In this blog: What did I learn during my trip to New York City to explore GSO Archives in search of the history of Agnostic/Atheist AA members? History is ongoing. This month we look at what AA’s latest statistics say, how AA members and GSO are shaping AA’s future. Also, let's talk about sober adventures in New York City.
View or download a PDF of July 2015 Blog: AA History didn't just happen 80 Years Ago.
Where are we now? One idea that solidified for me when I was surrounded by AA history in our archives office is that AA is not stagnant. Today we will discuss AA’s evolution and things that are changing right now. For some of us, AA isn’t changing fast enough, for others it isn’t focusing on the right kind of change and for others, change is risk and risk is foolhardy.
AA didn’t happen 80 years ago—our anniversary is just a symbol of the meeting of two alcoholics who needed each other, one to get sober, one to stay sober. Both may have perished without the other. The reason our 80th anniversary is symbolic is that it dates back to AA’s second success story. Forget which came first; you can’t have an AA without both a chicken and an egg. In this way, our fellowship borrows from a metaphor about the circle of life. Bob Smith’s sobriety date didn’t happen in a bubble; nor did Bill’s before him. “AA wasn’t invented,” as Bill W said.
What became a movement eventually, was no movement at all, on June 10th, 1935. The name Alcoholics Anonymous hadn’t been invented yet. Bob didn’t get sober from talking to Bill just once. Sobriety was a process. And is Bill really patient-zero? Bill was helped by Ebby. Sure, Ebby was an Oxford Group member with no plan to form a new organization, but these two men were talking alcoholic to alcoholic in a very AA way. Even through cynical eyes, Bill saw in Ebby, an example of someone who knew alcoholic helplessness yet was now sober. Ebby stayed sober that day. Maybe reaching out to Bill helped Ebby in the way we know it does. From his 2015 book, Key Players in AA History, Bob K writes about Ebby’s reunion with a drunken Bill Wilson.
That “bleak November” was in 1934. The old school friend was Edwin Throckmorton Thacher, known better then and since, as Ebby. “Fresh-skinned and glowing,” sober a mere seven weeks, “he was inexplicably different.” Although he did not at the time realize it, Bill Wilson was only a few short (but well-lubricated) weeks away from his very last drink. More importantly, this simple reunion of old chums, though it did not, in fact, recapture the spirit of other days, would set in motion a series of events that would dramatically affect the lives of millions of alcoholics, and change the world of addiction treatment.[i]
So the events leading up to June 10, 1935 have as much to do with Alcoholics Anonymous as the events that followed. Of course, what was still to come counts for a lot. There was no book, no Steps and no name for AA in 1935. There was never a thought of Atlanta: 2015. It was “one day at a time” back then; neither Bill’s nor Bob’s sobriety was assured. Nothing was, as of yet, sacred or forbidden. Our future as a fellowship was not limited by any event in 1935 and any symbolic significance of that date was an afterthought.
In the Spring, an article by Rebellion Dogs was published in the pages of In Recovery Magazine. “Unbelievers Unabashed” is about AA members whose worldview and sobriety does not include a supernatural explanation of mankind and/or sobriety. For some folks, there is no prayer-answering, sobriety granting higher power “holding us up to the light.” Specifically, the article was about the anticipation and reaction to a new pamphlet that rolled out in 2014—right about this time last year.
Many Paths to Spirituality, was an effort to represent AA in the 21st century. The pamphlet demonstrates that AA can work for a Jew who likes the Lord’s Prayer, an atheist who prays but to no god, a Catholic who is happy she can worship the God she learned about in school and a Native America who’s glad that she doesn’t have to.
However, if you were following the talk around the coffee urns at Regional Forums and notes from AA’s General Service Office for the years leading up to this, you might have been expecting this pamphlet to be by-and-for atheists/agnostics in AA. For the majority of not-God AA members, the pamphlet was a disappointment.
In the article, I explained to readers that I was looking forward to a trip to AA archives in New York City to do some research on events leading up to this pamphlet. As I mentioned at the top, I have been there, now. I have looked through notes and minutes from Literature Committees, advisory actions and Final Reports of the General Service Conference, and I am still in the process of putting it in perspective.
What is clearly recorded (and I saw with my own eyes) in AA history is that the trustees’ Literature Committee was asked by the fellowship to consider a pamphlet for members who don’t believe in God. In 2008, a Literature Committee subcommittee found that previous committees had started down that road in 1975, 1981, 1988, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2008 and 2012. That is nine times that members asked that the hand of AA would be there regardless of what one does or does not believe.
