AA’s Publicity Problem Part 2: just believe people, ok?
Updated: Jan 19
Disclaimer: I speak only for myself, express my own opinions and my own experience, and not as a representative for Alcoholics Anonymous or any other 12-step program or fellowship.
So obviously I’m writing this in the aftermath of the controversial NY Times op-ed piece by Holly Whitaker. I wasn't going to write about this, because I felt like it was "engaging in public controversy," something we in AA strive to not do. Buuuuut something pushed me over the edge. I'll get to that at the end of this piece. But before I get ahead of myself.
To those who say Holly’s opinions are moot because she has not tried/worked the program, hear this: I have been in 12 step programs for over 5 years and I could write that article verbatim (expect obviously for the one part where she says she hasn’t worked the program). If we just slap my name over hers, would you actually listen to it?
I have worked this program. I have done all the suggestions. I’ve done the steps formally and I still work them every day in my life. I have had sponsors and sponsees. I have done a wide variety of service. I have had home groups in every city I’ve lived in. I’ve done 90 in 90, I’ve done 3-a-days, I’ve attended a 12-step treatment center, I’ve lived in a 12-step sober house. My vocabulary is chalk full of Big Book quotes and program slogans—and more importantly, I try really hard to live by them. I pray, I do my 10th step, I make amends. I’ve been to coed meetings, women’s meetings, LGBT meetings, indigenous meetings, even a men’s meeting once when I accidentally walked into a male halfway house and they let me stay.
I say all that simply to point out NONE of it will matter to some people. Some people will say I still haven’t been in long enough. Some people will say I still haven’t worked the program thoroughly enough. Some absolutely won’t give a shit about my experience simply because it’s different than theirs.
Which is something I’d like to touch on. I’ve read a few responses to Holly’s article, and I’d like to address some specific points, all to the tune of, "it's not all about you."
First of all, that is the most condescending title I've ever heard, and it really just proves everyone who thinks AA's are arrogant and narrow-minded right. But the main thing Lisa writes that I want to talk about is this:
"Is AA patriarchal? No, it is not. There are gobs of women meetings in most communities and if a person wants to avoid males altogether, it’s not all that hard to do. I didn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous to meet a man. I went to save my own life and for the most part, 99.9 percent of the time the men have been respectful. Of course, you’re going to get guys who are predators and sometimes women prey on the new person because they too are there for all the wrong reasons. In any fellowship across the world, when you have a cross-section of people from society you’ll get the good and the bad. Why is there the expectation that people in AA are not allowed to be fallible or just plain awful (as some people in the world tend to be?)"
Ok. Just because women exist doesn't mean patriarchy doesn't...I mean...just...come on. If that is a remotely sensible argument to you, I recommend reading this article by Phillipe Leonard Fradet, or you should probably just stop reading because you probably aren't going to listen to anything I have to say next.
The fact that "99.9 percent of the time men have been respectful" to our author Lisa is a lovely tidbit about her experience. However it has LITERALLY NOTHING to do with anyone else's. Especially the rest of us who choke with either laughter or astonishment when we hear that, because it is SO unlike what we've been living with. I've been touched inappropriately in meetings, I've been stared at, creeped on, asked out, hugged for far too long. I've been held forcibly in a hug when I've tried to push away (which is assault by the way, that’s assault). Just two days ago I had my boobs stared at for about five whole minutes while I was giving my name, number, and a list of recommended meetings to a female newcomer, while my male partner chatted with other men across the room, and I escaped as quickly as I could to the kitchen and dishes because you can escape a lot of men that way...instead of doing what I wanted to and what is my responsibility to do, continue talking to that woman. If that doesn't sum up my experience of AA—and life in general—I don't know what does. Women helping women—and other genders—while creepy men continue doing whatever they want and most other men having no idea it's happening.
And that's just the assault and harassment! Being talked over or talked down to by a man happens at almost every single coed meeting or event I've ever attended. And even when we go to women's meetings, we don't escape patriarchy. Because again, patriarchy is more than just men existing...I can’t even believe I have to say that. Patriarchy looms in the literature as masculine and binary language; in the culture as the under-appreciation of feminine things like feelings, tears, rest, self-care, pleasure, being messy, going slowly. If you don't think AA is patriarchal, please do some reading, listening, and learning. Our stories are out there, gobs of them in fact, just waiting for you.
