Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Midtown Back in the News

In May I wrote about the Midtown group of Alcoholics Anonymous, a group that, according to Newsweek and many members of the Washington D.C. AA community, is more like a cult than an AA group. Well, the group is back in the news again, this time in the Washington Post, challenging the very core issues that have made AA the most successful treatment for alcoholism to this day.

There are a wide variety of rumors floating around about the Midtown Group. There are claims of forcing minors to have sex with older members, of pushing new members to sever ties with their families, friends and therapists, and refusing to sponsor anyone taking prescribed medications. All of these would be huge divergences from common AA practices.

While none of these rumors are definitively substantiated, there is one divergence from the AA program that has been admitted to: this group clearly has leaders, and they act as governors of the lives of the newer members. Michael Quinones is the leader of the group, and is revered by most members, while other old-timers in the group direct the day-to-day lives of the group newcomers.

This is contrary to AA’s second tradition, which states that “our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern.” This is a very fundamental concept to Alcoholics Anonymous; most AA sponsors will do nothing more than make suggestions to their sponsees, and will never force them to take any specific actions. Group members do not even determine the way the group will be run, as all these decisions are determined by group conscience.

Perhaps most troubling though is the creation of an isolated community around the Midtown Group. Members are pushed to live, eat, sleep, and work inside of this very close-knit community. While certainly this provides a very safe environment which keeps new members from drinking, it fails to recognize that AA, at heart, is a program of living, and that it provides members with a method for living sober in the real world.

"It's like a prepackaged community," said David, 26, a former Midtown member who initially adored the group but now is highly critical of it. "You're thinking, okay, maybe I can stay sober for the rest of my life, but how do I have fun? I went to a different group, and it was 50-year-old men who went bowling on Tuesdays. That wasn't going to do it for me. At Midtown, everything is there for you. Here are your women, here are your dances every weekend, ski trip every March."

So many of the stories presented in both the most recent Washington Post article and the former Newsweek article indicate clearly that, when leaving the isolation of the Midtown Group, the members of this group are completely unprepared to live sober in the real world. While it’s true that the Midtown Group is very successful at keeping members sober while in the group, it fails to provide a way to live sober outside the group.

The Midtown Group supports its methods by referring to its higher success rate than other AA groups. They claim that some changes were necessary to modernize the AA program, and perhaps they’re right. The ineffectiveness of the no-governing tradition has been shown by the Central Office’s inability to act upon allegations of wrongdoing by the Midtown Group. The program has no mechanism to deal with such issues.

For me, the fact that AA has no leaders in the traditional sense is what made it a program that I could utilize; I would never have accepted a program that maintains the level of control displayed in the Midtown Group. Furthermore, I believe that the program is based upon the belief that every person is powerless, not only over alcohol but over people, places, things and situations, and that the leaders of Midtown do not recognize this powerlessness.

Yes, I find allegations of underage sex disgusting, and I think the isolation of members is just plain wrong. But destroying the fundamental nature of AA, changing it from a program that teaches a person how to live life soberly to a program that provides sobriety at the expense of living a full life eliminates the true benefits that can be derived from the program. In the end, these changes threaten to destroy the benefits of the AA program.

Posted by Scottage at 1:05 AM / | |