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Is AA Responsible for Screening Out Dangerous Members? Of Course Not

Last winter, I was interviewed at a studio in Chicago by an investigative team from the CBS TV show, 48 Hours. They they wanted my opinion on concerns about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) caused by a case in which a young woman was tragically murdered by a man with a criminal history of violence whom she met at an AA meeting. The actual show, The Sober Truth, aired on November 29, 2014, but it included no footage from the interview with me.

…Apparently, I was the only person they interviewed who “defended” AA. That is, who asserted that AA has no responsibility to vet its attendees, that doing so would destroy it…-Dr. Mark Willenbring

Since the show didn’t include my voice, I’d like to air my thoughts now. In the end, in my opinion, The Sober Truth had a sensational, sentimental view that those involved wanted to project, and the interview with me opposed that view. It’s ironic, yet satisfying in terms of honesty as well as clinical and scientific integrity, that apparently, I was the only person they interviewed who “defended” AA. That is, who asserted that AA has no responsibility to vet its attendees, that doing so would destroy it, and that, most importantly, people attending AA should be aware that not everyone who’s there is safe to have as a friend, a partner, a lover, or even as a sponsor.

The issues at hand are whether AA is culpable for the behavior of its members in situations like that of victim, Karla Mendez Brada, and, if there is responsibility to be placed, where to place it. That’s what I was largely asked about by 48 Hours, which bills itself as “investigating shocking cases and compelling real-life dramas with journalistic integrity and cutting-edge style.”

Let me say up front that in no way do I blame the victim nor condone domestic violence. I tell my patients that the two places never to pick someone up are bars and AA meetings – at least before they have invested a lot of time at particular meetings and in getting to know individuals. Although AA rooms have many decent and well-meaning people, they also attract a number of troubled individuals – some of whom have disturbing backgrounds, sometimes resulting in requirements by the criminal justice system to attend 12-step meetings. And there’s no question that some of these individuals go to meetings to prey upon members of the opposite sex, usually men seeking women.

The Bare Facts of the Case

According to reporting done by 48 Hours, Karla was a young woman described as having had a “secret side” and being a “wild child.” By the time she met the man who killed her, she had been to addiction rehab twice and had also attended Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and AA meetings. He was an AA veteran of many years and unbeknownst to her, had a criminal record, one that included violence to others, particularly when he drank. Although the criminal justice system had mandated him to attend 12-step meetings at other times, when they met, he was there voluntarily.

[Eric Earle] was an AA veteran of many years and unbeknownst to her, had a criminal record, one that included violence to others…-Dr. Mark Willenbring

48 Hours reported that within a short time of their meeting, he moved from a run-down sober living facility into her condo, and not long after that, while drunk, he badly beat her. Following his arrest, Karla bailed him out of jail, and they continued to live together. Four weeks later, she was dead. On September 18 of this year, a jury found Earle to be guilty of first-degree murder.

Yet Karla’s parents did not feel that justice had been fully served and they have filed a lawsuit against AA. According to 48 Hours, in their lawsuit, the parents “claim AA is in part at fault for Karla’s death for not warning attendees that violent criminals – like Eric Earle – could be at the same meeting.” One step they’d like to see AA take would be to separate criminals from the rest of the regular AA population.

How Screening and Separating Are at Odds with AA Tenets

…A hierarchical structure poisons the movement.-Dr. Mark Willenbring

AA is a voluntary association of people seeking support to stop drinking, and also to support others with the same aim. The old AA saying,”If you have two drunks in a room, you have an AA meeting,” illustrates several important points about how AA works. It’s almost completely decentralized. Members of the Oxford Group from which AA founders derived the organization’s principles learned that a hierarchical structure poisons the movement. That is, allowing some people to gain the power to speak for the group publicly – and most importantly politically – led to power struggles and contentiousness that were not consonant with the organization’s goals. When they formed AA, they developed the Twelve Traditions in addition to the Twelve Steps in order to prevent that from happening.

