Can AA Use An Update?

Can AA Use An Update?


Some people in AA say you shouldn’t update the books or the program. It’s worked for 80 years after all, so why change it? It’s perfect, it’s divine, it’s flawless, right?

But this could have been argued about Windows 95, the first five pound cell phone and Mac OS 9. It can be argued about anything related to technological progress. Even the English language updates itself. Hell, even the bible has new editions—who’s still trudging their way through the King James?

So yes, AA can definitely use an update, especially where the literature is concerned.

Speaking of the bible, we can start with the Lord’s Prayer. Shouldn’t this be banned from AA meetings? After all, the stuff on the walls, the book, everything in AA references a “God of your own understanding.” Now, I don’t have a degree in Theology, but I’m pretty sure “Our Father” is an exclusively Christian or Catholic prayer.

I find it sickeningly offensive when someone chooses to close out the meeting with this prayer. And that’s not because I was raised Muslim or Jewish or Marxist or Buddhist or Shamanist. Quite the contrary—I was stuck in a Catholic elementary school, a Baptist high school and thrown into Hye summer camps and youth groups where I had to recite the prayer in Armenian. Hell, I even had to sing the prayer in Armenian. So you’d think I’d be the last person to get all riled up over it.

But it kills me. Every single time someone decides to close a meeting with the Lord’s Prayer, I’m pained. I’m not only pained for myself because I don’t believe in any Father whatsoever, but I’m pained thinking of new people who may have walked into their first meeting—people who are Jewish or Muslims or Hindus or plain old atheists who may not come back because they saw people holding hands and reciting an age-old Christian prayer.

I’ll tell you this. If they closed with the Lord’s Prayer at the first AA meeting I walked into, I guarantee you I wouldn’t have returned to another meeting. No fucking way. Thankfully, most AA meetings in Los Angeles close out with the nondenominational Serenity Prayer.

I’ll give them the Lord’s Prayer if we can also recite verse 10 of the Tao Te Ching, throw in a Hebrew Prayer, recite something from the Qur’an and pray out with a quote from Karl Marx.

Otherwise, axe that shit.

There’s also the sexist pronouns. In the Big Book and the The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, “God” is always referred to as a He. “God could and would if He were sought.” “We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

Call me a heretic, but I’m not praying or bowing before any Him, thank you very much. All these pronouns do is snap me out of the spirit of the steps. When we get to “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him,” I’m out.

Sometimes people in the rooms will change the pronoun to “It” or “She” when they read out loud, and that’s nice and all, but the He needs to be taken out entirely from the book and the pronoun should really be a non-gender specific It. This way we atheists or diests don’t feel obliged to have a personified Higher Power. The good news is that there are surveys going around in AA to change this. I’m not sure where General Service is at with the dilemma.

Truthfully, if I were to have it my way, the word God would be axed out of the literature and the speak altogether.  I like “Higher Power.” I can hang with that. The word God has such a specific connotation, even if Bill Wilson intended it to just mean Higher Power, even if God can mean the Spirit of the Universe, the Tao or the Stars or Fates. The word “God” leaves a very bitter taste in so many of our mouths and often repels people from the rooms. So I say excise it completely.

“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to a Higher Power.”


Then there’s the chapter “We Agnostics” where Bill Wilson tries to prove the existence of God by droning on about some steel girder and the electrons. I’m sorry, but even a well-educated evangelical apologist can probably make a better argument for the existence of God, so that should be cut. Plus, that whole bit in Step Two of the Twelve and Twelve that knocks atheists for being intellectual snobs—that should go too. All that does is feed the AA bashers with more evidence that AA brainwashes and discourages independent thought.

Oh and that chapter “To Wives”? Make it “To Family Members” and rewrite the whole thing. Rip off stuff from Al-Anon if necessary. The Big Book and Twelve and Twelve are such androcentric texts—written by men for men—it’s insulting. Aside from the stories in the back, the reader is more or less assumed to be male. So why not get a good editor and change it? Honestly, I’m surprised they haven’t done this yet. It’s 2015.

