AA Envy

Originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of the Hedgehog Review.

In the nineteenth century, belief in temperance as a political cause was usually one item in a larger constellation of progressive and enlightened views. A man who favored greater legal restrictions on the sale of alcohol tended also to be a believer in women’s rights, public sanitation, sex education, and all the other right-thinking causes of his day. The British feminist Josephine Butler, whose life’s work was to campaign against a law that penalized prostitutes who had venereal disease but not the johns who infected them, found that the only men willing to join her fight against Victorian double standards were “the temperance men.” No surprise there, she wrote: “They are the leaders in good social movements.” On the other side of the Atlantic, the American South remained hostile to temperance for years because the cause was so closely identified with Boston progressivism.

This is not the picture of a temperance activist in anyone’s mind today. We think of the Bible thumper brandishing Proverbs 23 (“Be not among winebibbers”), H. L. Mencken’s puritan haunted by the fear that someone somewhere is having a good time, the Salvation Army prude who needs only a few Bacardis-and-milk with Sky Masterson to set her bell a-ringing. The elegant and refined temperance man of history, if he could see the temperance man of our imagination, would be surprised, affronted, and most of all puzzled. He would tartly point out that modern society has embraced all the views that earned him a reputation as a starry-eyed radical—public provision of education, shorter hours for factory workers, industrial safety regulations, animal cruelty laws. All of his favorite causes, in fact, except temperance, which, far from being taken for granted, is roundly reviled.

Or is it? The branch of the temperance movement that wanted legal prohibition is a universal punching bag, but what about the older strain that put its faith in moral suasion? It is hard not to notice that when modern man speaks of vice, he reaches instinctively for the vocabulary of addiction. When a public figure is caught out, the standard way to demonstrate contrition is not by resolving to find a good church or a good therapist but by promising to enter a twelve-step program. This is true even when the sin in question has nothing to do with intoxicants. Journalist Buzz Bissinger went into rehab for his shopping addiction, singer/songwriter Ke$ha for her eating disorder, singer/serial batterer Chris Brown for “anger management.”

What could possibly account for this wholesale pilfering of a specialized set of terms and procedures designed for the very particular problem of uncontrollable alcoholism? The answer would make Carrie Nation smile for the first time in her life: We are all as green as a bottle of Rolling Rock with AA envy.

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No wonder we feel this way, considering the kind of press AA gets. Today, if a fictional character is revealed to be a recovering alcoholic, it invariably means that he is the kind of guy who would drop everything and drive over if you called him for help at 2 a.m., who is tough but never judgmental, who gets to be as sage and saintly as a monk without sacrificing his street cred. This holds true whether the character appears in a lowbrow primetime drama, a middlebrow New York Times bestseller, or a highbrow critical darling. The most celebrated book of experimental fiction of the past twenty years, Infinite Jest, is a 1,079-page love letter to recovery programs.

Progressives who think it the height of fashion to smash the icons of traditional morality will pick up a dishcloth to burnish the halo of the “Friends of Bill.” The same dime store Screwtapes who would count it a mitzvah to pour a backwoods Baptist his first drink will solemnly abstain from having wine with dinner rather than be complicit in a recovering alcoholic’s tumble off the wagon. A Sex Addicts Anonymous sobriety chip and a True Love Waits promise ring mean exactly the same thing—The bearer has given it a lot of thought and ultimately decided it would be a bad idea to sleep with you—but only one of them will successfully call a moral halt to an attempted cocktail bar pickup.

Why this special treatment for twelve-step programs? Because all the other moral languages in which modern Americans are fluent, the languages that sound so inspiring and correct when they are talking about politics, turn useless in the face of addiction. Trying to analyze addiction-like behavior with the tools of modern liberalism—ideas like consent, personal choice, scientific evidence, or better education—is like trying to put a key in a combination lock. These concepts cannot account for the behaviors that make twenty-first-century Americans feel ashamed of themselves, which is why we can’t stop grasping at AA jargon.

Indeed, the inadequacy of liberal language was the reason AA jargon was invented in the first place. The evolution of alcoholism treatment in the United States is a century-long chronicle of the failure of modern man’s favorite moral concepts. The first to fall was consent. Consensual is a magic word for us: Without it, no interaction between two people can be moral; with it, anything goes. The founders of the first hospitals for the treatment of alcoholism thought they could operate their facilities within the bounds of consent. Either their patients would check themselves in voluntarily, in which case consent would be down in writing, or they would be involuntarily committed, in which case the patient would be deemed incapable of consent by reason of insanity.

