Cult leaders set the tones of their organizations. They decide how members will treat new recruits, errant questioners, abusers in their midst, and outsiders. Bill Wilson set the tone for how Alcoholics Anonymous faithful should behave toward “dry drunks”, who got sober without bowing to his God first, and others who didn’t conform to his beliefs.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions contains Bill W.’s version of the breaking of Jimmy Burwell. Anonymized in the story as “Ed the Atheist”, Bill recounts how Jimmy insisted he could get and stay sober “without the God bit”. And he did, month after month, to the consternation of Bill and the Elders of his fledgling cult. Jimmy joined up with the meeting in Bill and Lois’ Brooklyn home in January 1938, as they were being squeezed out of the Oxford Group.
Rather than celebrate their fellow alcoholic’s success at abstaining from alcohol, they openly hoped for him to relapse so he could be humbled. When he did eventually start drinking on a trip, he did what he’d been told to do and reached out to AA. He called and telegrammed members of the Brooklyn chapter, but they colluded not to help him. A few days later he appeared in the home of an AA Elder, cowed and dejected.
This is cultic abuse. Jimmy Burwell was not treated like a friend and fellow in need when he fell, and the people who said he would die without them wished that fate upon him when they hoped that he would relapse. This story of abuse was presented by Bill W. as a triumph over the “prejudice” of atheism. Jimmy Burwell was the first to call the group itself his Higher Power, unwilling to go back into the cold alone they had subjected him to when he needed them most.
They made Jimmy need them to stay sober, then made their help conditional on his conformity. He had been sober but they considered it a failure because he hadn’t yet been remade into a clone of Bill Wilson. Only once he “hit rock bottom” could he have the type of spiritual (religious) experience Bill felt comfortable demanding of God. They set him up to relapse.