One of my favorite jokes starts out with a guy on his first day in prison, who upon meeting his new cell-mate is confronted with the question, “would you like to be the ‘husband’ or ‘the wife’?” Neither of those is a particularly favorable answer. Back in the days of the Salem witch trials, defendants were tossed into a pond. Those who sank and drowned were found innocent of being a witch, and those who floated were found guilty and executed. Given the choice of being tried as witch, or confronted with the two options that were given to the new prisoner, I’m not sure which one I would want to take.

The two examples above are known as double binds. A double bind is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of dilemmas. The term was created by Gregory Bateson, a British linguist who studied schizophrenia, where he used the term “double bind” to describe as a symptom the stress that schizophrenics feel when perceiving two conflicting messages. A double bind as used by Bateson is a communication dilemma, and can be conveyed both verbally and non-verbally. Double binds are used by abusers of all sorts, particularly among authority figures. I recently read about a priest who had molested a number of kids over the years, always telling him that he loved them, God loved them, and they should not tell anyone about the abuse because nobody else would understand, so they should leave it between the child, the priest and God. The double bind for the children were:

If they did tell anyone: They would be breaking a covenant with God.
If the didn’t tell anyone: The abuse would continue.

Cults use double binds in many ways, and AA is no exception. AA manipulates people with double binds in many ways, and I will go over some here.

A double bind begins with a carrot on a stick. There needs to be some bait to set the trap, and that comes in the form of a benefit to the victim. The bait varies from cult to cult, but there are some similarities, as well. Most cults offer inner peace and harmony, some offer eternal life, others offer wealth. In AA the initial bait comes with their 12 promises, which to summarize offer: new freedom and happiness, no regrets, serenity and peace, selflessness, greater self esteem, wealth (economic security), wisdom, etc.

The promises are specific, but the path to getting there is vague. Part of the recruitment trap is deception. The standard lines come into play in the trap stage. “We’ll allow anyone to join us who has a desire to quit drinking”, is the standard line. One thing that will not happen is the prospect not be led to believe that there is a religious aspect to the group. Bill Wilson instructed his flock in this situation to lie by omission: “When dealing with such a person, you had better use everyday language to describe spiritual principles. There is no use arousing any prejudice he may have against certain theological terms and conceptions about which he may already be confused. Don’t raise such issues, no matter what your own convictions are.” And later with: ““Let him see that you are not there to instruct him in religion”.

Once the bait has been taken and the person is in the group, the seedlings of the double bind begins. Remember, at this point, the newly recruited AA is likely a rational and logical person. At this stage, the absurdity of the steps stand out like a sore thumb. It isn’t important at this time for the AA to believe in the steps, but they have to at least believe in the possibility that they might work. To digress just a little, the AA, who was initially told that all they needed was a desire to quit drinking, will be asked to view the program with “an open mind”. This is classic AA doublespeak. What they are really doing is asking the AA to look at the steps without questioning them. This is in fact closed mindedness, because it is asking the person to act on faith alone. Open mindedness see things from all points of view, closed mindedness is myopic.

It is at this point that the group or sponsor will introduce the AA to the idea that the reason he or she has not yet attained these promises, is because they have been blocked from realizing the potential of the steps. This is a commonality in all cults, although there may be different explanations from cult to cult as to what is blocking them. The common theme, though, is that they have not “given in”. Whatever the case may be, there is something intangible and ingrained in an individual that is disallowing them to reach their potential. Scientologists blame it on unconscious programming – engrams; Jim Jones and David Koresh blamed it on Satan, and AA identifies such culprits as ‘pride’ and ‘arrogance’. It doesn’t really matter what it is that is preventing a person in any cult from reaching their ‘potential’. What matters is that person has unrealized potential, and it is the group’s principles that will get them there. This is the basis of a double bind:

“Are you going to give in and accept where you are now? Or are going to work the program and achieve these promises?”

With AA, if you answer ‘yes’ to the first question, you will remain in the same alcoholic state that got you there to begin with. If you answer ‘yes’ to the second question, you are implying some sort of agreement, which is counter to your rational thinking. You are also told that it is your pride and selfishness that is preventing you from giving into the program, and you are encouraged to shut off your brain and believe the emperor has no clothes – “Your best thinking got you here” and “Think, think, think me another drink” are examples of the things told to a person. Neither choice is any good which is the nature of the double bind.

A ride that never ends

If a person is working the steps and failing to prosper, they are presented with a mental mind fuck of the highest caliber. They are left deciding whether their failure is that of program – which they are constantly reminded cannot fail. Or, is their inability to give themselves over to an irrational belief the cause of their failure. They are in a double bind because they have already acquiesced to the idea of the possibility that a higher power™ will rid them of their addictions, if only they weren’t so prideful, arrogant, selfish. They have no idea when to hop off the ride, because they don’t know if it isn’t the next meeting when they will “get it”. Or the next one, or the next one. If they leave AA, they will never know if they are making a mistake. They will never know if their concerns about AA and mind control and manipulation are justified. Ever. This is why it is often difficult to convey to those who haven’t experienced AA, or those currently under its spell, that it is a cult. A double bind is a psychological and subjective thing, and they are not ‘provable’.

There are other types of double binds, as well. Here are some examples, and how they pertain to AA:

Guilt/Fear Double Bind:

“I could openly question the mind control tactics used by many of the old-timers and people in authority, and that I see that the things I am being told are simply not true, and I just want to walk away and enjoy a sober life.”

Staying in AA and working the steps and pretending to believe the dogma is uncomfortable, but it makes me acceptable to my AA peer group, and acceptable to my family who believes that only my presence in AA will allow my sobriety.

Leaving AA will detach me from my social circle, which is centred around AA; and will detach me from my family, who I love.

Fear/Guilt Double Bind

“I have always been honest with people, and if I see something I think needs to be pointed out as good or bad, I do so. I see a lot of things being said and done to people that I don’t like”

Damned if he does:
His honest appraisals will be characterized as false.

Damned if he doesn’t:
He will be guilt ridden.

Guilty Double Bind
“Getting it” is a favorite term in AA. What is often heard is something to the effect of, “I was like you. I struggled with what I was being told, I questioned how this could possibly work, and I thought I knew everything. Finally, I gave it all over to God and said ‘you take over’, and I finally got it.” I’ve heard this eureka moment described in varying ways a thousand times over. “Finally, I understood”, “Finally, I felt at peace”, etc. Essentially, it is a description of the fulfillment of those 12 promises. If you don’t reach the point of “getting it”, and you are still struggling, you did not try hard enough. “Sure you did X, but you didn’t…” The “but you didn’t…” becomes the the new ingredient needed to reach your own “get it” moment, and if you never get it, you are guilty of having not worked the program:

If you don’t work the whole program, you are guilty of not being sincere;
If you do work the program, you are guilty of not being honest.

At this point, the “suggestions” that AA speaks of become a false choice, and a way to pull a person further into the double bind: “do these things, or you cannot reach those promises”. Basically, “these things” consist of shutting off your brain and accepting on faith what AA is offering is true. This leads to another double bind:

If I shut off my brain, I won’t be able to discern the truth, as my tool for determining the truth has been shut down;
If I don’t shut off my brain, I won’t be able to believe what is false.