While no such atheist/agnostic pamphlet has ever been approved by the Conference, one atheist story was included in the original 1976 Do You Think You’re Different? pamphlet. Later, a Hispanic story was removed and an agnostic story was added. Our A Newcomer Asks and some of our pamphlets for medical and religious professionals now make statements that AA’s membership requirements don’t include a belief in God and our history of success stories in the rooms bears that out.
With more to say on the history of atheists and agnostics in AA later, let’s stop for a moment to look at a snapshot of AA today. Our annual count of members and groups is out. We have also just finished General Service Conference season. Let’s look at what’s going on right now, shall we?
New or revised LGBT, Women’s, Agnostic/Atheist and Mental Health pamphlets coming soon from General Service.
GSO is all about presenting AA stories in a hip lingo that reaches today’s newcomers. Right now, the General Service Office in New York seeks stories to update the Women’s and LGBT pamphlets (currently called “Gay & Lesbian). A new pamphlet about mental health issues seeks stories by AA members with co-morbidity or sponsors who work with these double-winners. So, GSO does—in some important ways—want AA’s voice to be current and portray our stories in print in a way that is as diverse as our meetings.
Luckily for those who think of recovery and addiction from the perspective of natural, not supernatural laws, 475 Riverside Drive in New York City isn’t our only General Service Office. In the UK, the General Service Conference voted 80% in favor of an atheist/agnostic pamphlet and they are collecting stories from members as we speak.
Why the initiative for a 21st century AA narrative? Well here are 97,792 possible reasons—that’s the number of how many fewer members of Alcoholics Anonymous there is this year compared to our survey last year. AA's population is down about 5% over last year. The significant loss is the International (non-Canada/USA) population of members, down 13%.
|What we’re looking at||Just the facts||What’s the significance?|
|AA’s population (pop)||2,040,629 members[ii]||Down 98 K from last year.|
|AA pop compared to USA since we peaked in 1992||USA is up 28% and AA has dropped 10%||AA as a percentage of world pop is in decline.|
|USA adults in recovery from alcohol & drugs [iii]||23.5 Mil, 10% of adults, up from 20 Mil in last survey||AA members are a shrinking % of people in recovery.|
Keeping tabs on AA members is a dodgy business at best but compared to how AA counts our tally, it gives us a year over year overview. Today's AA is about the same size as the early 1990s. We had doubled in size twice (from 500,000 to 1 Mil to 2 Mil) in the 20 year period between 1974 and 1993.
BTW, do you know how new AA (conference-approved) literature comes to be? There are several ways to get your idea heard at the General Service Conference. You can write a letter as a concerned or interested member of AA, directly. You can bring it up with your group, get the group behind it and have the group instruct your General Service Rep to ask the District to support it. There are over 90 Areas in Canada and the USA and each Area has dozens of Districts. So, if you’re District is in favor of your new literature idea, the District Committee Member will bring the idea to the Area and ask for Area support. The idea will be debated and if it gets substantial unanimity, the delegate to your Area will bring the idea to the annual General Service Conference for discussion or send your request to the Literature Committee.
Four or more times a year a trustees’ Literature Committee meets to discuss the matters before the Conference. There are a dozen trustees’ committees; Public Information, Treatment, Archives etc., all have their own committee, too. Sometimes trustees’ committees appoint a subcommittee to discuss, research and make recommendations on a certain issue on the docket. Pamphlets, books, booklets, videos and a few other info/outreach pieces are all things that might be included in Literature Committee business. Not only does every new pamphlet have to go through a process, but every update and change needs approval, too. So there are about 100 items, all of which will eventually be up for renewal, removal or replacement.
Some of the items are foist upon the committee by an advisory action at the annual General Service Conference. Other items are directives/ requests/ inquiries that may have come by direct contact to GSO.
The trustees’ Literature Committee will pass on certain items to the Conference Literature Committee. The CLC tables the recommendations before posing them to the delegates, trustees, board members and staff who decides on what is, and what is not, “conference-approved” that year. But not everything that the trustees’ Committee discusses is passed on to the Conference Committee. The Conference Committee will either: a) reject the trustee’s recommendation, b) send it back for clarification or c) bring it forward to the Conference to seek approval.
Now that the respective Conferences have approved these two pamphlets to be updated (Women in AA & LGBT AA) and two new pamphlets (mental health & atheist/agnostic), here’s the info if you live in the jurisdiction and you’d like to contribute a story for consideration.
GSO is on the 11th floor of 475 Riverside Drive in Manhattan (pictured). For the purposes of mail for members in Canada & USA who want to contribute to the mental health, women’s or LGBT pamphlets:
General Service Office
Grand Central Station
New York NY, 10163
In the UK, contribute to a pamphlet for atheist/humanist/agnostic members and newcomers. If you live in the United Kingdom, send your story to:
General Service Office of AA
PO Box 1
10 Toft Green
York YO1 7NJ
Tell your story. Contact your GSR or delegate and ask them to include your story for consideration. Help make our literature as diverse as alcoholics and recovery stories are.
