COMMUNITY NARRATIVES AND PERSONAL STORIES IN ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
Other stories they share in AA. – following on from our first blog on this subject, this excellent academic article considered the transformative power of the story format with AA recovery.
“This study is an empirical response to recent calls for mutual help group researchers to explore the utility of narrative research approaches (see Mäkelä, 1993; Rappaport, 1993). In keeping with the goals of this special issue, this article focuses specifically on the content, structure, and function of stories in the spiritually-based mutual help organization Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.)… particular attention will be paid to the interplay between the community narrative of A.A. and the personal life stories of individual A.A. members. As is well known, A.A. is a mutual help (also known as “self-help”) organization for individuals with serious drinking problems.”
The Serial Story
Mankowski and Rappaport (2000) point out that one must engage in participant observation research to understand certain types of community narratives. This is particularly true in the case of one of A.A.’s story forms: the serial story. Serial stories are multivocal, and as they are told, the community narrative and individual life stories interact dynamically and visibly. This form can be heard in meetings that focus on particular steps or problems. Once the focus is determined, each member gives a brief account of his or her experience with the topic. Speakers often agree with or elaborate on the accounts of previous speakers, thus building a community narrative on the meaning of the topic for A.A. members.
The following excerpt from an A.A. meeting illustrates this process:
Chair: Who wants to give us a topic?
A: My name is A, I’m an alcoholic. I’d like to talk about stinking thinking. It’s been hot out lately and I’ve been working a lot in the yard. I start thinking about how nice it would be to have an ice cold glass of beer. I haven’t done anything, but I can’t stop thinking about it.
B: My name is B, I’m an alcoholic. That is stinking thinking. That kind of thinking is one step away from your next drink—and that is your next drunk.
C: My name is C, I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been sober for 12 years and I still have times like that. That’s when I call someone or read The Big Book. You just can’t dwell on it.
One could characterize what these A.A. members are doing as weaving a narrative about what “stinking thinking” means in their community (Denzin refers to this as “the prose of the group”). As members contribute to the community narrative, a sense of continuity and connectedness can develop between them and A.A. In the telling of such multivocal narratives, members’ personal stories and outlooks are shaped by the group. Cain (1991) has observed that when A.A. members speak, they are likely to comment upon a previous speaker’s remarks if those remarks were in line with the A.A. view of alcoholism and ignore those that weren’t (unless a directly challenging remark is made). Thus, in the telling of a serial story, each member gets more social reinforcement for adding a verse that is consonant with the community narrative. This process makes the serial story form a powerful socialization tool. If members are unable to shape their story to the community narrative, they may find other members staring out the window, lighting cigarettes, or looking at The Big Book while they speak. A series of such experiences may make a member either drop out or begin to contribute more consonant themes to the prose of the group.
An apologue is a narrative that gives an explanation for why a particular procedure or tradition is present in the A.A. community. A.A. has organizational rules that members and groups follow.
Most of these rules are presented in the A.A. book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (1953), whereas others are common knowledge to long-time members. In both texts and meetings, these rules and traditions are justified with references to stories about where they came from and why they should be followed.
A field observation recorded by Denzin (1987) provides an example.
An A.A. member (denoted M), arrives 5 minutes late to a meeting and sees that only one other person, (denoted D), is there.
M: Do you want a meeting? You know two alcoholics can have a meeting if they want to. Remember Bill W. and Dr. Bob? That first meeting was just the two of them.
D: Yes, I do. I remember that story. I heard it in Chicago. I need a meeting. I’ve only had two this week. I’ll chair if you read “The Thought for the Day” and “How it Works.” (p. 93)
In this interaction, there was no need for a legalistic discussion about whether a meeting could occur. Rather, a well-known apologue was cited as sufficient reason to assume that two members could have a meeting on their own. Interestingly, the part of the community narrative that was cited was at one time the personal story of A.A.’s founders, Bill W. and Dr. Bob.
This illustrates the reciprocal influence of personal stories and community narratives in A.A.: Some individuals’ personal stories are adopted into the community narrative, which in turn shapes the personal stories of future members.
A.A. philosophy opposes the arrogant imposition of rules by a leader. Apologues, which fill the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (A.A., 1953), and are also heard around the tables, assure everyone that the traditions are based in common-sense experience and are not simply handed down from on high without justification.
Some stories in A.A. are not about the speaker or anyone else at the meeting. Rather, they are perhaps apocryphal tales of miracles worked by the program, the amazing experiences and abilities of the founders, or the disasters of people who have left the program. Legends have a common purpose, which is to build faith, admiration, and gratitude into members’ experience of A.A. as a whole.
