mind-control that is being used within it helps us to know how to deal with that organization on a societal level when exercising political activism against destructive cults. It also enables us to determine the best methods to assist those who have been victimized by them.
Hassan himself does not consider Alcoholics Anonymous an organization that fits the BITE model. He credits AA for providing a great service to those who have found relief from alcoholism through the organization. He agrees that AA is not suitable for all people, is potentially destructive for some members, and that alternative programs may be more beneficial.
Having been a member of AA for many years, I have a different view of it. I consider the program of Alcoholics Anonymous a destructive cult that uses all methods of mind-control tactics for the specific purposes of incorporating its members into a belief system that demolishes their individuality, crushes their independence, and creates numerous psychologically damaging side effects. I will discuss the aspects of AA as they relate to each category of the BITE model, but first I will discuss AA as it is presented to the general public to help explain why this issue is disputed with such adamancy on both sides.
Alcoholics Anonymous has been known as the program that has saved the lives of millions of people who are suffering from the disease of alcoholism. There is no shortage of people who will testify to having been at the edge of death from years of over-consumption of alcohol. After finding refuge in the program of AA they have experienced nothing short of a miraculous transformation. They will tell you that they would surely be dead if not for AA. AA meetings are free of charge, widely available, and the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking. The program of AA is based on the idea of one alcoholic helping another, mutually supportive of one another. There is a camaraderie, understanding, and acceptance that can only come from those who have been there and done that. The program has spread around the world. They claim to have over two million members. The structure of the program contains no leadership; it is maintained by adherence to the 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, and a spirit of cooperation amongst its membership.
The program of AA is based on the 12 steps, which are suggested as a program of recovery. These 12 steps have been adapted to fit numerous other organizations for the purposes of overcoming problems with addiction to drugs, sex, gambling, overeating, smoking, and many more. There are hundreds of books about using the 12 steps in daily living. They are advocated by just about every author of popular psychology books, every TV talk show host, 90% of addiction treatment centers, the United States court system, and the 12-Step programs are almost always praised in the mainstream media. There is no doubt that AA has made a good name for itself with the public since its formation in 1935. Most people who have no experience with the 12-step programs accept the dominant opinion of our society and consider it to be a good thing.
AA is not known for many of the things that we think of as making a cult. AA members are not going to commit mass suicide, they don’t sell flowers in airports, they don’t go door-to-door, they do not live communally, stockpile weapons, or dress in distinctive attire. These are aspects of the most recognizable cultic groups but not things that are typical of all of them. But one can still be a victim of mind-control tactics without it being that obvious on the surface, as the majority of cult members are.
It should be pointed out that AA exists in different forms. Public AA usually consists of meetings and a tight-knit social group. AA treatment is a facility where people live for a short period of time, usually 1-3 months. There are some inpatient 12-step treatment programs that can last up to a year or more. There is a wide range of involvement with the program from intensely strict communal living arrangements to an occasional meeting and very little time and energy dedicated to the program. The frequency of AA meetings depends on the population of the community. In a large city there are many different meetings to choose from and they go from early morning to late at night. Even very small rural communities usually have a weekly AA meeting. Some meetings are called “open” meetings–anyone is free to attend them. There are also “closed” meetings, which are restricted to those who have a problem with alcohol, and a desire to stop drinking. In analyzing AA as it relates to the BITE model, I’m going to concentrate on the most common form of AA, the publicly held meetings. I am also limiting my discussion to Alcoholics Anonymous, and setting aside all the other 12-step programs that have grown out of the original program of AA.
Considering the program that I have described, it may seem absurd to be critical toward such a thing. Why would anyone object? Even if it’s not as effective as they like to portray it as being, it couldn’t hurt, right? No, actually it can and it does.
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS AND BEHAVIOR CONTROL
Steve Hassan has drawn up a list of criteria that constitutes behavior control. The first aspect of behavioral control that is addressed is the limitation of a person’s physical reality. This includes where the person lives, what they eat, how their time is spent, and what they wear.