There also should be a chapter in the Big Book that actually talks about sponsors, or perhaps a blurb in the appendix. It should explain that sponsors are just a bunch of faulty humans trying to lead other faulty humans through sobriety—that they are not God, not psychotherapists and not doctors and that you shouldn’t swallow everything they say wholesale because many of them are a bit off. There can even be a checklist or something that acts as a guide. “Do they lecture you endlessly? Do they tell you to get off your meds? Do they seem kind? Do they seem intelligent? Are they showered? Do their actions reflect their words? Do they hang up on you?”

AA can also put out a pamphlet for women and men on sexual harassment—you know, like most employers—which explains what is and is not acceptable in the rooms and that anyone who violates the terms during the meeting or on meeting premises will be asked to leave. The offender doesn’t have to be blacklisted from AA, but they can at least get kicked out of a meeting if they’re behaving inappropriately during or after; they could still be welcomed back to the meeting, provided they nix the creepy behavior.

The pamphlet can also explain to newcomers that though AA is a spiritually-based program, it’s still full of fallible humans, including wackos and perverts and sex offenders, like any other room on the planet, and therefore these newcomers, men or women, should be discerning. Women, for the love of God, stick with the women. Don’t get into the car with some scuzzy guy who’s invited you to coffee after the 10 pm candlelight meeting at your local AA hall. Even the men and women who have worked every step 10 times through still have animal instincts and are still fallible.

It’s possible the Pacific Group and the Atlantic Group should be formally annexed from mainstream AA. That one should be put to a vote.

The phrase “character defects” needs to go—it’s very harsh and somewhat shaming. Replace it with “unhealthy patterns” or “things that don’t work for us” or something. Because everyone on the planet sometimes struggles with selfishness, resentment, self-pity, fear and unrealistic expectations. Whether you’re an alcoholic or not, these kinds of traits aren’t too healthy and often leave us miserable, so yeah, it is good to get rid of them.

Now to the “powerless” lingo. This is something AA bashers really get excited about. They think AA takes away our confidence and belief in ourselves. I’ve got no problem with the term, but I’ve always interpreted it as admitting I am an alcoholic, or even just admitting that I can’t drink safely, and that drinking destroyed everything good thing in my life, made me crazy and nearly killed me four times.

For those who do take issue with the powerless bit, maybe we can change Step One to read: “We admitted we couldn’t drink safely and that our lives had become a hot mess.”



  1. i love this part! this is perfect, Tracy!!!!
    ““Do they lecture you endlessly? Do they tell you to get off your meds? Do they seem kind? Do they seem intelligent? Are they showered? Do their actions reflect their words? Do they hang up on you?” ”
    just reminds me of a few past sponsors, lol.
    the guy who told me i didn’t need medication, hmm, not sure if he was sponsor #8 ??

  2. its already changing little by little.. At the June international aa convention in Atlanta 98 percent of mtgs did not end with any prayer. Aa is like. The rest of the worlspd do sure there are many believers as well as those who do not and a lot in between.

    Check out growing subgroups within aa for atheists and agnostics as well as the aa agnostica website.

  3. Laura MacKay on

    Karen, Laura MacKay here, coauthor of “Addiction Is the Symptom.” Laura Sobriety Collective (@wearesober) brought my attention to you post. Thanks for the mention!

    People in this thread might also like to know that with Dr. Brown’s approach to the steps, outlined in detail in “Addiction Is the Symptom,” you don’t ever have to go near a 12-step meeting or so much as crack the Big Book if you don’t feel like it. In fact, Dr. Brown actually offers a few cautions about the Big Book.

    One of her bigger beefs is the Big Book’s premise that people dealing with addiction are flawed. It continually encourages self-judgment with such phrases as “flaws in our makeup,” “character defects,” and “spiritually sick.” Dr. Brown considers this attitude a “fundamental error.” Underlying her modified step process is the opposite assumption: we are all perfect spiritual beings. YOU are not defective. The problem is the conditioning imposed on you. Conditioning that the Brown Method brings to consciousness and then helps you release.

