No, Alcoholics Anonymous Is Not 'Ill-Suited to Women'

AA's official literature has traces of 1950s-era sexism, but the program can still be tremendously beneficial for female alcoholics.
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The first time I walked into an AA meeting, I knew I was in the right place. It was a small women's meeting on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I was then living, and what I found entranced me: Attractive, successful, articulate women talking--and laughing!--about the sort of things that had brought me close to hopelessness.

That was 16 years ago. Or 17. I've sort of lost track at this point, but one way or another, AA has kept me sober for a good many years. Since then, I've attended hundreds, maybe thousands, of meetings of all shapes and sizes. I've met homeless people and celebrities--people of diverse races, ages, sexes, and sexual orientations, and pretty much any other demographic box that you'd care to check. I've written (and published) two novels, drafted speeches for the dean of Harvard Law School (now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice), and accomplished many other fulfilling and challenging goals. I can't imagine having done these things without first getting sober, and I can't imagine having gotten sober without AA.

All of which goes to explain my profound uneasiness with the depiction of AA in Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink--and How They Can Regain Control, a new book by journalist Gabrielle Glaser that was recently excerpted in the Wall Street Journal and appears to be selling briskly. (As of this writing, it ranks #454 on Amazon.) As Glaser--a self-proclaimed non-alcoholic who attended "about 10 meetings" in the course of researching her book--portrays it, AA is a cult-like faith-based organization rife with sexism, a hotbed of misogyny that serves as a veritable playground for dangerous and sometimes violent sexual predators. In the rooms of Glaser's AA, it is "common" for vulnerable women to be preyed upon by men "who are purporting to help them heal." In support of such claims, she invokes a notorious Washington, D.C., AA group featured in 2007 pieces in Newsweek and the Washington Post, the infiltration of AA phone help lines in Britain by sexual predators, and the 2010 murder of a woman and her daughter by a troubled Iraqi veteran she'd dated after meeting him in AA, which he'd been court-ordered to attend.

Having set this sinister stage, Glaser urges women struggling with alcohol to seek out alternatives--to explore what she, with no small bias, calls "Twenty-First-Century Treatment." And what does this entail? Well, for starters, you send in a deposit check of $2,500 (to be followed with an additional $8,750 for five days of therapy, a medical evaluation, and three months of follow-up through a California treatment business called Your Empowering Solutions. Glaser helpfully notes that this is "a bargain by the standards of private rehab, never mind that most alcoholics can likely afford neither), book a plane flight, and reserve a room "at a luxurious inn near the ocean" where you'll stay during your five full-day sessions. Once there, in addition to undergoing counseling, you're likely to be prescribed the drug naltrexone, which reduces the pleasure of drinking--and thus its appeal--through endorphin blocking and costs about $100 monthly. (There's also an injectable form costs up to $1,000 a shot, Glaser notes). At least that was how things unfolded for "Joanna," Glaser's sole example of a woman embarked on this regime, whose treatment story occupies a good part of a 30-page chapter.

Think this could be hard to pull off for anyone besides the wealthy? Not to worry, Glaser has a plan--albeit one that seems unlikely to materialize in the foreseeable future. "Rather than entrust recovering drinkers as the first and last mechanism of support, we need to convince insurance companies and federal insurance programs to reimburse doctors for their new role, and patients for expensive medication." Good luck with that. In the meantime, there are millions of women (and men)--many un- or under-insured--suffering, who need help. AA is free--and it is everywhere.

In fairness, I share more than a little of Glaser's frustration with AA's failure to move with the times in its treatment of women, as well as with some of the religious framing that so antagonizes her (and, as she observes, the two are often related). For me, this has centered on out-of-date AA literature, including the seminal text known as "the Big Book," in which women appear primarily as the beleaguered helpmeets of alcoholic husbands, and not the alcoholics themselves. Well into the 21st century, there continues to be a Big Book chapter addressed "To Wives," replete with exhortations of patience and compassion. "Try not to condemn your alcoholic husband no matter what he says or does," is one such admonition.

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Amy Gutman is a senior writer at the Harvard School of Public Health. Her work has appeared in Salon, the Chicago Tribune, and Psychology Today. She writes regularly at Plan B Nation.

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