|by A Member of the
Indianapolis Group of Alcoholics Anonymous
WHAT manner of cult is it? How does it function-this Alcoholics Anonymous?
Much has appeared recently in national and local periodicals concerning
the aims and accomplishments of this extraordinary group movement or
"informal fellowship," as one of the founders quietly calls it. Often the publicity
has been authored by staff reporters and free lancers who do not "belong" and
whose expositions and observations are, perforce, something less than
completely understanding and sympathetic.
Hungry newshounds have attempted to romanticize the "unique
organization," and have pried eagerly for possible sensational aspects. They
have failed, however, to find anything very glamorous about A.A. or anything at
all sensational, save, of course, the lurid pasts of its members!
The present piece, let it be said here, is not an official expression of
Alcoholics Anonymous, either national or regional, but is the conception of a
sincere member who has found that the program does work – if you want it to.
Of the many brief references to A.A. by laymen, I rather like that of Bob
Casey, the Chicago Daily News' great war correspondent, who wrote: "That half-
mystical, half-material association of wills, Alcoholics Anonymous, has put more
saloonkeepers out of business than Prohibition."
There is, after all, a mystical element in A.A, as well as the more obvious
realistic or materialistic. The program is as simple or as complicated as the
individual desires to make it. This is, we feel, as it should be, and accounts for
the fact that there are many varieties of approach to the goal (sobriety) and
many superficial deviations from the basic norm - the 12 Steps.
The A.A., concept is synthetic, a combination of workable theories and
practices ‘borrowed’ from medicine, psychiatry and religion - and from the
greatest source of all perhaps, the personal experiences of its own drinkers
who have recovered.
The chief advantage of A.A., patently, over ‘reform' agencies seeking the
salvation of the alcoholic, is this providing of a congenial society made up of
understanding persons of his own kind. The desperate crier in the wilderness,
being exposed to the group therapy of A.A., finds himself among robust ex-
drinkers who know all the answers and whose gruesome recitals convince him
readily enough that he is not the only fiend in the world, and that there is yet
hope and even abundant help.
One might say that the desperate one, who has managed to rationalize his
way out of others' efforts to push, pull, drive, warn, threaten, curse or cajole
him into sobriety, at last discovers he is being accompanied toward that long-
avoided state in his new A.A., association. And how much better it is that way,
This '12th Step work' - helping other alcoholics recover from their illness -
is regarded as the single objective of Alcoholics Anonymous. The step has been
given its logical last place in the A.A. "12 Commandments" on the natural
assumption that a certain regeneration must first take place in the helper or
guide before it can be transmitted to the still sodden one. It is presented
characteristically in the past tense, to indicate the experiential development of A.
A.'s two originators:
12. Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these steps, we tried to
carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Members with many months of sobriety behind them regard 12th step
work as an invaluable benefit to themselves-a deterrent from the hair of the now
sleeping dog that bit them. It is deemed by many to be essential to keeping dry
and in tune with the spiritual phase of the program.
The remaining "12 Steps to Recovery" (actually a suggested program, but
now almost liturgical in the minds of serious A.A.'s) may be condensed as
a. Admission of alcoholism
b. Personality analysis and catharsis
c. Adjustment of personal relations
d. Dependence upon some Higher Power
e. Working with other alcoholics
Generally, the newcomer to A.A., is apt to shy at the spiritual implication of
the program; but if he is handled properly by his group and persuaded to keep
an open mind, he will discover, as thousands before him, that a "Power Greater
than Himself" is at work in his behalf, though the Power be nothing more
sublime than the therapy of his own A.A., group association. In due time,
depending on the individual, a "spiritual experience" is likely to occur; and with
the fading of the drink obsession will come a new peace, stripped of most of the
confused fears of earlier days. The member will become progressively more
objective in his thinking and in his contacts with the world. If he has not been
too deep a neurotic before, he will find himself less moody and introspective,
less inclined to brood over the things that are not really important.
To the non-alcoholic layman the A.A. "spiritual experience" probably sounds
mysterious, esoteric or cultish. But Alcoholics Anonymous is definitely not a
religious group in any sense of the term. It could not, in such guise, have
achieved so much in its 12-year history.
The basic steps of the program have been pronounced by the medical
profession "good medicine," and they do constitute undoubtedly an excellent
working religion; but if the spiritual appears to bulk large in the over-all plan it
is because the originators and their followers have found that it works best that
way. And "with us who are on the way to the asylum or the undertaker anything
that works looks very, very good indeed."
This reformation or "conversion" of the alcoholic is regarded by the more
analytical members as more spiritual than psychological, despite the consensus
among students of alcoholism that the drink obsession is psychological or
psychiatric rather than physiological.
A number of psychological tricks are utilized, however, in readjusting the
selfkidding alcoholic to social conditions from which he has felt moved to escape.
A potent one is that he signs no pledge, and does not even promise himself that
he will go without a drink for any longer than 24 hours at a time. This removes
to a surprising extent the tremendous temptation build-up created by the "too
distant" goal. Many A.A.'s make it a practice to launch the morning with a brief
prayer for 'dry guidance,' and to give thanks to God or the Higher Power on
retiring at night for another successful day in the new life.
