HAS NOW BEEN several months since a prestigious research
organization released a lengthy report on its study
of alcoholism. From that necessarily technical report,
the press and other media seized upon the one element
sensational enough to make news: the statement that
some alcoholics can and do return to normal drinking.
Several of my friends bitterly denounced the report.
Many other AA members, identifying themselves as such,
wrote angry letters to newspapers and magazines.
by this time tempers have cooled enough to let us examine
the issue involved in the light of AA principles--assuming
that, just before press time for this magazine, we have
not been prodded into renewed rage by another supposedly
authoritative assurance that alcoholics need not remain
AA member who criticizes such reports usually expresses
one concern: that they may harm alcoholics still drinking
and encourage some recovered alcoholics to resume drinking.
Therefore, it could be argued that AA members, drawing
upon considerable experience in this area, have a duty
to expose the fallacies in the report.
my opinion, we have no such duty as AA members.
On the contrary, we have a long-standing Tradition about
public controversy. At almost every AA meeting, we hear
that our Fellowship does not engage in such controversy.
Tradition Ten explicitly states that "Alcoholics Anonymous
has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name
ought never be drawn into public controversy."
Tradition does not disapprove of individuals' becoming
involved, provided they don't use the AA name or announce
that they are members. In fairness to AA, however, it's
plain that no person should leap into a public controversy
as an AA member, thus giving the impression that the
Fellowship itself is taking a position. There are good
reasons why we have always avoided such controversies
in the past, and it's not likely that there will be
justification for becoming involved in the future.
it could be argued, AA has always insisted that controlled
drinking is an impossibility for the alcoholic. "We
are like men who have lost their legs; they never grow
new ones," the Big Book says. "Neither does there appear
to be any kind of treatment which will make alcoholics
of our kind like other men. We have tried every imaginable
remedy. In some instances there has been brief recovery,
followed always by a still worse relapse. Physicians
who are familiar with alcoholism agree that there is
no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic.
Science may one day accomplish this, but it hasn't done
should remember that this is offered as an opinion,
not as a dogma to be defended at all costs. In 1939,
when the Big Book was published, a large number of doctors
and social workers probably thought that alcoholics
should be able to become controlled drinkers at some
point. AA members did not set out to do battle with
any of these people and, for that matter, didn't even
argue with alcoholics who thought they could still drink
in a controlled manner. Far from warning them of dire
consequences, the Big Book authors merely said, in effect,
that the proof of the pudding was in the eating. "We
do not like to pronounce any individual as alcoholic,"
they wrote, "but you can quickly diagnose yourself.
Step over to the nearest barroom and try some controlled
drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it more
than once. It will not take long for you to decide,
if you are honest with yourself about it. It may be
worth a bad case of jitters if you get a full knowledge
of your condition."
other words, the AA founders were not zealously committed
to the task of convincing any person that he might be
an alcoholic, or of citing scientific proof that he
could never be a controlled drinker. This was something
the individual would have to decide for himself, even
at the cost of getting drunk again. Is it irresponsible
to tell an alcoholic to try drinking again if he thinks
he can get away with it? Not really, because any person
who believes that he can drink will probably do it no
matter what is said to him. Our experience has certainly
shown us that alcoholics do not usually respond to logic
or intellectual arguments.
I was drinking, I would have listened to any person,
no matter how sleazy his credentials, who told me I
could keep on drinking. This questionable reassurance
would have counted for more than the advice of 100 experts
taking the opposite view. I believed what I wanted to
believe, and other members have told me the same thing
about themselves. That being so, I do not think many
alcoholics are endangered by a scientific report. True,
it's much better to have a prominent think tank suggest
that you can drink, but any friendly bartender or drinking
companion will serve just as well.
argument in favor of entering the controversy could
be that controlled drinking is not an outside
issue, since rejection of this goal is vital to AA's
program and methods. We should remember, however, that
the professional field is external to AA, and
it is made up of people with all shades of opinions
and beliefs. AA members who work in the field of alcoholism
do not really have the right or the duty to speak for
AA as a whole, and there will be a great deal of resentment
and opposition from professional workers if we try to
shape general opinion.
role in the broad field of alcoholism, as I understand
it, is simply to offer our program to those who want
it and to cooperate with other alcoholism workers and
agencies to help alcoholics, without marrying AA to
any specific cause or opinion. Many outside workers
and agencies share AA's views on alcoholism and the
recovery process. Others do not and are even critical
of AA. In any case, these are outside opinions, even
when relating directly to AA's interests.
discovered long ago that our success in following the
AA program and helping alcoholics depends largely on
our own practices and beliefs, and that it isn't necessary
to have the agreement of outsiders. Some professionals
in alcoholism, for example, think that AA's spiritual
program is unnecessary and irrelevant, and others believe
that AA should relax its Tradition of anonymity. They
have a right to hold such opinions, just as we have
a right to hold opposite views.
might also be argued that certain issues are more important
than others, that the controversy over controlled drinking
warrants parting from tradition so that individual members
and the Fellowship can put AA's name on the line in
defense of total abstinence as the only way to recovery.
