‘The Atlantic’ Writer Jake Flanigan On The ‘Surprising Failures’ of 12 Step Programs

Pic: Visitor7

Pic: Visitor7

I come from a long and not-so-distinguished line of alcoholics and drug addicts on both sides of my family. My father succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver at 57. It was not a good death. My mother lost her entire life (and mind) to opiate addiction. It had gotten so bad that the family had to cut her off, much like one removes  gangrenous finger to save a hand. Thankfully, I’ve never had problems with addiction, myself, but I know exactly what it’s like to live with addicts and how the disease (or whatever you want to call it – the jury is out for some people) can ruin lives. I tell you this because I want you to know that I don’t have a bone to pick with treatment programs of any sort, and personally feel that if you find something that works for you, then great. Having put that out of the way, Atlantic writer Jake Flanigan has authored a potentially controversial piece on what he describes as the ‘surprising failures’ of 12 step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, and I thought it might make interesting conversation fodder here.

Via The Atlantic:

So how did AA gain such a place of privilege in American health-culture? How did a regimen so overtly religious in nature, with a 31 percent success rate at best, a five to 10 percent success rate at worst, and a five percent overall retention rate become the most trusted method of addiction-treatment in the country, and arguably the world? It’s a central question Dodes seeks to answer in The Sober Truth. And he begins at the very beginning.

According to Dodes, when the Big Book was first published in 1939, it was met with wide skepticism in the medical community. The AMA called it “a curious combination of organizing propaganda and religious exhortation.” A year later, the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases described it as “a rambling sort of camp-meeting confession of experiences … Of the inner meaning of alcoholism there is hardly a word. It is all surface material.”

Read the rest at The Atlantic.

57 Comments on "‘The Atlantic’ Writer Jake Flanigan On The ‘Surprising Failures’ of 12 Step Programs"

  1. A.A. will always have its critics. My late father, an uncle and my closest friend (of over twenty years) was/are recovered alcoholics. I know what it looks like before, and after, and I’m glad A.A. is around. As a result of being close to recovered drunks, I’ve met quite a few of them in addition to my friend and family. I’ve met people who’ve not a had a drink in 40 and 50 years. I’ve met A.A.’s that are atheist, Buddhist and of no particular religion at all. So I understand that these sorts of articles are a bit one sided. A.A. As a method of living, meaning it’s core ideas are fine. But its members are far from perfect, and so some stupid shit can happen in the name of A.A.

    Oh well.

    Would the critics of A.A. be happier having all those potential DUI’s back on the road? As a fellowship, they aren’t hurting anyone, and there are far worse organizations that need to be dealt with. I’m glad for what A.A. has done for those close to me.

    You want a crazy recovery group to go after Mr. Flanigan? Try Celebrate Recovery.
    Now those folks are truly gone fishing.

    • Thurlow Weed | Mar 27, 2014 at 12:50 am |

      “…But its members are far from perfect, and so some stupid shit can happen in the name of A.A.

      Oh well.”

      You obviously have no idea what happens in AA and its offshoot organizations such as Narcotics Anonymous. Many people don’t, and AA does what it can to keep it that way.

      AA is a religious cult at its root. The majority of its small membership are active cultists, but there are persons who attend AA meetings who are not part of the religious cult, especially in urban centers like New York and LA. In between, there is a whole lot of god and manipulation by self-appointed leaders going on. AA corporate makes big money, so do a host of “recovery” institutions and individual counselors who use the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous in their so-called treatment. Do not be fooled: there is no question about how ineffective this group is at helping people recover from substance abuse. What’s not well-known is how fucked up the cult of AA is to the relatively few people who remain in the organization past 3 to 10 months.

      This guy has more to say on the subject. http://www.orange-papers.org/

      • kowalityjesus | Mar 27, 2014 at 12:58 am |

        I have an awfully hard time believing those statistics. My uncle may be an awesome guy and an exceptional success at ~18 years sober, but he isn’t 3-sigma as the stats purport.

        I thank God and I thank my uncle so much for coming around.

        • Thurlow Weed | Mar 27, 2014 at 1:00 am |

          People once had a hard time believing that the Earth was not flat, too. Then science beat back ignorance with fact. Ask god to help you with that when you talk to him next time.