Following are important parts of some of the traditions to keep in mind when considering how inconsistent with its underpinnings it would be for AA to take on the role of screening and separating out certain members:

  • Tradition Three: “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking… Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism,” and “Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.”
  • Tradition Four: “With respect to its own affairs, each AA group should be responsible to no other authority than its own conscience.”
  • Tradition Seven: “Experience has often warned us that nothing can so surely destroy our spiritual heritage as futile disputes over property, money, and authority.” (emphasis mine)
  • Tradition Nine: “Each AA group needs the least possible organization.”
  • Traditional Ten: “No AA group or member should ever, in such a way as to implicate AA, express any opinion on outside controversial issues – particularly those of politics, alcohol reform, or sectarian religion. The Alcoholics Anonymous groups oppose no one.”

These traditions have served AA very well. But what they mean is that there is no central authority for AA, no corporate or other entity that can speak for it. There are local or regional central service committees that oversee and facilitate things like the purchase and operation of AA “clubhouses,” support websites, and staff that help coordinate and publicize meeting schedules, and, nationally, publish guidance for AA members or groups and inspirational publications such as The Grapevine. However, AA members and groups are free to follow or ignore such guidance. For the Central Committee to proclaim a policy for AA groups is completely antithetical to these foundational principles.

Finally and perhaps most important, personal anonymity is at the very core of Alcoholics Anonymous.-Dr. Mark Willenbring

Finally and perhaps most important, personal anonymity is at the very core of Alcoholics Anonymous. Requiring some kind of vetting of members would essentially destroy the organization. Besides, wouldn’t we prefer that people who have antisocial impulses or behavior seek help to overcome a substance problem? We already deny many opportunities to people with drug offenses from many roads to success: housing assistance, employment, and education loans. Would we deny them the opportunity to receive support from others trying to overcome addiction?

“To take away any alcoholic’s full chance was sometimes to pronounce his death sentence, and often to condemn him to endless misery. Who dared to be judge, jury, and executioner of his own sick brother?” So states the long version of AA’s third tradition, which details an interesting historical discussion about AA’s decision neither to have membership requirements nor to expel people.

Practically Speaking

Any attempt to hold AA responsible for the behavior of people who attend its groups is absurd on its face. Before doing that, we would have to hold bar owners and liquor stores responsible for the off-site behavior of their patrons.

How would screening and separating potentially dangerous people be enforced? And where would this end? Think about “singles mingles” community groups that certainly can attract troubled people as well as “mommy” support groups, where dads with a wayward history may go to pick up women. Some have said that AA should have a sexual harassment policy. But what good would a policy do in such a decentralized organization? There’s no one “in charge” of an AA group to enforce it.

If someone meets a person at a major league basketball game, and then one of them kills the other, should we hold the NBA responsible?-Dr. Mark Willenbring

There are already laws against stalking and sexual and other assault. If someone meets a person at a major league basketball game, and then one of them kills the other, should we hold the NBA responsible? How about churches? Should churches vet their members for criminal backgrounds, and then make an announcement before each service that there may be sexual offenders or murderers among the worshipers?

Where Accountability Lies

As suggested earlier, I do not mean to blame any victims, and the behavior of men like Earle is intolerable. However, it should come as no surprise to anyone that an AA or NA meeting may include members with backgrounds of criminality or violence. There is a need for some common sense here.

Also, it should go without saying that many people who are trying to overcome substance use disorders commonly are vulnerable and lonely. They need to be educated about how 12-step organizations work. Some guidelines do exist for safety at AA meetings, such as suggesting that people “stick with the winners” and choose sponsors of the same sex. However, given the vast number of 12-step-based treatment programs in this country (Alltyr is not one of them, it supports whatever is best for the client), I believe it is their responsibility to inform clients extensively about how 12-step meetings work along with related safety precautions.

The criminal justice system is taking an easy and cheap way out. Like churches, yoga, or bridge clubs, AA only works for those who identify with it and voluntarily affiliate with it. What works are consistent monitoring, systematically and consistently applied reinforcement, and access to modern, science-based treatment (which is almost non-existent.) Mandated AA attendance is a lazy and destructive substitute for providing truly effective treatment, which also needs to include up-to-date treatment for mental health disorders and social support of the client’s own choosing.

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