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Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous.

What Alcoholics Anonymous can teach the rest of us. On The Wagon

Henrietta Seiberling, a divorced mother of two in Akron, Ohio, was at home with her children when the stranger called. The caller had gotten Henrietta's name from an Episcopal minister who said Henrietta might be able to help him with his problem. His problem? "I'm a rum hound from New York," said the stranger.

It was May 1935, and the stranger was Bill Wilson, a failed stockbroker from Brooklyn who had come to Akron on one more ill-fated business trip. A bigtalking and manipulative drunk, Wilson had spent years of his life drinking all day and every night. His hands shook so badly in the morning that he needed a glass of gin and a beer to eat breakfast. Never able to hold a job, Wilson lived off his wife, who worked in a department store.

For the two months preceding his trip to Akron, however, Wilson had remained sober. Now, alone in a small, unfamiliar city, he was dying for a drink--and looking for someone to talk him out of it.

Like Wilson, Seiberling was a member of the Oxford group, a nondenominational religious organization that gave particular attention to drunks. At Oxford group meetings she had met and come to know a tall, taciturn, drunk named Dr. Bob Smith. (Smith was a physician who specialized in rectal surgery, and the joke around Akron was that when you went to Smith you really bet your ass.) For more than a year Seiberling had been trying to convince Smith to stay sober. Now with the call from the out-of-towner, she saw her chance. "This was like manna from heaven," she thought at the time.

And perhaps it was. The following day, Seiberling had Wilson and Smith to dinner at her home. When she put the two men alone in the upstairs library for some after-dinner conversation, Alcoholics Anonymous was born.

Seiberling's simple act of neighborliness kicked off something big. That first night in 1935 Bill Wilson and Bob Smith formed a fellowship of two that has since grown to almost two million. (Millions more have benefited from A.A. but are not counted by A.A. because they no longer attend its meetings regularly.) Through their efforts (Smith concentrated his in Akron, Wilson went national) and through the publication of Wilson's book, Alcoholics Anonymous, A.A. has become a worldwide organization, with 76 thousand groups in 119 countries. More than 90 thousand A.A. meetings are held every week in the United States.

Saving lives is what A.A. does. The National Council on Alcoholism estimates that more than 97 thousand people suffer alcohol-related deaths every year. Without A.A. that number would be much higher. What's more, alcoholism is emotionally contagious. It scars more than just one person. It damages families, friendships, the work place. It poisons relations between people. Every time a person takes his first steps toward recovery through A.A., he is also making himself a better parent, sibling, and friend.

The history, teachings, and structure of Alcoholics Anonymous is the subject of Nan Robertson's new book.(*) A longtime reporter for The New York Times, whose story about her battle with toxic shock syndrome won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1985, Robertson is a member of A.A. Though the last chapter tells the tale of Robertson's own sickness (when she was the Times's correspondent in Paris her lunchtime intake was two double scotches and a carafe of wine), Getting Better is much more than a personal narrative. And it is more than a straight recounting of the history of A.A.

Instead, Getting Better is a thoughtfully written brief for why A.A. is a force for good in the world. Here is an organization that, without depending on donations from the government, and without a lot of self-promotion (and the self-congratulation that comes with it), has helped millions of Americans in the most significant way possible. Robertson's depiction of recovering alcoholics is refreshingly hopeful, but the best thing about Robertson's book is what it teaches nonalcoholics. The lessons of A.A.--community, spirituality, humility, and service--deserve a larger audience than just perpetual elbow benders.

A plastic rocking horse

A.A.'s Twelve Steps outline the separate acts that can lead to sobriety. These include admitting powerlessness over alcohol, taking a personal inventory, and seeking forgiveness from friends and family. The Twelve Traditions set forth a flexible guide for A.A. group activity.

Everyone can understand the ideas behind A.A.; it is much harder to follow the prescription. It begins with community. "Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity," reads the first of Wilson's Twelve Traditions. This emphasis was born in that first meeting between Smith and Wilson. Smith said later, "Wilson was the first living human with whom I had ever talked who knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from actual experience." Wilson and Smith had found an answer that had eluded physicians and social workers: dialogue yes, but with everyone on equal terms. "Many alcoholics have sought help elsewhere," writes Robertson, "but those `helpers' have almost invariably been superior people--doctors, bosses, members of the clergy....It is quite wonderful for the newcomer to find himself in a place where everyone has once sunk as low as he has."

