AA is a Cult, part 58

Alcoholics Anonymous encourages its members to confess their deepest secrets to a room full of nonprofessional peers. AA likes to behave as if alcoholics were inherently trustworthy, and superior counselors as compared with licensed therapists and ordained clergy. But AA members are not legally bound to confidentiality the way mental healthcare providers and religious ministers are. There is no recourse for broken anonymity in AA. 

Of course, there are times when that’s the right thing to do. Sometimes an AA member will confess to a crime in a meeting. In at least two cases, men confessed to murder. Other AA members broke group rules, and followed the law, by repeating what they heard in confidence to the police. Clergy and therapists already have clear guidelines of when they should break confidence, like when a patient confesses they are abusing a child. AA members are forbidden from even that. 

But that prohibition lacks enforcement. Current members can often be socially controlled into not revealing secrets, but the majority of people who start AA quit. And when they go, they take those confessions with them. Nothing can stop me from repeating stories I heard in Al-Anon. Nothing prevents a court-ordered parolee attending meeetings from keeping a thorough list of every other member and their sins. Nothing prevents publishing those stories. 

Alcoholics Anonymous, like its ancestral cult the Oxford Group, asks members to trust it with their secrets, but does nothing to deserve that trust. Sponsors are free to repeat private conversations to others. Elders are free to gossip about a member they don’t like. Bill Wilson and other early members openly hoped their atheist member would relapse, so they could be right and he could be wrong. No rules prevent such behavior, and no mechanism for enforcement of rules exists.  After all, “a desire to stop drinking is the only requirement for membership.” Respecting anonymity is only a suggestion. 

I strongly encourage people in need of private counsel and support to look to licensed therapists bound by HIPPA law or an ordained clergy member of their faith. Such people have received training in listening, counseling, and keeping the confidence of others. They may not have a personal history of drinking too much, but they do have experience helping people with shameful secret struggles. They know how to keep secrets, and they can be held accountable if they don’t. I wouldn’t recommend saying anything in an AA meeting you aren’t prepated for the whole world to know. 

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