Submission and Autonomy in Recovery: Part 1
The Traditional Image
Someone once had an experience with traditional AA that was so intensely negative that they spent thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of words attacking 12 step programs from every angle they could find. Those attacks are called “The Orange Papers”, so named because the angry author took on the word “Orange” as their pseudonym. The original site of the orange papers has since gone down, but you can find an archive here.
An organizing theme of the Orange Papers is the assertion that AA is a proto-fascist cult - that AA is structured around engendering the total existential submission of the individual to the organization and to the authorities within that organization. I use the word “existential” here to denote “every thing contained in and constituted by an individual human life” - beliefs, desires, possessions, relationships, etc. The constitution of a human individual is obviously a contentious can of worms to open, and I don’t want to go too deep down that rabbit hole here; all I’m pointing at is the idea that participating in AA, according to “Orange”, means doing absolutely anything and everything that someone else tells you to do.
I don’t think that traditional AA is a proto-fascist cult - I think it’s a set of tools that are useful for some people but not for others, a set of tools that’s mostly another repackaging of standard-issue Christian projects of submission, purification, and redemption. Those tools are picked up and wielded and amended and transformed by individuals and groups in ways that vary tremendously from person to person and from group to group. Sometimes these tools are used in a way that generates the kind of horrible experiences that “Orange” had and that moved them to do everything in their power to make sure nobody else had to suffer as they had.
I want to depict some of these tools on their own terms, as best as I can. Here is an image from traditional AA that many find in the organization find to be useful: Alcoholics, deep down, are people who live in unconscious rebellion against God and His Will. They try to take God’s powers for themselves - Alcoholics take themselves to be the author of all purpose and meaning in their lives, they take themselves to be exalted and worthy of worship (or at least lots and lots of attention). Alcoholics are miserable because this attitude is doomed and futile. It is in denial of reality. Alcoholics exalt themselves and hate themselves at the same time - they exalt themselves because they claim to be God (or expect themselves to be) and hate themselves because they know that they are not.
This situation points the way towards the “spiritual” solution that traditional AA provides: “sobriety” consists of giving up this futile arrogance and opening up to the purpose, power, and meaning that God has been the source of all along. The 12 steps are all about getting everything out of the way that’s in between you and God. You wake up to the truth that there has been a loving intention behind everything that happens in your life, including the pain you went through in your drinking days, including the pain you go through in sobriety. Your life falling apart while drinking was the result of God letting you learn for yourself what happens when you choose to deny your nature. Your life falling apart was necessary for you to finally make the meaningful sacrifice of surrendering your will to God. You may have caused a lot of damage along the way, but on the spiritual level of reality you didn’t even scratch the paint. God is completely undisturbed and undamaged by your actions and welcomes you home no matter who you are and no matter what you’ve done. You can’t harm God and you can’t really pay Him back either - the best thing you can do to express your gratitude is to spend your days saving as many other people as possible.
So, for many in traditional AA, the experience they had there is the single most significant human experience available. AA is a revelation, the way and the truth and the light. This is just how AA shows up for them. Some come to meetings with Big Books and Bibles bound in the same cover. Some also wind up treating newcomers very harshly, since newcomers are full of shit in ways they haven’t even begun to realize. The name of the game is humility and submission, something that comes with great difficulty to all alcoholics but especially to those who just walked in the doors, and if you have to come down hard on newcomers it’s just for their own good.
Some people line up well with that experience and get their life back because of it. Others, including me, bounce way out of traditional AA when the image outlined above shows up. It’s not capital-W Wrong, it’s just a tool that’s inappropriate for a context.
My main goals here were to 1) execute a good-faith effort to illuminate one of the core images of traditional AA, 2) to point to how that core image can work for some people and not work for others, and 3) establish that I will be evaluating things not as potential facts which are universally true or false but as images that are useful or not useful to particular people for particular purposes.
Next up I’ll be taking a look at themes of submission and autonomy in recovery, looking deeper into those themes as present in the traditional image outlined above and then branching into how those themes are present in the secular recovery that I have experienced. Thanks for tuning in!