Before analyzing the level of behavioral control it is important to look at the people who enter AA in the first place. These are usually people who have experienced a tremendous amount of suffering as the result of alcohol dependency. They are likely to have had legal problems, relationship problems, health problems, lack of mental stability, financial problems, etc. They may have come to AA from jail, the hospital, or a treatment program. They may have done it as a result of pressure from friends and family, or work; some are mandated by court order to attend AA. Chemical dependency does cause a great deal of misery in peoples’ lives. Some become utterly desperate and go to AA after being told that it is the only way they can be helped. Unlike almost every other cult, nobody joins it because they think it might be fun and a good opportunity to meet some interesting new people.
In the examining and evaluating the level of behavioral control in a group situation, it is best to create a model of comparison. What freedom of behavior do I now have that I did not have as a member of AA? Outside of the organization, I’m still bound by society’s laws and expectations, my personal obligations, my own physical and mental limitations, but I do have a much greater degree of personal freedom than I did as a member of AA.
I will describe the process that a person could expect at their first meeting. Bear in mind that the usual situation for new members is that they are people who have problems and are seeking relief from their situation. Someone who is newly sober will not be thinking clearly. These people are very suggestible and often desperate and very vulnerable. The meetings are very ritualistic: there are certain traditions that are almost never deviated from. Steve Hassan starts the description of behavior control with the regulation of individual’s personal reality. The use of rituals that are engaged in by all those surrounding the individual is a highly effective way of controlling the person’s behavior and defining the physical reality for this person. Each meeting starts with a moment of silence followed by the Serenity Prayer. The entire group almost always participates in this ritual, heads bowed and chanting in unison. This is followed by a reading from the basic text titled “Alcoholics Anonymous” commonly referred to as “The Big Book.” This reading contains the 12 steps, which are the basic structure of the program. The 12 traditions, which are guidelines that each group is expected to follow, are then read aloud.
At every meeting the group is asked if there are any celebrations for specific periods of time sober, if there are any visitors from out of town, and if there is anyone attending his or her first meeting. Every member uses the specific format: “My name is Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” This is always followed by the group response “Hi Joe!” At this point, a newcomer may introduce him or herself; they will likely be greeted with much enthusiasm and encouragement. The newcomer is assumed to be part of the organization. As a welcomed member of the group they are then given instructions as to what specific behaviors are expected of them. Establishing ritual creates the first step in further control over the person’s behavior.
The usual recommendation is to attend 90 meetings in 90 days and get a sponsor as soon as possible. Granted, there is no way to make sure that a newcomer actually does this, unless there is some kind of legal order to do so. The way it is done is through a form of peer pressure. At this point one is either going to become a full member of AA or one who just comes by occasionally or abandons the group altogether after a period of time. One who becomes a full member will take the suggestions seriously. One who is not willing to participate on that level will never be completely accepted into the group. There is a very clear separation between those who are peripheral members and those who are in the inner circle.
“Are you in AA or around AA?” This is the standard slogan that is used to encourage people to become more involved with the program. If you are going to be “in AA” you will go to those 90 meeting in 90 days and you will get your AA sponsor to guide you in the program. The mindset of the newcomer is highly based on fear. The memory of the mental anguish and often life-threatening situations of active addiction is fresh; the idea of returning to such a state of existence can be terrifying. Out of fear, the newcomer will feel compelled to seek relief. It is the old-timers who control the dominant discourse in the meetings, usually authoritarian, dogmatic, manipulative and aggressive. They are easy to recognize in any meeting. They will state the number of years they have been sober in the program, and they will admonish any newcomers who say something that is inconsistent with the tenets of AA with a condescending comment. Sometimes just a glare, a cough, or grunt is all it takes to let the group know that what was just said was “wrong.” The message is clear; if you don’t want to relapse into active addiction, you will do as we say.
The member’s behavior is guided by fear. Every single day for a period of three months new members go to an hour-long AA meeting. The newcomer is expected to ask a more experienced member “Will you be my sponsor?” This establishes the new member as being inferior, less knowledgeable and needy. The newcomer is demeaned and humiliated by this act. The sponsor is tacitly elected to control the new person’s life to whatever degree is tolerated. The degree to which a sponsor will dictate someone’s behavior varies greatly. There are some who are very demanding: they develop every aspect of behavior that is associated with cult gurus. I knew one who insisted that his male followers wear short haircuts and suits, and one who insisted on eight meetings a week, no matter how long the member has been in the program. Typically a sponsor will insist on very frequent meetings. The sponsor will usually require regular phone contact, reading and discussion of all AA materials. All this person’s extra time will be consumed with the program. It is not uncommon for a member to have no social life outside of the group.