As for previous attempts from USA/Canada’s General Service Office to produce secular recovery literature for and by members, each request has met with varied levels of enthusiasm from the trustees’ committee. Sometimes motivated trustees’ committees changed personnel and the drive was lost. In some cases the proposal was passed on to the Conference committee and that group axed the proposal. It wasn’t until earlier this decade that stories were finally collected, assembled and presented to the Conference with the recommendation of approving a collection of atheist/agnostic AA success stories (USA/Canada). This one time that the Conference was presented with AA success stories from members without a belief in God(s) there was both enthusiasm and hostility about the idea. The recommendation, needing two-thirds approval, as is the AA way, was not carried forward. What we got instead, a year or two later, was Many Paths to Spirituality which if you haven’t read the In Recovery Magazine story, you will find from the hyperlink below. The article outlines AA’s agnostic, humanist, atheist, secular community feedback to Many Paths.
UNBELIEVERS UNABASHED by Joe C. © Spring 2015 In Recovery Magazine
So that article set the stage for my trip to AA’s archives to either refute or corroborate the claims made in History – Proposals to Create a Pamphlet for the Non-Believer/Agnostic/Atheist Alcoholic The un-authored ten-page report still has some mystery surrounding it. But it seems that is was put together in February of 2008 by the Literature Committee while considering the proposal that came from Area 17 (Hawaii) for a nonbeliever's pamphlet.
From 1976 to today, AA’s Literature Committees entertains a proposal to produce a pamphlet of atheist/humanist/secular AA members nine times. If it is true that every time the request has been made, the request was denied, then the question has to be asked, “Is AA guilty of willful blindness?”
The concept of willful blindness is addressed in a Ted talk and a book by Margaret Heffernan called Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril. Heffernan explains the legal consequences:
“if there is information that you could know and you should know but you somehow manage to not-know, the law deems that you are willfully blind—you have chosen not to know.”[iv]
I am not a lawyer or a judge; I’m a reporter. AA isn’t under the microscope of legal opinion so such terms ought to be cautiously wielded. As members of a larger whole we may want to look ourselves in the mirror and ask, “What is my duty, as an AA member, in terms of my own fiduciary responsibility to accommodate the needs of a each and every alcoholic that reaches out for help?”
Willful blindness is a term used in law to describe a situation in which a Person seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally putting him or herself in a position where he or she will be unaware of facts that would render him or her liable.
For example, in a number of cases, persons transporting packages containing illegal drugs have asserted that they never asked what the contents of the packages were and so lacked the requisite intent to break the law.
Such defenses have not succeeded, as courts have been quick to determine that the defendant should have known what was in the package and exercised criminal recklessness by failing to find out.
Using myself as an example, I have (I guess you could call it) campaigned for pamphlet called something like, With or without God: AA for humanists, atheists, agnostics and secularists. If you’ve been following along this region of the blogosphere, you know I have echoed the arguments that have come before that such a pamphlet would both help the newcomer who doesn’t hold a supernatural worldview and it would help sensitize all members to how best to help nonbelievers without fear or discrimination.
Since the 1940s, ALANON HOUSE (now on 42nd Street) hosts AA meetings. In the back, we see “Twelve Suggested Steps” which have hung above the speaker for over 70 years. In the foreground hangs a baseball bat, donated by Bill W. It’s called The Peace Maker, jokingly given to aid in achieving group conscience during business meetings.
If I can answer, “Yes,” then I am indeed an example of the inclusive AA I ask GSO to be. If I have to admit, “No; I haven’t read every story,” then maybe I want to be heard and validated, more than I want to be an example of a responsible AA that “when anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there,” and with a modicum of understanding. Do I understand the local building code enough to know if my own home group is wheelchair accessible—according to the code? Do I know some of the other languages AA literature is available in if a newcomer arrives with English as a second language?
I am not pointing the finger; I am confessing my own willful blindness. I try to be more sensitive but sometimes I hear myself saying things like, “walk the AA walk,” without thinking about how hearing that would make me feel if I was confined to a wheelchair.
AA history then and now in New York City
May 2015, in the city so nice they named it twice, I had a chance to catch some AA meetings, along the way. The trip included a group on 42nd Street that's been meeting at ALANON HOUSE since the 1940s.
This was a bit of AA history that I came across by chance. The building, 303 42nd Street just off the theater district of New York City might not be long for this world and this capsule of AA history will soon be gone.
