AA’s Publicity Problem Part 4: when people walk in with sexual abuse
Sexual abuse, emotional abuse, incest, victim shaming
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.
"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?)"
Remember that quote? Lisa Boucher, "When You're Done Bashing Alcoholics Anonymous—It May be the Thing That Saves Your Life".
Back to that dude, the one who touched me after a meeting. This man is an ordinary guy in the program. He sits in meetings next to his wife. He’s been sober decades, he’s a regular at meetings, events, fellowship, the local Facebook group. I absolutely believe this man came to AA for sobriety and stays because he's passionate about helping other men. AND he’s also a predator. And I believe he would be predatory anywhere he goes. I also believe he would be more successful in more patriarchal places. And THAT'S why we have to address patriarchy in AA.
When I first arrived in Auckland, I was overwhelmed and tried to rely on my partner to navigate the safety of the fellowship. This did not go well. Not because my partner did not care deeply about my safety, but because he really had NO idea how constant and normal it is for women to not feel safe in the fellowship. I had given him a job—a VERY important job—that he simply did NOT have the tools for.
So this particular man. I got a gross vibe immediately, at first sight. Because he wore insanely tight pants and sat in such a way to display his bulge to the room. Some people will read that and go, what does that mean, that might not mean anything bad, you’re being dramatic. Some will read it and go oh yeah I know those guys. I don’t go near those guys with a ten foot pole. It's called posturing. It has a whole word. It's a thing. Body language is real.
But then I saw my partner greet this man with obvious familiarity and friendliness. And then he told me this man had been a huge positive influence to him. “He’s been around a long time. He’s helped a lot of men.” These sentences have weight in AA. They tend to garner anywhere from respect to reverence to worship. Whether we like it or not or want to admit it or not, it automatically implies that that person is a good person. That they’ve done their work, that they live by our principles. That you should listen to what they say. That you can trust them.
So I collected all this information subconsciously and automatically, because that is what women do, we constantly assess danger...male danger. And I fell into the age-old "maybe I'm just being paranoid" female intuition override trap.
I’ve been told my whole life that I’m wrong, I’m being dramatic, I’m too sensitive, he’s a good guy he would never do that. This is not uncommon for women. Not even a little bit.
Even though I’ve worked really hard to override that programming, it’s still my default. And I was in a vulnerable place. I'd just left my CONTINENT, my life plan, I'd moved across the world, started a new life, a new relationship, my first sober relationship...I was an emotional wreck absolutely pumped full of adrenaline. I was NOT able to do the work it still always takes to choose my new operating system—trust my intuition—over my default.
I was not actively protecting myself. I was vulnerable (not good vulnerable, the Brené Brown open to love and connection vulnerable, I mean the bad vulnerable, the grabbing the oven rack without an oven mitt kind, the jumping in the ocean without a life vest when you don't know how to swim kind). This sends out a signal, a vibration. Predators pick it up. Within six months of moving here I had multiple harassments and four assaults—my first sober assaults.
(My first sober assault. Sobriety is full of firsts, and many women will have firsts like this. THAT'S patriarchy.)
All four assaults were from men my partner knew and wouldn’t have guessed would do it. Three AA acquaintances and one family member; one at a meeting, one at an AA event, one at an AA friend’s house around other AA friends, and one in my own home. All subtle, right in front of people. Because that’s how normalized this shit it. And because most assault comes from friends and family. From people somebody you love or trust has vouched for.
Because predators are GOOD at this. They hide in plain sight. Not because they're evil geniuses. They're actually usually just normal people who are really fucked up but really good at hiding it. Which is not an outlandish concept. Being fucked up and good at hiding it is basically just western culture.
That's how my mom was, still is. Really fucked up and really good at hiding it. Hurt people hurt people, energy is neither created nor destroyed, it just moves. She was abused, and her abuse needed outlets. I was one of her main outlets. My brother wasn't. Why? I believe it comes down to two main reasons. One, I reminded her of her, and she hated herself, so she hated me. Two, I was more vulnerable. Because I'm female, because I'm sensitive, because I was the youngest, smallest, quietest. My brother never experienced her abuse, so when I tried to tell him about mine, he didn't believe me. Because who she was with me was so utterly different than who she was with him...it is just incredibly difficult to integrate two opposing versions of a person.