    Thanks, Tracy, for broaching this subject. It’s clear that the traditional steps don’t work as well as they need to—so let’s try something else!

  4. Very interesting post and I do believe that recovery programs should be updated to work with our every changing society. This really reminded me of a book I recently finished reading that I would like to share called “Addiction is the Symptom” by Dr. Rosemary Brown( Addiction is a fascinating and devastating part of many peoples lives, I personally have dealt with it throughout my own. Although I am in recovery, I often find it helpful to further educate myself and give myself new tools for dealing with urges. This book was great because it really felt different from others I have read. I agree with the author that addiction is indeed a symptom of a greater underlying cause, and having well detailed and thought out steps to manage it is crucial. It gave me a way to look beyond the actual addiction itself (the symptom) and better search out and heal the emotional problems behind it. Thank you to the author, she really does show there is a better way to work the 12 steps! I highly recommend it!

  5. Get it out of my EAP (HIMS) and the Federal Aviation Administration is all I have to add. Almost forgot, the ASAM needs to get sued into non-existence.

    FFS, I am the son of a Presbyterian minister. I don’t care to take religious advice from the ramblings of a delusional sociopath and an abusive proctologist. Some of us were just fucking binge drinkers with some transient psychological trauma!

    Thanks Tracey.

    PS: Your a Hottie


  6. I start the Serenity Prayer (to be honest it is really an affirmation and a damn good one with..

    “Dog; grant me the Serenity”

    What better to grat Serenity than a Dog, it is totally contrary to their very nature..

  7. Rich Willson on

    And to make an important Note..

    Offensive is not selfish or childish, especially when it comes to individuals who have been possibly damaged, abused, very vulnerable, and scared Shitless..

    Only someone who has been removed from these realities would see them as selfish, maybe they should work a 4th & 5th on the subject and exhibit a bit of empathy..

    As to defects and faults, my second sponsor (from another fellowship) did his best to put defects and shortcomings in their place. It was called called a serious and thurough inventory of ones ‘Assests’ as well as admitting the very nature of those positive aspects of oneself..

    Even a crappy automated accounting app inventories both the Black and the Red..

    BTW; doing a deep personal inventory of ones positive attributes and assets of character as well as admitting them out loud is far harder than one based on Moral Failings and resentments..

  8. Rich Willson on

    Kudos for putting out this, traditionalist will balk, thumpers will squak and many so AA is the only way. Ironically that claim in itself is a violation of traditions in itself. This way has worked many, it worked for me (after tearing out the chapter to Agnostics, and realizing I am powerless over idiots), my 12 step work is assuring newcomers everybody in the room are faulty human beings trying to help other faulty human beings; just that many are more faulty than others..

    And yea “To Wives” how sexist can they get, an chapter written by a man from a woman’s point of view to wives. Just the concept sounds like it should be an episode of “Mad Men”

    I always emphasize what has worked for me & has done so for far more years than I was ever using..

    I think the book should also emphasize strongly: Ask as many questions as one can. No question is to big or small and there are no stupid questions (we’ll sort of.. If a new comers ask if they can date? that’s a stupid question)..

  9. Pamela Taylor on

    When I was first getting sober all ofvthe points listed here were issues for me. My sponsor pointed out to me the importance of getting involved and letting your voice be heard. I also learned tolerance and the reasons behind some words or chapters. AA is due for some changes. Quite frankly,Tracy makes some excellent points. Thank you for tge thought provoking article.

  10. This sounds selfish and childish. You want to make changes to something that has worked for 80 years because you don’t like how it’s phrased.

  11. Sounds like an easier softer way. Seriously it does work if you do what AA tells you to. It doesn’t work if you don’t do what it tells you .

  12. How long have you been sober in his program hat is outdated. The service structure allows you to create a group that can say any prayer or read aloud the book using any pronouns. Please really understand the things you are criticizing. Including that AA has no opinion on outside issues. and our personal recover depends on AA unity.