The flaw in this theory was pointed out by the superintendent of the Boston Lunatic Hospital in an 1880 article for the Quarterly Journal of Inebriety. The chronic drunkard may indeed be incompetent when the judge commits him, the author wrote, but “in a surprisingly short time he is on his feet, under perfect control, and looking around for a lawyer.” One word to the judge and the man would be released again, even if his first stop thereafter were the liquor store, as it almost always was. Legally recognized exceptions to the consent rule, like fraud and incompetence, were no help to these nineteenth-century treatment pioneers, and as a result, many inebriate asylums had already gone bust before Prohibition put them officially out of business in 1920.

The next idea to be discredited was “root causes.” The pivot to root causes is a progressive standby: Criminals are not motivated by depravity but by economic inequality; low test scores are not caused by poorly run schools but by poverty, etc. They used to say the same thing about booze. According to one Herbert Yahraes, author of Alcoholism Is a Sickness (1946), the social ill of alcoholism would disappear if we could build “a society in which the individual is better fed and housed, has better medical care, has better facilities for mental hygiene, has fewer money worries, and has the facilities and the encouragement to engage in recreational activities besides drinking.”

But as they say in AA, if money could cure this thing, millionaires wouldn’t die. It is no coincidence that the golden age of “social-problem films” about alcoholism—from 1945 to 1962, according to scholar Lori Rotskoff, who counts thirty-four such films in this span—fell right in the middle of the postwar boom, when more families were more prosperous than at any time in American history. Films like The Lost WeekendBigger Than Life, and Days of Wine and Roses were popular precisely because moviegoers were nervously coming to realize that a two-car garage was no protection against the lure of the bottle.

Others argued that the root cause of alcoholism was emotional repression, the cure a more liberated society. Exhibit A for this theory is author John Cheever, who is generally thought to have guzzled scotch in order to avoid confronting his repressed homosexuality. But, as Olivia Laing points out in her book on alcoholic writers, The Trip to Echo Spring, no one was more out-and-proud than Tennessee Williams, and he drank himself to death as efficiently as Cheever did. A more accurate rule of thumb might be that alcoholism tends to strike people who are not comfortable in their own skin, but although this uneasiness can sometimes be blamed on social expectations, it seems to flourish just as well in their absence.

One by one, a modern alcoholic will try to apply to his own situation the same solutions he prescribes for other people’s, and one by one the standard solutions will fail. There isn’t a pill that can keep him sober the way Adderall keeps his friends focused and productive. Antabuse has been around since the 1950s (it makes people violently sick if they drink so much as a near beer), but most alcoholics fail to respond to the drug, either because they can’t bring themselves to take it consistently or because they can’t keep themselves from drinking even when they do take it. In 1953, a physician wrote to the British Medical Journal to describe this latter phenomenon: “A small group of patients has emerged who, in spite of recurrent terrifying experiences with the reaction, repeatedly ask to be put back on antabuse … even carrying antabuse tablets with them in some cases and swallowing more of them whilst drinking.”

Nor can alcoholics embrace the solutions successfully employed by sufferers of the other “disorders” that filled mid-century insane asylums. Chronic alcoholism is unlikely ever to be depathologized in the way that, say, homosexuality has. Nor will alcoholism ever become a hip handi-capability, like high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, or the subject of a Mad Pride campaign, like bipolar disorder. Unlike the transgendered, alcoholics can’t even lobby for protected-class status, suing their employers for discrimination when they get fired for turning up with the shakes. Poor alcoholics—their friends have all talked their way past Nurse Ratched, and now it’s just them and the big Indian.

One last factor has cemented the near-universal acclaim now enjoyed by the AA system: We are all “alcoholic personalities” now. AA’s long-standing characterization of the alcoholic personality is “childish, emotionally sensitive, and grandiose,” which just about covers every story on the Millennial generation since that cohort began coming of age. Ours is an era of man-children who think it’s cool to play video games at thirty-five, grievance connoisseurs who record ten “microaggressions” a day on their Tumblrs, and entry-level interns who drive their bosses crazy with their preening sense of entitlement.

The grandiosity is especially acute. In 2001, David Brooks christened “the Organization Kid” and declared himself content to live in a future run by such overachievers. Five years before that, in Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace had already spotted these monsters of the meritocracy and decided that what the Hal Incandenzas of America needed more than anything was a stint in a halfway house for substance abusers. In retrospect, the novelist had the better eye. The drive to get into the best school, land the best job, one way or another be recognized as special—these are the same psychological drives Bill Wilson had, back before he learned to take life One Day at a Time. Another AA saying: “One newcomer in a million doesn’t belong here, and if you think you’re that one-in-a-million, you definitely belong here.”

