Should Mel Gibson Be Sentenced to a Cult?

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On September 28, Mel Gibson is scheduled to appear in a Malibu court on account of his arrest last week for Driving While Intoxicated.

Such hearings result, more often than not, in the accused being coerced into joining a cult.

Now, I’m not talking about one of the groups in which people drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in remote jungles or kill innocent people because a voice in their leader’s head said they should. I’m talking about an organization to which millions of people — some with professions, careers and families — belong. And it actually receives the blessings of clergypeople as well as workers in health care, government, education and other accepted mainstream professions.

I’m talking about Alcoholics Anonymous.

Certainly, I am neither the first nor the most qualified person to make such a claim about AA. No less than Morris E. Chafetz and Harold W. Demone, who were among the first researchers to systematically devote their professional energies to compulsive alcohol consumption and its effects, said so. "We are struck by the sect or cult-like aspects of AA," they asserted in their 1962 book, Alcoholism and Society. They explained: "This is true in terms of its history, structure, and the charisma surrounding its leader, Bill W[ilson]." (162) Furthermore, Chafetz and Demone asserted that: "In our opinion AA is really not interested in alcoholics in general, but only as they relate to AA itself." (165). While I do not know what Chafetz’s or Demone’s political affiliations or economic ideologies were — or whether, indeed, they had any — they could hardly have better stated what, in so many political systems and other organizations, is anathema to libertarians.

Elaborating on Chafetz’s and Demone’s work while summing up some of his own, alcohologist and cult researcher Marc Galanter asserted:

From the start AA displayed characteristics of a charismatic sect: strongly felt shared belief, intense cohesiveness, experiences of altered consciousness, and a potent influence on members’ behavior. . . . As in the Unification Church workshops, most of those attending AA chapter meetings are deeply involved in the group ethos, and the expression of views opposed to the group’s model of treatment is subtly or expressly discouraged. (1989, Cults, Faith, Healing and Coercion, pp. 179 and 185)

What is the foundation of the sort of groupthink Galanter described? As in any other cult we’ve seen, it is the near-deification of a leader. In this case, he happens to be AA co-founder Bill Wilson. An AA member is likely to refer to him or herself as a "friend of Bill W." (Surnames are never used at AA meetings or in the organization’s publications.) Never mind that he died in 1971: Members quote his pearls of wisdom from "The Big Book" (what members call the volume titled Alcoholics Anonymous) in much the same way that semiliterates quote verses from translations of the Bible to fill in those parts of an argument or discussion for which their thinking fails them.

"Your best thinking got you here," is one of Bill W’s gems. Older members will often admonish neophytes to "Quit Yer Stinkin’ Thinkin’" and to immerse themselves in chapter and verse of the "Big Book," not to mention in the social life surrounding AA meetings. This, of course, is one of the classic hallmarks of a cult: Members deny whatever they’ve previously known or thought and attach themselves to whatever dogmae are promulgated by the group’s leader.

All right: One might argue that with Bill W. long gone, there is no leader to AA. Certainly, no single authority figure has emerged to take Bill W’s place. There doesn’t need to be such a figure. So many people have been inculcated with his doctrines that the group is in no danger of disintegration. Furthermore, individual meetings have their own leaders. They are almost invariably middle-aged males who brook no disagreements with whatever they say. They determine who is accepted into the fold and members respond to their rantings — which usually consist of lots of half-baked morality laced with strained metaphors — as if they were inspired by a higher power. In other words, such leaders are gurus or surrogate Bill Ws.

And, like Bill W, they are sadistic and outright abusive. They tell members, particularly newcomers, that their own thoughts, feelings and experiences mean nothing. The only thing that matters is coming to the meetings and participating in other group activities. Failure to do so, they say, will certainly lead to perdition: Outside of what they prescribe, there is only death in a gutter. In his 1992 expos More Revealed, author Kenneth Ragge nicely sums up the intended, and often achieved, result of such bullying: "The most outstanding characteristic of these [AA] people is their intensely held belief in the goodness of AA and the badness of self." (206) If that doesn’t sound like the atmosphere of a cult, I don’t know what does.

The seeming self-abnegation of AA leaders and members has a particularly pernicious outcome: It allows anyone who subscribes to it to, at least in his or her own mind, abandon responsibility for his or her choices and actions. "Just let go and let God" is another Bill W aphorism one hears at meetings. Mel Gibson may have apologized for his rantings against Jews, but he still hasn’t owned up to his responsibility to stay sober behind the wheel of a car, or in any other situation when he holds his own or someone else’s life in his hands. Such behavior is not uncommon; people who say awful things to others while intoxicated will often follow up with: "That was the booze talking," or "It was my disease acting up." (Indeed, my former spouse and I often punctuated our apologies with the latter.) If one is not willing to take responsibility for his or her words or actions, how can we expect such a person to make the necessary changes or expect that such changes will be enduring?

