Ken Ragge has produced a remarkable document in The Real AA. At a time when AA and its 12-Step philosophy are a national religion, Ken has the guts, the knowledge, and the insight to show the dark side of this moon.
He does so in a low-key, but interesting and well-reasoned way. Starting with the heretofore unacknowledged synthesis of AA with the evangelical Protestant Oxford Group Movement (for years after the 1935 date officially given for Bob Smith and Bill Wilson’s founding of AA, it was still an Oxford Group chapter), Ken details AA’s religious genesis and nature. This analysis alone would qualify The Real AA as a major contribution to the field of alcoholism.
But Ken does more, much more. He analyzes the role of avoidance and plain old obtuseness in the lives of alcoholics, who generally mask through drinking unpleasant feelings that others face and cope with. He shows how the structure and beliefs of AA serve to provide an alternative focus and explanation for alcoholics’ lives, given their continuing inability—supported by AA—to come to grips with what is truly on their minds (or in their subconscious).
Ken has a unique style. He gives detailed descriptions of research studies that reveal that AA’s claims are hogwash (for example, the famous study by Marlatt et al. showing that alcoholics who drink disguised amounts of alcohol drink less than those who think they are drinking alcohol but are not). He spends equal time detailing the psychological backdrop to alcoholism and the case histories of alcoholics (some, like Bob Smith and Bill Wilson, central figures in the field).
On top of this, Ken gives an intimate portrait of the AA meeting and its philosophy (as embodied in its 12 Steps), and of how this process is actually enacted within the working AA group. Ken gives as good an exegesis as we are likely to see of the way AA groups and their senior members direct and indoctrinate new members (that is, the mere 5 to 10% who continue to attend) into a strange self-abnegation and sense of guilt and powerlessness built on the promise that eventually they too can reign supreme over newer AA members! AA is a power trip for the psychologically debilitated, as Ken makes exceedingly clear.
In this book, Ken supports many of the contentions from David Rudy’s anthropological study of AA entitled, Becoming Alcoholic (just as Ken gives a ground’s eye view of Jay Hull’s “Self-Awareness Model,” by which alcoholics welcome alcohol’s consciousness-obliterating effect). I might add that Ken also follows many of my own arguments in Diseasing of America.
But Ken has a gut feeling for these research findings that can only be hard-earned through direct experience. He has seen and lived through things that others of us only write about.
In doing so, Ken answers the critical question about AA. Given its limited success, why do AAers love it so well? Like the addicted lover who clings to a destructive mate (and Ken analyzes the range of addictions in this book), the AA member who eventually succeeds in quitting drinking often accepts the devil’s bargain of giving up the core part of him or herself.
Consider that Bill Wilson entered an extended depression lasting more than a decade following his formation of AA, while he and others argued that AA was the path to emotional purity and contentment. (Other early AA members simply drank themselves to death, some while serving as effective spokespeople for the group.)
Or take Ken’s chapter on Kitty Dukakis, who entered addiction treatment first for taking one diet pill daily, only to embark on an extended depression followed by a brief interlude of intense alcoholism. Ken details the countless futile 12-step treatments Kitty endured which first convinced her (with near-fatal results) that she was a life-long alcoholic, and which then convinced her that she was a manic-depressive requiring around-the-clock medication. And to think, Kitty once thought that taking a single diet pill daily for 26 years was a big problem!
But, Kitty, like Bill W., was not deterred from spreading the gospel of AA. Like so many other tortured souls (the parallel with Heaven’s Gate is inevitable), the AAer responds to internal torment and self-doubt with renewed enthusiasm and efforts to convert the uninitiated.
At the same time, Ken shows how researcher/academics like Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant respond to their own data showing that AA treatment is useless or worse by committing large parts of their clinical and academic work to expounding the AA philosophy—as though by simply showing that they accept AA and that AA accepts them, they have made some unique contribution to the alcoholism field!
The result of this “scientific” and clinical madness is an America (and next the world) gone mad, where—as more and more people embrace helplessness and a pervasive loss of control—more and more join AA or other 12-Step groups.
The result is not an empowered, self-controlled America (which would be explicitly against AA’s philosophy). The result is an America preoccupied in a confused way with its depressed emotions and addicted actions, seeking vainly for explanations in the wrong places (God and genes) for a destructive way of life that AA does not remedy, but rather exacerbates and embodies.
Hull, J. 1987. Self-awareness model. In: Blane, H.T., and Leonard, K.E. (eds.).Psychological Theories of Drinking and Alcoholism (pp. 272-304). New York: Guilford.
Marlatt, G.A.; Demming, B.; and Reid, J.B. 1973. Loss of control drinking in alcoholics: An experimental analogue. Journal of Abnormal Psychology81:223-241.
Peele, S. 1995. Diseasing of America (2nd ed.; 1st ed., 1989). New York: Free Press.
Rudy, D. 1986. Becoming Alcoholic: Alcoholics Anonymous and the Reality of Alcoholism. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University.