In the first paragraph of “Dying To Be Free,” you are introduced to Patrick, a smiling 25 year-old who had just completed a 30-day drug treatment center. Among his possessions was “a talisman he’d been given by the treatment facility: a hardcover fourth edition of the Alcoholics Anonymous bible known as ‘The Big Book.” It pages were full of highlights and Post-It notes. He was said to be a “natural” 12-step convert. Four days later, his father found him dead of an overdose.
As you read about Patrick’s struggles with addiction, you get a picture of how he and his parents tried to help him establish sobriety. There is a reference to his residential treatment stay as a “30-day wonder,” where he received a crash course on the tenets of the 12-steps. “Staff at the center expected addicts to reach a sort of divine moment but gave them few days and few tools to get there.” In Part 1 of this article, I addressed concerns that an underlying ideology of addiction as a strictly biomedical disease contributed to a biased, distorted picture of addiction treatment in the U.S. by the author of “Dying To Be Free.” Here we will look at how he also misrepresents the recovery philosophy and history of A.A.
There is a preponderance of religious or magical rhetoric when describing 12 Step, abstinent-based change in “Dying To Be Free.” Already we’ve noted the main text of Alcoholics Anonymous, also called Alcoholics Anonymous, was referred to as a talisman and a “bible.” Patrick was a “natural 12-step convert.” Another reference described the AA Big Book as being the size of a hymnal, with an appeal to faith made in “the rat-a-tat cadence of a door-to-door salesman.” Addicts at a certain treatment center were supposed to “reach a sort of divine moment” in treatment or recovery. Entering the drug treatment system, which is dominated by the principles of abstinence embedded in the 12-Steps, was said to require a “leap of faith.”
In a description of the Grateful Life Treatment Center in northern Kentucky, it was noted that the wall above the desk of the center’s intake supervisor had a “Jesus bumper sticker.” Why add that detail unless you are trying to capture the scene in a particularly religious way? When describing treatment facilities modeling themselves on the 12 Steps, not only were recovering addicts said to be cheap labor, they were said to provide the “evangelism” to shape the curricula of the facilities. A resident of Grateful Life was noted to be “as close to a true believer as the program produces.”
At one point, the author of “Dying To Be Free,” Jason Cherkis, said AA came out “evangelical Christian movements.” More accurately, there is a clear historical connection between a nondenominational Christian movement popular during the 1920s and 1930s called the Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous. The two cofounders of A.A., Bill W. and Dr. Bob met as a result of their personal association with the Oxford Group. A.A. approved books, such as Pass It On, Doctor Bob and the Good Oldtimers and AA Comes of Age freely acknowledge the connection and give further details about it. However, a crucial distinction made by A.A. within its 12 Steps is glossed over by Cherkis and others, namely the spiritual, not religious understanding of God and recovery embodied in the Twelve Steps.
Drawn from the thought of the American psychologist, William James, this distinction between religious and spiritual experience seems to underlie the widespread sense of generic spirituality in American culture today. The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE) by James had a fundamental influence on Bill W., the formulation of the Twelve Steps and the spirituality based upon them. In VRE James made a distinction between institutional and personal religion. Worship, sacrifice, ritual, theology, ceremony, and ecclesiastical organization were the essentials of what he referred to as institutional religion.
Personal religion/spirituality for his [James’] purposes was defined as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of [the] individual . . . in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” In the broadest sense possible, this spirituality consisted of the belief that there was an unseen order to existence, and supreme good lay in harmoniously adjusting to that order.
Whether their disregard of the spiritual, not religious distinction is intentional or not, Cherkis and others give an incomplete and biased picture of Twelve Step recovery when they fail to note it. The very heart of Twelve Step spirituality is the permissibility of the individual to formulate a personal understanding of their “god.” So what unites members of Twelve Step groups like A.A. is the diversity of religious and spiritual belief permitted—even to accepting a lack of belief. I’ve written several other articles on the similarities and differences between the spirituality of the Twelve Steps and religious spirituality on this website. There are three particular articles that discuss the influences on the spiritual, not religious distinction of Twelve Step recovery: “What Does Religious Mean?”, “Spiritual Not Religious Experience” and “The God of the Preachers.”
