Very little direct reporting exists on AA, an organisation that is as influential as it is discreet. On the occasion of its 80th birthday, this long-form piece offers a unique insight into the movement – as well as the controversy surrounding it.
additional interviews by Rhett Palmer
Downtown Atlanta is crowded today, so crowded that traffic is coming to a standstill. Blinking in the July sun, a never-ending steam of people is heading towards the concrete complex of the Georgia World Congress Center, ambling past a three-piece band playing jaunty N’awlins jazz. Everyone in the throng seems to wear a lanyard and a smile. In bold letters, their name tags read Jane M., Tim B., Brandy R.,Renata H., but nowhere is there any indication what they’re here for.
Most of them are white, plenty are older. There are veteran bikers with straggly beards, parading years of rebellion in faded body art, and college kids in trendy clothes, the hopeful glow of youth on their faces. And everywhere, volunteer stewards – whose neon-green vests read “Happy, Joyous, Free” – welcome the crowds. For the uninitiated, it’s impossible to guess that the 60,000 people gathered here have come celebrate the 80th birthday of Alcoholics Anonymoys, the Twelve Step fellowship that has helped them to stop drinking.
The International Convention – AA’s fourteenth since 1950 – kicks off with a giant meeting at the Georgia Dome football stadium. The packed audience eagerly awaits the moment when an African-American woman in her fifties steps in front of the microphone, her image beamed onto giant screens. “My name is Stefanie M”, she exclaims, “and I’m an alcoholic.” It’s not a confession – it’s a declaration. The crowd greets with cheers, whooping and applause. For twenty minutes, the trade unionist, who has been sober since 1990, tells the story of her life, or – in AA parlance, “shares her experience, strength and hope”. Like all AA-“shares”, it follows the same format: the build-up of addiction (“what we were like”), turning point (“what happened” – usually a low point AA’s call “bottom”), and a new, sober life (“what we’re like now”).
Today, stories like this are told in meetings all over the world, from Iran to Malaysia, from Honduras to China. AA counts approximately two million members, is present in 173 countries, and has translated its basic text “Alcoholics Anonymous” into 69 languages (the latest being Twi for Uganda). It’s a remarkable success for a formula that was stitched together by two barely sober alcoholics with an eclecticism fans call inspired genius, and its opponents unscientific quackery.
William Griffith Wilson – known as Bill W – was a stockbrocker who had tried time and again to stop drinking, never with any lasting success. During the dying days of prohibition, Wilson was necking three-and-a-half pints of cheap moonshine a day, living off the meagre earnings of his wife Lois, who worked at a department store. Time and again, Wilson solemnly resolved to stop drinking, and yet, he always fell off the wagon sooner or later. Baffled and demoralised, Wilson checked himself into Towns Hospital, an upscale clinic catering to New York’s upper crust inebriates (his well-off brother-in-law footed the bill: in today’s money, Towns charged around £750 per day).
There, Wilson met Dr Silkworth, a neurologist who had become convinced that alcoholism was not rooted in a moral failing or weakness of character, but a physical illness that’s triggered by the ingestion of alcohol in any quantity, no matter how small. Control was impossible, said Silkworth; only complete abstinence could arrest the progression of what he termed a disease. In his definition, alcoholism was “an obsession of the mind that condemns one to drink, and an allergy of the body that condemns one to die.” To Wilson, Silkworth’s ideas were revelatory. They made perfect sense to him, but even though Wilson took on board the mantra that “the first drink does the damage”, he could not resist his cravings for long.
The second element came in the unlikely shape of an old drinking buddy, Ebby Thacher, who called on Wilson out of the blue. Getting ready for a booze-up, Wilson was surprised to hear instead that Thacher had “got religion” and stopped drinking – a joyful message Thacher was passing on to his old friend. Wilson was enthused. Could this be the cure? Apparently not, because soon afterwards, he embarked on yet another alcoholic spree, ending up in Towns for the fourth time. Then, the legendary AA miracle occurred. Drying out in his hospital bed, Wilson reported an ecstatic, “white light” spiritual experience during which he felt the presence of God quite clearly. “Then”, he recounted, “came the blazing thought ‘You are a free man’”. This astonishing supernatural event not only left Wilson utterly convinced of God’s existence. It also gave him a profound sense and knowledge that he needed never drink again, that he was truly cured.
