Storytelling in Alcoholics Anonymous: A Rhetorical Analysis

Storytelling in Alcoholics Anonymous: A Rhetorical Analysis

Storytelling in Alcoholics Anonymous: A Rhetorical Analysis

Storytelling in Alcoholics Anonymous: A Rhetorical Analysis


Based on an ethnographic study spanning four years, George H. Jensen's Storytelling in Alcoholics Anonymous: A Rhetorical Analysis calls upon Bakhtinian theory to analyze storytelling in AA.

Jensen introduces his study with an analysis of "Bill W.'s Story" as it appears in the first chapter of AA's central text, Alcoholics Anonymous. Drawing on Walter Ong's work on orality and literacy, he argues that "Bill W.'s Story" as it appears in print cannot fully capture the oral tradition of storytelling as it occurs in AA meetings.

Jensen discusses storytelling as practiced by the Washingtonians, a temperance organization much like AA. He also discusses the influence of the spiritual program of the Oxford Group (an international and interdenominational religious movement seeking to recapture the enthusiasm and dedication of first-century Christianity) on the development of AA's Twelve Steps.

Jensen introduces Bakhtin's theory of the relationship between the author and the hero of a text, using Lillian Roth's,autobiographies as counterexamples of AA talks. He explains how AA meetings provide an example of what Bakhtin meant by carnival, a process through which humor, irony, and parody supply a mechanism for questioning commonly held beliefs. AA talks, Jensen argues, are fragmented, yet achieve coherence through the interweaving of two important chronotopes. Finally, using Bakhtin's discussion of heroes in autobiography, Jensen discusses the kinds of heroes one typically finds in AA talks.


Long after I was an adult, my mother told me that my father had gone to Alcoholics Anonymous for six months. One day, he came home from a meeting and said, “I don't think I'm an alcoholic. ” I suspect that it was less than a year later—I was six—when my mother reached her breaking point and asked my father to leave. He eventually drifted to New Orleans, where he slowly drank himself to death. I have little doubt that my family was better off once my father left, even though my mother struggled to support us on a teacher's salary, but we were still an alcoholic family. I certainly thought of my own family when I read the following anecdote from Alcoholics Anonymous:

The alcoholic is like a tornado roaring his way through the lives of others. Hearts are broken. Sweet relationships are dead. Affections have been uprooted. Selfish and inconsiderate habits have kept the home in turmoil. We feel a man is unthinking when he says that sobriety is enough. He is like the farmer who came up out of his cyclone cellar to find his home ruined. To his wife, he remarked, “Don't see anything the matter here, Ma. Ain't it grand the wind stopped blowin'?” (82)

The wind had stopped blowin' once my father left, but we had not experienced what members of AA or Al-Anon call recovery.

Alcoholics Anonymous describes alcoholism as a family disease, and it is ultimately the families—not just the alcoholic—who recover from an “abnormal” or “neurotic” life (122). And those families who experience recovery in AA and Al-Anon seem to move from being highly dysfunctional to being exceptionally close and well adjusted. For many years, I had respected AA as I watched close friends or relatives find sobriety by working the program, but I have been even more fascinated by the broader goals of AA. Members of AA often speak of the “dry drunk, ” the person who has stopped drinking but continues to be a tornado in the lives of others. Members also frequently say, “There is nothing sadder than an alcoholic who doesn't drink and is not in AA. ”

I thus began this project because I was intrigued by the difference between alcoholic families that were in recovery and those that were not.

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