Twelve-step Swan Song

Is AA's clout drying out?


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Of all the remedies that have been prescribed for alcoholism -- and there have been some doozies -- Alcoholics Anonymous' self-help regimen for do-it-yourself dry out reigns. Even though only one-third of AA members will stay dry long-term, after sixty y ears the program's 12-step system still attracts nearly 2 million alcoholics worldwide.

But while AA's numbers remain high, its tenets are under attack from within. Some observers say that too many members -- particularly the newer ones -- see themselves as victims and alcohol as their alibi for acting out. This flies in the face of AA's core dictum of accepting total responsibility for bad behavior and, moreover, seeking amends. As Andrew and Thomas Delbanco report in The New Yorker (March 20, 1995) some cranky New Jersey AA vets have even taken to yelling 'Stop whining! Stop drinking!' to would-be victims at meetings.

AA's key teaching of providing service to other members is also slipping, notes AA enthusiast Ann E. in The Phoenix (June, 1995). AA's famed buddy/sponsor system, which pairs members to 'work the steps' and see each other through 3 a.m. t emptations is on the wane. The increasing number of attendees who appear only because of court orders are not, needless to say, signing up as buddies. And when you take into account secular members' dissatisfaction with AA's 'Let Go and Let God' mandate, as well as many women's dislike of what they see as a patriarchal tone to the program's structure, it's little wonder that many have defected to thriving splinter groups such as Secular Organization for Sobriety and Sisters in Sobriety.

At the same time, AA's strict abstinence rule is under question. A growing number of treatment programs now preach that controlled drinking -- say, cutting 20 drinks a day to 5 -- reaches those who reject AA. But this better-than-nothing stance is belittl ed by many. In a recent debate in the newsgroup alt.recovery, the typical anti-moderation participant responded thus: 'Every drinker would love to be a social drinker, but it doesn't work.' Nonetheless, the trend continues, perhaps, as Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly(June 19) notes, because the moderation programs are markedly cheaper, and find favor with health care cost cutters.