          • kowalityjesus | Mar 27, 2014 at 1:07 am |

            Why would I bother God with something He has given me the capability to discern? Mores and codes speaking through Church authority (e.g. Galileo’s plight) is hardly a damnation of religion, but more like good advocacy for the 1st amendment.

          • Thurlow Weed | Mar 27, 2014 at 1:51 am |

            See, by what you write I know that you fundamentally misunderstand what happens at AA for many people. AA attempts to deactivate self will and teaches members to “let god” guide them. You uncle might see beyond that bullshit but many don’t, and end up trading a substance addiction for a god addiction, but god according to Bill W, the cofounder of AA.

          • BuzzCoastin | Mar 27, 2014 at 2:48 am |

            which is worse
            stupid on booze
            stupid on god?

            with a shity retention rate
            god gets ditched first

          • Thurlow Weed | Mar 27, 2014 at 4:28 am |

            What’s worse than a booze or god addiction is thinking you should choose one over the other. The question itself is flawed.

          • Maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t with “God” but with peoples expectations of it, what ever it might be. As someone
            once said – Science has nothing to say about how we can *decide* to ball our hand into a fist. So I think we need not fear the sneers of science when it comes to our search for the origin and fate of the soul. Or something like that. I don’t worship “god” and I’m not going to worship your Science either.

      • That’s not what I’ve seen from the inside, but you have your mind made up, so I’ll agree to disagree.

        As to the Orange Papers, I’ve seen that before. When my Dad got sober, I had severe doubts and great skepticism. I think that site was the first thing I’ve found. I don’t know what that guys issue is, but he clearly has an ax to grind. Who ever he is, he is just some guy on the Internet, not an authority of any kind. So posting a link to his (her?) site isn’t proof of anything other than his/her having an opinion.

        • Thurlow Weed | Mar 27, 2014 at 2:02 am |

          Orange, who is a guy, hosts one of several thoughtful online resources that provide more than only opinions about AA and its negative aspects. Editorial comments are cogent and supported by facts at that site, but the dude is not an academician or scientist. .

      • Echar Lailoken | Mar 27, 2014 at 7:28 am |

        I mostly agree with you, yet there are pagan A.A. groups. They are not as common though.

        • Thurlow Weed | Mar 27, 2014 at 10:50 am |

          Yes, true, but their existence helps bolster the Christian-oriented cultists who regulate the vast majority of AA. They point to pagan groups as proof that you don’t have to believe in god to be a member.

          There are even agnostic AA groups, but these tend to dissolve quickly. sometimes with a little help. In Toronto, recently, one of them was “excommunicated” by the official AA. Not the first time this has happened. Individual non-believers who express such ideas too loudly risk angering the local org leaders and their followers, then are subject to being isolated and ignored socially by the rest of the loyal group. Social contact is one of the reasons why people who question or reject the integral religious indoctrination of AA stubbornly attend meetings. Become a pariah at your own risk.

          • Echar Lailoken | Mar 27, 2014 at 5:43 pm |

            My meager experience with such leads me to see the truth in your words. From my perspective, It serves it’s purpose for those who feel they need a “higher power”.

            The 12 step program may encourage a person to replace an adiction to chemicals with an adiction to a worldview reinforced by a social group.

            The whole fake it ’til you make it doesn’t work if a person is unauthentic at the other end. yet, that may be what some need to give up the ghost. Others may find they can create change through their own blood, sweat and tears.

  2. Woobniggurath | Mar 26, 2014 at 10:41 pm |

    To undertake a fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves is a goal and challenge worthy of any human, and one only the strongest and most self-honest can really accomplish. I have always found it particularly intriguing that many people come to learn this sort of strength and honesty in themselves by the road of devastating weakness and self-delusion, to wit, addiction.

    Many and many who live “clean” their whole lives never even peep into the sort of honest insight which a committed working of the steps can develop.

    I am not an addict to anything particularly destructive (caffeine, carbs, onanism), but once I learned the core of “the program” ( I have attended 3-4 meetings in my life as learning experiences), I realized that it is a tool for approaching life as useful to me and as universal in application as the study of the Dao De Jing, the Three Noble Truths, or the Gospels of Christ. It is one of a select number of stout tools which help me build upon my self.

