Charles Bufe begins AA: Cult or Cure with a description of a standard AA meeting—dominated by a few people who tell their same, self-serving stories for the umpteenth time, the proceedings unfocussed and unhelpful, the environment filled with smoke and other unhealthy environmental contaminants—from which most people leave with basic psychological and social needs unmet. This opening vignette conveys a lot of information—it tells you that Chaz Bufe has been there; that AA, for all its grandiose claims, consists of meetings of typically not particularly helpful people with their own ample blind spots and personal needs; and that this is a book that takes a different slant on what has been up till now the sacrosanct topic of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Chaz Bufe writes in the great tradition of the independent scholar, someone devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding without institutional support for doing so. In AA: Cult or Cure, Chaz combines personal experience, historical analysis, review of government, AA, and other research data, and analytic interpretation into a seamless whole. His work on the indebtedness of AA and Bill W. to the Oxford Group Movement (later known as Moral Re-Armament), AA's Carl Jung connection, and Bill W.'s fiddling with funds earmarked for publishing the Big Book breaks new ground.
But Chaz's larger task is to evaluate the overall impact of AA on the individual and on society. In conducting this evaluation, the reader feels Chaz is not an ideologue. He gives credit where credit is due, acknowledging the brilliant insights of AA-founder Bill W., represented particularly in the 12 Traditions that Bill authored for AA. Chaz sees in these a successful blueprint for ensuring the democracy of AA as an organization not beholden to commercial, political, or intellectual interests. AA is in the alcoholism business, plain and simple. Chaz likewise points out that AA has not lent itself as an institution to oppression of women, blacks, or homosexuals as have other religiously based organizations.
Unfortunately, this strength is vitiated—as Chaz's analysis shows-by the tyranny of the group and AA philosophy over the individual. There is little room for individual variation and none for individual questioning of AA. The AA attendee does not speculate that he or she may not be an alcoholic, or question any of the 12 steps—for example, the need to turn oneself over to a "higher power." Despite AA's innocuous claims that this higher power may take any form, Chaz shows through its own 12 steps that AA requires a belief in deistic authority, with a corresponding diminution of self.
Chaz also shows—often through analysis of original data sources—that AA succeeds with relatively few (5% at most) of the massive numbers of alcoholics who wander through its meetings. The data which show this are general population surveys, AA's own membership studies, and research on outcomes of AA and other 12-step treatment (which forms the overwhelming majority of treatment programs in the U.S.). But AA is not concerned with data about its effectiveness or the numbers of people it leaves out in the cold. The fundamental goal of AA is to propagate the 12-step belief system and to support the small minority that finds this approach facilitative of recovery. This single-minded purpose has led to repeated ugly instances of career-endangering attacks on those who dare to gainsay AA's methods and success.
Chaz takes as his fundamental task to evaluate whether AA (and the ubiquitous 12-step treatment programs based on AA's model) comprises a cult involvement. In reaching his conclusion, Chaz roams widely over the acknowledged cults in recent American experience—the People's Temple, the Moonies, and Scientology, among others—along with the work of cult researchers and theorists. Examining cult philosophies and indoctrination techniques, he answers with a qualified "yes": the most important therapy group/technique in the U.S., in the eyes of the public, media, and health care system, is in many ways a brainwashing factory, one whose impact has led to no reduction in alcoholism in the U.S. In fact, by discouraging alternative approaches and free thinking about America's drinking problems, AA may have had exactly the opposite impact.
But the good news, in Chaz's analysis, is that America's honeymoon with AA is nearly over. Chaz traces this cultural shift to the recent more critical thrust of popular articles on AA and its 12-step philosophy, repeated negative court decisions on the constitutionality of forcing people to attend AA/12-step programs, and a growing awareness of AA's limited effectiveness—as well as to his own and other books, many published by See Sharp Press. In the next quarter century, Chaz predicts, what has often been AA's reign of terror over American alcoholism treatment will end.
—Stanton Peele, Ph.D.
Author, Diseasing of America, co-author (with Archie Brodsky) The Truth About Addiction and Recovery