Advice? Best not.

I don’t know about you, but if someone tells me to not do something, it immediately becomes more alluring. Perhaps it has something to do with my Poor Impulse Control. In any case, I’m probably on the lower end of the mischief itch scale: most of my closest confidants are ex-crims, but you won’t hear any of them doling out advice.

AA’s public relations strategy is based on attraction rather than promotion. This means that AA members will happily share their own stories – usually some kind of embarrasing (generally hilarious) tale of woe, how they got sober and what life is like now – but will never tell someone how to get sober. This is because AA worked out many years ago that we alkies don’t like to be told not to drink. I swear Bill W must have been punched in the face a bunch of times before he worked that out.

The useful thing about AA is that it is a bit like distributed artificial intelligence (hi Siri!) – we come to a meeting with a problem or call our sponsors (‘I saw Senator so-and-so in the coffee line and wanted to give him a power-wedgie for being such an asshat’) before we do anything we might regret later. While the individual in AA is sick, not every individual is sick on the same day, meaning that the group is strong. When a problem gets shared, it also gets attacked from every angle (just like distributed AI), and more often than not, an appropriate solution or course of action is decided upon (i.e. power wedgie averted.) To bring it back to anthropology, this means that we socialise our problems.

AA is a well-organised, entirely egalitarian fellowship with a flat management structure – nobody ‘speaks for’ AA. Each member has as much say in issues that affect her or his own group and area as any other. This means that decision-making in AA can resemble the Ent-moot from LOTR, where an awful lot gets said and every thought ventilated, for seemingly very little result.

Treebeard: We have just agreed…
[Merry and Pippin lean in]

Merry: Yes?

Treebeard: I have told your names to the Entmoot, and we have agreed you are not Orcs.

Pippin: Well, that’s good news.

Treebeard: You must understand, young Hobbit, it takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish. And we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.

But, instead of forty foot tall human-tree hybrids, think of a bunch of street toughs on their very  best behaviour sharing a biscuit with your grandmother.

Oh, and did I tell you that getting sober in AA can lead to the best belly laughs that you have ever had? We are not a dull bunch. This is because humour works better than telling someone not to drink.

A couple of Australian anthropologists Dr John Carty and Dr Yasmine Musharbash put together a special issue on humour for Anthropological Forum. In their introduction, they write:

Learning the laughing lines, getting the jokes, coming to share a ‘sense of humour’ is

perhaps the central yet strangely nebulous heart of understanding, and belonging,

within social relationships. Knowing how to make other people laugh with you—

instead of at you—is for many anthropologists the high-water mark of fieldwork.**

I would add that this applies equally to getting sober in AA – the black humour at the heart of the very best AA shares is criticial for creating a shared understanding of addiction, and of ourselves as addicted bodies.

It wasn’t a street tough that dragged my sozzled carcass over the line of self-identification with the ‘in-group’, so to speak. It was the grandmother’s story of cupboard drinking and the hoots of shared laughter at her stories of tipping back 750ml bottles of vodka with reckless abandon, and then hiding the bottles. Just like me.


* J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter IV: ‘Treebeard’, 1954.

** John Carty and Yasmine Musharbash, You’ve Got to be Joking: Asserting the Analytical Value of Humour and Laughter in Contemporary Anthropology, Anthropological Forum, Vol. 18, No. 3, November 2008, 209–217.


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