And that's how it was with my cousin. My cousin and I were best friends, very close, very affectionate, always play fighting. It was almost too easy for him to sneak in more insidious touch. It was almost impossible for me to distinguish between play fighting and him exercising physical dominance to get pleasure from my torment. It took me YEARS of resurfacing memories and emotions—and therapy and sobriety and recovery—to realize I'd actually felt horrified and violated and destroyed back then.
Because I didn't feel anything back then. I was trained to not feel anything back then, and I picked that up and ran with it. Ran right into eating disorder and addiction and alcoholism and eventually, inevitably, into AA. As a kid, I was constantly unsafe, but saying anything either led to nothing happening or being ridiculed, criticized, and ostracized—it led to a sense of not belonging in my family, which is devastating. And when you're that young and there is literally no way of getting yourself out of that situation, you just shut off all the feelings and use whatever denial you need to survive and just hope it ends eventually. I convinced myself my mom and my cousin were my best friends because that was way fucking easier than accepting they were my abusers. It is the long version of the freeze.
Remember when I mentioned fight flight or freeze in Part 3? And how I'm a freezer? That's where it comes from. When my mother was insulting me or telling me I was the reason she was unhappy, or when my cousin was holding me down, I had no means of fighting or flighting either of them, so I burrowed down into a dark distant corner of my psyche and waited for it to be over.
Why didn't I fight or flight when my mom was saying shitty stuff? Because I was a child and she was my mother. Power dynamic. I was biologically designed to depend on her for survival, so I couldn't risk losing that relationship. Why didn't I fight or flight when my cousin was on top of me? Because he is a huge male, and I was an anorexic and tiny girl. Power dynamic.
Which circles me back to the intersection of patriarchy, AA and abuse. Again, AA does not exist in a void. The power dynamic of men over women doesn't stop at the door and say oh you go ahead I'll wait outside. And my freeze tendancy? Predators can smell it. They know people like me are the ones who will keep smiling until I can leave the event, we won’t react and make a scene.
The three men in AA who touched me, all older, all respected, all parental figures. That power dynamic of parent over child, that's ALSO a patriarchal concept. Hierarchy is patriarchal.
The fact that people in 12-step who’ve been in for years and have sponsored lots of people are often automatically assumed to be trustworthy. That’s hierarchy, that’s patriarchy. The fact that mothers are automatically supposed to be good mothers and don’t feel like they can put down their cross and ask for help? Can’t talk about their feelings? Can’t cry? Can’t get messy? Are only valued for their productivity and economic value? Sound familiar?
Basically, everyone who comes into AA is messed up to some extent. It’s an imperfect program full of messed up people. And I still love it. I love this program and I love its people.
You might be surprised right about now that I say that. Because you may have been led to believe, or you may be attached to the idea, that people either love or hate AA. False. I stay despite all the bullshit I just spent four blog posts talking about. I’m talking about it because I need to process it, and if I need to, I know there are others who need to. And if you believe in calling out your friends because you love them and THAT’S friendship, because you challenge them to be better, and you point out what’s in their blind spots, then maybe you’ll join me in doing the same for this beautiful fucked up program.
I love it. But I’m not naive, and I’m not in its old boys club, and I have to protect myself there like I have to protect myself everywhere else. In fact I have to protect myself more in 12-step world because it’s literally a gathering of messed up people. But I stay because the good still outways the bad. It still helps me stay sober and sane. And truly most of the people won’t assault me. And once they’re done defending AA, they’re pretty supportive. But while I go to them first about my alcoholism, I definitely don’t for my trauma, because people are too god damn concerned about protecting its reputation so it can help the next alcoholic, while ignoring the one sitting in front of them dying inside.
And there’s patriarchy in and out of AA. But it is literally supposed to be a place where we’re all working on our shit, and where we’re all supposed to be rigorously and vigilantly holding up our own actions to a higher standard, and where we’re supposed to hold each other accountable. Is there an expectation that people in AA aren’t supposed to be fallible? I’m not the one who has that expectation.