The Atlantic Was Wrong About AA: Part One

by Joshua Hoe

Last April Gabrielle Glaser wrote an article in The Atlantic (monthly) called “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

I do not know Ms. Glaser but, I know she wrote a book called “Why Women Drink”

I strongly disagree with most of the arguments in her piece.

Before I start, let me make it very clear I am not a member of AA and certainly have no official role in any 12 Step Programs. I am speaking only from my own experience in 12 Step Programs.

Recovery + Sobriety Are Not The Same Thing

Ms. Glaser starts her excoriation of AA (and 12 step programs) with a clear misreading of 12 step literature.

She says (referring to an addict who was cycling between relapse and sobriety):

“He felt utterly defeated. And according to AA doctrine, the failure was his alone. When the 12 steps don’t work for someone like J.G., Alcoholics Anonymous says that person must be deeply flawed. The Big Book, AA’s bible, states:

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way.”

The problem, the literature also repeatedly explains that “relapse is part of recovery.”

This is a 24 hour program entirely concerned with staying sober today. It is not a program that graduates people to a new life beyond recovery.

There is a reason the passage says “those who do not recover” instead of “those who do not remain sober.”

Recovery is not synonymous with sobriety. In fact, good sobriety can often happen with bad recovery.

In other words, the Big Book is describing people who are incapable of truly sharing in a recovery program requiring rigorous honesty.

It is not condemning anyone who relapses to the purgatory of perpetual failure.

Rigorous honesty and sharing are required for a 12 step program to be effective. If someone is constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves and others, a 12 step method of recovery cannot work for them.

That is what is meant by that passage. Certainly not that relapses mean you are incapable of recovery.

Nobody knows what magic alchemy finally brings someone to recovery, but once they are there they are supported, in my humble opinion, by everyone else in the group.

They are certainly not shunned or shamed for relapsing. In fact, in most of the meetings I have been to, people go out of their way to be supportive of everyone – especially when they have relapsed.

More Flawed Readings From the Big Book

For Ms. Glaser’s next trick she starts trying to claim that AA claims a very high success rate, when in reality not many people maintain long term sobriety.

She says:

The Big Book includes an assertion first made in the second edition, which was published in 1955: that AA has worked for 75 percent of people who have gone to meetings and “really tried.” It says that 50 percent got sober right away, and another 25 percent struggled for a while but eventually recovered. According to AA, these figures are based on members’ experiences.

This is a nice slight of hand (since she already quoted the part of the book that qualifies all claims of success above).

As she already established, the Big Book says “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.”

That is a pretty important qualifier.

Working the 12 steps is not simply reading the 12 steps and agreeing with them, it is a pretty involved process including work with a sponsor, presentations to the sponsor (and sometimes to the group), and a willingness to do extensive self-reflection.

And after you finish all that you have to make amends to the people you have hurt, and also, try to be of service to other addicts.

In addition, that process of working the steps is never ending. It is an ongoing process of self-reflection and working on your weaknesses and flaws.

The starting assumption is that to avoid failure you have to “thoroughly” follow the path.

So, after we find the people who thoroughly follow the path, of those people 75% succeed (if they also regularly attend meetings).

Problems with 8%

Ms. Glaser then quotes an anecdotal study that says AA’s have an 8% success rate.

Again, this conflates recovery with sobriety. A huge weakness in her premise.

Recovery in 12 step programs is part of success. In my experience, being in recovery is a way of containing the damage of relapses, getting support that helps prevent relapses, and getting people out of isolation.

Sobriety is the key to reaching the promises, but recovery is better than the alternative.

But even if you take that statistic at face value. 8% sounds pretty awesome to me. Most of the recovery literature I have read puts general recovery rates in other programs even lower.

Part of this is because both confuse recovery with sobriety and with the absence of any relapses for the rest of all time.

By the standard of never relapsing ever again, just being totally healed and graduating from the need for a support group. 8% seems pretty awesome.

But that is not really what AA and other 12 Step programs do. They are a program of support as much as anything. A safety net that helps catch addicts when they are falling. And a community of people who empathize and do not judge each other.

I strongly doubt 8% of most 12 step participants thoroughly work the program. So, I am very happy with her (anecdotal) 8% total recovery statistic.

I cannot stress enough how much she misunderstands the premise of a 12 Step Program. The idea is a group of people sharing experience, strength, and hope with each other to help raise everyone’s boats together.

The point is not for people to be HEALED.

The point is not for people to GRADUATE.

It is for people to have a strong system that supports their recovery and helps them make their addiction less onerous on their life.

Tomorrow, we will talk about the rest of her article.

What did you think of The Atlantic Article? Do you feel the way they do? I would love to hear your opinion, leave a comment!

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