We should not be surprised, then, that Mel Gibson’s arrest comes fifteen years after he joined AA. If we are going to express consternation, it should be that Mel’s meltdown didn’t happen sooner than it did. Research on how long AA members remain sober is very difficult to find, much less verify, because the AA organization doesn’t track people who attend their meetings. However, in 1991 and 1992, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism conducted the little-known (save to a few professionals) National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey. About 48,000 people responded to the survey. Of them, 70 % reported long-term sobriety (i.e., one year or more without a relapse) without any program of treatment at all. Conversely, studies conducted by the Rutgers University Center for Alcohol Studies and other reputable research organizations show that two to five percent of AA members are still sober, without having had a relapse, one year after coming into the program. Worse, people who were forced to attend AA meetings as a condition of parole or probation are one and a half times as likely as those who received no such order, or any sort of treatment, to be rearrested within a year.

Such findings fly in the face of this claim made in the second edition (1955) of The Big Book: “Since this book was first published, AA has released thousands of alcoholics from asylums and hospitals of every kind. The majority have never returned.” (55) It’s also disconcerting to note that this very same claim was made, verbatim, in the first edition (1939) of the book. (52) According to AA’s own accounts, membership reached 100 in 1940. While there may well have been "thousands" of AA members by the time the second edition, the claim implies that most — or, at any rate, a substantial portion — of AA membership weren’t recidivists.

Research also rebuts this tidbit from the third edition of The Big Book:

RARELY HAVE we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are those who cannot or will not give themselves completely to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. (1976, 55)

Contrast such claims with studies from Rutgers and other institutions, which indicate that about five percent of all alcohol abusers spontaneously recover every year. That is to say, they stop drinking even though they’re not using AA or any other program of recovery. They may lock themselves into a room, or ask a friend or family member to do such a thing, because they see themselves or their friends getting sick and dying from alcohol abuse. Or they simply quit in any number of other ways for any number of other reasons one can think of.

In other words, AA takes credit for sobriety that would’ve happened anyway.

Yet, the AA gurus insist that their program is the only way to initiate or maintain sobriety. They’ve managed to convince health-care bureaucrats and even respected medical professionals of this. That is one of the reasons why a phenomenon that Robert Tournier noted in 1979 continues unabated: "Alcoholics Anonymous has come to dominate alcoholism both as ideology and as method. . . . So successful have AA members been in proselytizing their ideas that their assumptions about the nature of alcohol dependence have virtually been accepted as fact by most of those in the field." (230)

Treatment facilities costing hundreds of dollars a day per patient are, for the most part, simply variations on the Twelve Steps of AA. Even those that do not consciously emulate the AA model require patients to attend meetings of AA (or its sister twelve-step program, Narcotics Anonymous) as part of the program. According to studies, these more posh versions of AA have only slightly better a rate of recovery than AA itself.

Yet connecting AA to one’s program or facility lends an aura of credibility, at least in the eyes of government, foundations and insurance companies. It is nearly impossible to receive a grant — the chief source of income for many facilities and practitioners — without a connection to AA. During the 1970’s, when substance abuse treatment facilities and programs were starting and expanding with previously unseen speed, treatment providers very quickly learned that the AA connection could be very profitable. During that decade, Federal (as well as many state and municipal) governments were beginning to fund treatment programs in earnest. So, providers of relatively good services as well as snake-oil salespeople used the AA imprimatur to help them tap into the steady stream of funding that was being allocated to health-care practices and concerns. Thus was born the beast I like to call The Recovery Industry.

This beast tightens its tentacles around the public’s perceptions of what constitutes addiction treatment. Some will want Mel Gibson to be sentenced to "90 Meetings in 90 Days" (what’s typically recommended for anyone entering the program) and to repeat all the empty slogans one hears at AA meetings. They will somehow believe that Mel Gibson has "recovered" once again and the program — and the government — has done its work. Such will not be the case, but you and I will be paying for such promoted lies.

Works Cited

  • Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Staff (1976) Alcoholics Anonymous, Third Edition. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services
  • Chafetz, M. & Demone, H. (1962). Alcoholism and Society, New York: Oxford University Press
  • Galanter, M. (1989) Cults, Faith Healing, and Coercion, New York: Oxford University Press
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (1992) National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiological Survey. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health Publications
  • Ragge, K. (1992) More Revealed, Henderson, NV: Alert!
  • Tournier, R. (1979) "Alcoholics Anonymous as Treatment and as Ideology," in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Vol. 40, No. 3, March
  • Vaillant, G. (1995) The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited, Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • [Wilson, W.] (1939) Alcoholics Anonymous, First Edition. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services
  • [Wilson, W.] (1955) Alcoholics Anonymous, Second Edition. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services

Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.

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