Critics Say Washington AA Chapter Is Cultlike

Recovering alcoholics say a Washington, D.C., group has hijacked the 12-step program's name.

Newsweek Magazine/May 7, 2007
By Nick Summers

May 7, 2007 issue - By the time May Clancy turned 15 years old, she was well on her way to drinking herself to death. A middle-school student from Potomac, Md., she had been through 11 different psychiatric and alcohol-rehab programs in two years. Each time, she started drinking again as soon as she got out. Her parents were terrified. "We'd taken her to hospitals—everything possible to get her the best care that we could," says May's father, Mike. "And all these places told us that they didn't think she could make it without Alcoholics Anonymous."

So in November 2005, when May agreed to begin attending meetings at Midtown, one of the oldest and largest AA groups in the Washington, D.C., area, it felt like a miracle. Other AA meetings in the city attracted mostly older men and women; Midtown was known as a place for recovering alcoholics in their teens and 20s. Some of the group's senior members were older, but there were also dozens of high-school and college kids with stories a lot like hers. From the moment she arrived, they seemed to go out of their way to welcome her. At first, May was thrilled to find a group of people who accepted her as she was. "When I went there," she says, "I didn't really talk to anybody, didn't trust anybody. And these people would hang out with me even if I didn't say anything, and include me in conversations. I was desperate to be liked at that point."

But something about Midtown was not right. After a few months, the group's embrace of May began to feel like a chokehold. She says the sponsor assigned to give her moral support and help keep her sober pressured her to cut off ties to anyone outside the group. Another member snatched her cell phone and deleted names in the directory. She says she was pressured to stop taking the medication a doctor had prescribed to manage her bipolar disorder: group members told her she couldn't be sober if she was taking any kind of drug. There was a hierarchy to the group. Younger members were sometimes expected to wash cars, clean houses and do other menial chores for more senior members.

May says she was especially uncomfortable with the emphasis on dating within the group and sex between members. She would listen as girls her age compared notes on the men in the group they had been encouraged to sleep with, some of whom were decades older.

Her suspicions were confirmed when she left Midtown and began attending a different AA meeting. She was surprised—and relieved—to find that many of Midtown's common practices were exactly the opposite of what Alcoholics Anonymous literature teaches. By design, there are no "leaders" in AA groups who exert control over other members. AA doesn't expect members to ignore doctors' prescriptions. It doesn't tell them to turn their backs on friends and family. And far from encouraging sex, AA groups overwhelmingly frown on intimate relationships for the first year of sobriety, when a recovering alcoholic is thought to be most vulnerable.

May's story isn't unique. Now 16, she is one of hundreds of recovering alcoholics who are taking sides in a bitter, unprecedented dispute among Alcoholics Anonymous adherents that pits members of Midtown, who insist the organization has saved their lives and kept them sober, against angry former members, who charge it is a coercive, cultlike group that uses the trusted AA name to induce young alcoholics into a radical fringe movement that has little resemblance to traditional AA.

It is a fight that has been largely waged in private. Some of Midtown's most driven critics organized a committee, dubbed the Concerned Friends Group, and created an anonymous MySpace page for ex-members to share stories. They have, unsuccessfully, tried to have Midtown expelled from churches where its meetings are held and have made numerous complaints to the police. (Law-enforcement officials say they have investigated the group but have not found evidence of criminal wrongdoing.) Many of the people involved in the dispute are recovering alcoholics and have been reluctant to go public with their allegations—both because it is a violation of AA's "anonymous" credo, and because they do not want it known that they are alcoholics. But in dozens of interviews with NEWSWEEK, recovering alcoholics and mental-health professionals describe a group that exerts an unusual amount of control and sometimes seems to put the social desires of some members above the recovery of others.

Despite repeated requests for comment, no current Midtown members agreed to be interviewed on the record, citing AA's tradition of anonymity in the press and their belief that negative publicity scares on-the-fence alcoholics from getting the help they need. But those who spoke or e-mailed without giving their names for publication say that Midtown is a flourishing group that has saved their lives, and that those who criticize it resent their success, have scores to settle or are simply making it all up.

