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A Struggle Inside AA

May 6, 2007

Courtesy of Newsweek.

Recovering alcoholics say a Washington, D.C., group has hijacked the 12-step program’s name

By the time May Clancy turned 15 years old, she was well on her way to drinking herself to death. A middle-school student from Potomac, Md., she had been through 11 different psychiatric and alcohol-rehab programs in two years. Each time, she started drinking again as soon as she got out. Her parents were terrified. “We’d taken her to hospitals—everything possible to get her the best care that we could,” says May’s father, Mike. “And all these places told us that they didn’t think she could make it without Alcoholics Anonymous.”

So in November 2005, when May agreed to begin attending meetings at Midtown, one of the oldest and largest AA groups in the Washington, D.C., area, it felt like a miracle. Other AA meetings in the city attracted mostly older men and women; Midtown was known as a place for recovering alcoholics in their teens and 20s. Some of the group’s senior members were older, but there were also dozens of high-school and college kids with stories a lot like hers. From the moment she arrived, they seemed to go out of their way to welcome her. At first, May was thrilled to find a group of people who accepted her as she was. “When I went there,” she says, “I didn’t really talk to anybody, didn’t trust anybody. And these people would hang out with me even if I didn’t say anything, and include me in conversations. I was desperate to be liked at that point.”

But something about Midtown was not right. After a few months, the group’s embrace of May began to feel like a chokehold. She says the sponsor assigned to give her moral support and help keep her sober pressured her to cut off ties to anyone outside the group. Another member snatched her cell phone and deleted names in the directory. She says she was pressured to stop taking the medication a doctor had prescribed to manage her bipolar disorder: group members told her she couldn’t be sober if she was taking any kind of drug. There was a hierarchy to the group. Younger members were sometimes expected to wash cars, clean houses and do other menial chores for more senior members.

May says she was especially uncomfortable with the emphasis on dating within the group and sex between members. She would listen as girls her age compared notes on the men in the group they had been encouraged to sleep with, some of whom were decades older.

Her suspicions were confirmed when she left Midtown and began attending a different AA meeting. She was surprised—and relieved—to find that many of Midtown’s common practices were exactly the opposite of what Alcoholics Anonymous literature teaches. By design, there are no “leaders” in AA groups who exert control over other members. AA doesn’t expect members to ignore doctors’ prescriptions. It doesn’t tell them to turn their backs on friends and family. And far from encouraging sex, AA groups overwhelmingly frown on intimate relationships for the first year of sobriety, when a recovering alcoholic is thought to be most vulnerable.

May’s story isn’t unique. Now 16, she is one of hundreds of recovering alcoholics who are taking sides in a bitter, unprecedented dispute among Alcoholics Anonymous adherents that pits members of Midtown, who insist the organization has saved their lives and kept them sober, against angry former members, who charge it is a coercive, cultlike group that uses the trusted AA name to induce young alcoholics into a radical fringe movement that has little resemblance to traditional AA.

It is a fight that has been largely waged in private. Some of Midtown’s most driven critics organized a committee, dubbed the Concerned Friends Group, and created an anonymous MySpace page for ex-members to share stories. They have, unsuccessfully, tried to have Midtown expelled from churches where its meetings are held and have made numerous complaints to the police. (Law-enforcement officials say they have investigated the group but have not found evidence of criminal wrongdoing.) Many of the people involved in the dispute are recovering alcoholics and have been reluctant to go public with their allegations—both because it is a violation of AA’s “anonymous” credo, and because they do not want it known that they are alcoholics. But in dozens of interviews with NEWSWEEK, recovering alcoholics and mental-health professionals describe a group that exerts an unusual amount of control and sometimes seems to put the social desires of some members above the recovery of others.

Despite repeated requests for comment, no current Midtown members agreed to be interviewed on the record, citing AA’s tradition of anonymity in the press and their belief that negative publicity scares on-the-fence alcoholics from getting the help they need. But those who spoke or e-mailed without giving their names for publication say that Midtown is a flourishing group that has saved their lives, and that those who criticize it resent their success, have scores to settle or are simply making it all up.

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