The central expression of this community is the A.A. meeting. No doctor, no foundation, no government social program has as its principal place of business a setting as modest as an A.A. meeting. Meetings are most frequently held in church basements, which by day are often filled with preschoolers. In the typical meeting that Robertson depicts there is a plastic rocking horse in the corner. On the wall are posters with some of A.A.'s favorite sayings. One day at a time. Keep it simple. I am responsible. Coffee is brewing alongside trays of cookies. When the meetings begins there are anywhere from 20 to 40 people spread around the room. Robertson quotes a 35-year-old man describing in his first meeting: "I felt that I had arrived at a place where I was very much at home, and that these people knew what they were talking about."

"Nobody pushes reluctant members to tell their story in a meeting or even to utter a word unless and until they feel ready," Robertson writes. "The habit of masking one's deepest self, of lying about everything and to everyone in order to continue the habit is deeply ingrained in drunks. Therefore the value of talking honestly to others who will understand is a crucial strength of A.A. Retelling a personal story while discovering new truths about oneself continues to lighten the burden of years of guilt and denial."

A second key aspect of A.A. is spirituality, the belief that there is a greater power than man. Though the power is often referred to as God, there is an antireligious aspect to A.A. Both Wilson and Smith were uncomfortable, even hostile, toward organized religion. In the Twelve Steps, the first reference to God is followed by the words, "as we understand him." "It's not a religious program, it's a spiritual program," A.A. members are fond of saying. Robertson is particularly self-conscious about this issue. "Some people think we're a bunch of religious nuts," she tells Wilson's widow when she explains why she wants to write the book.

But there is no getting around it. Outside of the big cities the references to God come frequently. And though this is changing, many Jews still feel uneasy at A.A. meetings. But the amount of discomfort depends greatly on the group. A.A. members are encouraged to shop around for the meeting that suits them. A pamphlet issued by the Hazelden rehabilitation center for alcoholics in Minnesota describes the etiquette for A.A. meetings: "No one makes an effort to keep [a speaker] from referring to God at meetings, and no one makes an effort to force anyone to talk about God." For Wilson, and for many in A.A., "the God part," as Robertson calls it, is a product less of faith than of survival. "Our human resources....were not sufficient; they failed utterly," Wilson wrote. "We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be A Power Greater Than Ourselves." But that power could be anything. One member described it at a meeting: "The only place I ever found God was here--in your faces, and the way you talked."

After community and spirituality, the third essential ingredient of A.A. is humility. Alcoholics are often ambitious and compulsive achievers, constantly projecting into the future. In a nonalcoholic these qualities are double-edged--virtues as well as defects. But to the alcoholic they are often a cause for drinking. In A.A. alcoholics are constantly urged to let go, keep it simple, stop trying to control. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change," is the first line of the prayer recited at many A.A. meetings. The key word is "accept" and it is related to more than just an alcoholic's powerlessness against alcohol. The alcoholic has to accept that he cannot always control his world. Consistent with this approach, A.A. sets no lofty goals. Robertson writes, "A.A. reduces the problem to manageable size. Members are asked only to stay away from the first drink, for today only."

After awhile A.A. members learn to apply this attitude toward other aspects of their lives. A doctor describes how other alcoholic doctors respond to the program:

"All the new doctors...seem to be under tremendous compulsion to recite their curriculum vitae: their medical schools, their hospital affiliation. They try to make it clear to everyone else that they have great medical knowledge. They make references to some medical issue. In some way, without anybody saying anything, this kind of behavior gradually tapers off. The newcomers begin to realize that instead of `I am what I do,' the group's silent message is, `You are how sober you are today--and the rest of it doesn't matter.'"

The emphasis on humility is reflected in the organizational structure of A.A. All A.A. groups are self-supporting and autonomous. Though A.A.'s national headquarters in New York publishes A.A.'s literature and organizes the national conventions, the individual groups are granted complete control over their own affairs. "Represent us, don't boss us," was Wilson's instruction to the national office. The handful of alcoholics who work at the headquarters (there are no titles) are rotated every two years so as to guard against anyone building up a fietdom. No one is permitted to donate more than $1,000, and publicity is strongly frowned upon. In 1959 Wilson refused a Time cover story because it violated his conviction that humility was the key to sobriety.

Heiresses and plumbers

One of the most often misunderstood practices of A.A. and one that is closely tied to the concept of humility, is the anonymity. In part, it aims to protect members' reputations in the nonalcoholic world. But even more important, it keeps them from becoming too proud of their achievement--and mindful that a relapse is only a drink away. Describing the reason for anonymity, Wilson said, "Its deeper purpose is to keep those fool egos of ours from running hog-wild after money and fame."