Not all AA members follow this scenario. This is the encouraged path. This is what is expected to be part of the “in” group. Those members who do not get a sponsor, do not attend meetings frequently, do not pay attention to the literature, are never fully accepted into the fold.
Hassan’s second and third aspects of behavioral control are major time committed to indoctrination, and the need to ask permission for major decisions. In AA the frequent meeting attendance, time spent with the sponsor and at social gatherings, and the amount of time spent reading and learning the program amount to a major portion of the member’s life. And there are certain things that are suggested by the sponsor, and in dominant discourse in the meetings, concerning major life decisions. A new member is told to place recovery as their first priority. They are told not to get involved in an intimate relationship, change jobs, get divorced, stop smoking, move to a different city, or make any major decisions for the first year of recovery. Unemployed newcomers are told not to worry about getting a job but to concentrate on recovery and go to lots of meetings. In some cases a sponsor will become dangerously controlling and attempt to manage every aspect of a person’s life. The sponsor is the mentor, to whom all information is divulged. The fifth step in AA is to confess “the exact nature of our wrongs.” This is the next aspect of behavioral control in the BITE model, reporting thoughts, feelings and activities to superiors. Those members of the group who have been around longer and have more time sober are considered to be superiors. There is an unstated hierarchy that naturally develops.
AA claims the lack of specific leaders as evidence that it is not a cult. Since co-founder Bill Wilson died in 1971, there has not been a specific leader of AA who can be called by name. That does not mean that they don’t exist. Leaders do exist; in every meeting there are the cult gurus. These are usually middle-aged males. They tend to be conservative, authoritarian, narrow minded, and dogmatic. They consider the things that they say in meetings to be of the utmost importance. The members respond to their words as if they were some kind of profound wisdom. It is these gurus who decide who is and who is not accepted into the fold.
Hassan’s last four aspects of behavioral control are rewards and punishments for purposes of behavior modification, groupthink prevails over individualism, rigid rules, and a need for obedience and dependency. With AA, as with any other cult, these aspects don’t apply as much to the members who are on the edge of the group. When someone is taken into the fold, acceptance from the group becomes a very important issue for them. The old timers shun and ignore those who are not eager to become involved. A member’s ability and willingness to accept the group’s doctrine will be easily identifiable; they will use the AA slogans, quote from the literature frequently, and they will not express independent ideas. Their responses become very predictable. These people become obsessively dedicated to “working the program.” They develop a worshipful attitude toward the old-timers, indiscriminately believing everything they are told by those with more time in AA. If someone goes against the prevailing attitudes in the group, they will be told that they will relapse as a result. They develop a superstitious fear of saying anything critical toward the program. There is a strong encouragement to associate only with other members. It is very common for someone to limit their social group exclusively to AA members. This impacts who they choose as a roommate, where they live, where they work, who they chose as an intimate partner, and every other aspect of a person’s life. The obsession with the program can get to the point where an indoctrinated member thinks and talks about nothing but AA.
New members become convinced that they must conform to the expectations of the group. The primary tactic used to control behavior is fear. Those who do not do as they are told and believe the dogma will suffer a terrible fate; they relapse and then they die. The behavior of the newcomer is dictated by the induced phobia of relapse and death. These people are led to believe that their lives are fully dependent on the program. The sponsors make the rules on an individual basis; the old-timers are in charge of the group dynamics. Anyone expressing criticism toward the program is countered with condescending remarks, ridicule or hostility. Anyone who openly questions or disagrees with the prevailing group discourse will not be accepted into the inner circle. They may remain on the edge of AA, but will never truly become part of the group. These people will inevitably leave the program altogether.
