Predators lurk in Alcoholics Anonymous

Christopher needed a drink. He was broke and he’d burned all his bridges, but he knew where to turn, though he could hardly stomach what he’d have to do to pay for his fix. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number. He mumbled his plea and hung up. He waited for the SUV to pull up, which he knew it would. There was beer on the seat waiting for him. The driver pushed it at him and offered a half smile. Christopher was with the one person who would indulge his weakness, his dangerous pastime. He was seconds into his next great drinking binge. The driver grabbed him by the neck, pulled Christopher to him and kissed him. It was his AA sponsor.

For more than a decade Christopher has been in and out of rehab, hospitals, and jail. He’s not a violent criminal and he’s quite bright. But he has a serious problem. He can’t stop drinking. The court system has done what it can: punishing him, cajoling him, threatening him, offering him help. Nothing has worked, at least not for long. Unfortunately, part of their legal prescription has been dangerous: court ordered attendance in Alcoholics Anonymous. Lurking in that program was the man who preyed on Christopher’s addiction. A man who came to him as an angel but behaves like a devil.

Glenn is in his mid-to-late 50s, single and semi-retired, he has a lot of time on his hands. He spends much of it in the Traverse City, (Michigan) recovery community, meeting young people. That’s where he met Christopher and other young men like him. AA meetings are like networking sessions to Glenn, it’s where he scouts for new targets. He hands out business cards to newcomers, the cards emblazoned with the AA logo and Glenn’s cell number. He innocently offers his services as a sponsor, but he has other things in mind.

In Traverse City on any given weekday there are 10-15 AA meetings at various locations. People from all walks of life shuffle into the meetings, some with years of “clean time,” others are just days from their last drink. The idea is simple: share your experience with others. Members are encouraged to come back and “to not drink between meetings”.

AA members are there to help each other stay clean. But for people like Glenn, AA meetings are a place to meet young men he can take advantage of. Most AA members are decent people, but there are some like Glenn, who are there with alterior motives.

It’s at Glenn’s “Bible Study” meetings where he gets bold with his young disciples. These unofficial weekly AA meetings are small gatherings held at Glenn’s home, attended by unwitting young newcomers, many of them still teenagers. Glenn governs over the lengthy meetings, which are peppered with scripture passages and readings from AA’s manual, which is called “The Big Book”.

At these meetings Glenn tells his guests that they must be wary of any self-centered thinking, that they are powerless over their addiction. He warns them of any self-indulgent thought, so much so that he instructs them to call him whenever they have such thoughts.

“I’ve heard him tell people to call him any time they get the urge to masturbate,” said Mike, a friend of Christopher who has attended the bible study at Glenn’s home.

Glenn exhibits other manipulative behavior, some of it seemingly innocent, like giving rides to young AA members, toting them to meetings, checking up on them with frequent phone calls. Other actions are more blatant: giving expensive gifts and furnishing alcohol to those he has established a physical relationship with.

The structure of AA actually serves to help the individual who wants to prey on people. New members are encouraged to seek out a “sponsor,” a person who has been clean and sober for some time and knows the 12-step program. This person must be of the same sex. This is ostensibly to prevent men from preying on women, but same sex predators can – and do – exploit the AA system.

But more sickening than this is the way the AA predator exploits the new AA member (called “newcomers”) by pouncing on them when they are most vulnerable. Most newcomers in the Traverse City recovery community are either in a rehab clinic or have recently completed one. Their last drink is only days or weeks removed from them. Their mental state is fragile. They’ve just recently lost jobs, spouses, and families because of their drinking. They may have been in jail. These people have “hit their bottom” and predators seize on this.

While Glenn is portraying himself as a sponsor with almost encyclopedic knowledge of “The Big Book” he’s also plying a few of his young sponsees with gifts, a bed, and alcohol.

“I’ve been to meetings where [an individual] will seat himself near newcomers he’s never seen before,” says one AA regular. “[They] want to meet as many young people as possible. The motive is clear and it has [absolutely nothing] to do with [AA’s 12] steps.”

Glenn is a master showman, a charlatan of the highest order. In AA meetings he sits humbly, striking an innocent pose. When he shares during the meetings he uses the standard AA vernacular: he speaks of himself in third-person, and uses biblical references and oft-quoted sayings, many of which are printed on signs hanging from the walls. The phrases add to the mind-controlling ritual that an AA meeting can become for those who are in a fragile mental state.

“These people are just off the streets, they’re hungry for someone to care for them, to tell them they’re going to be alright,” says Drew, an AA old timer from Acme who attends 4-5 meetings a week. “If an older man takes them under their wing, gives them rides to meetings, maybe some spending cash, they are influenced by that person. I’m not saying every sponsor is like that, [they’re not], but there are those, and Glenn is one of them, who take advantage of these people. It’s sickening.”