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So what exactly is the nature of this system that has everyone so transfixed? It should surprise no one, given its genealogy and its particular popularity with the postreligious, that AA could fairly be described as Christianity with certain bits left out and other custom-designed bits thrown in. It has jettisoned enough of Christianity that its secular admirers don’t have an allergic reaction but has kept enough that their God-starved souls get a taste of what they’re hungering for. At least that’s how a Christian might put it. An atheist would say that AA has torpedoed Christianity’s silly parts and rendered religion basically sensible, provided that your idea of a Higher Power is sufficiently abstract and you think of prayer as a form of meditation. Either way, it seems clear that the very things your average David Foster Wallace fan likes most about AA are the things he hates about organized religion: the admission of powerlessness, the submission to authority, skepticism about the value of thinking for yourself, and the rote repetition of phrases that to an outsider seem facile or sentimental.

Some people lump AA in with the therapeutic tradition, painting it as a child of psychology as much as religion, but this is a misconception. Knockoff groups like Co-Dependents Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous were founded in the self-help seventies and retain something of the flavor of their birth decade, but Alcoholics Anonymous grew up under Truman and Eisenhower. That’s why AA meetings (traditionally, at least) feature less talking and more listening, less narcissism and more emphasis on service, and almost none of the standard group therapy in which everyone weighs in on everyone else’s problems. Most self-help groups tell their members: You’re not a bad person, you’re just a nice guy who gambles/eats/sleeps around too much. In AA, the cliché among those who’ve completed the Fourth Step is: I used to think I was just a nice guy who drank too much. The Fourth Step, of course, is the “searching and fearless moral inventory.”

Molly Monahan used to think she was just a nice nun who drank too much. Then she joined AA—an unusual step for a nun, though not as unusual as you might think. As she describes it in her memoir Seeds of Grace, she found in AA many of the practices she was drawn to in convent life but that had been swept away by Vatican II: “weekly confession, the daily examination of conscience, or the ‘examen,’ practiced by me twice daily as a young nun,” and the emphasis on personal salvation rather than “social concerns like poverty, racism, hunger, and homelessness.” Monahan doesn’t say it, but her reflections leave the reader wondering whether AA hasn’t preserved the spirit of Christianity better than some churches have.

Whether fairly or unfairly, churches have developed a reputation for being quick to judge. Secular Americans have the vague idea that if they were to admit their faults to a group of churchgoers, a gang of old biddies would start shooing them out the door with great whacks of their pocketbooks. AA, on the other hand, has somehow managed to uphold strict moral expectations while still reassuring the public that it really means it when it says that the only requirement for membership is a sincere desire to stop drinking. This despite the protestations of the churches that Mark 2:17 (“It is not the healthy who need a doctor”) is their line.

It must also be admitted that AA has comported itself better than many religious denominations in the face of the skepticism of our age. When taunted by the New Atheists, for example, Christians do not always maintain the serene dignity for which their religion’s saints have such a reputation. AA members tend to respond to similar taunts with less sputtering and more shrugging. The source of this attractive equanimity is the knowledge, often drawn from experience, that without the program they will die, so anyone else can think what he likes. Technically, Christians need their own program just as desperately, but for some reason they’re still more likely to get defensive about it. They have not quite adopted “attraction rather than promotion” (AA Tradition Number Eleven) as the basis for proselytism, either.

This disparity in reputation is not entirely the churches’ fault. Sister Molly tells a story about the time she was on an airplane and the flight attendant paged “any friends of Bill Wilson” to the rear of the cabin. It turned out that a young woman on her way to rehab was afraid she would drink on the flight. I suppose there’s no reason the attendant couldn’t have paged “friends of John Wesley” or “friends of Jorge Mario Bergoglio” on behalf of a Methodist or Catholic in equivalent distress, and no reason the suffering individual’s coreligionists wouldn’t have leapt at the chance to put their faith into action, as several passengers on Sister Molly’s flight did. It simply doesn’t occur to non-AA members to make that kind of request. Perhaps it should.

In its most severe form, our modern AA envy manifests itself as a secret wish that one could become an alcoholic, just to get the wonderful moral radiance that recovery imparts. Obviously this is perverse, as any addict can confirm. But there is no reason why we should not experiment with thinking about our own worst faults in twelve-step terms and using twelve-step methods for self-improvement. Those who have been raised to denigrate the very idea of prayer (and there are many such in America) may find it easier to begin praying themselves if they start with the common AA recommendation of bookending the day with chats with your Higher Power, in the morning to ask for help and at night to say thank you. As for the First Step, the admission that sheer willpower is not enough to save you from your worst vices will make any person less blind to the workings of grace in his life.

These simple steps have been helpful to many non-drunks, because they cut through the self-deceptions that modern people use to justify their bad behavior. But cribbing from AA’s playbook doesn’t get you fellowship, and people whose addictions are nonalcoholic are left wishing there were some kind of support group for them. Some kind of—Sinners Anonymous. It would be contrary to the spirit of One Day at a Time to make sweeping predictions, but that may be how the story of our collective AA envy ends: with the lost children of the postreligious world realizing that the very things that inspire such longing when glimpsed through church basement windows can also be found one floor up.