No. But that isn’t stopping AA critics from seizing on a tragedy to state their case.
On September 18, 2014 a three-year long court case involving a woman who died by the hands of a man she met in Alcoholics Anonymous came to an end. After two hours of deliberation, the jury found Eric Earle guilty of murder in the first degree of Karla Mendez Brada. The case, however, doesn’t end there.
The Mendez family wrapped up its murder suit against Earle but several more were filed, two of which are against Santa Clarita Alcoholics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous World Services based in Manhattan. According to the CBS 48 Hours report, “In their lawsuit, Hector and Jara [the victim’s parents] claim AA is, in part, at fault for Karla’s death for not warning attendees that violent criminals—like Eric Earle—could be at the same meeting.”
It is pertinent to note that this story swept headlines once the crew of 48 Hours at CBS took it under their wing and dubbed it The Sober Truth. At the time, it was simply the newest media hallucination that imparts “real people,” “real crimes,” and “real life drama” upon daytime television watchers. This is yet another story eluding us at the level of reality where people have forgotten for the thousandth time that what popular media covers as “story,” is contextually unreal and the more time passes, the more unreal it gets. But there is no doubt that this tragedy did take place and that it was, in fact. tragic. Even more tragic, unfortunately, is that there are still other cases like it. But is blame or fault traceable to AA?
It is widely known that there have been issues with sexual predators in the rooms of AA. 48 Hours interviewed Gabrielle Glaser, who investigates the reasons women drink in her book, Her Best Kept Secret, where she said, “There’s something called the 13th Step that is this harassment. It’s any sort of unwanted sexual advance. And it’s gone on in AA from the beginning of time.” A rather absurd statement, “from the beginning of time,” as if time itself began in 1939 and sexual assault does not predate this. But Glaser is right, this does happen in AA and it must be addressed.
What could Alcoholics Anonymous World Service Inc. do about the issue? When asked by 48 Hours, 13th Step documentary filmmaker Monica Richardson said, “If the criminals were separated from the regular population in AA, Karla would be alive today.” Sensible. Here is the proposed scenario: at the beginning of a meeting, all of the criminals will go in the backroom and all of the non-criminals stay up front, “Have a good meeting!” To make sure all of the criminals follow directions we should have them wear bright orange, and also live in Kafka’s penal colony where each criminal has a tattoo of the offense on his or her forehead. There will be criminal coffee and non-criminal coffee. There will also be separate smoking areas for before and after the meeting. Respect our neighbors, please don’t litter. If we separate predators from non-predators, we’ll be okay. Stick with the winners. This is segregation logic and will fail every time if followed to the bitter end.
I reached out to a group called International Lawyers in Alcoholics Anonymous (ILAA) inquiring into the validity of such a case filed against AA. Patrick Reily, ILAA’s treasurer, got back to me and said, “Now that certainly presents some practical problems. How do you get service on an unincorporated association that has no structure?” AA lacks hierarchy, it is independent of its groups and the groups are “autonomous” and independent of each other. This is likely the reason why AA has not filed response to the Mendez family suit that was due on December 1, 2014.
When asked as to the validity of the suit against AA, an anonymous lawyer who has been sober for eight years said, “It seems pretty farfetched.” And on the question of whether AA is in any way responsible for its members’ actions, he said, “Given the title, i.e. ‘Anonymous,’ I seriously doubt it.” He added, “This lawsuit is a pretty low thing to do. Yet another reason to dislike attorneys.”
Another issue with the suit is that the injury—the death of Karla—is not fairly traceable to AA as such. It is easily traced back to Eric Earle, who is already locked up. The connection to AA, other than the fact that the two met there, is nil. What is a court to do with this knowledge? The two met at an AA meeting and everything thereafter took place in a consenting, albeit toxic and abusive, relationship at their own home. This is an issue of domestic violence where the couple happened to meet at an AA meeting and nothing else.
There is the other argument, that Eric Earle is a predator who hung out at AA meetings and should have either somehow been apprehended before he could hurt someone, or never have been allowed in AA to begin with—this is yet another delusion. Why can’t all predators and criminals be stopped? Because they do not let their motives be known and strategically place themselves in places where they can go undetected and serve their desire. The real issue, outside the bounds of AA, is who told Eric Earle that AA was a place for him to get help in the first place.