Ironically, the regulars in the AA community are usually aware of who the predators are, in fact Glenn came under scrutiny from a local AA chapter, when their leadership council voted to ban him from their meeting place after accusations of inappropriate behavior with sponsees.

“It wasn’t about homosexuality,” says an AA regular who was present at the meeting to ban Glenn, “it was about an AA member misusing the program to prey on people in a desperate situation.”

Indeed, if a program had a pattern of men preying on young women in a desperate state, it would be criticized, perhaps investigated by authorities. But AA has rarely come under scrutiny, as it is an autonomous organization with very loose and cryptic leadership policies. Despite the rumors that people like Glenn prowl in the Traverse City AA community, the 86th District Court continues to order convicted drunk drivers and others to attend meetings.

After Glenn was banned from that AA location, a general meeting was held which drew a standing-room-only crowd and resulted in heated debate. Glenn admitted he had engaged in homosexual behavior in his past but denied inappropriate actions with members of AA. Many were unconvinced, but the crowd voted to allow Glenn back in the meetings. One member said, “Who are we to exclude anyone? Our program teaches us to be inclusive.”

But that member seemed to ignore the fact that members are encouraged to match up with a sponsor, and if predators like Glenn are waiting to take advantage of the vulnerable, it’s a dangerous situation.

For many, especially the newcomers, an AA meeting replaces the ritual of the bar. Instead of beer and liquor, the members slurp coffee and suck down cigarettes. Instead of telling the same old stories slumped over a bar stool, AA members recite the serenity prayer and the 12 steps. Instead of embarrassing themselves with drunken behavior, AA members retell their drinking stories, almost bragging of their exploits.

It’s in this atmosphere that Glenn does what he does – attract young alcoholics with his promises. To some Glenn seems like a hero, a savior to these young men. There was a time when Glenn was asked by the 86th District Court to actually teach a course on AA, a course required for participants in the Sobriety Court. Glenn greets people at his church, he’s chaired meetings in the county jail, and he visits recovering alcoholics at Munson Medical Center. It’s not exactly clear how much of his “service work” is genuine, if any at all.

But if there are any people Glenn actually helps in the AA community in Traverse City, it doesn’t matter to those addicts like Christopher, who have prostituted themselves to Glenn in exchange for alcohol and other favors. As long as the Christopher’s are out there, Glenn will hover near them, offering his brand of recovery.

Names have been changed  in this article to preserve the anonymity of the individuals.

9 Comments

  1. My older male friend in AA not only did all these things, except offer alcohol, but continually told me to stop taking antidepressants and even vitamins after my gastric bypass surgery. I developed fear of the outside world. People know he preys on mewcomers and they tell me to keep coming back to help & protect new members if I want things to change. We even have cops who attend meetings & one has told me there are registered sex offenders in the rooms, but anonymity states he can’t say whom?! After 2 years I was near suicide in AA, I reached out time & again and was told to just ignore him. I was also told it was my fault because I have issues with dressing or sexuality. Today is the first day in over 2 years I want to drink so bad, not because of myself or life, but due to AA’s unwillingness to help innocent newcomers or people like me, with genuine concern for my safety.

  2. Thank you for sharing your comments. That’s a harrowing story about your local AA group and the bully. I have also encountered bullies in AA. I am very careful now when I enter the AA community and the rooms. I have been to so many meetings, I feel like i am pretty good at locating the predators, the fakes, the bullies, but it can be difficult. The lack of oversight in the program and the number of truly hurting and sick people in it, can make it difficult for people to get the help they need.

    I wish you the best.

  3. This is a very good article. Most people think of opposite sex predators in AA ( 13 steppers), but important to remeber that there are same-sex predators as well who use the rooms as hunting grounds. Currently experiencing a problem in the rooms a little different than what I just read here while investigating the best way to handle our situation here. There is, for lack of a better word, a bully who attends many meetings in my city. Not the type of AA bully i find in these types of online forums, but a man who is obviously very angry, although he hides it as best he can while in meetings, it’s pretty obvious. He says very inappropriate sexually loaded comments to various females in the rooms. Last week, for example, he stuck his cell phone in the face of a very meek and probably emotionally abused member of AA, thereby forcing her to view some sexually explicit( photo) ‘humor’ from the internet. Poor woman turned red and said nothing. This bully also tells people how they are not running their program the way it should be run. When chairing meetings, which he’s doing a lot of lately, he’s like the AA police, cutting off people whom he dislikes while letting other ramble on about non-AA issues. He engages in gossip with other members who’ll engage in it with him, dismissing and degrading anyone in those rooms who has attempted to point out to him how inappropriate his comments and behaviour is. As was pointed out in the above article, because of the lack of leadership in AA, it is very difficult to know what to do to stop this behaviour; traumatizing and re-traumatizing women who are coming to AA for recovery. It’s very difficult to kick someone out of a particular meeting group, or meeting place. There are 22 meetings a week in this particular meeting room, and because he is an angry tyrant, even a group of solid AA men talking with this goof may not do any good, and may incite this idiot to exact revenge on certain members or the meeting building. Who really knows what he’s capable of? I’ll keep looking for a solution through other forums on bullying and sexually inapproprite AA behavior.

