About Alcoholics Anonymous
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an international mutual aid fellowship founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith in Akron, Ohio. AA's stated "primary purpose" is to help alcoholics "stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety". With other early members Bill Wilson and Bob Smith developed AA's Twelve Step program of spiritual and character development. AA's initial Twelve Traditions were introduced in 1946 to help the fellowship be stable and unified while disengaged from "outside issues" and influences.
The Traditions recommend that members and groups remain anonymous in public media, altruistically helping other alcoholics and avoiding official affiliations with other organization. The Traditions also recommend that those representing AA avoid dogma and coercive hierarchies. Subsequent fellowships such as Narcotics Anonymous have adopted and adapted the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions to their respective primary purposes.
According to AA's 2014 membership survey, 27% of members have been sober less than one year, 24% have 1–5 years sober, 13% have 5–10 years, 14% have 10–20 years, and 22% have more than 20 years sober.
The first female member, Florence Rankin, joined AA in March 1937, and the first non-Protestant member, a Roman Catholic, joined in 1939. AA membership has since spread "across diverse cultures holding different beliefs and values", including geopolitical areas resistant to grassrootsmovements. In the fourth edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (November 2001), it states "Since the third edition was published in 1976, worldwide membership of AA has just about doubled, to an estimated two million or more..."
AA's name is derived from its first book, informally called "The Big Book", originally titled Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism.
Oxford Group Origins
AA sprang from The Oxford Group, a non-denominational movement modeled after first-century Christianity. Some members found the Group to help in maintaining sobriety. One such "Grouper" Ebby Thacher was Wilson's former drinking buddy who approached Wilson saying that he had "got religion", was sober, and that Wilson could do the same if he set aside objections to religion and instead formed a personal idea of God, "another power" or "higher power".
Wilson felt with Thacher a "kinship of common suffering" and—while drunk—attended his first Group gathering. Within days, Wilson admitted himself to the Charles B. Towns Hospital, but not before drinking four beers on the way—the last time Wilson drank alcohol. Under the care of Dr. William Duncan Silkworth (an early benefactor of AA), Wilson's detox included the deliriantbelladonna. At the hospital in a state of despair, Wilson experienced a bright flash of light, which he felt to be God revealing himself.
Following his hospital discharge Wilson joined the Oxford Group and recruited other alcoholics to the Group. Wilson's early efforts to help others become sober were ineffective, prompting Dr. Silkworth to suggest that Wilson place less stress on religion and more on "the science" of treating alcoholism. Wilson's first success came during a business trip to Akron, Ohio, where he was introduced to Dr. Robert Smith, a surgeon and Oxford Group member who was unable to stay sober. After thirty days of working with Wilson, Smith drank his last drink on June 10, 1935, the date marked by AA for its anniversaries.
While Wilson and Smith credited their sobriety to working with alcoholics under the auspices of the Oxford Group, a Group associate pastor sermonized against Wilson and his alcoholic Groupers for forming a "secret, ashamed sub-group" engaged in "divergent works". By 1937, Wilson separated from the Oxford Group. AA Historian Ernest Kurtz described the split:
...more and more, Bill discovered that new adherents could get sober by believing in each other and in the strength of this group. Men [no women were members yet] who had proven over and over again, by extremely painful experience, that they could not get sober on their own had somehow become more powerful when two or three of them worked on their common problem. This, then—whatever it was that occurred among them—was what they could accept as a power greater than themselves. They did not need the Oxford Group.
In 1955, Wilson acknowledged AA's debt, saying "The Oxford Groupers had clearly shown us what to do. And just as importantly, we learned from them what not to do." Among the Oxford Group practices that AA retained were informal gatherings, a "changed-life" developed through "stages", and working with others for no material gain, AA's analogs for these are meetings, "the steps", and sponsorship. AA's tradition of anonymity was a reaction to the publicity-seeking practices of the Oxford Group, as well as AA's wish to not promote, Wilson said, "erratic public characters who through broken anonymity might get drunk and destroy confidence in us."
