Everyone loves a good whistle-blowing story—especially one focused on an entity that has attracted some controversy over the years. While many people have heard of Scientology, most (outside of Los Angeles and Clearwater, Florida) will live their entire lives without ever meeting a Scientologist. Though 25,000 to 200,000 people may disagree (exact membership unknown), I have yet to meet anyone who credits Scientology for saving their life. I have, however, met hundreds of people who point directly to Alcoholics Anonymous as the reason they are not only alive but also living (at least primarily) happily.
So when I heard about Monica Richardson’s documentary debut, The 13th Step, I dished out the $16.50 to see what this former (and apparently now drinking) AA member of 35 years had to say. Based on the title, I assumed the film would be about the illusive 13th step—a wink-wink-nudge-nudge term for when members of AA with multiple years of sobriety hit on newcomers. But what the film is actually about is mostly the documentarian herself and her clear resentments toward the program that helped her stay sober for over three decades.
Half Measures Availed Us Nothing
Richardson makes a focused attempt to defame AA through testimonials by misinformed (and consistently not camera friendly) talking heads, which comes off as both slightly pathetic and wholly unethical. While no one in the program expects the average person to fully grasp the unique structure of Alcoholics Anonymous (even trained professionals tend to have very little working knowledge of it), a woman who spent more than half her life in the trenches of 12-step knows full well that her crusade for change within the rooms of Alcoholic Anonymous, as depicted in her film, is both nonsensical and futile.
Our Troubles, We Think, Are of Our Own Making
So what’s her beef? The film begins by addressing four news stories—and a few personal anecdotes—where women were assaulted and/or murdered by men they met in AA meetings. Richardson’s issue is with the courts, who are sending convicted felons into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous without any regard for the vulnerable women these criminals may end up sitting next to, talking to, and possibly dating. While this is a valid concern, it has nothing to do with AA.
Contrary to what some might assume, AA has no agreements with any judicial system. It is not an organization with a leader or an agenda beyond helping people get and stay sober. As baffling as it may be, the 80-year-old program doesn’t have a Board of Directors making decisions about how things work; each and every AA meeting is 100% autonomous, self-supporting and self-regulated. And within each meeting, there is no one person in charge, merely a gathering of members (generally voted into the position) who agree to adhere to the 12 Traditions and whatever the agreed upon format is for that meeting.
We Stood at the Turning Point
So who, exactly, is Richardson complaining to and what does she want? Although it might be natural to assume she should look to AA’s World Services Headquarters for answers, anyone who has been a member of a 12-step group for any notable period of time knows that holding what is essentially just the finance division a non-profit accountable for what happens in any given church basement is akin to chasing your own tail. Not only do the people who work at AA’s headquarters have limited knowledge of how many meetings there even are in the world—since all it takes to start one is an alcoholic and a coffee pot—but even if they did, what happens in those meetings and what kind of people show up isn’t something that’s within their jurisdiction.
If Richardson’s plea was for the courts to stop sending people to AA as part of their sentencing, I can get behind that. No one should be forced to attend meetings and with programs like SMART Recovery and Lifering, Alcoholic Anonymous is no longer the only game in town. Of course a violent criminal or registered sex offender who wants to get stop drinking or using drugs can walk into a 12-step meeting on their own volition but, Richardson doesn’t mention, this is true for most any room in the world. Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem of having criminals papering the rooms of AA but at least Richardson could sleep at night knowing that the non-disclosed murderer sitting next to a newcomer at a meeting—at least at one point—had the desire to stop drinking. However, I am not sure how she would know either way since she is no longer a member.
