The Discourse of Alcoholics Anonymous
Review - Talking Oneself Sober
by Seán O'Halloran
Review by Maria Gabrielle Swora, PhD, MPH
Nov 17th 2009
Perusing the literature on alcoholism treatment and the role Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) plays in treatment, it seems that Alcoholics Anonymous is something of a mystery to many clinicians and behavioral scientists. There have been some recent attempts to operationalize and quantify aspects of AA, such as spirituality; however, the nature of AA as an anonymous acephalous organization that keeps no membership lists or lists of groups, does not lend itself to controlled clinical trials. I hazard to say that many addiction researchers assume that AA and related 12-Step groups work by providing social support for those in recovery, and that spirituality is another name for some underlying psychological process.
But AA is not only a part of the addiction and alcoholism treatment community, it is also an important social phenomenon in and of itself. There are millions of AA members and thousands of AA groups spread throughout the world, and the numbers growing. What is the appeal of AA to those for whom it "works?" From my perspective as an anthropologist, the best way gain insight into AA and AA members is not to think of AA as a form of treatment, but as a community and a culture with its own beliefs, practices, and shared understandings. Indeed, AA calls itself a "fellowship," not therapy. Qualitative research methods, such as ethnography and discourse analysis, can give us a view of AA as community that survey methods or clinical trials cannot. This is where Seán O'Halloran's book, Talking Oneself Sober: The Discourse of Alcoholics Anonymous comes in. O'Halloran starts from the premise that communities and individual selves are constituted through discourse; that is, through the language they use and the stories they tell. O'Halloran provides us with an answer to the question of how AA works by closely examining AA meeting talk.
What does AA do? It holds meetings. What is the point of AA meetings? The meetings themselves, and the meetings are about talk. O'Halloran stresses that AA talk in meetings is institutionalized, formal, and qualitatively different than other forms of speech. That in itself is not remarkable. All meetings, including religious services, are characterized by forms of speech that differ from speech outside the meeting or service. What is important here is that within meetings, different participants have different roles and thus different access to discursive resources. Meeting chairs, for instance, (ideally) have access and use a discourse of control and direction than other meeting participants. O'Halloran's point is that unlike other kinds of meetings, all AA members have access to the same discursive resources and power, reflecting and recreating the egalitarian social relations. There are no official leaders in AA to guide discussion in meetings or critique another AA member's "program." In meetings, AA members ideally evaluate themselves, not others, and not the AA program itself. Social relations made manifest in AA meetings are symmetrical, based on equal "sharing" of "experience, strength and hope," utilizing continuously circulating discursive resources. These resources include stories, written texts, and slogans.
In participating in meetings, members acquire and share a language of sobriety. It is important to remember that in AA, sobriety is not simply abstinence, but a new way of living and of relating to others and to the world, one based on the acceptance of one's personal limitations over "persons, places, and things," and in particular, alcohol.
Talking Oneself Sober is divided into three parts: "Finding a Voice," "Fellowship and Sharing," and "Entering the Dialogic." In Part I, "Finding a Voice," O'Halloran deals primarily with the history of AA. AA began in the Akron, Ohio, under the accidental auspices of the Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian organization known primarily for informal prayer meetings. Beginning with the meeting of AA's co-founders, Bill W. and Dr. Bob,O'Halloran traces the development of AA in terms of how early AA members learned to speak with each other in ways that fostered identification with each other. In his discussion of the "Alcoholic Squad's" decision to leave the Oxford Group and form their own organization, O'Halloran stresses that early AA members wanted to talk about stayng sober and saving themselves from self destructive drinking , not about evangelizing to save the world.
The chapter on AA's written texts is the most important part of Section I, for here O'Halloran closely follows how the language of AA texts, in particularly the Twelve Steps and Alcoholics Anonymous' main text, The Big Book, developed as the nascent fellowship grew. AA primarily an oral culture, but it's important written texts are part of AA discourse. O'Halloran shows the reader in great detail how the language of the Twelve Steps developed, and how the speech of AA members is replete with references from AA texts. The development of AA texts is important to understanding how AA works, because of the language of AA texts is also the language of AA members.
In Section II, "Fellowship and Sharing," O'Halloran beings with a chapter on the development of the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. Here, O'Halloran provides the best analysis of the development and meaning of the Twelve Traditions I have ever encountered. The Traditions emerged from the experience of early AA groups, and reflect the basic values of the fellowship: equality, acceptance of limitations, and a reflexiveness that maintains a singleness of purpose. The Traditions institutionalized the symmetricality of the social relationships among AA members, shaping and shaped by the discourse of meetings.
