Have you ever thought that the Alcoholics Anonymous group you are in might be a cult? If you think your AA group may be a cult, it probably is. Maia Szalavitz explains how a benevolent self-help group can easily become a very dangerous manipulative cult and the warning signs to look for.
Cult Culture and the 12 Steps
A small but significant number of 12-step groups—from AA to addiction treatment centers—turn into dangerous cults. How can working the program take a wrong turn?
By Maia Szalavitz - 08/27/12
12-step programs—with their clichéd language, frequent meetings and religious mien—are cults. So say many critics. But in fact, the traditions of AA, NA and the other As are intentionally structured to prevent their members from crossing that line. Nonetheless, there is a reliable way to use the steps to create a full-fledged destructive cult.
Cults are not simply weird or dangerous religious groups, according to those who study groups that have had disastrous outcomes, like Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, which ended in mass member suicide, and the Branch Davidians, which ended in a fiery siege by federal agents. Instead, cults are self-enclosed organizations that use a well-defined set of coercive persuasion tactics.
These typically include isolating people physically and emotionally from friends and family, breaking them down emotionally and taking total control over their environment, movement and finances. Because these procedures can also characterize rehab, residential treatment itself without proper oversight carries a risk for creating cultlike behavior.
However, since 12-step programs in the community aren’t residential, can’t physically isolate people or take their life savings—and because they are formally leaderless—they have little risk of becoming the next Jonestown, Guyana, or Waco, Texas.
But the repeated development of cults or near-cults—from Synanon to Straight Inc. to today’s Washington, DC, Midtown Group—based on the steps is not coincidental. The reason is a toxic compound created when AA’s voluntary steps are twisted so that they can be imposed by force, especially in settings where people cannot escape. Chuck Dederich, the founder of Synanon, was the first to recognize the power of this recipe for subjugating people and creating followers. Indeed, Synanon was the model for every “therapeutic community” (TC) in the US, including mainstream leaders like Phoenix House and Daytop.
Originally hailed in the 1950s as a tough, peer-pressure-based cure for heroin addiction, by the late 1970s it was stockpiling weapons, forcing couples to get sterilized and swap partners and, perhaps most notoriously, had placed a de-rattled rattlesnake in the mailbox of a lawyer who had begun winning cases against it on behalf of former members who had been abducted and abused. When Dederich was arrested for conspiracy to commit murder in the snake incident in 1980, the charismatic leader was dead drunk.....
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