In looking at my life after my involvement with the cult in comparison to my life as a member of the cult, I clearly see a difference in the level of freedom I have over my own behavior. I am not one who would choose to participate in a group prayer; I am not inclined to choose someone as a spiritual guide or mentor. I never went to those meetings because I enjoyed them, I attended out of fear of relapsing and dying. While I was in the cult my social group consisted almost entirely of members of the organization. I now socialize with a diverse group of people and engage in a wide variety of activities. I do not have to set aside time to attend meetings or social functions. I am free to discuss any topic I want to. The primary difference concerning behavior is that my time is my own. I have no obligation to attend these meetings, social events, or conventions. I don’t have to worry about that phone call, “Haven’t seen you at a meeting in a while, are you all right?” That’s right, “Big Sponsor” is watching you.
I would not refrain from making any major decisions in my life for any period of time. I do not consider anyone to be the vehicle of sublime wisdom. I do not feel the need to or see the advantage of engaging in a ritualized confession. I do not depend on anyone to tell me what to read, think about, believe, or do. There is an incredible amount of control that is gained over people’s lives when they are convinced that they have a deadly disease and they will die unless they do what they told. I have discovered that I am able to live my life without being guided by fear and the result is freedom.
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS AND INFORMATION CONTROL
The categories and sub-categories in Steve Hassan’s BITE model are very clear and specific. This has been greatly beneficial to me in my continuing insight about how I got caught up in this particular cult. The first sub-category under information control is the use of deception. Examples of this are, deliberately holding back information, distorting information to make it more acceptable, and outright lying.
In AA there are a multitude of things that you will not hear about: these things are suppressed. You will never hear about alternative methods of recovery, except in very derogatory context. The sexual, psychological, and physical abuse that takes place in AA is never talked about. Scientific advances in the treatment of alcoholism are never brought up. The fact that it has been shown that the program often does more harm than good for a great many people will never be discussed.
AA describes itself as “the program that has saved the lives of millions of alcoholics.” One thing that they are never clear about is the actual rate of recovery. Since the members of the program are anonymous and no records are kept on anyone, reliable statistics are scarce. The studies that have been done in order to determine the actual number of AA members who achieve long-term abstinence from alcohol show a range from 2-5%. The number of addicted people who achieve remission without any program at all is about 70% according to NLAES (National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemological Survey).
AA is said to be a “spiritual, not religious” program. This is a gross manipulation of words, just to make the program more acceptable to newcomers. A good way to see the clear distortion of information is to compare AA’s promotional literature with their official basic text and the dominant discourse that takes place among the members. AA’s promotional literature claims, “there is room in AA for people of all shades of belief and disbelief.” The Big Book states, “to live life on a spiritual basis or face an alcoholic death are not easy alternative to face.” In the meetings a commonly heard slogan is, “work the steps or die.” This is one of a multitude of examples of how the promotional literature that one finds in AA pamphlets or magazine articles shows AA as an easy-going loosely defined fellowship. But the Big Book of AA paints a picture of grave warnings and death threats. It is obsessively religious and claims to be about hope and inspiration for the alcoholic, but is filled with dark and morbid overtones. The information that goes out to the public is clearly designed to make AA look inviting, all accepting, enjoyable, and effective. Once the member is inside, things change. All of the information is geared toward making the member obedient and dependent.
The outright lies of AA exist in abundance at every level, in the promotional literature, the basic texts, and the discourse among the members. AA claims it acquires members by “attraction rather than promotion,” but the court system mandates attendance to their meetings, and the 12th step instructs the members to “carry the message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” AA promotion is found in magazines, newspapers, books, movies, and other sources. It is not uncommon to hear members claim that it is a scientifically proven fact that AA is the only possible way to recover from alcoholism. I have made calls to 12-step based treatment centers and been told that alternative programs to AA do not exist. AA’s promotional literature claims that no alcoholic ever returns to moderate drinking; the truth is that many have. They claim that there is no leadership in AA; actually there is a clear hierarchy that develops in the groups. The groups are as far from democratic as you can get; the old-timers in control demand strict adherence to the dogma. The Big Book makes outrageous statements. One of my favorite examples of an outright lie in this text is, “Since this book was first published, AA has released thousands of alcoholics from asylums and hospitals of every kind. The majority have never returned.” Not only is this untrue, but it was written word for word in the original manuscript, before the book was ever published. The newcomer is told that they have a disease, the disease is deadly and incurable, there is only one possible way to keep from dying of this disease and that is to go to meetings, read the Big Book, get a sponsor and work the steps. This too is a blatant lie. The members of the program are taught to accept these and other lies as absolute, indisputable truth. If one dares to expose these lies for what they are they will not be part of the inner circle of AA. Believing and repeating lies is one of the major expectations of the group.