    • Eric_D_Read | Mar 26, 2014 at 11:15 pm |

      The 12 Step program is stealth evangelizing.
      Nothing more.

      • Hardly. Your “higher power” can be your black lab, car, or coffee mug, if you can relate to it. While some of their sayings are couched in religious language (let go and let God), they’re still just metaphors. And, as far as I know, they don’t evangelize at all nor come to your house unless you ask them.

        • Thurlow Weed | Mar 27, 2014 at 11:02 am |

          You have no idea what kind of pressure exists in AA to convert you to their kooky religion.

          • kid_amazo | Mar 27, 2014 at 12:05 pm |

            In 25 years, I have never experienced a hint of that.

          • Thurlow Weed | Mar 27, 2014 at 2:40 pm |

            If you’ve been a member of AA for 25 years you accepted their religion. Congratulations.

          • Woobniggurath | Mar 27, 2014 at 10:18 pm |

            Son, did AA touch you someplace they shouldn’t have?

          • Thurlow Weed | Mar 27, 2014 at 10:26 pm |

            Why ask me when you can ask Satan?

          • Well, yes I do. My father joined in 1969 and we all had to attend Al-non, Al-kid, etc. Yet, here we are, all safely non-evangelists and fighting with the Jehovah’s “Bystanders” who show up at our door.

            AA is a tool to transfer addiction to something less destructive. It could be said that the AA meeting becomes the religion itself and at our local AA, no one is a member of the mainstream church-going group.

        • Eric_D_Read | Mar 27, 2014 at 2:06 pm |

          “Your “higher power” can be your black lab, car, or coffee mug, if you can relate to it.”
          Like I said, stealthy evangelizing.

  3. InfvoCuernos | Mar 27, 2014 at 1:51 am |

    The first step stops me dead like the first commandment, and for the same reason. Also, I refuse to believe the path to any victory starts with admitting defeat. If you acknowledge that you are powerless, then you’re building on a poor foundation.

  4. BuzzCoastin | Mar 27, 2014 at 2:42 am |

    to my knowledge
    AA is self funded & free of charge
    and I’ve known lots of AAers
    and their serious addkction to bad coffee
    I think its bigger than cure and retention
    it has a role to play
    because there aren’t better free alternatives widely available
    to my knowledge

    • jasonpaulhayes | Mar 27, 2014 at 1:19 pm |

      It’s not FREE, its state sponsored and court ordered religious programing developed by evangelists . Says the word God 77 times in the “Big Book” yet it’s said to not be religious… and on a whole other note, no success rates have or ever will be made public (though they have leaked) because they are in the single digits.

      S.O.S Secular Organization for Sobriety

      • BuzzCoastin | Mar 27, 2014 at 5:59 pm |

        tv is far worse
        and nothing is not without its downside
        butt I’ve known lots of AAers
        both befeore & after
        and most are are better on AA than booze

        the one thing I haven’t seen
        is the faultless alternative

        • Thurlow Weed | Mar 27, 2014 at 8:26 pm |

          Don’t seek and you shall never find. And, AA corporate, along with thousands of other individuals and institution, will continue to make financial gain by preaching that AA is the only thing there is that works. Less than 5% of people who enter AA stop drinking and stay in the cult. That figure is as good as not doing anything at all.

          • BuzzCoastin | Mar 28, 2014 at 2:13 am |

            hang on a sec
            I gotta crack a brewski
            and ponder this

          • Thurlow Weed | Mar 28, 2014 at 2:25 am |

            Just view the three-part Penn & Teller YouTube I put below. That’s the only way to study this subject without falling asleep, or begging god to save you.

          • BuzzCoastin | Mar 28, 2014 at 2:37 am |

            had the bear
            musta been a tab of window pane in it
            cause the next ya know I’m talkin to Jebus
            and hez like “Weed’s right man! AAz god nazis”
            and I’m like jebus cripes who givrs a fuck.”
            reay high noise to signal hear

          • Thurlow Weed | Mar 28, 2014 at 4:37 am |

            You have to allow for a certain amount of noise when statements pulled from people’s asses are being debunked with a tsunami of facts.

          • I’ve found it easier to tell people the truth when I don’t spit in their faces at the same time. That way they don’t have their defenses up.

          • Thurlow Weed | Mar 28, 2014 at 11:27 am |

            Thanks for acknowledging that I am telling the truth.

