The 13th Step

I recently watched an interesting documentary called 13th Step. It was by Monica Richardson, an American actress and campaigner. She is a recovering addict who has used this documentary to speak out against predation in the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). For those who are not familiar with the history and set up of AA, I will try to summarise.

It is a peer-led self-help organisation for alcoholics set up in America in the 1930’s by two alcoholics to promote abstinence from alcohol and support recovery through meetings and the 12-Step programme. The programme and format of the meetings have spread around the world and are unchanged since the organisation began. Each meeting is autonomous and there is a Head Office in America. There are no staff, and the meetings are organised and led by its members.

‘13th Stepping’ is slang for predatory or sexual behaviour within these meetings. Richardson’s claim, backed up by some members of AA and some lawyers, is that dangerous people use these meetings in order to prey on the vulnerable among the people who attend. This is because, she stated, people are being mandated by the courts to attend AA meetings rather than being sent to prison. A further claim was made that some who have not experienced a problem with alcohol are being ordered there rather than facing justice.

I found the film concerning. There is clearly truth in these claims. The documentary contained interviews with family members and lawyers of two women who had been murdered by people whom they met at AA meetings. Both murderers had a previous history of abusive behaviour. Richardson asserted that the responsibility lay with AA. It is certainly true that there are specific vulnerabilities for those who attend AA meetings. It is a peer support fellowship and with that lies the assumption that those who attend the meetings will look out for you and support you. Newcomers to the meetings are likely to be anxious or fearful as they are newly free from their addiction (or trying to become free from it) and are doing something new and meeting new people. Someone seeking to abuse may well see this as a good place to find a potential victim. However, it is not clear to me how AA can stop this. The film certainly did not offer any solutions, though Richardson claims to run workshops to promote safety within the fellowship.

As a documentary, it was somewhat unfocussed. It talked about the low success rate of the organisation and railed against its religious focus. This is interesting and worthy of debate but did stray from the focus of the film and made it look like a generalised attack on AA rather than a considered critique on the safety of the meetings. It did offer information on alternatives to AA. Most of these seem to operate only in the USA, but one that has reached these shores and is gaining in size and strength is SMART. It stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training and is based around the model of cognitive behaviour therapy rather than seeking a ‘higher power’. For this reason, I prefer the thinking behind SMART and would encourage those seeking support in recovery to try all that is available to find what best suits them. I have attached some links below.

Do give the film a go and let me know what you think. I am also keen to hear of your experiences of AA and SMART.

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