The steps are said in the Big Book to be only “suggestions,” but these suggestions are read at the beginning of every meeting. A commonly heard slogan is “the steps are suggested like it is suggested that you use a parachute when jumping out of an airplane.” The old-timers talk about working the steps they never speak of using other “suggestions.” They will welcome people by saying that there are no “musts” in the program. Your higher power can be anything you want it to be. Such things as a doorknob, the AA group itself, or a tree are recommended as points to start believing in a power greater that yourself. As one gets into the program the definition of AA’s “higher power” becomes a narrowly defined tyrannical god as AA understands him.
Hassan says a mind-control cult will minimize and discourage non-cult or outside information. In the AA meetings outside information is not just minimized or discouraged, it is forbidden. Only AA conference-approved literature is read, distributed, or discussed at meetings. An AA sponsor will almost always reinforce the limitation to AA literature outside the meetings. Among the members scientific information about alcohol addiction is ridiculed. People who criticize the program are labeled angry and dishonest. Those who question the tenets are considered uninformed and need to go to more meetings to find out what it’s all about. Information that is critical of AA is never considered valid, and will not be discussed objectively. The Big Book is often considered to be “inspired by God.” It is not disputed.
According to Hassan, a cult will have different levels and types of information that are used and distributed in different ways. In AA there are widely available promotional pamphlets which are shown to the public. The conference-approved literature used at meetings is not limited from public access, but is not quoted much in promotional information. The old-timers control the information that is acceptable in the meetings. On the highest level of AA World Services, information is kept strictly out of the hands of the regular members. The inner working of AA on the highest level is a mystery to regular members. Despite what they tell the public, it is a highly secretive organization. There are several front organizations that disseminate information to the public such as the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD,) the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC,) and the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM.) These organizations hide their relationship to AA on a public level, but publish information that is consistent with the tenets of AA such as information about the disease model, the spiritual disease, the need for a spiritual cure, etc. This information is rarely questioned in the mainstream media.
Members, however, are usually manipulated into divulging all information about themselves to their sponsor. There is frequent checking up on members who haven’t been seen at meetings for a while. An unexpected visit may happen, phone calls, people ask about other members at meetings. As for the extensive use of cult-generated propaganda, AA not only indoctrinates their own members with propaganda, they use their front organizations to disseminate information to the general public. Almost all of the drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers are based on AA’s 12-step model. These organizations do not give their clients any information about alternative methods. They claim that the 12-step model is the best if not the only way to recover from addiction. Although they claim that they are not affiliated with AA, they use exclusively AA conference approved literature. These programs are vehemently opposed to any alternative resources. This has a tremendous effect, not just on the members, but on the general public. Many people are unaware that alternative programs even exist. This demonstrates a highly effective propaganda machine that has been orchestrated by AA.
The level of secrecy at the top of the AA pyramid is mirrored by the level at which privacy of the regular members is violated. In AA confession takes place in the fourth and fifth steps of the program. The fourth step reads: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory on ourselves, and the fifth: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. It is usually the sponsor who acts as the person hearing the confession, although some members choose to use clergy or a therapist. There is strong pressure from the group to go through the confession. “If you don’t do a fourth you will drink a fifth.” The superstition is constantly reinforced that one must follow the procedure or they will return to active addiction and they will die. The sponsors in the program often take advantage of the prevailing attitude that the member must confess everything, hold nothing back or else they will drink again. Violation of confidentiality is not uncommon. Goading members into revealing things about themselves that are humiliating, demeaning, and destructive to self-esteem is precisely the point of the confession process. There is no method of absolving one’s past moral shortcomings in the program. In meetings there is a degree of one-upmanship that occurs. The worse one makes himself appear, the better. Members whose lives were not quite as gruesome before joining AA will feel compelled to lie and fabricate stories in order to fit in, or relapse and have more extreme “adventures” to report to the group.
When I was a member of the cult I had only a vague idea about alternative programs for addiction recovery. I was under the impression that any information that contradicted the program was false information. I had almost no knowledge of scientific research about addiction. I had no idea of how the upper levels of AA worked.