Criminal Justice System’s Over-Reliance on AA and 12-Step Groups
Earlier this year we witnessed an atheist and former inmate win a $2 million dollar settlement after being forced to attend “12-step drug treatment.” A Federal judge ruled that this was violating his first amendment right to freedom of religion under the Establishment Clause. More and more cases of the same are being brought forward, perhaps bringing about a much-needed change in climate of criminal court mandated 12-step involvement.
But with respect to the case at hand, what warrants attention is not so much AA’s outdated-ness and religiosity—although, there could be changes, which we will get to soon—but the court’s mandating of “criminals” to attend AA in the first place.
The courts exploit AA as if it is a drug and alcohol treatment option. In reality, it is nothing of the sort. Dr. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, regarded the criminal justice system’s hi-jacking of AA as “the perversion of 12-step principles.” Ronald Harvey, who just received his PhD in Community Psychology from DePaul University and did his thesis on recovery homes said, “One big factor is that the perpetrator was court ordered to go to AA, which tends to bring in people who violate AA’s criteria for membership and primary purpose.” Both researchers and policy advocates see the conflict with the current policy.
The systemic issue lies outside the domain of AA. More than 150,000 people are sent to AA from the legal system each year. This shocking number may lead one to believe there should be many more cases like this. According to AA’s Central Office, “Alcoholics Anonymous is not part of the judicial system. We do not work with the courts or the police department. We do not ask the courts to send people to us. When people do show up with court papers, we are not responsible for making sure the people are sober.” All the more convenient for courts.
People like Eric Earle, who may need a different kind of help, are being lost in a bureaucratic network that first falsely posits AA as an addiction and alcohol treatment modality and second as some magical zone to “reform” and surveil criminals, violent offenders, or sexual predators. Our prison-industrial complex is already failing well enough at this task and should leave AA to do whatever it does. The two systems should never have gotten in bed together in the first place.
Because in its truest form, AA is a self-help group and nothing more. It has no statutory duty to protect its members. AA does not promote itself as criminal-free nor does it have advertising of any kind. Individual AA groups do not have employees (only the General Service Office, and area intergroups have paid positions); AA is simply a collection of people associating together. In fact, by law, Earle could have walked into an AA meeting, told everyone what he planned on doing, and if nobody said a thing and the crime was carried out that very night, there would be no harm legal or otherwise (apart from an angry mob maybe?) brought upon anyone inside the meeting, except for Earle himself, for committing the crime.
Furthermore, Joe Patrice, attorney and editor at Above the Law, said in regard to the case itself, “AA put them in a room. It didn’t make them enter a relationship. The whole group consists of substance abusers. If you don’t think a certain portion of substance abusers have violence issues, you’re kidding yourself. To that end, I’d think it would be very hard to maintain a claim that AA is responsible for this death or for any negligence on its part.”
AA Reform and Sexual Assault Policy
The Mendez family’s fight for reform in AA is admirable. It is almost an oxymoron, the words AA and Reform next to each other. This is the same organization that uses antiquated language and folk medicine from 1939: alcoholism as an allergy; a chapter addressed “To Wives”; and calls for members to abandon themselves to “divine providence.” AA abroad, however, has taken some steps in the right direction with respect to predators. Over a decade ago, AA in the UK and Australia adopted a new code of conduct with moral imperatives to challenge “inappropriate behavior.” When I asked Dr. Harvey at DePaul University what he thought about AA in the U.S. in comparison to other countries he said, “I think USA AA dropped the ball by voting down a similar policy in 2009.”
As commendable as the Mendez’s fight is, they are fighting the wrong target. Creating a straw-man out of AA is by and large useless. What they are doing is akin to suing a church for being in a “bad neighborhood.” Their suit will not hold up. They will be lucky to get a response at all.
Changing the obstinate ways of AA will not effect nearly as many people as changing the criminal justice policy that bastardizes 12-step doctrine, criminalizes addiction, and creates drug court “loopholes” for light sentencing.
There is no way to determine whether an AA member like Earle, who had a 20 year rap sheet, will turn out to be a sexual predator or a positive role model for the group. He should not have slipped through the cracks the way he did. Had the justice system dealt with this man properly, he would not have been in AA and Karla may be alive today.