Stanton examines the incredible bravery of Rebecca Fransway — and of those whose 12-step horrors she catalogues — and explains why this antidote to idyllic tales of AA glory is crucial.

Further Reading

In: Rebecca Fransway, 12-Step Horror Stories. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press.
© Copyright 2000 Stanton Peele. All rights reserved.


'12-Step Horror Stories: True Tales of Misery, Betrayal and Abuse' by Rebecca Fransway

Stanton Peele
Morristown, NJ


Twelve-Step Horror Stories tells tales of unmitigated horror. And all of them occur either in 12-step support groups or in treatment based on the 12 step of Alcoholics Anonymous.

These stories cover a wide range of horrors. There is abuse by alcoholism counselors—many mentally ill themselves. There are therapists who refer people to AA purely because they themselves are alcoholics and who can see no other way of dealing with alcohol problems. They are either incapable of discerning that their patients are having intensely negative reactions to AA or simply can't deal with these reactions—including emotional breakdowns, relapses, and, ultimately in some cases, death. There are AA members who exploit newcomers, both physically and sexually. There are rape victims told to "look for [their] part" and even to "make amends" to their rapists. There are treatment center counselors who recommend jail for coerced clients who, even though no longer problem drinkers, resist 12-step treatment. There are AA members who die after taking "medical" advice from their sponsors or other AA members. There are others who are driven to suicide by the cruel treatment they received in 12 step groups. And there are untreated emotional needs—both of the victims of AA groups and 12-step treatment centers, and of the aggressors in these groups. One comes away from these stories with the feeling that one has had a glimpse into hell.

We can imagine AA advocates and members—indeed, a whole treatment system based on the beliefs of AA—questioning Rebecca Fransway's work here. And, indeed, she will be attacked—has already been attacked—for her efforts.

So why tell such stories? Those who tell their stories in this book reply, "Because the stories are true." Others add, "Why are we asked to accept at face value all the sugar-coated tales told by AA devotees and long-time members? Why is their reality better than ours?" Still others simply want to get their stories off their chests. By doing so they break their feelings of isolation—and perhaps help others with similar tales who are still isolated. The diversity of voices in this collection of stories is remarkable, yet the stories paint a consistent picture that underlines their veracity.

In contrast to the reality of the experiences described in these stories, the American public is asked, over and over again, to accept what is patently untrue—that AA and 12-step treatment are invariably benign and helpful. We are asked to believe this because some people fervently believe that AA brought them personal salvation, or because (if they are not alcoholics themselves) they imagine that the United States (and increasingly the rest of the world) has a healthy, successful AA-based system in place to care for alcoholics.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Since AA and treatment programs derived from it are based on folklore, on religious precepts (like powerlessness, acceptance, guidance from a higher power, confession of one's sins, etc.), there is really no "there" there. The dominant treatment model—and more than 95% of treatment programs in the United States rely wholly (usually) or in good part on the 12 steps—is an emperor with no clothes. It appeals to a relative few, while others are forced to go along for the ride—the over one million per year who attend due to court, employer, or other types of coercion. As for the rest—the overwhelming majority of those with alcohol problems—they stay as far away from AA as possible.

The response from the treatment system and AA true believers to this massive disinterest in, even antipathy toward, AA? They accuse all of these individuals of mental illness, of a desire to remain alcoholics, of a failure to note their true alcoholic state, and much more. In essence, they claim that the obvious and massive failure of the American alcoholism treatment system is due to those who are not helped by it.

But we rarely hear from these people. Many would ask, "Who wants to listen to an 'alcoholic in denial,' or a 'dry drunk' [the AA term for sober individuals who reject AA], for goodness sake?" In part, this book is a study of how such jargon, labels, and slogans are used to browbeat both those in AA and those who reject it.

For their part, those in this book are incredibly brave. After reading their stories one can hardly blame them for failing to succeed at 12-step alcoholism treatment or AA (although most whose stories appear in this book have eventually overcome their drinking problems, either on their own or with other forms of help—sometimes almost to spite AA). Instead of sinking into a hole ("jails, institutions, or death") after rejecting AA, as AA told them they would, they've stood on their own two feet and have dared to challenge a sacrosanct American icon.