          • Stupid me. I shouldn’t interfere with your and Buzz’s dominance displays.

          • Thurlow Weed | Mar 28, 2014 at 11:55 am |

            Buzz was just drunk-posting on the interweb, a time-honored pass time. I used it as a baseline to illustrate a valid point. What this has to do with machismo is beyond my grasp.

        • Abiding?

  5. Echar Lailoken | Mar 27, 2014 at 7:23 am |

    From my perspective, It serves it’s purpose for people who feel they need a “higher power”, and that they need to kneel to it.

  6. Reuben_the_Red | Mar 27, 2014 at 1:50 pm |

    AA is supposed to be completely voluntary right? My roommate in Portland Oregon was/is a bartender by trade (and a good one too) but after he wrecked his car into the median driving home drunk, the court took away his driving license, took away his license to serve alcohol (effectively robbing him of a means of earning a living, based on some false assumption that serving alcohol has something to do with drinking and driving; of course I’m not defending the latter), sentenced him to several weekends in prison which he had to submit to voluntarily for a few months (meaning he couldn’t get a food service job that required him to work on weekends, as most of those jobs do), he paid a fine of a few thousand bucks cash, and on top of all that he was legally mandated to attend AA meetings, for a whole year I think.

    I’ve seen people with drinking problems, and my roommate did not have a drinking problem, he had a temporary-bad-judgement problem. But because he was required to participate in the AA program (or they would report to the state that he was non-compliant), he pretty much had to lie and make stuff up in the group sessions, like “I have a drinking problem,” and that he believed in God and stuff, which he doesn’t, which just makes a farce out of the whole process.

    I have had close relationships with more than one high-functioning alcoholic, and more than one sloppy drunk. But AA has no ability to distinguish between casual drinkers and those who have experienced severe emotional trauma at some point in their lives, or some kind of mental illness, which is then self-medicated with legalized hard spirits. Rather, they seem to imply some sort of moral failing or character failing, just like that Old Time Relijun, the obligatory response being repentance and redemption/salvation. It does not address the real reasons that people have problems. Also similar to that Old Time Relijun, AA pretends to offer unconditional love and support, which might be what people really need, but it’s a bait-and-switch of condemnation and self-loathing.

    Most people who drink or have drank are not alcoholics, and never will be. Alcohol is simply more available, affordable, and acceptable than most other drugs. In the end we all fall somewhere on a spectrum of consumption and compulsion, impulses and habits, but from the middle of the scale, or the extremely uptight, afraid-of-everything Religious end of the scale, it’s easy to see those all the way at the other end of the scale as being a whole different category of human being, and this is simply not the case.

    There may indeed be social and therapeutic benefits for some people with some problems to participate in group therapy but AA is obviously based on pseudo-religious, pseudo-psychology. For example, AA arbitrarily equates the consumption of any illicit substance as equally negative as alcohol, which is not only false, it’s extremely unfortunate, as studies done waaaaaay back in the 1960’s demonstrated that under therapeutic/clinical administration, LSD (for just one example) had a huge success rate in breaking the negative feedback loop associated with alcoholism. It was successful about 50-75% of the time, in fact, which makes it more effective than AA.

    AA probably only appears successful because there is very little to compare it to. AA might be more successful than simply locking people up for drinking too much too often–a pretty low standard. Buzz raises a good point: what exactly are the alternatives to AA? What are the alternatives that people could implement, or have tried to implement but have been prevented by this culture? I’m thinking specifically of Dr. Gabor Mate’s clinic in Canada, and the legal/moralistic/cultural hurdles that kind of clinic would face in the US.

    Here’s what it all waters down to: by now, after decades of putting millions of people through the twelve steps, AA should have by now an incredibly nuanced and accurate statistical picture of what causes alcoholism, and how it could be avoided, but they do not. Their program is the equivalent of abstinence-only sex-ed in public schools.

    • Thurlow Weed | Mar 27, 2014 at 2:45 pm |

      Yours is a very thoughtful comment. It will be lost on many of the frequent commenters here though because these folk really, really want to believe in spooky supernatural gods.

      • But… the spooky supernatural gods are the only ones worth believing in. Especially the ones that have tentacles for faces.

