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.