The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, besides being Part 3 of my religious texts, is another in a series of books about sensitive topics. I know of several friends and family who might claim that their lives were saved by AA or its partner groups and who would persuasively argue that the results prove the validity of the AA doctrine, program and Institution. And I, not coming to the book as an addict – driven by desperation – don’t truly have the insight to understand this book and so my criticism will be that of the outsider, inevitably uninformed and unfair. But, still, my own (anonymous) experiences give me some agency to discuss addiction in general, and besides, it isn’t the results – those living free of addiction because of AA and this book – that I would ever argue with. It’s the idea. No matter how demonstrative and persuasive the living testaments, one will never get me to subscribe to the idea that an end in itself can justify a means. Even so, I keep telling myself, AA has saved many lives, and before the redemptive power this program has had. Again, who am I to assert my opinion?
Adding to the complications is that this book is in some ways a religious text, in some ways a pragmatic psychological or behavioral program, and in many ways, looking simply at results, simply a cure for a sickness. So, more pressing than if it should be argued with, there’s the question of what is it? Or can it be just one of those things? But are the religious, psychological and medicinal ever mutually exclusive?
So my first idea was to go to a few AA meetings and see the text in action and experience it side by side with the results it provided. I imagined writing something detailing my experiences with these individuals and laying out the full effect of the text on these people. So I ordered a used copy off the internet for a few bucks (an individual selling an AA book for cheap brings up all sorts of questions) and as soon as it arrived I started in on it. Halfway through the testimonial that opens the book it hit me that I had no desire to hear, in person, stories like this from people I didn’t know or to invade their space for the sake of experiment. I am comfortable with casting opinions about the text, but I didn’t want to examine an individual in a fragile state.
Without my first idea, I became a little worried as to how to approach this. So, I set the book by my bed, and decided I would read it every night before I went to bed through the month. Maybe this way I’d experience it more essentially and feel it subtly diffuse into my thinking than if I were to sit down one afternoon and read it straight through and be done with it. So each night I read, chapter-by-chapter, through all the explanations of what an alcoholic is, why alcoholism is a sickness, and why nothing else ever works except this program. The independent spirit of these opening chapters surprised me. I imagined the rebellious nature of this book and its members, gathered in 1930s basements, hats in hands, contrite eyes to the floor, like soon to be foiled communists or bootleggers. And so, not coming to the book desperate and in need of help, my mind started to drift away from this book as a cure and think of it as an artifact. I started looking up the history of AA and focusing on it as a phenomenon to be studied. I wanted to read a bunch of Malcolm Gladwell and talk about social vectors and quiet revolutions and maybe even tie it to early Christian churches in the basements of Rome.
This missed the point though, because I wanted to experience this book as closely as I could to the way in which someone who needs it experiences it: to read it as someone for whom the book is the only book, to read it as one bitten by a snake reads a wilderness survival guide– for life, not for erudition. .
That remind me of him, it reminded me of David Foster Wallace: the person who most defines my frustration with recovery institutions and processes of normalization. Why not connect this with him? He has his narrator say:
“The Why of the disease is a labrynth it is suggested all AA’s boycott, inhabited as the maze is by the twin minotaurs of Why Me? And Why Not?, a.k.a. Self-Pity and Denial . . . [it:] is not about explaining what cause your Disease. It’s about a goofily simple practical recipe for how to remember you’ve got the Disease day by day and how to treat the Disease day by day, how to keep the seductive ghost of a bliss long absoconded from baiting you and hooking you and pulling you back . . . and eating your heart raw. . . . So no whys or wherefores aloowed. In other words check your head at the door. . . . AA’s real axiom, is almost classically authoritarian, maybe even proto-Fascist (Infinite Jest, 374)”
The pillars of the Big AA book I read every night support this – only in much nicer and encouraging terms. Reading the Big Book often reminded me of Wallace, of this aspect of his tome. It drew out strong feelings of disgust and anger at an institution that serves only as a warm blanket. But is it fair that I read these lines from Infinite Jest many times and many years before I ever picked up the Big AA book? Is it fair for me to draw from the Big AA book the things I already came in criticizing about AA? My mind must not have been completely open to the Big AA book from the start so I complete attack would be very unfair.