The Big Book, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
To share their method, Wilson and other members wrote the initially-titled book, Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism, from which AA drew its name. Informally known as "The Big Book" (with its first 164 pages virtually unchanged since the 1939 edition), it suggests a twelve-step program in which members admit that they are powerless over alcohol and need help from a "higher power". They seek guidance and strength through prayer and meditation from God or a Higher Power of their own understanding; take a moral inventory with care to include resentments; list and become ready to remove character defects; list and make amends to those harmed; continue to take a moral inventory, pray, meditate, and try to help other alcoholics recover. The second half of the book, "Personal Stories" (subject to additions, removal and retitling in subsequent editions), is made of AA members' redemptive autobiographical sketches.
In 1941, interviews on American radio and favorable articles in US magazines, including a piece by Jack Alexander in The Saturday Evening Post, led to increased book sales and membership.By 1946, as the growing fellowship quarreled over structure, purpose, and authority, as well as finances and publicity, Wilson began to form and promote what became known as AA's "Twelve Traditions," which are guidelines for an altruistic, unaffiliated, non-coercive, and non-hierarchical structure that limited AA's purpose to only helping alcoholics on a non-professional level while shunning publicity. Eventually he gained formal adoption and inclusion of the Twelve Traditions in all future editions of the Big Book. At the 1955 conference in St. Louis, Missouri, Wilson relinquished stewardship of AA to the General Service Conference, as AA grew to millions of members internationally.
Organization and Finances
AA says it is "not organized in the formal or political sense", and Bill Wilson called it a "benign anarchy". In Ireland, Shane Butler said that AA “looks like it couldn’t survive as there’s no leadership or top-level telling local cumanns what to do, but it has worked and proved itself extremely robust.” Butler explained that "AA’s 'inverted pyramid' style of governance has helped it to avoid many of the pitfalls that political and religious institutions have encountered since it was established here in 1946."
In 2006, AA counted 1,867,212 members and 106,202 AA groups worldwide. The Twelve Traditions informally guide how individual AA groups function, and the Twelve Concepts for World Service guide how the organization is structured globally.
A member who accepts a service position or an organizing role is a "trusted servant" with terms rotating and limited, typically lasting three months to two years and determined by group vote and the nature of the position. Each group is a self-governing entity with AA World Services acting only in an advisory capacity. AA is served entirely by alcoholics, except for seven "nonalcoholic friends of the fellowship" of the 21-member AA Board of Trustees.
AA groups are self-supporting, relying on voluntary donations from members to cover expenses. The AA General Service Office (GSO) limits contributions to US$3,000 a year. Above the group level, AA may hire outside professionals for services that require specialized expertise or full-time responsibilities.
AA receives proceeds from books and literature that constitute more than 50% of the income for its General Service Office. Unlike individual groups, the GSO is not self-supporting and maintains a small salaried staff. It also maintains service centers, which coordinate activities such as printing literature, responding to public inquiries, and organizing conferences. They are funded by local members and are responsible to the AA groups they represent. Other International General Service Offices (Australia, Costa Rica, Russia, etc.) are independent of AA World Services in New York.
The scope of AA's program is much broader than just abstinence from drinking alcohol. Its goal is to effect enough change in the alcoholic's thinking "to bring about recovery from alcoholism"through a spiritual awakening. A spiritual awakening is meant to be achieved by taking the Twelve Steps, and sobriety is furthered by volunteering for AA and regular AA meeting attendance or contact with AA members. Members are encouraged to find an experienced fellow alcoholic, called a sponsor, to help them understand and follow the AA program. The sponsor should preferably have experience of all twelve of the steps, be the same sex as the sponsored person, and refrain from imposing personal views on the sponsored person. Following the helper therapy principle, sponsors in AA may benefit from their relationship with their charges, as "helping behaviors" correlate with increased abstinence and lower probabilities of binge drinking.