  7. I figure I may as well chime in here.
    I had a DUI, way back in 1986. As a result of all that, I had to do 10 sessions of AA as part of the conditions of probation. What I saw, at that time, were some very sincere people doing the best they could to get their lives in order and simply be better people than they were before. I applaud and support this.
    Sure, there were things that I did not agree with, at the time, like their insistence on believing in a higher power, and them seeing alcoholics everywhere.
    I have no idea what their internal politics and issues may be like. I saw a place where people could find the support they needed to rebuild some semblance of a decent life for themselves and their loved ones.

  8. “The” 12 Step movement isn’t centralized or organized enough to be all good or all bad. Some individual meetings can be helpful, some are destructive. There are both useful tools and bullshit in the literature. “Take what you like and leave the rest” is one of the better ideas.

    However, the element of inmates running an asylum cannot be discounted.

  9. Thurlow Weed | Mar 27, 2014 at 2:38 pm |

    People who make a living from AA won’t simply switch scams, that’s partly the reason.

    • Woobniggurath | Mar 27, 2014 at 10:30 pm |

      by P.E.I. Bonewits ©

      Evaluation Criteria:
      1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

      Low · · · · · · · High

      INTERNAL CONTROL; amount of internal political power exercised by
      leader(s) over members 1. _____
      WISDOM CLAIMED; by leader(s); amount of infallibility declared about
      decisions of leader(s). 2. _____
      WISDOM CREDITED; to leaders(s) by members; amount of trust in decisions
      made by leader(s). 3. _____
      4. DOGMA; rigidity of reality concepts taught; amount of doctrinal
      inflexibility. 4. _____
      5. RECRUITING; emphasis put on attracting new members; amount of
      proselytizing. 5. _____
      FRONT GROUPS; number of subsidiary groups using different names from
      that of main group to disguise true affiliation. 6. _____
      WEALTH; amount of money and/or property desired or obtained; emphasis on
      members’ donations; precentage of members’ money donated. 7. _____
      POLITICAL POWER; amount of external political influence desired or
      obtained. 8. _____
      SEXUAL MANIPULATION; of members by leader(s); amount of control over sex
      lives of members. 9. _____
      CENSORSHIP; amount of control over members’ access to outside opinions
      on group; its doctrines of leader(s). 10. _____
      DROPOUT CONTROL; intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning
      dropouts. 11. _____
      ENDORSEMENT OF VIOLENCE; when used by or for the group or its leader(s). 12. _____
      PARANOIA; amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies; perceived
      power of opponents. 13. _____
      GRIMNESS; amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its
      doctrines or leader(s). 14. _____
      SURRENDER OF WILL; emphasis on members not having to be responsible
      for personal decisions. 15. _____

      • Woobniggurath | Mar 27, 2014 at 10:41 pm |

        The scale results in a score ranging from 15-150, with higher being more dangerous

        I would use Scientology as a standard 10 on about 70% of these questions.

        I scored AA as 56. I scored the Roman Catholic church as 87.

        I would like to see how others score AA and some contrasting mainstream membership group they have knowledge of.

        • Thurlow Weed | Mar 28, 2014 at 1:10 am |


          But here’s the thing: AA doesn’t help many people recover from substance abuse. That doesn’t mean you can’t find people who will swear on stacks of Bibles that it does, but the numbers speak for themselves. AA has about a 5% success rate. It’s no better than doing nothing at all.

          And now for some more entertainment.


  10. Echar Lailoken | Mar 27, 2014 at 10:50 pm |


    Weak and powerless may be be the most applicable song on this album, in reaction to this article. For and against AA/NA/addictions in general.

  11. Echar Lailoken | Mar 27, 2014 at 11:05 pm |

    The Diary of A Drug fiend assisited in keeping me conscious of my chemical appetites.


    • Matt Staggs | Mar 28, 2014 at 11:51 am |

      I read that during a prolonged Crowley/ritual magick phase in the very early twenties. It’s been a couple of decades since, but I remember enjoying this and “Moonchild” quite a bit. Perhaps the latter more than the former, though.

  12. Thurlow Weed | Mar 28, 2014 at 1:56 pm |

    I can tell that you are a member of AA. Glad you took time to create an account on Disqus to witness your devotion to the cult. Nothing like the real thing to illustrate a point. Keep It Simple Stupid.

Comments are closed.