    • Welp. I believe in thinking and speaking for oneself. I will never apologize for that. Acting like AA is perfect is naive, myopic and dangerous for many reasons. Cultural and gender insensitivies do matter. They matter in the rest of the world it seems. And why does my sober time matter.. .?

      • Tracy–props to you for saying what needs to be said. AA works for millions, but it doesn’t work for even more millions than those it helps. And for some of those people, if AA got a fresh update (same traditions, steps, principles but with modernized approaches), then the program might reach more.

        It doesn’t work for me as a be all/end all but I enjoy going to meetings on (a rare) occasion to be around other sober people who just “get it.”

        Then again, I went to my first SMART Recovery meeting this week. And I dug the vibe.


      • Here they come!! Post ANY criticism of AA and you’re going to get attacked by the crazies. Step 1 in the crazies playbook is attack your sobriety or how long you have been sober. These people are not only creepy and cult like but also predictable

    • Silver Damsen on

      Popsunshine, indeed, it is true that the author is focusing on the more surface problems with AA. The deeper problems are that AA/related 12-Step is a brainwashing cult that trains its members to think as little as possible and instead to substitute the use of an AA slogans instead of real brain activity. Thank you for modeling how this works.

      Yes, a more through criticism would talk about how AA “blames the victim” as part of its “spiritual” program in very, very literal ways throughout the Big Book. Indeed, much of the insanity is because AA is supposed to be taken very, very literally, and most long-term members do this, but also treat the insane literal interpretation as if it were open for Newcomers to find for themselves. However, there is only one endpoint in AA, and that is determined by “Group Conscience,” which is composed of all the Old Timers who interpret the Big Book literally.

      Thus, the author is useful in that she encourages the kind of thinking that would prevent someone from becoming a brainwashed member of AA, just as she would encourage someone to start thinking for themselves and leave AA, just by challenging the concept that the Big Book is a divine text handed down directly from GOD that must remain unchanged and be interpreted literally.

      True, I would like a deeper analysis that discusses why literal interpretations are dangerous, however, AA is still such a respected cultural institution that it is far easier to get milder critiques of AA published than it is the kind of scathing one I have tried and tried to get published, but only ends up actually being published in the comment sections of other authors.

      However, the word is still getting out, and more and more people are realizing that AA is not something that they want to belong to, and also is something that cannot actually help them. There are other better alternatives!

      • theghostofOddnes on

        You ever see the super creeps at the book studies with the leather bound book with the magic window for their chip in it? Crazy.

        I knew a couple of kids in AA {I am defining Kids as people under 25} when I was just a little older who used to sleep with a BB under their pillows at their sponsors request. LOL. But not that funny, 2 of these poor guys killed themselves in the end, one did it sober…. The other so ashamed of the way he got pulled into a sick sub cult of AA, went out and died of a drug overdose on a drug he invented… {he was a chemist}

        Both those poor guys also had PHD’s… I don’t, but once I left 12 step in the dust, I started to grow quite a bit as a person, and I am still happily breathing.

    • Joe C. (@Rebellion_Dogs) on

      There’s this idea that to be critical is disloyal, to expect more from a fellowship you love is heresy. That’s a rather religious notion. So the knee jerk reactions like this one and others I see here are a kind of schoolyard loyalty. “You fight my fellowship, you fight me.”

      On the same token, anyone who wants to change AA can; bring it up at your home group or get some friends together to start another meeting. If you think the Big Book is misogynistic, don’t read from it; There is no rule about what must or must not be read at an AA meeting. Read Living Sober if you want something a little more modern or change the format so the chair or speaker can read from anything they deem appropriate. Lots of AA members are writing lots of books.

      I found all the god-talk boring and started a secular AA group that doesn’t pray and no one seems to miss it. People still find AA, give it a try and get sober.

      AA isn’t autocratic so you don’t have to lobby GSO for the changes you want. Sure, write to the Grapevine, if you like. They’re interested in hearing from you. Here’s a recorded version of a 2009 Grapevine Article asking if AA wasn’t ready for a little up-keep called, “Overhaul?”

      I love the old 1980s Motorola cell phone; nice!

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.