Lauren Dougherty says that doesn't describe her at all. Now 29, she loved all the attention she got when she decided to sober up and join Midtown 11 years ago. A member of her family was an alcoholic, and Dougherty had sat in the back during AA meetings before. But Midtown was different from the meetings she remembered. Her first night, she was introduced to another member of the group and told, "She's your sponsor." Dougherty thought that was odd. AA sponsors are chosen, not assigned. But everyone was so friendly she let it pass. They gave her specific instructions about which Midtown meeting she should attend each day, and told her to cut off friends from her old life, even the ones who didn't drink. Soon her new circle of friends insisted she get an "AA boyfriend." Like May, Dougherty says there was pressure to sleep with older group members, which she refused to do. ("They live off of sex," says Meredith, a 19-year-old former member who, like several others, did not want her full name used to avoid being outed as an alcoholic. "I feel like their way of dealing with alcohol addiction is just by having sex with each other. Being in that group made me want to drink more.")

Disgusted, Dougherty tried to quit the group. She says her sponsor was furious. "You can't trust any of your own thoughts," she said. "You can't go into your own head unsupervised." At first, Dougherty didn't know what to believe, until a rehab counselor told her in no uncertain terms to get out.

Some former members say they too were made to believe that leaving Midtown would doom their recovery. Twenty-six-year-old Kristen spent eight years with the group, shunning family and outside friends. When she applied to go to art school in Richmond, Va., her sponsor, an older man, cursed her out. "You will drink," he told her. "You will fail. You will die." The reaction of her sponsor persuaded her to leave the group once and for all. She began secretly attending other AA meetings in the area. "I was so tired of being afraid all the time," she says. "I'd rather die than be in Midtown again."

Former members claim that Midtown makes it difficult to leave in other ways. About half the group's approximately 300 members rent houses with each other across the D.C. area. Many find work through contacts in the group. For them, exiting Midtown is not just a matter of walking out the door—it means getting evicted, breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and starting a social life from scratch.

The group's practices have raised concerns among some recovery professionals. Jay Eubanks, who oversees the Gaithersburg, Md., branch of the Kolmac Clinic chain of intensive outpatient rehabs, says patients who come to him from Midtown often need "damage control" to unlearn what the group taught them. "They start isolating people, getting them away from any feedback other than their own ... Only go to their meetings, only talk to people in their group. If you're seeing a therapist, stop seeing a therapist; if you're in treatment, stop going to treatment; if you're being medicated, stop seeing a doctor."

Midtown's approach to treatment so concerned Dr. Ellen Dye, a clinical psychologist in Rockville, Md., that she wrote an open letter to the Washington recovery community in August 2006, detailing two patients' experiences with the group. One young woman, she wrote, was "assigned a boyfriend" and pressured to go off antidepressants; she became actively suicidal and was hospitalized. The second was bossed so severely that he is now unwilling to attend any AA meetings, despite his worsening alcoholism. "At this point," Dye concluded, "I am very apprehensive about referring any clients to AA even if they are severe alcoholics. I think that it is essential that this group be eliminated from AA so that my colleagues and I can feel safe making these referrals again." While most recovery specialists know about Midtown, Dye said, parents and general therapists don't. "We're all saying, 'Go to AA, go to AA,' and we may be sending people into this terrible situation and not realizing it."

Other recovery specialists are more conflicted. Beth Kane-Davidson, director of the addictions center at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., says that the center stopped steering patients to Midtown during the past year. But, she adds, "the flip side is, I know people in the group that have long-term sobriety and are doing great." For some recovering alcoholics, she says, "Midtown has been a real godsend. It's taken them in and structured their activities, and filled the void left because they're not using anymore. But where do you draw the line? Given that the line is so fine, we try to err on the safe side."

David Hanrahan has a similar perspective. He got sober in 1985 while attending some of the meetings that later coalesced into the Midtown network; in his mid-30s, he drifted away when he decided he was more comfortable around recovering alcoholics closer to his own age. Hanrahan says a little disorder and disagreement inside AA isn't necessarily a bad thing—in fact, it almost always works out for the good. "I think AA is a miraculous organization that is run by nobody and controlled by nobody, and is complete, pure anarchy—as long as it's tied to the 12 steps—and I mean that in a good way," he says. "There are meetings all over the world, and anyone can start one, and nobody's in charge of it. That's AA's strength and weakness, right there." Hanrahan is concerned by the direction Midtown has taken in the past 20 years, but he also fears that its most organized critics care more about harming the group than reforming AA.

What does Alcoholics Anonymous itself have to say about Midtown? Nothing. A completely decentralized organization, AA has no spokesperson and no national leaders. Its worldwide headquarters in New York—which largely serves to distribute its literature and help people set up local meetings—declined to comment. AA has always relied on locals to govern themselves. Midtown can claim as much right to the Alcoholics Anonymous name as more traditional AA groups. For struggling alcoholics already wary of seeking help, it's another reminder that it isn't always easy to find someone to trust.

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