New information about addiction is never added; new concepts are never considered. An AA member will get a certain amount of information and then that’s it. Whenever the idea of updating the basic text or making changes in the program is brought up it is met with condescending remarks or hostility. There is no learning in AA, only indoctrination.
Since I left AA, I have investigated numerous programs dealing with addiction. I have read a multitude of books on the subject. I have also studied psychological theories and practices for overcoming drug dependence and dealing with mind-control. Before leaving AA, I was controlled by the superstitious fears that are intrinsic to the program. I had developed a belief system that made it a kind of “sin” to explore ideas concerning addiction recovery. The punishment for committing such a sin would be death. Those who criticize AA are often accused of “killing alcoholics.” They are actually called “murderers” in some cases because they would lead the alcoholic away from the one true “proven” method of recovery.
AA does have a way of creating the irrational belief system in a fairly short period of time. The reasons for this are that the people who come in to AA are often in desperate condition. They will be willing to accept anything that appears to be a viable solution to their problem. The dominant discourse in society mirrors much of what AA says. The result is that newcomers have little reason to question the validity of what they are told.
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS AND THOUGHT CONTROL
I came, I came to, I came to believe. These are the words you will hear at AA meetings to briefly describe how someone has been “saved” from the clutches of alcoholism. AA, its members, its literature, its doctrine are always good; these things will always lead you away from taking that first drink. Alternative programs, critical literature, former members, non-members, and one’s own ideas are “deadly.” These things will lead to drinking and drinking means certain death.
A great many AA members actually believe that their lives depend on the program literally; they are thoroughly convinced that if they were not in AA they would be dead. The old-timers will say repeatedly, the way to stay sober is you don’t drink, go to meetings, get a sponsor, work the steps, and read the Big Book. That’s how they did it. The dogma is backed up by stories, often graphic, horrific anecdotes of what life was like when they were drinking. The old-timers tell of time spent in jails, mental institutions, suicide attempts, life threatening injuries, hospital emergency rooms, and of course they tell the tales of those who didn’t find AA in time, and worse, those who did find AA, but committed the deadly sin of abandoning the program. Those victims of alcoholism whose dead bodies were found floating in a river, in a smashed up automobile, hanging from a rope in a hotel room, or bloated and stinking behind a dumpster. The old-timers will then claim that it is AA that saved them from this horrible disease. If they do not work the steps, go to meetings, etc. the disease will take over and they will drink themselves to death.
There is no doubt that alcohol dependence kills people. AA uses this fact and blends it with their fictional cure to create a very powerful form of thought control. The program is not designed to create an independence from alcohol, it is specifically designed and fine-tuned to create a dependence on the group. Anything that might lead one away from the group is considered dangerous. Grave warnings are given about spending too much time with work, family, or hobbies. The members are told to put as much effort into recovery as they did into drinking.
“Recovery must come first,” is what people are told. This does not mean doing what one needs to do in order to create a life that is free from alcohol, it means devoting one’s self to the program. Those people that are not alcoholics, and never had the joy of joining AA are called “normies,” “flatlanders,” or “earth people.” These outsiders do not know what it is like to have the disease; they will not understand those who are in recovery. AA claims that there is a psychological difference that alcoholics have from the outsiders, and they need AA in order to arrest the disease. The program is filled with its own insider jargon and redefined words that the members learn to use. The result is that they speak in such a way that those outside the program really don’t understand what the AA folks are talking about. The claim is that no one ever fully recovers from alcoholism, they only get a relief from it one day at a time with the help of their higher power, and the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The intent is dependence and obedience, not health and freedom.
Hassan starts the list of criteria for thought control with the insistence that the members internalize the groups’ doctrine as “truth,” which includes black and white thinking, good and evil, and the “us and them” ideology. One of the tactics that is used in a cult situation is repetition. When someone hears the same thing over and over and hears nothing else to the contrary, they start to believe that it is the truth. This tactic is used extensively in AA. The ideas expressed in meetings never change. The reading from the beginning of chapter five of the Big Book introduces every meeting. It is repeated to the point that the words lose meaning; they become more like a chant, a kind of hypnotic mantra.
