Comparison With Alcoholics Anonymous

The Washingtonians

Comparison With Alcoholics Anonymous

It is apparent that the Washingtonian societies, when they were most effective in the rehabilitation of alcoholics, had a great many similarities to Alcoholics Anonymous. These similarities might be listed as follows:

1. Alcoholics helping each other.

2. The needs and interests of alcoholics kept central, despite mixed membership, by predominance of numbers, control, or the enthusiasm of the movement.

3. Weekly meetings.

4. The sharing of experiences.

5. The fellowship of the group or its members constantly available.

6. A reliance upon the power of God.

7. Total abstinence from alcohol.

Most Washingtonian groups probably failed to meet this ideal program, or to maintain it for long. Even in itemizing the ideal program, some of the differences between the Washingtonian groups and Alcoholics Anonymous stand out. The admission of nonalcoholics as members and the incorporation of the "temperance" purpose - the inducement of total abstinence in nonalcoholics - are the most striking differences. Furthermore, at their best, the Washingtonian groups possessed no understanding of alcoholism other than the possibility of recovery through love and sympathy. Their approach to the problem of alcoholism and alcohol was moralistic rather than psychological or therapeutic. They possessed no program for personality change. The group had no resource of ideas to help them rise above the ideational content locally possessed. Except for their program of mutual aid they had no pattern of organization or activity different from existing patterns. There was far too great a reliance upon the pledge, and not enough appreciation of other elements in their program. Work with other alcoholics was not required, nor was the therapeutic value of this work explicitly recognized. There was no anonymity to keep the public from becoming aware of broken pledges, or to keep individuals from exploiting the movement for prestige and fame. Finally, there was not enough understanding of their own therapeutic program to formulate it and thus help the new groups to establish themselves on a sound and somewhat uniform basis.

The differences can be brought out more clearly by a more detailed, comparative analysis of the Alcoholics Anonymous program - its principles, practices and content.

1. Exclusively alcoholic membership.- There are many therapeutic values in the cohesiveness and solidarity which a group with a common problem can achieve. But in the light of the Washingtonian experience, the greatest long-run value of an exclusively alcoholic membership is that it permits and reinforces exclusive attention to the rehabilitation of alcoholics.

2. Singleness of purpose. - As stated in the masthead of an organizational publication (23), Alcoholics Anonymous "is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety."

Nothing can divide groups more quickly - and certainly destroy the therapeutic atmosphere effectively - than religious and political controversy. Strong efforts were made in the Washingtonian movement to minimize sectarian, theological and political differences, but the movement did not avoid attracting to itself the hostile emotions generated by these conflicts. Even if it had been more successful in this regard, it was still caught in all the controversy to which the temperance cause had become liable. Not only that, but within the temperance movement itself it eventually became stranded on the issue of moral suasion versus legal action.

In the light of this experience, the position of Alcoholics Anonymous stands in decided and hopeful contrast. In refusing to endorse or oppose causes, and particularly the temperance cause, A.A. is avoiding the greatest handicap which the Washingtonian movement had. Some temperance leaders may deplore that A.A. does not give them support, but they have no grounds for complaining that they are being opposed or hampered by A.A.

The A.A. program also contains a happy formula for avoiding the religious or theological controversies which could easily develop even within the groups as presently constituted. This is the use of the term "Power" (greater or higher), and particularly the phrase "as we understood Him," in referring to this Power, or God. The tolerance which this phrase has supported is an invaluable asset.

A further value of this single-minded concentration on the rehabilitation of alcoholics is made obvious by the Washingtonian experience. Whenever, and as long as, the Washingtonians were working hard at the reclamation of drunkards, they had notable success and the movement thrived and grew. This would support the idea that active outreach to other alcoholics is a factor in therapeutic success and, at the same time, a necessary condition for growth - and even for survival. Entirely aside from the matter of controversy, then, this singleness of A.A. purpose is a condition of continued therapeutic success and survival.

3. An adequate, clear-cut program of recovery. - Another great asset of Alcoholics Anonymous is the ideology which forms the content and context of its program of recovery, and which has received clear and attractive expression in the book Alcoholics Anonymous (24) and in other A.A. literature. This ideology incorporates the much sounder understanding of alcoholism which has been developed in recent years. It is a pragmatic blend of that which scientific research, dynamic psychology and mature religion have to offer; and through the literature of the movement, the members are kept sympathetically oriented to the developments in these fields.