Another response piece I read was "The Misinformation About Alcoholics Anonymous and Sobriety" by Veronica Valli. This is actually one of the best things from a member of AA I've ever read because it actually acknowledges some of the emotionally abusive things that happen in the program. For example:
"I'm sure you've heard it before, either as a statement of fact or implied, that 'AA is the only [real] way to get sober.' First, let’s be clear that if someone says this, it is abuse. It is fear-based and it is false. The program doesn’t teach this, but it is, unfortunately, one of the most serious cases of misinformation that is perpetuated inside and outside of the 'rooms.' "
This is awesome. Yay Veronica! I take issue with the point she makes next however:
"The 12 steps are ancient spiritual wisdom. They are not remotely original and have been passed down through generations. We can trace their origins not to Christianity, but to the Gnostic religions that Christianity evolved from. The Gnostic practice of spirituality is much closer to the 12-step spiritual program than the Christian religion is (although the Gospel of Mary Magdalene also demonstrates principles aligned with the 12 step). There is a strong argument that the Gnostics were feminist in nature. Women were priests, the Goddess was seen as part of the divine, and there is much feminine imagery in their teachings. ... As a woman and a feminist, I find it comforting and important that the 12 steps originated not out of patriarchal Christianity but out of the spiritual practices of the Gnostics."
Hm. Again, the fact that Veronica feels her feminism is totally aligned with the older origins of Christianity and AA is a fascinating detail about HER recovery. Indeed, I learned a lot reading that! Very interesting. However, it does LITERALLY NOTHING to change anyone else's experience. If people come into the program having had negative experiences with Christianity, that's trauma, not ignorance. If someone walks into the rooms after a childhood of emotionally absent but religious parents, or sexual abuse from a priest, or simply having more exposure to profiteering televangelists than kind, generous Christians, responding to them with "no no don't worry this stuff isn't even Christian it's GNOSTIC!" is ZERO percent helpful. A better answer might be, "I hear you. I'm sorry you've experienced that. Do you want to talk about it?"
Finally, three letters to the editor were published in rebuttal to Holly's article, collectively titled "Compassion, Not Patriarchy, at A.A. Meetings."
The first one, written by Stephen D., starts with the sentence, "For anyone who has attended more than a handful of A.A. meetings, Ms. Whitaker's opinion that the organization is patriarchal makes little sense." Um, hello, I am someone who has attended more than a handful of meetings, and I think her opinion makes total sense. I also know many other people—women—who have also been to more than a handful of meetings and who also agree. Now I'm assuming this Stephen D. is a male, because of the name.
Hey Stephen...you telling a woman how her experience of patriarchy is wrong is proving her point. So is making an absolute statement assuming a massive group of people all agree with you.
The second letter is from R.W. Greene. Gender unknown. Once again we see the weakest argument on earth: AA isn't patriarchal because women's meetings exist. They also make a rather blanket statement that the thousands of women's meetings "are run by women whose distaste for patriarchy is as fierce as Ms. Whitaker's."
Ok first of all R.W., the word "distaste" makes it sound like a preference. Like having a distaste for seafood. The patriarchy is a system of oppression that literally kills. It's not a matter of taste or preference, it's being opposed to oppression or not. I would HOPE you wouldn't say someone fighting for racial equality simply has a distaste for racism or white supremacy.
Furthermore, personally, I have been to a lot of women's meetings, in multiple countries now. I wouldn't exactly describe any of the women running them as anti-patriarchy activists, and I don't really think they've started their meetings because they have a distaste for patriarchy. From what I've been told and from what I've experienced in my admittedly short time, the primary reason we have women's meetings is so women who have experienced male-perpetrated physical or sexual abuse can actually feel safe while in AA. If you can't see the effects of patriarchy in that situation, I don't think I can explain it to you.
The third letter, my favorite, written by Silvia S., basically just says, "I am a feminist, I disagree, therefore she is wrong."
But you know what really fuckin gets me about all that? The reason I'm pissed off enough to write about it? Is that all these responses—not only to Holly but also anyone who criticizes the program—sound HAUNTINGLY FAMILIAR.
"He's never done that to me."
"I've never seen that happen.”
"If you don't like it, you can leave."
"You're damaging the reputation of someone/something important.
Shame. On. You."
And if that doesn't make you stop and think, hm, maybe I should learn a bit more about how AA might have some problematic patriarchy lurking in our midst, I don't know what will.
If you don't want to do that, please please please at the very least, try to do this:
Stop. Dismissing. People. Just. Because. Their. Experience. Is. Different. Than. Yours.
I could have sworn I had an idea for a Part 3 but it's currently MIA so that's it for now folks.
Update: I thought of a Part 3.