That is why we should be so impressed with those brave enough to share their stories in this book. Those who contributed the stories here are strong and competent enough to perceive that what happened to them and around them in 12-step bedlam was wrong and harmful, and they had the courage to blow the whistle on it. This is an extremely healthy reaction that should be encouraged by those interested in mental health.

Indeed, AA and the treatment industry are so powerful that people generally do not do well when they either buckle under to them or buck them—particularly since people exposed to AA and 12-step treatment are often fragile and in deep trouble emotionally. Most are likely to feel the way this young woman did: "My very first experience with alcoholism treatment and 12-step programs was frightening and intrusive. Today, I would have the confidence to speak up immediately against the verbal and emotional abuse I witnessed. But at age 21, I had not yet learned to trust my own judgment in the face of disapproval. I was afraid of my own feelings, my own anger, and I think it's that very quality which allows the treatment industry to roll over so many people."

Rebecca Fransway is one such brave person. Let us be clear about who Rebecca Fransway is and is not. She is not an ideologue—that is, she did not arrive at AA with a preconceived notion that it was wrong, harmful, or violated her values. Indeed, she is not by nature an activist. She does not approach people and activities with misgivings, as though the world is a place rife with danger and disillusionment and in need of correction. She attended AA in good faith, after she was repeatedly referred there by counselors and therapists who did not bother to mention that they were AA members themselves—the kind of counselors one often meets when seeking help for a drinking problem. If anything, Rebecca and many of the others one encounters in this book were often too trusting and accepting. Of course, on the other hand, they were told over and over again—not only within AA groups and treatment programs, but throughout the culture—that AA is the best way, the only way, to overcome alcoholism.

Thus in these stories we see people put up with incredible affronts to their dignity and their mental health. The worst of these personal assaults involved sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and rape. As one woman describes her ordeal, "I was wheeled into a meeting because, due to a disability, I am in a wheelchair. I asked for a ride home after the meeting, since I had cab fare only one way. One of the ladies, although she meant well, sent me home with a known predator/13th stepper, 'Drew'. . . . For the record, I don't drink now, but the abuse I suffered almost drove me insane. It has been ten years since I've gone to a meeting, and I still have horrific nightmares of the sexual abuse—my screaming, No! No! No! I don't want this!" Another woman, who repeatedly attempted to gain support in dealing with her rape by AA members, was consistently counseled to analyze her own role in the abuse she suffered—even when she went to a university-town AA group comprised largely of academics. Instead of support, she was repeatedly told:

"Let it go."
"Turn it over."
"Find out what your part is."
"Make amends for your part."
"Keep your side of the street clean."

She concludes, "The existing message which the women reinforce with their 'by the book' responses acknowledges that men hunt down women, and that women must simply accept it."

The use of slogans and jargon, of isolation and denigration of individuals who object to any part of "the program," of reliance on "group think" to wish away the inconsistencies and failures of AA, is a study in group coercion and brainwashing. As one perceptive but wounded woman notes, "I believe that many in AA are hiding horrible pain and trauma, and are using the meetings as an artificial boost to get them through the day. I also believe that AA uses thought reform to steer its members in that direction. The problem isn't members' foolishness or lack of willingness. AA is a machine which promotes repression, denial, and escape through 'spirituality.' It encourages members to fit their lives into the AA myth."

Thus it is that a group lionized for championing the downtrodden, a group believed to be nurturing people and encouraging them to understand and express their experiences and feelings, is in fact far more often a mechanism of oppression. AA long ago ceased being the voluntaristic organization envisioned by the small group of white, evangelical, Protestant, heavily alcoholic males who founded it. AA and, especially, treatment based on it, are now better typified as a system inflicted on the vulnerable and unwilling by an oppressive group of true believers who find it to their advantage to accept the received wisdom of the "Big Book"—and to impose that "truth" on others.