Reworking the 13th Step

13thstepdocIf you’re not familiar with Monica Richardson’s documentary The 13th Step, you will be soon. It won best documentary at the Beverly Hills Film Festival and is now off to Cannes. Richardson was a former member of AA for 36 years but left after being disgusted by the fact that AA had become a “haven for sexual predators and violent criminals.” Her activism to change AA was the force behind her “Make AA Safer” hotline, her stop13stepinaa website and now this feature-length film. As the lights went down at the Paley Center, the irony that my “date” was a guy 15 years younger that I had 13th stepped when he had only 7 months of sobriety, was not lost on me.

Richardson was introduced to AA through Tom Catton (author of The Mindful Addict) back as a teenager. By 21, with three years sober, she was the “token teenage speaker” for AA. Now, looking back, she says, “I don’t think anybody who’s a teenager is an alcoholic.”

The film interviews a slew of women who have been sexually abused by men in AA as well as the family members of women, like Karla Brada, who have been murdered by AA members. Brada met Eric Allen Earl in AA. He had nowhere to go so she took him in and was dead by his hands four months later. After the fact, her family dug into his history and discovered he had 22 years of criminal activity including eight restraining orders and a stunning 52 court-orders to AA. Brada’s family are suing AA for wrongful death.

“Julie” knew a guy in the rooms of AA for three years when he invited her over for coffee at his home, only to slip a date rape drug in her tea and assault her. When Julie complained to her sponsor about the incident, she was met with “Well, what was your part?”

“Brittany,” a newcomer from Kentucky, was befriended by an old timer at her regular meeting. She was 13th stepped and relapsed as a result. With no money and nowhere to go, she went to him for help and he took her into his home, supplied her $500 a day dope habit and used her dopesickness to hold her sexually hostage.

The film highlights various upsetting stories like this, including Darlene who met and got engaged to a man in AA who later confessed to being a sexual predator, and the story of a woman whose married mother went to AA when she was young. The woman—who chose to remain anonymous and was shot in silhouette—confesses that her mother was seduced by an AA member who broke up her parents’ marriage and then proceeded to molest her for the next eight years. Numerous disturbing newspaper headlines flash across the screen reporting sexual assault or violence at the hands of AA members, including young Thomas McGuire Jr., who was murdered by his AA sponsor.

The film explains that the court is ordering people to AA (which is actually against AA’s traditions), including violent criminals and sex offenders in lieu of jail or prison time—60-80% of AA’s members are coerced by the judicial system. The rooms are “full of vulnerable people” and data shows that AA is only effective for 5-10% of people, Richardson and various experts complain. But in spite of this, it has become the main methodology for rehabs and the go-to for the courts. I adamantly do not believe that AA is the only way to get sober, nor is it the best way for everybody. I don’t think that if AA does not work for you then you are doing it wrong. (Don’t tell my sponsor.) And I agree that the courts should offer a variety of programs, including SMART recovery, HAMS, or SOS, not just AA.

But then those programs will have the same problem as AA seems to have now: a program full of criminals. So what’s the answer? The film offers no solution. Substance abuse groups or programs solely for criminals? Most people in the program have some criminal history, a DUI, assault (yours truly), or possession. When you’re loaded, you’re not exactly firing on all cylinders and sometimes it’s the law that helps you hit your bottom.

My main problem with Richardson’s film is that it confuses the program with the fellowship or, more precisely, throws out the program because of a few bad apples in the fellowship. Nowhere in the Big Book does it say “Come to AA. There are no weirdos here.” Of course everybody is hitting on everybody! It’s a bunch of sick alcoholics who are terrible at relationships and boundaries and have issues with sex. If you come into a self-help support group full of selfish, compulsive people thinking that it will be a congregation of saints, you’re fooling yourself. If you think that life won’t happen or that men won’t try to get laid and that AA is some sort of asexual utopia, you need to wake up. It is a microcosm of the real world and nobody comes to AA when they are “well.”

But how does AA’s hierarchy, which breeds sexual predatory behavior (or being violated by somebody that you thought you could trust) really differ from any other establishment where power play exists like the clergy, military, or medical professions? It’s not just AA. It’s human nature. One woman called AA “a concentrated pod of dysfunction.” Another man said it was a “society of permanent cripples.” But many of us find solace and solidarity in this fellowship of fellow deviants. It’s that critical “me too!” factor that alleviates our shame.