The Myth of Twelve Steps

There should be no space in the recovery community for authoritarianism and oppression.

A hallmark of Alcoholics Anonymous is the list of twelve steps. It is so central to the ideology of AA that other recovery groups are referred to as “12 step” groups. Many newcomers are told that they can recover only if they “work the steps” – that is, all twelve steps, in the order listed in the book Alcoholics Anonymous and on a poster ubiquitous in AA halls. As is commonly repeated at the beginning of meetings, Chapter Five of the book, “How It Works,” says that following this “program” people “seldom fail,” and that those who do have either somehow failed to perform the steps adequately, or are “constitutionally incapable of honesty.”

The fallacy of that reasoning aside, the twelve-step program has become dogma in AA. It might shock many AA members, especially “old-timers,” to realize that the twelve steps were arrived at arbitrarily. As William H. Schaberg discusses in Writing the Big Book, Bill Wilson worked with a handful of members to compose the “program” entirely post hoc. There were several different versions, with different numbers of steps – all written in an attempt to describe what some members did in order to become or stay sober. Not only was there no prescribed program that the early AAers followed, many of them did not “work the steps” at all.

There are two historical falsehoods involved here: (1) that the foundation of recovery for the early members was following the twelve steps, and (2) that there even was a “program of recovery.” Wilson and others were recovering or recovered alcoholics, and they looked retrospectively on what they had done, partly as members of the Oxford group, to achieve sobriety.

By way of analogy, this was like having figured out how to get from your current location to 218 Fairview Drive, Edinboro, Pennsylvania without a map (or GPS), then writing down all the things you did that led to your arrival. Without a map, you might have proceeded ignorantly, mistakenly, or capriciously. Calling the route that you did follow the route that must be followed is at least presumptuous, if not preposterous.

 Furthermore, since we know that Wilson simply decided to make the number of steps twelve, the written version of the “program” was a fictionalized account of the path that these few men took to become sober. We don’t know why there are twelve steps – whether by allusion to the disciples in the Christian gospels, or because it was an aesthetically pleasing number to Wilson, or something else altogether.

 What matters to me is that the “program” was cooked up. The dogma that these steps were the formula, and that they must be followed absolutely for anyone to achieve sobriety, is baseless. There is no reason why anyone must follow the steps.

This matters for two related reasons. First of all, newcomers hear the dogma repeatedly, and many newcomers are daunted, even frightened, by the prospect of the work involved in strictly adhering to all twelve steps. After all, members frequently share their difficulty performing steps, or the pain they experienced from them. This probably scares off many who might otherwise benefit a great deal from connecting with alcoholics in recovery. Members are sometimes hazed and pressured to follow the steps.

Secondly, as part of the AA model, everyone, but especially the newcomer, is encouraged (and again, sometimes hazed and pressured) to get a sponsor who will lead them through the steps. Sponsors are sometimes strict disciplinarians regarding the “program,” and demand that their sponsees go to outrageous lengths to complete steps. This is dangerous. Sponsors may be authoritarian or exploitative toward sponsees, and the dogma of the “program” is used as a legitimation for this oppression of members. Newcomers are already in a vulnerable condition, and the potential for harm in these relationships is significant. (By the way, there is no mention of “sponsors” in the chapter, because, of course, the early AAers didn’t have sponsors.)

What’s the “program” of recovery, then? Someone who asked to sponsor me told me that there are two things you have to do in order to stay sober. “The first,” he said, “is: don’t fuckin’ drink. The second is… who the fuck knows?” His point was that there are many ways to stay sober; and that AA’s “program” is not the magic bullet, and isn’t necessarily what members are actually doing, whether or not they say so.

There are good ideas for recovery in AA and in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. None of them are absolutely necessary, none of them will necessarily work for everyone, and none of them are perfect. Chapter Five even says that the steps are “suggested as a program of recovery.” A suggestion is an offer of advice. It can be more or less wise or well informed, or even well-intentioned. No one should feel compelled to obey unquestioningly any particular formula for recovery. There should be no space in the recovery community for authoritarianism and oppression.

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