An old-timer told one such legend at an A.A. meeting, as a general warning to those who think they no longer need
A.A.: I knew a guy who sobered up with A.A. and came to meetings for 20 years. A real old-timer. Then he decided he had his problem licked and he didn’t need A.A. anymore. The next time anyone saw him he was as drunk as he had ever been. I always try to remind myself of that. I need to, even though I’ve been sober for 23 years. [70-year-old man, field observation, 5/5/91]
An A.A. miracle story was related by a man with 10 years’ sobriety:
My favorite A.A. story is about this woman who went on a 12th-step call. She picks up this drunk, you know, and she gets a cab to take him to a treatment center. So she’s there in the back of the cab 12th-stepping this guy and telling him about A.A. She drops him off at the detoxification center and then never sees him again. But about a week later she’s waiting for a meeting to start and the cab driver walks in and says “Lady, I heard every word you said.” [35-year-old man, field conversation, 12/12/91]
Although too lengthy to reproduce here, the A.A. community also has legends about unnamed members that are recorded in The Big Book, and in Came to Believe (A.A., 1973), which is a compendium of personal accounts of spiritual experiences.
Although these stories, like those in religious texts such as the Butler’s Lives of the Saints series, certainly are based in real experiences, they “fairly glow with the luster of repeated tellings” (Antze, 1987).
Like other legends, they engender awe in the program and a sense of belonging to a valuable community. Like certain apologues, legends demonstrate that individual-level life stories influence the A.A. community narrative. If a person’s life illuminates and enhances the A.A. narrative, it may be adopted by a particular group, city, or in A.A. as a whole (as in the personal stories which compose the Big Book).
Personal stories that do not clearly fit into a self-help organization’s world view will eventually disappear from the community’s narrative, as did the discordant personal stories that were deleted from Al-Anon’s (a 12-step organization devoted to helping the families of alcoholics) primary text when it was revised (Martin, 1992).
Many A.A. meetings include uproarious moments. Members often tell humorous stories about their drinking and personal traits. A.A. humor is usually ego-puncturing and selfparodying, because members consider this appropriate to the needs of the recovering alcoholic.
Humorous stories allow A.A. members to acknowledge their foibles in a nonthreatening way while maintaining the humility which is considered critical to recovery.
An A.A. member gives the following example:
When I was 17 years old, I was already into drinking heavily with my friends. One morning we had football practice, and my friends and I were all hung-over. The coach worked us real hard and my friends started falling over and throwing up through their masks. I remember looking at them and feeling sick to my stomach and thinking “this is madness—this has got to stop.” It was at that moment that I resolved to quit football. [50-year-old man, field conversation, 12/30/91]
Petrunik (1973) has argued that such stories are therapeutic because they release tension and guilt about failures from the past. Similarly, Denzin (1987) has suggested that alcoholics use humor to transcend their past and overcome shame by putting themselves in the position of the laugher rather than simply being laughed-at.
One A.A. member said she saw humor as crucial in A.A. meetings because:
It replaces the conviviality of the bars, where we used to be able to get together and tell stories and laugh. When we laugh at a meeting it builds that feeling of esprit de corps we had in bars, so we don’t feel like we are just a bunch of somber drunks who are trying to stay sober. [50-year-old woman, field conversation, 1/ 17/92]
Using a narrative point of view, this study showed that stories are an essential part of the A.A. community. Stories serve vital functions, such as justifying community traditions, recruiting newcomers, and promoting a sense of wonder in A.A. The experience strength and hope in particular seems important in A.A., because it has personally transformative power due to its ability to transmit the A.A. world view and resolve past traumas. At least five types of stories are told in A.A.: “experience, strength and hope” shares, serial stories, apologues, legends, and humorous stories.
One of the noteworthy findings that emerged from the narrative analysis of A.A. is that community narratives and personal stories interact.
The A.A. community narrative is composed primarily of past members’ personal stories, but also shapes the current personal stories of newer members.
This finding supports Mankowski and Rappaport’s (2000) argument that narrative analysis can inform multilevel research. Indeed, one could extend the multilevel analysis of self-help narratives to include the cultural level, for A.A.’s community narrative has clearly been influenced by the Biblical narrative of pride leading to destruction, and ultimate redemption by God.
1. Humphreys, K. (2000). Community narratives and personal stories in Alcoholics Anonymous. Journal of community psychology, 28(5), 495-506.