Our friend Jennifer Matesa has a great new post on the question of whether AA is a cult.
“The Atlantic Group didn’t resonate with me. It’s like bars—it’s like drinking culture,” she said. “You can find the culture that works for you. Before I got sober, I didn’t like Manhattan drinking culture anymore, so I moved to Brooklyn.” (And had “Brooklyn drinking culture” managed to “work” for her any differently from Manhattan’s? “I could wear a plaid shirt,” she said, cocking a grin. “I couldn’t do that in Manhattan—not in the Meatpacking District clubs I was going to.”)
So is AA a cult or a culture?—I’d already been thinking about this question before Sophia made this remark.
My Dictionary.com app, at 129 megabytes, is the heftiest one on my phone, and I use it with impunity, even during meetings, when, I figure, people probably think I’m checking my Facebook page, and when, it has been “suggested,” I shut my phone off and stow it below my seat cushion for the duration of the flight. (Nobody kicked me out of the meeting or otherwise traumatized me that day for daring to break the suggestion.)
Cult and culture share the Latin root colere, which means to take care of and make grow. Culture, the much older word, hung onto this meaning and led to the word cultivate, while cult was coined in the 1800s to denote extreme forms of worship.
At the same time, with the scientific revolution, the word culture was appropriated to refer to the material that scientists use to grow samples in Petri dishes. And that’s how I think of 12-step groups: samples, cultures, growing in a big worldwide Petri dish.
Some sections are healthier than others.
It reminds me of Roger Ebert’s post from years ago:
The God word. The critics never quote the words “as we understood God.” Nobody in A.A. cares how you understand him, and would never tell you how you should understand him. I went to a few meetings of “4A” (“Alcoholics and Agnostics in A.A.”), but they spent too much time talking about God. The important thing is not how you define a Higher Power. The important thing is that you don’t consider yourself to be your own Higher Power, because your own best thinking found your bottom for you. One sweet lady said her higher power was a radiator in the Mustard Seed, “because when I see it, I know I’m sober.”
Sober. A.A. believes there is an enormous difference between bring dry and being sober. It is not enough to simply abstain. You need to heal and repair the damage to yourself and others. We talk about “white-knuckle sobriety,” which might mean, “I’m sober as long as I hold onto the arms of this chair.” People who are dry but not sober are on a “dry drunk.”
A “cult?” How can that be, when it’s free, nobody profits and nobody is in charge? A.A. is an oral tradition reaching back to that first meeting between Bill W. and Doctor Bob in the lobby of an Akron hotel. They’d tried psychiatry, the church, the Cure. Maybe, they thought, drunks can help each other, and pass it along. A.A. has spread to every continent and into countless languages, and remains essentially invisible. I was dumbfounded to discover there was a meeting all along right down the hall from my desk.