I was told that the speaker chair is the same chair they have always had and it sits just below the Twelve Suggested Steps (see photo). Imagine—Bill W, Hank P., Jim B., Marty Mann, who knows who sat in that chair and shared what it was like, what happened and what it is like now. Among the memorabilia is an old can-opener that opened coffee cans for 50 years before being retired.
I took in six of New York City's fourteen AA groups for humanists, atheists and agnostics; stops included:
- Tuesday Sober Agnostics on 29th Street,
- We Agnostics of The Bronx at North Central Bronx Hospital,
- Agnostics at Noon at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in The Village,
- We Agnostics of New York City in the Upper West Side at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue,
- East Village Sober Agnostics at the YMCA on Bowery and Houston and finally,
- The 11 pm Friday in Brooklyn, my vote for the wittiest secular AA group name ever, The Ungodly Hour group.
DID YOU KNOW? For people who prefer AA without prayer, there are 267 meetings times now, around the world (according to www.agnosticaanyc.org). Some groups meet one hour a week, some meet five or more times a week. There are morning, afternoon, evening and midnight groups. There are online meetings and chat groups, Facebook, Yahoo and Google groups. I think this is an interesting example of Alcoholics Anonymous adaptability; the world is getting more secular, more freethinking and AA seems to be adapting to this, being one of many legit ways to look at AA-ness—one requirement for membership, each groups sets its own boundaries and purpose (focused on sobriety for alcoholics), every group part of the larger whole but autonomous from others.
Book Expo America 2015
Book Expo America was one of our stops to learn more about publishing with a look to its role in peer-to-peer recovery. Here are some of the highlights from BEA:
Jane McGonigal, PhD wrote a book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Over a billion people are gamers now and we heard, "the opposite of fun isn't work; it is depression." Look, there are benefits, emotionally, from gaming. Do our Face-to-face (f2f) communities meet these needs? Is online engagement as useful in recovery as going to meetings? Why or why not?
I heard a new term for the discomfort people feel when they are separated from their mobile devices: No-Mo-phobia. I love it.
BEA was a combination of old-guard publishing industry and the Young Turks. I heard one publisher say from the podium, “The problem is that there are too many titles today.”
I had to think about this—is it true or is it false? Everything I know about the book business I learned from the music biz. Here’s what I know about the music biz. There is more music being consumed by more people today than at any time in history. That said, the top-10 list of songs is bordering on irrelevant. In the 1970s or the 1980s how many of us wouldn’t know the artists on the top-10 list? We might not like them all, but we sure knew who they were and what they were singing about. Today, how many people do you know that could name the top-10 songs on the radio right now? Hey, I’m in the music business and I don’t know. The top of the pops is not being followed by most young people any more. More people are finding their music in more ways.
The rules about gatekeepers have changed. Record labels and radio stations controlled access to music. They were our taste makers. If you were a musical artist and you weren’t on the radio in 1980, you didn’t exist. If you didn’t have a record label, you couldn’t record a song. Now anyone with an iPhone has a Garage Band app and they can record a song. Anyone with a Facebook page can sell a song or help promote a friend’s song. We don’t look to the labels or pop-radio stations to tell us what’s worth our time to the same degree we did a few decades ago. There are podcasts, internet and satellite radio stations to choose from and we aren’t controlled by the limits and range of our AM/FM antenna any more.
So when a publish company executive says, “There are too many books,” that means something different than if a book reader said, “There are too many books.”
Today’s reader finds out about worthwhile titles from their friends on GoodReads.com or from any number of online taste-makers that each reader chooses to trust. GoodReads readers read three titles a month, each (on average). Readers aren’t complaining about too many books. They don’t care about how many books are available; what they care about is how many books that they care about are available. Bricks-and-mortar companies care about how many books there are because they have limited shelf-space. But not many eReaders and iClouds are too full to fit another few titles.
So when I hear “too many books” I hear fear that the old guard is losing control of supply and demand and I hear a company that isn’t on the same page as the person who matters most—the reader.
So that's what we have for you this month on literature, history and AA membership trends. As always, we'd love to hear what you have to say on these topics. Drop a line here, on Twitter or Facebook and please feel free to re-post and invite your friends to do the same.
A recent Rebellion Dogs Radio includes an interview with addiction/treatment counselor and author, Erica Spiegelman about her new book Rewired: A Bold New Approach to Addiction and Recovery. She really has a refreshing way of looking at the problem and the many paths to our solution.
Download a PDF of July 2015 Blog - the Ongoing History of AA
[i] K., Bob, Key Players in AA History, Toronto: AA Agnostica, 2015