This raise one of the few problems with the book. In order to write it Robertson had to sacrifice her anonymity. And there can be no question that Robertson is proud--damn proud--of her recovery. How she reconciles that with the A.A. emphasis on humility is hard to see. I don't think she does. Instead she ignores the contradiction in the belief that it doesn't matter as much as getting out the story of A.A. She may be right.

A.A. also discourages judging others. "In the subculture that is A.A.," writes Robertson, "most of the world's yardsticks for success do not count." Members try to refrain from commenting on another's age, appearance, or profession. And A.A. is a remarkably diverse organization, with heiresses sitting alongside plumbers. Though there are few blacks, there are many homosexuals.

But when it comes to drug addicts, many A.A. members are less than true to their beliefs. Drug addicts have found the A.A. program useful but not always welcoming. Though in many cities it is not unusual for a member to begin his comments, "My name is --- and I am a drug addict and an alcoholic," some groups have started over-30-only meetings. The message is clear--No Drug Addicts Please. This is an unfortunate response because A.A. is remarkably successful in arresting drug addiction. It is also ironic because Wilson would not have approved. "I never heard him bitch about anyone," said a man who joined A.A. in the 1940s and was one of its first homosexuals. "It wouldn't have mattered if I was a cannibal."

Another illustration of A.A.'s tolerance is the A.A. attitude toward drinking by nonalcoholics. Unlike antismoking fanatics, A.A.s do not preach; they don't even disapprove. "We are careful never to show intolerance or hatred of drinking as an institution. Experience shows that such an attitude is not helpful to anyone," wrote Wilson.

Robertson does not always live up to A.A.'s ideals. She occasionally exhibits a surprising inability to forgive some of her fellow members. After describing a meeting where Greg made the mistake of criticizing Susan for expressing too much resentment, Robertson approvingly describes the tit-for-tat response of a group of members who ask Susan out for coffee, pointedly leaving Greg behind.

The final lesson of A.A. that deserves greater circulation is the concept of service. Though A.A. does not recruit new members (because the first step to sobriety is recognizing the problem, and that can only come from within), it does teach its members that their recovery is not complete until they have engaged in what is called Twelfth Stepping--making a personal effort to help another alcoholic maintain his sobriety. "Nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics," Wilson wrote.

New members are encouraged to find "sponsors," who will act as special friends during their first difficult months in A.A. Just being available to talk is the sponsors' main job. But they also will make visits and speak to the alcoholics' family. This can thrust them into the most volatile family situations. And ironically their first suggestion to a family dealing with a drinking alcoholic is "let him drink." Only when he hits bottom will he be able to see his way out.

Teaching teetotalers

A.A.'s lessons of community, spiritually, humility, and service may seem like hopelessly woolly notions, but America suffers from an absence of all four. In the Brooklyn neighborhood where Wilson lived (and where I grew up) the A.A. meetings have become the most visible and vital gatherings of the week. Even the neighborhood kids know when and where they are taking place. Surely such comings-together shouldn't be limited only to those who can't have one martini without having five.

The same goes for spiritually. Though many liberals squirm at the idea, recognizing a greater power helps to ground one in moral and ethical principles. It provides confidence that there is a moral order, and without that confidence people have a tendency to lack all conviction.

Of course it wouldn't be prudent to wield a heavy hand with A.A.'s type of spirituality. You wouldn't want the leader of a local jobs training program leading his crew in prayer. (Besides, the ACLU wouldn't let him.) But A.A. shows that religion, even when it's not organized under the hub of Catholicism or Judaism or whatever, can still motivate people to do good deeds. For the millions of Americans who are in that twilight zone between not belonging to any congregation and not entirely rejecting the notion of a higher being, A.A. proves there can be a middle ground--religion without church.

Humility and service are closely related. With the first, the second is more effective. The romance of the reformer, the activist's dynamic rhetoric are so often a mask for self-absorbed ambition. Rather than helping, they are obstacles to change. How much better would be the attitude that says "Let's stop pointing fingers. Who cares who gets the credit? These are tough problems. Let's get to work." That is the A.A. way. In the long run it is a step by step, realistic, view of social change that results in the greatest benefit, not the idealist's promise (or demand) for change now.

What Bill Wilson and Bob Smith started in Henrietta Seiberling's library has bequeathed to the country a population of people who are more than merely alive because of A.A.--they are better citizens. For the rest of us who never hid a bottle in the kitchen cupboard, woke up with the shakes, or brawled in a barroom, A.A. has much to offer. (*)Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous. Nan Robertson. William Morrow, $17.95.
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Author:Doar, Robert
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1988
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