Accordingly, instead of viewing alcoholism with a moralistic eye on alcohol - as an evil which ought to be abandoned - A.A. sees alcoholism as an illness, symptomatic of a personality disorder. Its program is designed to get at the basic problem, that is, to bring about a change in personality.

This program is simply and clearly stated in the Twelve Steps - augmented by the "24 hour program" of abstaining from alcohol, and the supporting slogans and emphases such as "First things first," "Live and let live," "Easy does it," "Keep an open mind," honesty, humility, and so forth. Great stress is also put upon regular attendance at the group meetings, which are characterized by the informal exchange of experiences and ideas and by a genuinely satisfying fellowship.

Compared to the Washingtonian brand, the A.A. sharing of experiences is notably enriched by the psychological insights which have been brought into the group by A.A. literature and outside speakers. A thorough analysis and catharsis is specifically asked for in the Twelve Steps - as well as an improvement in relations to other persons. Work with other alcoholics is required, and the therapeutic value accruing to the sponsor of new members is distinctly recognized. The spiritual part of the program is more clearly and inclusively defined; more soundly based, and more frankly made an indispensable condition of recovery.

It appears, furthermore, that the A.A. group activity is more satisfactory to the alcoholic than was the case in many Washingtonian societies. A.A. members seem to find all the satisfaction and values in their groups that the founders of the various orders thought were lacking in the Washingtonian groups.

A decided Washingtonian weakness was its general lack of follow-through. In contrast, A.A. is particularly strong on this point, providing a potent follow-through in a group setting where self-analysis and catharsis are stimulated; where new attitudes toward alcohol, self and others are learned; where the feeling tones are modified through a new quality of relationships; where, in short, a new way of life is acquired - one which not only enables the person to interact with his environment (particularly with other persons) without the use of alcohol, but enables him to do so on a more mature, satisfying basis.

No doubt a similar change occurred in many (though probably not in most) of the alcoholic Washingtonians, but it was more by a coincidence, within and without the societies, of circumstances that were rarely understood and never formulated into a definite, repeatable program. A.A. is infinitely better equipped in this respect.

4. Anonymity. - A comparison with the Washingtonian experience underscores the sheer survival value of the principle of anonymity in Alcoholics Anonymous. At the height of his popularity, John B. Gough either "slipped" or was tricked by his enemies into a drunken relapse. At any rate, the opponents of the Washingtonian movement seized upon this lapse with glee and made the most of it to hurt Gough and the movement. This must have happened frequently to less widely known but nevertheless publicly known Washingtonians. Public confidence in the movement was impaired. Anonymity protects the reputation of A.A. from public criticism not only of "slips" but also of failures, internal tensions, and all deviant behaviour.

Equally important, anonymity keeps the groups from exploiting prominent names for the sake of group prestige; and it keeps individual members from exploiting their A.A. connection for personal prestige or fame. This encourages humility and the placing of principles above personalities. Such behaviour not only generates outside admiration of A.A. but has therapeutic value for the individual members. There are further therapeutic values in anonymity: it makes it easier for alcoholics to approach A.A., and it relaxes the new member. It encourages honest catharsis and utter frankness. It protects the new member from the critical eyes of certain acquaintances while he experiments with this new way of life, for fumbling and failure will be hidden.

5. Hazard-avoiding traditions. - Another decisive contrast to the Washingtonian movement is the development in Alcoholics Anonymous not only of a relatively uniform program of recovery but also of relatively uniform traditions for avoiding the usual hazards to which organizations are subject.

In Alcoholics Anonymous there is actually no overhead authority. Wherever two or three alcoholics get together to attain sobriety on the general basis of the Twelve Step program they may call themselves an A.A. group. They are free to conduct their activities as they see fit. As would be expected in a fellowship of independent groups, all kinds of practices and policies have been tried. A careful reading of the A.A. publication, A.A. Tradition (25), will reveal how great the variety has been, here and there. Membership has been limited. Conduct of groups has been undemocratic. Leaders have exploited the groups for personal prestige. The principle of anonymity has been violated. Personal and jurisdictional rivalries have developed. Money, property and organizational difficulties have disrupted A.A. groups. Members and groups, yielding to their own enthusiasms and reflecting the patterns of other institutions around them, have endangered the immediate and ultimate welfare of the A.A. fellowship. These deviations could have been serious had there not existed a considerable uniformity in practice and principle.