AA's program is an inheritor of Counter-Enlightenment philosophy. AA shares the view that acceptance of one's inherent limitations is critical to finding one's proper place among other humans and God. Such ideas are described as "Counter-Enlightenment" because they are contrary to the Enlightenment's ideal that humans have the capacity to make their lives and societies a heaven on earth using their own power and reason. After evaluating AA's literature and observing AA meetings for sixteen months, sociologists David R. Rudy and Arthur L. Greil found that for an AA member to remain sober a high level of commitment is necessary. This commitment is facilitated by a change in the member's worldview. To help members stay sober AA must, they argue, provide an all-encompassing worldview while creating and sustaining an atmosphere of transcendence in the organization. To be all-encompassing AA's ideology places an emphasis on tolerance rather than on a narrow religious worldview that could make the organization unpalatable to potential members and thereby limit its effectiveness. AA's emphasis on the spiritual nature of its program, however, is necessary to institutionalize a feeling of transcendence. A tension results from the risk that the necessity of transcendence, if taken too literally, would compromise AA's efforts to maintain a broad appeal. As this tension is an integral part of AA, Rudy and Greil argue that AA is best described as a quasi-religious organization.
AA meetings are "quasi-ritualized therapeutic sessions run by and for, alcoholics". They are usually informal and often feature discussions. Local AA directories list a variety of weekly meetings. Those listed as "closed" are only for those with "a desire to stop drinking", while "open" meetings are available to anyone (nonalcoholics can attend as observers). At speaker meetings, one or two members tell their stories, while discussion meetings allocate the most time for general discussion. Some meetings are devoted to studying and discussing the AA literature.
Except for men's and women's meetings, and meetings targeting specific demographics (including newcomers, gay people, and young people), AA meetings do not exclude other alcoholics. While AA has pamphlets that suggest meeting formats, groups have the autonomy to hold and conduct meetings as they wish "except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole".Different cultures affect ritual aspects of meetings, but around the world "many particularities of the AA meeting format can be observed at almost any AA gathering".
A study found an association between an increase in attendance to AA meetings with increased spirituality and a decrease in the frequency and intensity of alcohol use. The research also found that AA was effective at helping agnostics and atheists become sober. The authors concluded that though spirituality was an important mechanism of behavioral change for some alcoholics, it was not the only effective mechanism. Since the mid-1970s, a number of 'agnostic' or 'no-prayer' AA groups have begun across the U.S., Canada, and other parts of the world, which hold meetings that adhere to a tradition allowing alcoholics to freely express their doubts or disbelief that spirituality will help their recovery, and forgo use of opening or closing prayers. There are online resources listing AA meetings for atheists and agnostics.
The Disease Concept
More informally than not, AA's membership has helped popularize the disease concept of alcoholism, though AA officially has had no part in the development of such postulates which had appeared as early as the late eighteenth century. Though AA initially avoided the term "disease", in 1973 conference-approved literature categorically stated that "we had the disease of alcoholism." Regardless of official positions, from AA's inception most members have believed alcoholism to be a disease.
Though cautious regarding the medical nature of alcoholism, AA has let others voice opinions. The Big Book states that alcoholism "is an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer." Ernest Kurtz says this is "The closest the book Alcoholics Anonymous comes to a definition of alcoholism." In his introduction to The Big Book, non-member Dr. William Silkworth said those unable to moderate their drinking have an allergy. Addressing the allergy concept, AA said "The doctor’s theory that we have an allergy to alcohol interests us. As laymen, our opinion as to its soundness may, of course, mean little. But as ex-problem drinkers, we can say that his explanation makes good sense. It explains many things for which we cannot otherwise account." AA later acknowledged that "alcoholism is not a true allergy, the experts now inform us." Wilson explained in 1960 why AA had refrained from using the term "disease":
We AAs have never called alcoholism a disease because, technically speaking, it is not a disease entity. For example, there is no such thing as heart disease. Instead there are many separate heart ailments or combinations of them. It is something like that with alcoholism. Therefore, we did not wish to get in wrong with the medical profession by pronouncing alcoholism a disease entity. Hence, we have always called it an illness or a malady—a far safer term for us to use.