More Will Be Revealed
Just when I was feeling like the novice filmmaker, though misdirected, presented an interesting argument, she derailed her thesis to talk about her own journey in Alcoholics Anonymous. This is where her real agenda become clear and the potency of her alleged cause begins to unravel. Doing her very best to channel solid films like The Source Family and Going Clear, Richardson paints herself as a young ingénue seduced by a charismatic spiritual leader who convinced her to attend AA meetings. It was there that she fell into the grips, she reports, of an insular world of brain washing, unfair hierarchies and lawn-mowing
This might be compelling if it wasn’t total BS. Not only are there no ranks to move up in AA (all service positions are voluntary)—but in my 11 years of sobriety, I have yet to meet a single person who was asked to mow a lawn. As for brain washing, well, that is in the eye of the beholder. I know for me, when I transitioned from a life of destructive drinking to a journey of recovery, my brain needed a good washing.
We Tried to Carry this Message to Alcoholics
In addition to some well-known anti-AA lobbyists (Gabrielle Glaser! Lance Dodes!), Richardson included interviews with some former AA members (most of whom seem intoxicated) who all attempt to debunk some widely accepted practices of the program. Again, this might have been more effective if their information had been accurate. No matter what anyone chooses to interpret about the 12 steps, not one of them suggests that AA members proselytize (as opposed to, say, The Landmark Forum or Scientology). Most of us know from experience that people can’t get sober unless they are ready. Plus, we aren’t so hot to share our cookies and coffee with people who don’t want what AA offers.
There were women in the film who came forward and talked about the traumatic sexual assaults they endured as a result of relationships they formed in AA. These women were strong and brave and what happened to them is horrible and deeply disturbing. It is, of course, always upsetting to hear about the level of sickness that has run amok in the world, lurching behind unsuspecting corners. And while there is a general hope that AA will be a safe place for people—much like riding the bus, going to a bar or dating online—you just don’t know who you are talking to. There are no regulations about who attends AA, which is part of the reason it has worked so well for so many years. While I am glad the film sheds light on this important issue and hopefully inspires people to be cautious, AA is all open to all who seek it as a place to find sobriety, not physical protection from the public.
We Ought Never Endorse, Finance or Lend the AA Name
Call it a combination of the ever-growing drug problem in America (and beyond) and free enterprise but over the last 15 years, substance abuse treatment has been growing at a steady clip. Since AA is still the best known method for treating alcoholism and addiction—and since those whose lives have been saved as a result swear by it—naturally the program has made its way to treatment centers. While there is nothing wrong with this and rehabs are in no violation of AA principles, it has caused some confusion about the affiliation between AA and treatment.
So let’s clear things up. There is no affiliation whatsoever between AA and rehab. Since the 12-step program outlined in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is free and open to anyone, the AA name sometimes gets dragged into controversies like this—which is exactly why lending the AA name to any outside enterprise is against the organization’s traditions.
Famed AA debunker Dr. Lance Dodes notes in the film the arbitrary nature of the 30-day treatment program. While he may not have intended it this way (and he actually makes a good point), Richardson uses his criticism of this model as a way to discredit AA (since her film is not about treatment programs). This felt unethical—again, because I know she’s aware that there is no connection between the standard length of treatment at a rehab and AA.
We Have No Opinion on Outside Issues
Although Richardson introduces the court system argument, she makes it clear in the film that she holds AA—essentially an anarchy—responsible for regulating the kind of people who show up at meetings. I could understand this kind of shadow boxing from a non-member but, much like Bill Clinton picketing the White House so 7-Eleven will carry red licorice, the filmmaker shows up at AA headquarters in New York demanding answers about sexual predators in meetings. This takes her grand standing from self-righteous to just insane.
Admitted Complete Defeat
All in all, the film flopped on many levels—ethical storytelling, casting, sound and video quality—but its the exposure to the general population, who have little to no information about a fellowship that has saved my life as well as the lives of so many people I love, is what is the most upsetting element about the film. Richardson has every right to make a movie about her viewpoint and experiences; I just wish she had been able to put her personal resentments about AA aside and delivered a film with some educational value and integrity. Since she makes a point to weave in her opinion that alcoholism is not a disease (to which I will point out that she is not a doctor) and tell us that there is nothing wrong with her (rather than let us come to our own conclusion), it discredits the entire film and makes it seem toxic, destructive and like an 80-minute advertisement for her website.