In the early days of A.A., the entire fellowship was bound together by a chain of personal relationships - all created on the basis of a common program, a common spirit and a common tradition. This spirit and this pragmatically achieved program and tradition were the only guiding principles, and relative uniformity was not difficult. Alcoholics Anonymous was just a fellowship - small, informal, poor and unpretentious. But with growth, prosperity and prestige, the difficulties of getting all groups and members to see the value of these guiding principles increased. A self-conscious statement and explanation was needed - and this finally emerged in 1947 and 1948 in the "Twelve Points of Tradition,” elaborated upon in editorials in The A.A. Grapevine (23) and subsequently published as a booklet (25).

In formulating and stating the reasons for these traditions, Bill W., one of the founders, has continued the extremely valuable function which he, Dr. Bob and other national leaders have performed - that of keeping intact the experienced based program and principles of A.A.

Perhaps as important as any other is the tradition of keeping authority in principles rather than letting it become vested in offices and personalities. This tradition is supported by the related principle of rotating leadership, and the concept that leaders are merely the trusted servants of the group or groups. The hazard-avoiding values of these traditions are obvious.

The tradition that membership be open to any alcoholic has value in countering the tendency toward exclusiveness, class-consciousness, cliquishness - and it helps to keep the groups focused on their main job of helping the "alcoholic who still suffers."

The tradition of complete self-support of A.A. groups and activities by the voluntary contributions of A.A. members avoids the dangers inherent in fixed dues, assessments, public solicitations, and the like - and it is conducive to self-reliance and self-respect. Furthermore, in minimizing money it maximizes fellowship.

The tradition that "any considerable property of genuine use to A.A. should be separately incorporated and managed" is important in keeping the A.A. groups from becoming entangled in the problems of property beyond the minimum necessary for their own functioning. The tradition of "the least possible organization" has a similar value. These last three traditions might be summed up as precautions against the common tendency to forget that money, property and organization are only means - and that means find their rightful place only when the end is kept clearly in view. For A.A., these traditions should help to keep the groups concentrated on their prime purpose: helping alcoholics recover.

The existence of these traditions - and their clear formulation - are assets which the Washingtonian movement never possessed.

What prognosis for Alcoholics Anonymous is suggested by this comparison with the Washingtonian movement?

The least that can be said is that the short life of the Washingtonian movement simply has no parallel implications for A.A. Despite certain but limited similarities in origins, purpose and early activities, the differences are too great to draw the conclusion of a similar fate for A.A.

Are the differences, then, of such a nature as to assure a long life for Alcoholics Anonymous? This much can be said with assurance of consensus: (A) In the light of our present-day knowledge, A.A. has a sounder program of recovery than the Washingtonians achieved. (B) A.A. has avoided many of the organizational hazards which plagued the Washingtonian societies. The success and growth of A.A. during more than a decade of public life, its present vigour and its present unity underscore these statements and augur well for the future.

In the writer's judgment, based on a systematic study (26) of A.A., there is no inherent reason why A.A. should not enjoy an indefinitely continued existence. How long an existence will depend upon how well the leaders and members continue to follow the present program and principles - that is, how actively A.A. members will continue to reach out to other alcoholics; how thoroughly the remainder of the A.A. program will continue to be practiced, particularly the steps dealing with catharsis and the spiritual aspects; and, how closely all groups will be guided by the present traditions.

Finally, the writer would suggest that the value in the traditions lies chiefly in the avoidance of factors that can easily interfere with keeping the ideal therapeutic atmosphere found in the small A.A. groups at their best. Most of the personality change necessary for recovery from alcoholism occurs in these small groups - and that work is at its very best when there is a genuinely warm, nonegocentric fellowship. How well this quality of fellowship is maintained in the small, local groups is offered, therefore, as another condition determining how bright the future of A.A. will be.

Whatever the worth of these judgments, they point up the potential value to A.A. of careful, objective research on these and related conditions. This would give Alcoholics Anonymous another asset that the Washingtonians never had.

The Washingtonian Movement
The Causes of Decline References

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