Psychological ways of messing up former wet daily schedules are favored by
a great many members. And an avoidance of old haunts and old drinking
companions is generally acknowledged to be a far more practicable method than
a super-exercise of will power. As a matter of fact the trial-and-error system
which produced so much sound working data for the care and feeding of
alcoholic wild life in the swaddling years of A.A., has proven that it is impossible
for the average alcoholic to avoid a return to drinking by sheer will power alone.
The neophyte may have to use it for a short period, true, but he is counseled
almost immediately to reach out a little further in the direction of "effortless"
positive thinking for a more permanent solution of the problem.
My freshman experience in A.A. is not unique, and reflects about as much
ordinary common sense as it does psychological self-kidding.
One day I passed the tavern at the home corner of my street car line
thinking intently about the drugstore beyond, where I was going to get some
cigarettes and a magazine. Now I had worn a path on College avenue between
the rear door of the car and the entrance to the "palace of good cheer," for over
a long period the course had become automatic, "groovy."
With the dawn of the new deal I made it a practice to do some intensive
thinking-not too willfully lest I overplay it - two or three blocks from my corner.
And I would get off at the front door instead of the rear, thus tossing a modest
wretch in the automatic machinery at an all-important stage. Believe it or not
this small beginning worked for me. And I caught my cue promptly and went on
I found it much better to alter the whole pattern than to change only the
moves leading directly or indirectly to a drink. In that way the substitution of
another chore or activity for the alcoholic one did not stand out conspicuously in
the day's scheme. In other words, if I was accustomed to slip a bottle into the
office at two o'clock in the afternoon, I wouldn't just substitute a more
innocuous purchase at the same hour. I would arrange my schedule so that it
would be impossible, or at least extremely awkward to get a bottle or anything
else at the time. It was as simple as that. A few strategic changes in the daily
scheme and my old drinking pattern was an unrecognizable shambles. I was
intentionally and with deliberate conspiracy throwing myself off stride, so to
And this in the last analysis is about all any A.A. can do, attempting to
answer the question, "Just how does A.A. work?" He can tell what he himself
has done and is doing, and what, in the process, seems to have happened to
him. He can describe the various techniques which have enabled others to make
A.A. work for them. Or he can advance his own pet theories as to the most
potent factors in the reformation.
The program is material; it is abstract. It is spiritual; it is psychological. In
some members a definite religious experience occurs, akin to the old-fashioned
"I got it!" kind of conversion. In others the old egocentric and somewhat
agnostic attitude undergoes a subtly gradual change until one day it is
discovered surprisingly that a new state of mind, a new outlook on life has
taken over with a very comfortable spiritual tone.
There are many techniques in A.A. because there are many and various
personalities. A common denominator of basic character and personality faults,
however, together with the great common goal, have made this "organization
without organization" strangely compact and effective.
The democracy of the fellowship is nothing less than Utopian. Bricklayers,
truck drivers and the most unskilled of day laborers rub elbows at the meetings
with doctors, dentists, lawyers, merchants, industrialists, newspapermen and
artists. Caste and money consciousness are swamped by the greater importance
of the common problem and the spirit of mutual help.
The Indianapolis A.A. group, as heterogeneous as any perhaps, even list,
among its regulars two "practicing" bar- tenders!
The group has had over four hundred members "on the books" in the
five years of its existence, and has planted the seed for many other groups
throughout the Hoosier state. One prominent Indianapolis A.A., has devoted
his entire time during the last two years to the dissemination of Alcoholic
Anonymous outside the capital city. Many of his nuclei have been
contacted as “undergraduates” or at the time of their "graduation" from
alcoholic nursing homes. Incidental and fortunately for the alcoholic who
needs something more than a thorough drying out, the two best sanatoriums
in Indianapolis treating alcoholics exclusively, are operated by A.A.'s, but not
of course, officially. The follow-up is there for the physically rehabilitated
alcoholic who sincerely desires to do something about his drinking problem.
Each night in the week except Sunday a sectional group of Indianapolis
A.A. holds a weekly meeting in the metropolitan area. And a Sunday
breakfast (Dutch treat) at a hotel just beyond the downtown district is
attended by from 75 to 150 members, visiting A.A.’s and guests.
It is quite easy to “crash” the gate at any of these weekly
meetings; and if a sponsor or escort is desired, a call to the A.A.
telephone exchange service will provide one. In the words of our official
spokesman, a New York investment broker who conceived the idea of
Alcoholics Anonymous in self – preservation:
“Nothing is asked of the alcoholic approaching us save a desire on
his part to get well. He subscribes to no membership requirements – no
fees or dues – nor is a belief in any particular point of view, medical or
religious, demanded of him. As a group we take no position on any
controversial question. Emphatically we are not evangelists or reformers.
Being alcoholics who have recovered, we aim to help only those who
want to get well. We do this because we have found that working with
other alcoholics plays such a vital part in keeping us all sober."
|From the 1946 October issue of Public Welfare In Indiana