All cults use clihés, platitudes, and slogans. They may seem clever and cute at first, but in examining them, they are vapid, overly simplistic pseudo-answers for any situation that a member might have in life. AA has a ridiculous number of these that they use frequently; they are heard at every meeting. Any time the dogma is questioned one of these slogans is given in response: “if it works, don’t fix it.” “let go and let God,” “take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.” There are lists of hundreds of these slogans that have been compiled. The extensive use of these slogans starts to have an effect; people actually start to believe that the slogans have some significant relevance to their lives. People think in terms of the slogans. They develop a speech pattern where the clichÄs of the program are used habitually in place of thoughtful responses.
In AA, there is no need to look for subtle indications that there might be tactics that are designed to control the thoughts of the members. AA quite blatantly states that it is wrong to think for one’s self. Self-will is considered evil, having and doing one’s own will is what leads one to relapse in AA. God’s will is good and pure; God’s will keeps you sober. Members are warned, “your best thinking got you here,” “utilize, don’t analyze,” “stinkin’ thinkin’ will lead to drinkin’.” It is only the ideas that come from the program that are safe. Members are taught that their own ideas are “alcoholic,” “diseased.” They are taught that they are not capable of making good decisions for themselves. The level of dependency on the program becomes intense when the members’ own thoughts can only come from the program. Independence is forbidden.
There is emphasis placed on “getting the program” those who relapse are considered people who just didn’t “get it” this time and are told to “try it again; this time you need to be more thorough.” Fully comprehending the program is said to be the guarantee that one will achieve permanent independence from alcohol. Not only that but the “spiritual awakening” takes place; it is the method by which one achieves “serenity,” free from all their worries and no longer tormented by the trivialities of life, for they are doing the will of God. The first two steps teach members that they are powerless over addiction and they need the help of a power greater than themselves in order to stay sober. The disease is said to be more powerful than the person and so the cure must also be more powerful than the individual. The individual is reduced to absolutely nothing; they must accept the doctrine of the program or yield to the disease.
This is a sadistic mind-trick. The Big Book is vague and ambiguous, containing page after page of metaphorical gibberish. Nobody can ever understand it because it doesn’t make any sense. There is a format in the Big Book, a combination of absolute statements and metaphorical phrases: “thoroughly follow our path,” “completely give themselves to this simple program,” “want what we have and be willing to got to any lengths…” These are the “instructions” that tell one how to stay sober. The instructions are incomprehensible; this is one of the many reasons that an overwhelming majority of members relapse within a short period of time.
The messages in the book, the discourse in the meetings, and the promotional literature of AA are full of contradictions. Between the contradictory information, the metaphorical ambiguity, and the overly-simplistic platitudes, the result is an actual damage in the thought process among the members. One’s ability to view real life situations in a realistic and logical manner becomes severely impaired. As this process develops the dependence on the cult increases.
After I had made one of the most psychologically healthy decisions of my life and decided to walk away from AA and sever my ties with it completely, I found that I was still stuck with a great many cult superstitions. For example, I still referred to myself as a “recovering addict,” I was not willing to let go of the idea that AA may be helpful to some people, I clung to the “disease” concept for some time. I remember coming to the realization that not just some, but all of the program’s information was false. It came as if a huge weight had been lifted off of me when I could comfortably reject every single aspect of the program.
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS AND EMOTIONAL CONTROL
The most vicious and dehumanizing aspects of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous lie within the category of emotional control. When Hassan outlines the aspects of emotional control in the BITE model, he starts with the narrowing of a person’s range of feelings, and the blame for all problems being placed on the individual rather than the group or leaders. In AA the goal is to have what they call a “spiritual awakening.” This is supposed to be the result of having “worked the steps.” A spiritual awakening is clamed to cause an enlightened state of consciousness that they call “serenity.” Having attained serenity, a person will be free from bad things such as anger, resentment, selfishness, fear, and just about any other negative emotion they claim will inevitably lead to the dreaded relapse. The steps are considered to be an infallible path to the desired state of serenity, and so anything that a member may experience which is unpleasant, is always the fault of that person. If one relapses, that is because they were not rigorously honest; if one gets angry and resentful it is because they are not “working their program.”