Another example of how “Dying To Be Free” misrepresents the recovery philosophy of A.A. is the following. While introducing a discussion of Charles Dederich and the origins of Synanon, Cherkis said Dederich and others took a “hardline” message” from some of Bill W.’s written philosophy. Cherkis wrote: “Those who can’t stick with the program are ‘constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves,’ reads the Big Book. ‘They seem to have been born that way.’” The two selective quotes were from the first paragraph of chapter five, “How It Works,” in Alcoholics Anonymous. Notice how the context of the complete paragraph changes your understanding of what Bill W. said in his “philosophy”:
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. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.
As Cherkis began to discuss the history of the expansion of drug treatment facilities in the 1960s, he quoted Nancy Campbell, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, as saying: “The history of 12-step came out of white, middle-class, Protestant people who want to be respectable.” She added that it offered community and belonging that was predicated on being normal, respectable and having a stake in mainstream society. Campbell may be a historian, but she seems to have a distorted view of the early history of 12 Step recovery in A.A.
From the sociological perspective of labeling theory A.A. and other organizations based on their 12 Steps, like N.A. (Narcotics Anonymous), can at least partially be seen as social movements that seek to combat negative images associated with socially deviant drinking or drugging behavior, “in effect denying that their actions make them deviants.” This applies the idea of tertiary deviance, first described by John Kituse in: “Coming Out All Over: Deviants and the Politics of Social Problems.” Kituse noted that some people stigmatized as deviant (here as alcoholics) “rebel against their labels and attempt to reaffirm their self-worth and lost social status.” The above quote and reference to Kituse is found in a standard social science textbook by Clinard and Meier, Sociology of Deviant Behavior. So part of Campbell’s assessment of 12 Step groups as social movements seeking to offer community and belonging, with a “stake in mainstream society” is accurate. However, the quote attributed to her glosses over the early history of A.A., which was the beginning of the 12 Step movement.
A.A. celebrates the anniversary of its founding on June 10, 1935. That was in the midst of the Depression. Bill W. and his wife Lois were living then in a house owned by her father on Clinton Street in New York City. In September of 1936, Lois’s father died and the house was taken over by the mortgage company, which allowed them to stay on for a small rental. In the midst of the Depression, they didn’t want the house to be empty. While struggling with “their acute poverty,” Bill was almost persuaded to accept a position as a paid alcoholism therapist at Towns Hospital, where he himself had been treated several times. He eventually declined the offer.
Almost two and a half years after the founding of A.A., Bill W. was jobless and Dr. Bob was in danger of losing his house. In 1938, through the charity of John D. Rockefeller Jr., $5,000 was approved for a fund that would pay off Dr. Bob’s mortgage and allow a weekly draw of $30 for each of them. Rockefeller told one of his associates afterwards: “But please don’t ever ask me for any more.” In 1939, as the Depression eased, the mortgage company was able to sell the Clinton Street house and Bill and Lois became homeless. They lived “as vagabonds,” as various places for two years. Bill W. and Lois eventually led a respectable, middle class lifestyle, but that wasn’t what it was like for them in the beginning of A.A.
This history is found in Pass It On, published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. In the early days of A.A., Bill W. repeatedly turned down offers to professionalize his work with A.A. This doesn’t entirely sound like a movement trying to gain white, middle class respectability. The Traditions of A.A., formally adopted in July of 1950, articulated this philosophy of non-professionalism and a focus on helping other alcoholics in the fifth, sixth and eighth Traditions.
Tradition Five Reads: “Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” Tradition Six reads: “An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.” Tradition Eight reads: “Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.”
Alternative addiction treatment ideologies regularly attack A.A. as “religious,” ignoring or rejecting the spiritual-religious distinction A.A. made within the Twelve Steps from the very beginning. The abstinent-based recovery philosophy embedded in the Twelve Steps seems to be the primary target of these critiques. I see the same tendency in “Dying To Be Free.” The first part of this article addressed the biased portrayal of abstinent-based addiction treatment by Jason Cherkis in “Dying To Be Free.” The third and final part will address how it skimmed over the problems with MAT, specifically Suboxone.