Would this ever be justified? Well, co-founder Bill
W. apparently had such issues in mind when he wrote
in Twelve Concepts for World Service:
. .we cannot and should not enter into public controversy,
even in self-defense [emphasis added]. Our experience
has shown that, providentially, it would seem, AA has
been made exempt from the need to quarrel with anyone,
no matter what the provocation. Nothing could be more
damaging to our unity and to the worldwide goodwill
which AA enjoys, than public contention, no matter how
promising the immediate dividends might appear.
it is evident that the harmony, security, and future
effectiveness of AA will depend largely upon our maintenance
of a thoroughly nonaggressive and pacific attitude in
all our public relations. This is an exacting assignment,
because in our drinking days we were prone to anger,
hostility, rebellion, and aggression. And even though
we are now sober, the old patterns of behavior are to
a degree still with us, always threatening to explode
on any good excuse. But we know this, and therefore
I feel confident that in the conduct of our public affairs
we shall always find the grace to exert an effective
I reread this, I was reminded of my own feelings some
years ago when the question of an alcoholic's return
to controlled drinking was raised. A nonalcoholic friend
whom I greatly respected told me that he didn't think
the AA program brought real recoveries from alcoholism.
He insisted that real recovery would enable the alcoholic
to become a moderate drinker, neither addicted to alcohol
nor dependent on AA meetings. Around the same time,
some doctors in Cincinnati and other researchers in
England were saying that alcoholics ought to be able
to drink again with safety and that some were doing
so. In one report, there was also a veiled criticism
of AA and a hint that the insistence on total abstinence
as a condition for recovery might prevent some people
from receiving help.
effect did these pronouncements have on me? Well, it's
right there in the quotation on the Twelfth Concept:
My friend's statement and the doctors' reports made
me angry, hostile, rebellious, and aggressive. I was
so mad at my friend that I didn't even attempt to answer
his (I thought) appallingly stupid declaration. As for
the experts in Cincinnati and England, I decided sorrowfully
that they would have the destruction of thousands of
alcoholics to answer for when they arrived at the pearly
examining my feelings, however, I came to see that I
was concerned more about my own ego than about the welfare
of still-practicing alcoholics. I closely identified
myself with AA, and I sometimes obtained approval and
respect by informing others that I was an AA member.
I wanted people to praise AA as the most effective force
in the field of alcoholism. I felt cheated and hurt
by any criticism of AA, because it was also a criticism
of a way of life in which I had a major investment.
this, I had to admit, was simply an echo of my drinking
behavior: seeking the approval of others or bolstering
my own self-esteem by association with a cause or group.
It was unrealistic then to expect universal approval,
and it is the same in sobriety. No matter how well we
AAs do our job or how conscientiously we follow our
program, certain people will criticize us. Nor can we
expect universal agreement on anybody's theory, even
the question of an alcoholic's ability to return to
controlled drinking. It seems self-evident to us that
we are right--all our experience shouts it--but we have
to let the facts speak for themselves. Even if our belief
proved right in the long run, we would be wrong as individuals
and as a society if we became involved in angry accusations
and bitter denunciations.
that matter, it is not surprising that controversy has
developed about patterns of recovery for the alcoholic,
and I am no longer upset by it. I now see this as a
healthy sign that research and study on alcoholism are
continuing to grow. In every professional field, there
are controversies and conflicting opinions. It is hard
to believe, but a recent Wall Street Journal
story pointed out, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that
aeronautical engineers still argue about what causes
an airplane to fly. And the professional and technical
journals in every field are full of lively and heated
disputes about matters most of us would have thought
settled long ago. It is only logical, therefore, that
the increasing professionalization of the alcoholism
field should be marked by criticism of older theories
and discussion of new ones.
of course, there's plenty of opportunity for AA members
and friends of AA to enter any controversy, if they
can do so without involving the AA name or the Fellowship
as a whole. I've noticed, for example, that several
professionals in the alcoholism field have attacked
the think tank's report, so it is being properly challenged
by knowledgeable and experienced people. This is the
way new ideas and theories are tested and publicized
among professionals, and I'm all for it when it moves
along in a spirit of friendly debate. That friendly
spirit comes hard for us, as recovered alcoholics, and
I suppose that's why Bill W. urged AAs to avoid public
will always be controversies and rumors of controversies.
After all, if engineers can't even agree as to why an
airplane flies, why shouldn't there be disputes about
the nature and treatment of alcoholism?