But even this miracle seemed to wear off over time, as Wilson started to feel vulnerable. On a failed business trip to Akron, Ohio, he found himself alone and defeated in a strange city with a whole, empty weekend ahead. Bored and restless, he was tempted to go for a ginger ale at the hotel bar. Realising he was heading for a relapse, Wilson had an idea: if only he could only find another alcoholic to talk to – one who wanted to stop, but couldn’t – he might be able to talk himself out of his craving. And who knows, he might even be able to help the other person stop. Instead of heading for the bar, Wilson looked up the church directory hanging in the hotel lobby and called a minister at random, a Reverend Tunks, asking if he knew of any “drunks” he could speak to. The minister, unencumbered by any data protection qualms, readily gave Wilson ten leads to call. Wilson dialled every number until he was put in touch with Henrietta Seiberling, a member of the Goodyear tyre dynasty. And it just so happened that she knew a prospect, local surgeon Dr Robert Smith. “Dr. Bob” reluctantly agreed to meet Wilson, but only to please his wife. Anxious to drink, he gave warning that his meeting with Wilson was only going to last fifteen minutes. But as it turned out, the two men hit it off and spoke into the night, forming a friendship that lasted until Smith’s death of cancer in 1950. Together, Smith and Wilson came up with the idea of starting up a meeting that was exclusively devoted to alcoholics to spread their message. The year was 1935, and this Akron meeting, held in a school hall and still continuing today, was the beginning of AA.
Back at the Georgia Dome, AA’s (anonymous) press officer – who looks so healthy as if he’d never even looked at a shot glass – explains a central AA tenet. “Bill and Dr. Bob discovered that one alcoholic can’t stay sober on his own. But when they shares their experience, strength and hope with one another, they can overcome their disease”.
We are getting for the next speaker, who’s a bit of a surprise. “My name is Michael B and I’m a deaf-mute, gay, Jewish slut”, comes a voice from the speakers as a bald, bespectacled man in his forties signs on screen. “But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because I’m an alcoholic.” Cheering and applause. Peppering his speech with witticisms, aperçus and gags, the writer from California recounts his “journey”; like other speakers he extols the healing medicine of the twelve steps and warns the audience against using poppers, a solvent popular in gay circles. One speakers follows the next: black, white, young, lesbian, straight, the formula remains the same. Time and again at this convention, alcoholics share their drinking and recovery stories. Time and again, they laugh at their most tragic and embarrassing memories only to be hushed by a moving anecdote just a few seconds later. A grey-haired lesbian speaks in memory of those of her AA-friends who died of AIDS in the 1980’s, earning a spontaneous standing ovation. Then there’s a cancer patient who has put off her surgery specially to come to the conference. She finds strength in the fellowship: “You are all miracles”, she tells the audience, “and in the next few weeks, I will need a miracle.”
Buzzwords like “miracle”, “grace” and “gratitude” abound. Then, of course, there’s God – the non-denominational “higher power” which, according to AA, enables even the most inveterate drunkard to leave that can of Diamond White, that bottle of Pinot Grigio, on the shelf – “just for today”.
AA may count atheists and agnostics among its members, but God – which AA says can be anything the individual chooses to conceive – remains the most controversial ingredient of the programme.
Like all questions of belief, there is no way to settle the argument. But according to AA members, a “spiritual awakening” can be experienced, even engineered with the aid of the programme’s twelve steps: spiritual practices inspired by a 1930’s Christian movement, the “Oxford Group”. Whether others believe it or not, to AA’s, their own stories are indisputable testimony.
Carol Lynne, an ex-reservist from Vancouver who has been sober 14 years, hardly comes across as a religious zealot. On the contrary, the 44-year-old speaks about the application of the steps with analytical detachment.