But still, I could write a good piece including Wallace. I could still focus on the two individual texts themselves and talk about this hero author of mine and rediscover both texts now that I had read them both and I could use his ideas to try and refine my own opinion and try and compare or apply his words to the Big AA book itself, sort of give it a fair trial and even talk about all the other addictions he writes about in this book.
But then I remembered what I’ve been trying to ignore every day since September 12th, 2008: that David Foster Wallace, recovering addict, genius writer, wonderful mind and critic of AA, this hero of mine, hung himself in his home, leaving his wife to find him swaying from the rafters of his garage.
I put the AA book down for a few days, struggled through a few pages of David Foster Wallace every night and tried to really get down to the core of my own thoughts on the importance of the Why in regards to addiction.
This was the stage in which I thought about making it more personal. I considered discussing the few (anonymous) addiction stories of my own and just why I don’t buy into the AA book or its partners because I think exploring the fundamental aspects of the Whys of need and addiction and why I think the faith and acts approach of AA are really just a form of ignoring the issue. I was going to get really self-righteous and detail how in my experience addiction is not a sickness but a path to glory and self-awareness and that A.A. and its partners have the horrific effect of mainstreaming people back into a merciless civilization that just drives people to be users again anyway, and that addiction is not to be treated or to be covered with a blanket or avoided for the sake controlling it but for the causes and Whys be deeply expanded to a state of awareness and transformation making one greater and more self aware than they ever were before.
But providing details of addiction and transformation can be difficult, and even if I chose to recall details and axioms of my own and compare them to the tenets of the AA book, I’d have no right to criticize an individual or millions of individuals who found solace, relief and remission with this book.
So I went back to basics of the A.A. program and the purpose of the twelve steps and looked for something a little more removed to write about. An idea was that maybe I could focus on that recovery process, to research the psychological components each step had in comparison to recovery psychology and to try to figure out why scientifically this book and this program work so well. But I found the random recovery psychology book I picked up boring so I stopped with that.
So then I was going to discuss various approaches to sickness in all its forms and go into innocence vs. guilt, creators, enablers, etc. I was really into this idea, starting to jot down notes crazily in my notebook until I hit the last page, ran out of space, fell asleep on the couch and forgot most of my ideas the next morning.
Next came picking apart the individual testimonies looking for differing approaches and pointing out contradictions I’d found within the book with regard to approaching the sickness. This, after all, is what most of my notebook was filled with, and why not go with that? But that doesn’t address the program or my personal complaints and its just petty and I moved on.
And on it went. First it was social implications or consequences of being in AA or being in recovery, after that it was media portrayal of AA, then talking about people who I know who were in AA (anonymously, of course). Then I thought about alcohol itself and its relation to other less toxic, yet illegal, drugs. Then I started thinking again about the history of AA. Then I thought of a brilliant idea about how we treat individuals for addiction but never groups but it turned out to be not that brilliant at all. Then something regarding something else and on and on and on it went like this till I had nothing. At one point, I even got so of topic from the text itself, I even thought about putting some favorite artists through the 12 steps to see what would happen, like I was going to write Rimbaud’s moral inventory and Mozart’s list of who he wronged.
It was as I hovered over a few biographies and took out my pen to make Mozart’s list of people he’d wronged, I realized my absurdity. I realized I had become hyper self-aware of this little book project at the expense of the reading itself and that I wasn’t just reading and reacting but searching to have something to say and for a unique approach, and that disgusted me a bit. It disgusted me a lot actually. Because in the end I just wanted to experience and to be exposed to new things and I wanted to focus on the text and talk, if at all, about the text and my new open minded experiences. And with this book, with that goal in mind, I failed.
And so, in the end, I have my opinions about addiction, and Alcoholics Anonymous has theirs, and maybe you have some of your own, and we’ll just leave it at that.