"I see AA as a self-help group, where I meet people I understand and love." Photograph circa 1950.

February 3, 2020   4 mins

I don’t call alcoholism an illness or a disease, but a condition of the spirit: those are the words I have settled on. The science is incomplete, for who wants to examine alcoholics and their confounding self-hatred? Alcoholics are confounding. We are odd because we maim ourselves; we do not work as we should.

I don’t often wonder why this happened to me. I have learnt not to, because asking why will consume you. But I sense that the alcoholic has a genetic predisposition, which is triggered, or not, in childhood. If it is triggered, they will find it almost impossible to stop drinking, and they will know agony. I know people who have died or are dying from alcoholism.

I write from inside the programme of Alcoholics Anonymous [AA] of which I have been a member for more than 20 years. I am not supposed to tell you this. AA was established in 1935 in Acron, Ohio, before victimhood was coveted. To write about AA is to perjure it. It is a different place for everyone. No collection of alcoholics can ever be the same; and it is almost impossible to describe alcoholism to anyone who does not have it. Its potential constituency is vulnerable. They do not need my opinions. That is why you will never see an advert for AA.

AA’s 12-step programme is used by most rehabilitation centres and it has imitators in Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Overeaters Anonymous (OA) and more. It is, in recovery terms, the Establishment, and so it is inevitable that it would, eventually, be attacked for being the Establishment, even if it is an Establishment of former drunks.

Holly Whitaker was briefly a member of AA. She has written a book called Quit Like a Woman, in which she writes her rage over many pages. She accuses AA of being a tool of the patriarchy, of oppressing women and minorities and of inventing a false condition — alcoholism — to subjugate its members into humility and compliance under God. If you are a woman, she says, you do not need to be made compliant, for you are already.

She has a suggestion though. People who drink too much — and she believes all alcohol is poison — should go to her recovery website which requires a fee, although you can, if you demonstrate vulnerability, apply for a kind of scholarship. (AA, meanwhile, is dependent on voluntary contributions.) It used to be called Hip Recovery — hip as in the fashionable, not as in the joint. It won’t be for everyone, as AA is. If you think first of branding, you will probably not make it to recovery. You are probably not that ill.

“I knew,” she writes, “I was supposed to start a revolution around alcohol, addiction and recovery.” She continues, “I discovered that I not only had to claw my way out of hell and construct my own system for recovery, but that also, perhaps, it was my duty to create something more so the women who come after me, women who are dying in broad daylight while we look the other way, might not have to face the same bullshit I had to endure.”

If you don’t think you have alcoholism — you can’t have something you don’t believe exists — you can’t ask yourself why you have it. Whitaker seems to think that people drink too much because of the wider culture and this is probably true. But I don’t think alcoholism can be caused by a wider culture.

She is right that alcohol is dangerous for everyone, but she refuses to believe that alcoholics just drink differently.

She would probably say I write from a cult, but much of the dogma of AA flows above me, and I don’t believe in a lot of it. I have never been able to fit the retrieval of my sanity into a series of steps, but I am calm watching others do it. For me, the function of the dogma — the steps and the traditions — is to provide a framework for people who arrive insane and have to find something to do with themselves. I see AA as a self-help group, where I meet people I understand and love. That is AA, for me – love — which I believe is the only effective antidote to alcoholism. Whitaker found none of this and so established her own website, which is styled like a private members club — which is it — and for a fee. Tempest, it is now called, and that is apt, for she is angry.

Although many of Whitaker’s opinions about AA are ludicrous, not all are. She has a diarist’s skill for leaping into cracks and winnowing them out.

For instance, she calls AA a male space. She is quick to name its founders white and male as if, while dying, they could also foretell, and cater to, the inclusivity of the future; this reads like opportunism. “It was created by the oppressing party for the oppressing party,” she writes, “for men who were sick from an overdeveloped sense of owning the world, from believing they were God”. That is not my experience of any alcoholic.

It is a male space; men have a tendency to take space for themselves. All men — all people — are capable of being oppressors, but I don’t find alcoholic men to be very functional oppressors. Rather, they are among the gentlest I know and if one group irritates me, I will find another.

The Big Book — the primary text of AA, full of stories and advice — is masculine in tone, and old-fashioned; there is a chapter called “To Wives”, as Whitaker complains. This bothers me when I think too hard about it, but it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as facing alcoholism alone. It should be amended, and I think that it will be. I have sometimes thought that AA does not provide, in its dogma, enough room for grief, but perhaps there is no time for that at first: you must get up and start again. In any case, grief cannot be stopped. Grief will out.

I do sympathise with Whitaker; she is allowed to hate AA. But to damn it, and alcoholics who may not consider going, with a polemic is cruel.

There are all-female AA meetings where she could discuss the patriarchy and I would listen. AA, I want to tell her, is like the world; you will always find someone to hate, and someone to love. AA does not seek to annihilate “the self” as she claims, but to liberate it. Whitaker can’t hear that, and I am sorry.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.