Wednesday, June 30, 2010

David Brooks on Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous

Tuesday morning, the NYT columnist David Brooks had a wonderful essay on Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous.  As readers of Bad Lawyer know, I am an alcoholic and I attend AA meetings sometimes twice a day--and, previously for many years beginning in the mid-1980s.

David Brooks' summary of the history of AA is by necessity, cursory, of course, nonetheless Brooks' summary unforgivably ignores the role of Dr. Bob Smith (pic, left with Bill Wilson right) and others who co-founded the movement 75 years ago this month.  Still, Brooks' column is excellent especially in the sense that it draws lessons which bear learning.  Brooks credits an essay in Wired Magazine on the AA movement which Brooks observes:

"The first implication of [the Wired Magazine] essay is that we should get used to the idea that we will fail most of the time. Alcoholics Anonymous has stood the test of time. There are millions of people who fervently believed that its 12-step process saved their lives. Yet the majority, even a vast majority, of the people who enroll in the program do not succeed in it. People are idiosyncratic. There is no single program that successfully transforms most people most of the time.

The second implication is that we should get over the notion that we will someday crack the behavior code — that we will someday find a scientific method that will allow us to predict behavior and design reliable social programs. . . Each member of an A.A. group is distinct. Each group is distinct. Each moment is distinct. There is simply no way for social scientists to reduce this kind of complexity into equations and formula that can be replicated one place after another.

Nonetheless, we don’t have to be fatalistic about things. It is possible to design programs that will help some people some of the time. A.A. embodies some shrewd insights into human psychology.

In a culture that generally celebrates empowerment and self-esteem, A.A. begins with disempowerment. The goal is to get people to gain control over their lives, but it all begins with an act of surrender and an admission of weakness.  In a culture that thinks of itself as individualistic, A.A. relies on fellowship. The general idea is that people aren’t really captains of their own ship. Successful members become deeply intertwined with one another — learning, sharing, suffering and mentoring one another. Individual repair is a social effort.

In a world in which gurus try to carefully design and impose their ideas, Wilson surrendered control. He wrote down the famous steps and foundations, but A.A. allows each local group to form, adapt and innovate. There is less quality control. Some groups and leaders are great; some are terrible. But it also means that A.A. is decentralized, innovative and dynamic.

Alcoholics have a specific problem: they drink too much. But instead of addressing that problem with the psychic equivalent of a precision-guidance missile, Wilson set out to change people’s whole identities. He studied William James’s 'The Varieties of Religious Experience.' He sought to arouse people’s spiritual aspirations rather than just appealing to rational cost-benefit analysis. His group would help people achieve broad spiritual awakenings, and abstinence from alcohol would be a byproduct of that larger salvation.

In the business of changing lives, the straight path is rarely the best one. A.A. illustrates that even in an age of scientific advance, it is still ancient insights into human nature that work best. Wilson built a remarkable organization on a nighttime spiritual epiphany."
Let me make a further point or perhaps a clarification that I made on Bad Lawyer a short time ago;   the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is absolutely explicit:  alcoholics suffer from a mental obsession that is characterized by drinking alcoholically.  In other words there is: (1. a drinking problem;  and, (2. a thinking problem.  It is simplistic to think that arresting the one problem solves the other problem.  People active in AA know that you get sobriety only when both problems are addressed in tandem--and this can only be accomplished by following a "program of recovery" that consists of nothing short of cognitive restructuring.  In sum:  stop drinking, and change your whole life.


  1. I refuse to read David Brooks, he's barely competent at glittering generalities, but I can highly recommend the Wire article.

  2. That's called "stinkin' thinkin'," Baddie.

  3. or steekin' theenken', Molly

  4. The reason the steps work (as they have for me) is that they cause so much confusion in the new guy that he really needs to reach out to another alcoholic for clarification. A bond is created that can last a life time.

  5. where do u get your information? bill copied frank buckman's oxford group religion, buckman believed naively that all citizens should turn their lives over to God & their countries leaders whom would be special folks who had turned their lives over to God & thus were superior to the masses. bill sat down & came up with 6 steps, which he copied directly from Buckman's Oxford Group, Bill changed a few words. Both Buckman & Bill were unemployed most of their life's, they lived off their followers. AA has less than 5% success rate, the success's chose to stop drinking & AA takes the credit by telling it's members AA saved their life's, when factually the individual made the decision & accomplished quitting an addiction. AA has likely caused more harm, than good, the bad behavior began with Bill, who was a thief, a liar, an adultery, a predator, many in AA have followed in his foot steps. AA is full of predators, self righteous bullies & easy to push around vulnerable, fragile victims. AA is about AA first, the publishing company makes a tremendous amount of money from the sale of all the books, to this day Bill's heirs get a piece of every book sold. AA & Bill & Buckman were all crazy. AA is fascist & more organizations & groups exist for people to recover from being subjected to AA, Al anon, than AA itself! The people in AA, the least of their problems was an alcohol addiction, many of them are seriously damaged mentally & emotionally, & somehow think they are qualified to help people with very serious problems, when the TRUTH is they are unqualified to do anything but repeat Bill's slogans & completely & utterly unqualified psychological "suggestions". AA is a scary place, started by the idea's of a scary man, Frank Buckman & an even scarier man, con man, snake oil salesman, pathological liar, predator, thief, adulterer Bill. I am so grateful that I woke up & got out & as far away from AA as possible. also I hope AA collapses as most fascist & communist regimes historically stagnant & then collapse. It seriously, truthfully is a scary, fascist, insane, crazy, crazy, & dangerous mind control group of lost sheep & a lot of wolves.

    1. Thank you! The most brilliant cult religion ever invented is that plagiarized, disempowering BillShit known as the 12 steps! ��

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  7. William Buckman of Morrestown NJ is a BAD attorney. He will take your last penny and then try to drain you for more. DO NOT HIRE WILLIAM BUCKMAN ESQ. GREEDY ATTORNEY ON THE LOSE

  8. Ok, first of all. The previous blogger talking about a "bad lawyer" named William Buckman in NJ. Is NOT talking about the same Bucman from 1938 and the Oxford Group. Or the committee of 100. Both of which were religious Christian organizations. Loosly, Bible studies. They did inspire Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith in their endeavour to formulate a program that could help those who wanted help badly enough to let go of their ego driven selves.
    What I admire about all of the numerous 12 step programs, is that they are by nature open and different.
    For instance, each group is autonomous, so if you don't like the way things are done there, you can get a coffee pot and start your own group.
    Remember that there are no leaders, only trusted servants, so if someone is power hungry or ego driven they can and should be replaced in any position of consequence.
    Furthermore, these are spiritual not religious so you can really believe what you want.I have been a member of 3 different 12 step fellowships over the past 27 years of clean and sober living. There have been times when I felt that it was more insane in the rooms than on the street. Then some newcomer would remind me how painful life out of control is. As for this recovering person, I will keep going to meetings.