“It’s for me primarily around our First Step. Just coming to terms with the fact that my drinking was completely out of control and that my life was unmanageable, which is in essence our First Step, was the beginning of everything. I thought I had bad luck, I thought I drank because I had problems. I thought if I could solve all my problems, if my life was better organised and less stressful, had less chaos in it, I didn’t need to or want to drink. And through that First Step, I had an opportunity to learn that just possibly it was my drinking that was creating all these problems, and that I didn’t seem very successful in stopping on my own. Like many AA members, I tried alls sorts of methods to stop drinking. Alcoholics Anonymous wasn’t my first choice, but everything failed except Alcoholics Anonymous.”
“I know there’s lots of people who drink safely, who make reckless decisions and grow out of it. I don’t really think that’s what Alcoholics Anonymous is for. I think it’s for people who in their experience, their drinking is creating consequences they’re not prepared to live with. And each one of us need to decide for ourselves if we’ve reached that threshold and want to reach out for help.”
“The other steps”, Carol Lynne continues, “have been critical for me in terms of just changing how I think and how I react to life. And you couple that with the the fellowship, a community of people, who are working towards the same goals, living in a similar way, having support of the fellowship. So for me personally, both of those things have helped me stay sober.”
AA has highly charismatic speakers with devoted followings. One of the biggest – and controversial – names in AA-land is Clancy. Aged 87, he is idolised by his disciples from the “Pacific Group”, which he bills as the largest AA group in the world. At the ornate, 19th century “Tabernacle”, which has played host to Guns N’ Roses, Robbie Williams and Prince, the AA-godfather – who is known as a no-nonsense taskmaster – regales his listeners with vignettes from his misspent youth. Revelling in curses and salty speech, his voice gravelly like that of a white Louis Armstrong, the one-time sailor recounts his misadventures and failings with superb comedic talent. Sober since 1958, he is now in charge of LA’s Midnight Mission, which is dedicated to straightening out “skid row drunks” with a dose of tough AA-love. Clancy hardly needs complain of lacking interest: two hours before he’s due to speak, people are already standing in line. Young people especially seem to really enjoy what the old-timer has to say.
Right at the end, Clancy gets serious. “You aren’t an alcoholic because alcohol is your problem”, he explains. “You’re an alcoholic because alcohol is your answer.” And then, a striking statement: “The solution lies in one alcoholic talking to another to reduce his feeling of being different enough to take an action he doesn’t yet believe in.”
It’s an assertion that gets one of the loudest claps. AA members swear by memorable phrases, aphorisms and slogans: maxims such as “First things first”, “Easy does it”, “Live and let live” are AA currency. They’re designed to make that which is vague and confusing simple and actionable, providing a manual for AA members to manage their lives on a daily basis. “Early in my AA sobriety”, writes Mel B, who has been sober since 1950, “I thought the slogans were a real turnoff. That’s because I had little confidence in anything that seemed so simple. The moralistic messages of the slogans also seemed trite and impractical (…) I’m happy to report that I stayed sober while something worked to change my views about the slogans. Today, they come across as simple but far-reaching statements of important principles.”
We would not be in America if there weren’t some kind of sell involved: the motion picture “Grace”, in which an attractive brunette overcomes her dipsomania, is hawked at fifteen bucks apiece. Elsewhere, there’s no shortage of merchandise either. Directly across the street from the “Tabernacle” is the “Sober Village”, an open air market where a plethora of mom-and-pop outfits deal in all manner of sobriety-related trinkets.
For the girls, there are T-shirts with the slogan “Spiritually Intoxicated” and “Sober Princess” (naturally in pink), for the tattooed bikers and grizzled ex-cons “Grateful I’m not Dead” and “Bill Wilson rode a Harley”. Other knick-knacks include sobriety medallions beautified with diamanté, healing and spiritual fridge magnets (“grace”, “wisdom”, “serenity”) and plenty of baubles based on the AA-emblem, an encircled triangle. There are even presentation boxes made of polished wood on offer, so that particularly devotional AA-members may keep their “Big Book” as if it were the Holy Bible. To lighten things up, there’s entertainment, too. The Tabernacle hosts a Sober Comedy Slam, the plays “Bill W and Dr Bob” and “Our Experience has taught us” and a gig by “Reckless in Vegas”. Then there’s Tom Sway, “San Francisco’s celebrated indie singer-songwriter” who “performs an evening of original music inspired by his recovery from alcoholism”. If that is really not enough, the organisers have laid on a Sober-Themed Muppet Show.
