Twelve Steps to Danger: How Alcoholics Anonymous Can Be a Playground for Violence-Prone Members
by Gabrielle Glaser, Special to ProPublica, June 24, 2013, 8 a.m.
In the spring of 2011, Karla Brada Mendez finally seemed happy. She was 31 and in love, eager to move ahead on the path to maturity – marriage, a family, stability. She had a good job in the customer-service department of a large medical supply firm, and was settling into a condo she had recently bought near her childhood home in California’s San Fernando Valley.
Her 20s had been rough, a struggle with depression, anxiety, alcohol and drugs. But early that spring two years ago, she told her parents and younger sister that she had met a charming, kind and handsome man who understood what she had been through.
Their relationship blossomed as the couple attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings several times a week. But there was much Karla didn’t know about the tall blond man who said he was an AA old-timer.
Court records show that Eric Allen Earle repeatedly relapsed and turned violent when drunk, lashing out at family members, his ex-wife and people close to him. By the time he and Karla crossed paths, judges had granted six restraining orders against him. The 40-year-old sometime electrician had been convicted on dozens of criminal charges, mostly involving assault and driving under the influence. He had served more than two years in prison.
Unlike Karla, Earle was not attending AA meetings voluntarily. A succession of judges and parole officers had ordered him to go as an alternative to jail.
In that regard, Earle was part of a national trend. Each year, the legal system coerces more than 150,000 people to join AA, according to AA’s own membership surveys. Many are drunken drivers ordered to attend a few months of meetings. Others are felons whose records include sexual offenses and domestic violence and who choose AA over longer prison sentences. They mingle with AA’s traditional clientele, ordinary citizens who are voluntarily seeking help with their drinking problems from a group whose main tenets is anonymity. (When telling often-harrowing stories of their alcoholism, the recovering drinkers introduce themselves only by their first names.)
Forced attendance seems at odds with the original traditions of the organization, which state that the “only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” So far, AA has declined to caution members about potentially dangerous peers or to create separate meetings for convicted criminals. “We do not discriminate against any prospective AA member, even if he or she comes to us under pressure from a court, an employer, or any other agency,” the public information officer at New York’s central office wrote in a June email. “We cannot predict who will recover, nor have we the authority to decide how recovery should be sought by any other alcoholic.”
Friends and family members say that Earle gained little lasting medical or spiritual benefit from AA. “On the way home from meetings, he’d stop at the liquor store and buy a pint of vodka,” said his father, Ronald Earle. “He’d finish that thing in an hour.” His estranged wife, Jennifer Mertell, said Earle frequently told her that he never had any intention of stopping drinking. “He had no desire to ever get sober,” Mertell said.
But Earle figured out something at AA. Friends and his former wife say he learned to troll the meetings for emotionally fragile women whom he impressed with his smooth mastery of the movement’s jargon and principles. Mertell says he met four of his most recent girlfriends by doing just that. “He has no place to live. He has no job. He goes to AA and finds these women who will take him in. He can be very sweet-talking and convincing,” she said. “He weasels himself into these girls’ lives, and just does what he has to do to have a living situation.”
In recent years, some critics have pressed AA to do more about the combustible mix of violent ex-felons and newcomers who assume that others “in the rooms” are there voluntarily. “It’s like letting a wolf into the sheep’s den,” said Dee-Dee Stout, an Emeryville, California alcohol and drug counselor who offers alternatives to traditional 12-step treatment. Twelve-step adherents accept the notion of alcohol dependency as a disease that can be remedied by abstinence and attending meetings with others who are trying to stop drinking. Stout has been an outspoken critic of what she views as the medical and judicial overreliance on AA and its offshoots.
Internal AA documents show that when questioned about the sexual abuse of young women by other members, the organization’s leadership decided in 2009 that it could not do anything to screen potential members. AA, which is a nonprofit, considers each of the nearly 60,000 U.S. AA groups autonomous and responsible for supervising themselves. Board members argued that a group organized around anonymity could do nothing to monitor members without undercutting its basic principles. Continue reading