  4. We have been having this very problem in our small group. Young women from a local rehab are required to attend our meeting; they are harassed & abused & intimidated by a 72-yr old member who is not really an alcoholic. We had a group conscience meeting, 100% of those in attendance voted to ban him from our meeting. We have taken flak for this from District bigshots, telling us “you can’t do that.” His sponsor says he is just a “harmless old pervert.” Harmless & Pervert never go together. I’ve decided to call the police if this guy shows up again. I will ask for an officer to remove an “unwanted subject.”

  5. I have seen this kind of behavior in AA, older men and younger women mostly. Only time I really had someone do something like this to me was the first sponsor I had when I got out of the navy. He didn’t do it in a sexual way, but it was his way or no way and he kept contradicting the book with his made up rules. I have learned to watch for these people. Start asking them the tough questions which will automatically get a “stop over thinking it” which either translates into “shut up, I don’t want to hear about this” or “quit thinking because I am trying to manipulate you and you’re making it hard for me”. The more you ask the tough questions of people and they start threatening you for asking those questions, here’s a brilliant thought lol: they are trying to manipulate you into something. I have known a lot of wonderful people in meetings and have many friends who aren’t like that. We have addressed the sexual predator/stalker stuff at the district level. It is a group members responsibility to pull that person to the side and ask them to stop doing what they are doing. I will also point out predators by name to newcomers. People could say I was wrong for that but what other people think of me is none of my business. If it was someone breaking the law like trying to molest teenagers at the meeting, I will violate their anonymity to the authorities. I don’t care. Listening to a fifth step where they broke the law and are trying to make ammends is one thing, I wouldn’t violate their anonymity to the authorities. The person who does it at the meetings and show’s no remorse or desire to change, that is another thing. That type of behavior is damaging to AA and as an AA member it is my responsibility to protect AA. Don’t blame AA for this, I used to. Any type of religious group can have stuff like that happen. Any of them. It should never happen but that’s not the way the world works unfortunately. The easiest way to deter this stuff from happening is to teach newcomers about this when the start in AA. In the future, anyone who asks me to sponsor them, we will be talking at length about this type of thing.

  6. Ive definitely experienced this and it very hard for me to trust a sponsor because of this. My judgment is sometimes off when first coming in or back to meetings. Though I am very astute and realize who these people are very quickly when i was younger it took me longer to see. I believe minors have no place in meetings because of this and while aa and na as a whole is good i am sure every other meeting has atleast one predator. I feel people need very aware

  7. While this article brings up several valid concerns, it is also offering a very skewed view of the program overall. I have been sober for 3 years and have been in and around aa meetings for over 8 years (since age 16). I have never experienced anything like this sort of behavior during my time in the rooms. While it is very true that there is a much greater number of “known manipulators” than you would find in the general population, that is to be expected… That is exactly what most alcoholics are, selfish, self centered manipulators. We come to meeting to share our experience, strength and hope to try and stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety. All of this being said, we are dealing with the sickest of the sick here. That includes people like “Glenn” but he is the exception, not the rule. It is very unfortunate that people have had such experiences, but that does not mean that many others are not finding recovery. People like “Glenn” are a part of the reason why I need to continue going to meetings, so that I can be a positive and helpful influence to newcomers. If there were such an individual in my area it would be a part of my job in helping a newcomer to warn him of such individuals and make sure that they were able to get a taste of recovery without falling prey to such atrocious behavior. Alright, that is my rant, i love the aa program and am grateful to have found recovery there!

  8. This is a very poignant and true depiction of the 12 Step mindset and the dangers participation entails. What people do not understand is that AA and NA have become the dumping grounds of the US judicial system whether it be by the direct mandating by a judge or the secondary route of mandating through a probation, parole, DMV or other agency. The fact is that AA and NA have a much higher percentage of known manipulators and violent criminals that any other main stream organization. The problem comes in when someone naive goes to them for help outside the court system and they become targets for the narcissists in AA and NA that are anonymous and have no accountability to anyone.

  9. Dan, thank you for this story and your report. I was a long time member and harassed many times when I was new and 18 & 19 years old. I am now 55. over 3 decades in AA and Im horrified by what I saw going on in LA< CA na dall over the country from my early website called stop13stepinaa. Eventually I created http://www.leavingaa.com keep up the good work! Thanks again for your blog post.

Submit a comment