No conference would be complete without a night-time knees-up, and AA is no exception. At the gay and lesbian party in a hotel ballroom, the dance floor looks and feels just like that of any other club. The hideous carpet aside, nothing seems amiss: there’s electronic music, flashing lights and bodies writhing. The only difference is that the toilets are being used for their intended purpose and no-one is passing out, or falling over drunk. And that the bar only serves coffee and soft drinks – together with cookies, chocolate bars and pieces of “chicken-fried chicken” (we’re in the South, after all).
I catch up in the staircase with Orlando P, a 34-year-old from Detroit who works at a dental surgeon’s while building his modelling career. Raised by a pastor who condemned homosexuality, Orlando escaped to the gay scene, where he felt accepted. At the bars he visited, he found that alcohol and drugs helped him feel more at ease. After some years, he found he had become “a slave to drink”. Losing his driving licence for the third time, his lawyer warned him that he was a danger to himself. “He said I was going to hurt myself if I didn’t get some help, and I believed him.” The lawyer pointed Orlando to AA.
It was the start of a new, sober life. So, is the party over? What’s sober life like today? Does he still have fun – and how?
“It’s quite simply really. I changed my behaviour patterns and my friends. My friends are in the fellowship now, so I don’t go to places that I used to go, and I don’t do the things I used to do anymore. I go to meetings now. I meet before the meeting with my friends, and have coffee after the meetings. We may have dinner and things like that, so the time that I used to spend going to bars, I now use feeding my recovery, and I really don’t have any interest any more to be in bars.
“My dreams are on the forefront now. They fell by the wayside because alcohol took precedence over those things. And now that has been removed, the focus has shifted again to back onto my goals and the dreams that I had ten, fifteen years ago. And now I’m working on those things again as if I’d never left them. And that’s the beautiful thing about this programme, it’s given me my life back, it’s given me hope back and it’s given me freedom back, most importantly, to do what I want with my life and with my time. I’m not a slave to alcohol any more, I can get off work and do whatever I want to do and be productive.”
Orlando drove to Atlanta from a neighbouring state with five friends, but he knows at least 25 people from meetings at this convention. He and his sober crew love watching TV together at each other’s homes: Ru Paul’s Drag Race is a favourite. Since he gave up drink and drugs 18 months ago, Orlando has done things he never think he’d do. Like wearing a dress. A few months ago, at a gay AA convention in Myrtle Beach, he got dragged up to perform as Whitney Houston.
“The crowd loved it”, he smiles broadly, “they were eating that shit up.”
On the pavement outside, the streets are still thronged with people heading to their downtown hotels. A few yards up from the illuminated ferris wheel, an alcoholic from Scotland drones away on his bagpipe. The passing Americans, who’ll applaud anyone just for being from Idaho, think it’s awesome. Just when it seems that this circus could not get any madder, a Swiss man in a hat and moustache rustles in a bag, producing a variety of tubes which he assembles into a full-length alphorn. Then he plays a gentle tune as if he were on the foothills of the Matterhorn. It’s a sensory overload which must test the serenity of even the most determined water drinker.
I quickly hail a yellow cab and ask my driver what he makes of the whole shebang. “I have nothing but respect for these people”, he says. “All of these alcoholics have stopped denying their problem. You see, there’s a lot of denial out there. I’ve got so many friends and family members who drink too much, and they take drugs, but they won’t admit that it’s a problem. And in my street, there’s a woman living out of the garbage can. I tried to help her once and she got really angry. She doesn’t want anyone to help her, all she wants to drink. Do you know what she used to be? A federal judge.”
According to the 60,000 alcoholics at the Georgia Dome, even hers is not a hopeless case.
An edited version of this reportage was published in Delayed Gratificationmagazine