The bulk Talking Oneself Sober is devoted to AA speech in meetings, using analytic methods of conversational analysis. O'Halloran traces the development of AA "sharing" in meetings, from its origins in meetings of the Oxford Group. Using a wealth of recorded data, the author provides a fine grained conversational analysis of several AA meetings. He describes how AA meetings are framed from the opening protocols, the within meeting talk, to closing frame. He shows how one participant's story is generally answered with another's personal story; "this is how it worked for me," rather than "this is what you have to do." Those mystified by the AA practice of introducing oneself at each turn of talk with "Hi, my name is _____, an I am an alcoholic," or with the many slogans in AA, will find good answers in this section.
O'Halloran's major contribution in this book is his explication of how social identities are consituted in and through discourse. To be sober in AA is to take on a particular social identity, that of the "sober alcoholic; there are no "ex-alcoholics" in AA. O'Halloran closely examines how AA life narratives, both in their episodic and extended forms, constitute both individual and social identity. His examination of the different voices within an AA life story is critically important to understanding the process of change within AA. Culturally acceptable life stories of AA members are strictly autobiographical and self-evaluative, but the stories as told include the voices of other AA members, and of AA texts. Furthermore, and more to the issue of change in AA, these autobiographical stories contain the voices of the storyteller's former self as the active alcoholic and the newly sober alcoholic, and the current recovering alcoholic. The contrast in voices is important, because it displays and maintains change from active to recovering alcoholic.
O'Halloran shows the reader how the AA's version of alcoholism as a "disease," the chaos of "hitting bottom," and the admission of powerlessness over alcohol paradoxically allow AA members to begin constructing a coherent life story, one shared with others like them. At the same time, O'Halloran stresses that the acceptance of powerlessness is not the same thing as becoming a victim of a "disease." The Twelve Steps of AA require recovering alcoholics to take responsibility for the work that leads to change and sobriety. In the final chapter, the author describes the interrelationship between the discourse of acceptance, that is, the acceptance of one's limitations as a human being, interrelates with the discourse of willingness to be open to opportunities for change.
The book does become repetitious in the second half, and weighed down a bit by theoretical references. In part, however, the repetitiousness of the book may reflect its subject. O'Halloran is dealing with a highly reiterative social phenomenon, one that works at several levels simultaneously. As a member told me while I was doing my own ethnographic research on AA, "you hear the same people saying the same things." It is important to remember that the reiterative nature of AA talk is part of how AA works to effect and maintain change. The book could also benefit from some closer copy-editing, as there are several mistakes that are distracting.
I do have some substantive critiques of Talking Oneself Sober. First, O'Halloran underplays the role of spirituality and a "higher power" in AA stories. Our differences, however, may stem from the fact that I did my fieldwork in a region of the US that has a strong evangelical Christian base, and AA is highly adaptive to local cultural contexts. O'Halloran attended thousands of meetings over many years, in Europe, Asia, and the United States, perhaps in more secular areas. Second, in his discussion of the different voices in individual AA stories, I wish that he had mentioned the voices of "old-timers." In my data, I have plenty of examples of members quoting (anonymous) old-timers, as in: "when I first got here [joined AA], old-timers told me...." Finally, I think O'Halloran should have dealt with the role of humor in AA speech, as humor and joke-telling are ways of creating community. The type of humor I documented in my fieldwork was as self-evaluative (and often self-deprecating) as non-joking talk.
While this not the book to turn to for an understanding of an AA as a community or social network outside meetings, or for an explication the 12 Step program, Talking Oneself Sober is an solid contribution to the scholarship on AA that should be read by all those interested in the AA as a social phenomenon as well as a form of "treatment." Applied linguists and conversation and discourse analysts will find this book a worthy contribution to their disciplines. Overall, this highly readable book makes a strong contribution to our understanding about how AA works as a social and linguistic community.
© 2009 Maria Gabrielle Swora
Maria Swora writes about herself: I have a BA in Linguistics from Ohio State University. I did my doctoral dissertation in social anthropology at the University of Rochester, on Alcoholics Anonymous. The title is Rhetoric and Remembering in Alcoholics Anonymous. I worked under Grace Gredys Harris. I was an NIH postdoc fellow at the University of Rochester from 1997-2000, where I also earned an MPH degree. My mentor there was Stephen Kunitz. From there I was a VAP at Wayne State, a research scientist at Wright State University, and then an assistant professor of sociology at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, from 2003-2007. I am a member of the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum and the National Coalition of Independent Scholars.
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