What this creates is an enormous burden of guilt on the members. The steps are undefined and indefinable, therefore it is impossible to actually work them. Members are made to feel guilty for not working a program that can’t be worked; a vicious circle is created. Members learn to create a new identity that is based on the expectations of the group. The member’s place in the group is dependent on the amount of time since his or her last drink; this is what defines who one is as a person in the terms of the group. Six months, five years, nine days, twenty years, and so on are terms that establish one’s position in the cult. Those who relapse are made to feel that they had betrayed the program. No matter how much time they had before, a relapse will put the member back to square one. A top dog who can boast twelve years can get drunk one night and return. They are then considered a “newcomer” and they only have “one day.” Guilt is reinforced by regular confessions and “moral inventories” and anyone who relapses takes full blame. Those who have gone for years without a drink cannot take the credit for it; the credit goes to the program and God.
During the years that I spent in the program, I have lost track long ago of the number of members who died prematurely. The leading causes are suicides, overdoses, and accidents. I don’t recall anyone who died of natural causes. Fear and indoctrination of phobias are the primary method that AA uses in order to maintain its members. Deviation from the program will result in a relapse and ultimately death. Members are told that they will need the program for their entire lives, and that to abandon it will result in “jails, institutions, and death.” Those who manage to retain abstinence from alcohol after leaving the program are said to be miserable or insane; they are likely to commit suicide.
Being relived of these fears has given me an enthusiasm for life that I have not felt during the entire time that I was in AA. Abandoning the program is what has enabled me to feel truly alive. Over the years I had struggled with addiction and severe depression, I was always given the same advice: go to more meetings, work the program, get a sponsor, and pray to your higher power. None of this worked. I made my own decision, which was against the advice of everyone that I knew at the time; I left AA for good, and that worked.
A FEW THINGS THAT THE BITE MODEL DOES NOT SAY ABOUT AA
It is not even a question as to whether or not AA fits the BITE model. Obviously, it does. The cult of Alcoholics Anonymous is clearly as dangerous and destructive if not more so than the most notorious cults in our society. Some of the most tyrannical aspects of AA are not addressed in the BITE model. There is no other cult that has managed to infiltrate the United States court system and have people court ordered to attend its meetings. Under the pretense of being “spiritual, not religious” AA has slipped past the Constitution of the United States and has set up a system of enforced religious indoctrination. This cult has also infiltrated the medical, psychology, psychiatry, and social services fields; there are numerous professionals who will suggest or “prescribe” AA as a viable method of overcoming addiction. Many of these people are not even aware that alternative programs exist. Over 90% of the addiction rehabilitation centers in the United States are based on the 12-step program; very few offer an alternative. The mainstream media almost always portrays 12-step programs in a positive light. Public criticism of these programs creates the same kind of reaction as criticizing a major religion.
As I brought up earlier, no one joins AA to achieve enlightenment; they join out of fear of dying, going insane, or losing what they have in life, or they were coerced into joining by the court system, employer, or family and friends. This enables AA to create a unique kind of recruiting and indoctrination. Most cults start with promises, then introduce threats. AA starts with threats then introduces more threats. The goal of achieving “serenity” is overshadowed by the goal of not dropping dead from addiction. AA is a cult of necrophilia, a group of people who have become preoccupied with death. Jails, institutions, and death are said to be the end result of addictive drinking. It is common to hear a member say, “I’ve been in jails, I’ve been in institutions, there’s only one more place to go.”
NOT JUST A CULT – THE CULT
Steve Hassan is wrong about AA. It is not just that he has misdiagnosed it as a relatively harmless group that does not fit the BITE model, he has also failed to recognize the political importance of AA as a target for anti-cult activism.
A major part of the frustration in dealing with political activism against cults is the amazing amount of power that these organizations tend to hold. They are usually backed by large amounts of money, legal expertise, and to varying degrees favorable public opinion. AA is a cult that has infiltrated every aspect of our society to the point that it is almost untouchable. The cult dogma has contaminated our culture so much that it is probably the biggest case to crack. Public exposure of AA as a cult is likely to have a serious effect on the court systems, the medical fields, the media, and the amount of power cults will be able to gain in the future. Exposing AA is the first step in creating a multitude of new and exciting methods of dealing with drug and alcohol dependence, and making a difference in our society.