Episode 84: Safety in AA

Three women share their stories on the topic of safety in AA. Sarah J. from Johannesburg, South Africa talks about her experience with emotional exploitation. Lisa X. from Rochester, New York recalls a relationship that could have driven her from AA altogether, and Jennifer W. from Toronto, Ontario shares a story about how the men in her AA group helped to make the meeting a safe space.


John S: This is episode 84 of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast, and I’m your host, John S.


John: In last week’s episode, I spoke with Bethany B. and Heather B. about their experiences with sexual harassment and predation in the rooms of AA, and we explored possible solutions to the problem. This week, we continue that discussion and hear from three women who simply share their stories. Sarah J from Johannesburg, South Africa talks about her experience with emotional exploitation. Lisa X from Rochester, New York recalls a relationship that could have driven her from AA altogether, and Jennifer W from Toronto, Ontario shares a story about how her AA group helped make the meeting a safe space.


John S: Our first speaker is Sarah J. from Johannesburg, South Africa.


Sarah J: It’s quite weird in the rooms because when you’re a newcomer, people are always friendly to you—and you need that. But then, sometimes people have ulterior motives.

Sarah: One guy asked me out to coffee and I could just tell that he didn’t seem to be working a very strong program at all. And I just didn’t feel comfortable, so I said no. And then the second time, I was still new and this one guy, he just took an interest in me and it was always as a friend, but he had six years of sobriety and I had just a couple of months. He asked for my number, and then he started calling me quite a lot. I just… I don’t know, on the pretext of wanting to help me, and then we would meet for coffee and he would just ask me all about my life.

Sarah: I wanted to keep him at an arm’s length, but I just didn’t have any defenses at that stage. I was lonely and alone. I didn’t know anyone, and he had that sort of authority you know, like he was giving me pearls of wisdom and helping me understand the program and all that. And it just became a bit claustrophobic. He was phoning a lot, messaging, asking me to go for coffee. And then when I started saying no, he would phone me quite late at night saying, “Is it something I did?” It got a bit creepy.

Sarah: I spoke to my friend about it, and I just said “Look, I don’t know what to do about this.” This friend of mine is in the program and she had two years sobriety. She said to me, “You’re not obligated to be friends with this person.” I was like, “Really? I thought I’m supposed to be making friends and connecting with people.” And she said, “No especially because he’s a man.”

Sarah: And I also worry about equality and I believe that men can be friends with women and there’s nothing wrong with that. But she said, “You’re a woman in early recovery and some men will want to exploit that.”  I didn’t want to believe that, but I think she was right in this case. And she said, “You’ve just got to keep your wits about you and don’t trust everyone.”

Sarah: I think he was just taking advantage of me. He didn’t try to… He didn’t make any move, but I felt very emotionally exploited, because when were together, he would also gossip a lot about other people in the program and tell me things I didn’t want to hear about other people who I knew.

Sarah: One thing he told me was that he had…There was a newcomer who had been suicidal one night and called him. He ended up going over to her place and ended up sleeping with her. He told me this like it wasn’t his fault. He said, “No, like you don’t understand. I don’t know why I did it. I felt so bad, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that” It’s just strange. The whole thing was very strange, and I eventually was only able to extricate myself from this situation by going to another city. I just hadn’t learnt the skills yet to say, “I don’t want to have any contact with you anymore.” I just didn’t know how to say that, and he was quite emotionally manipulative. Anyway, I was moving to Jo’burg from Cape Town anyway, so it wasn’t like… That wasn’t the reason I left, but I used that as an excuse to just cut off contact and that’s the whole story of that.

Sarah: There were other times when men would ask me for lifts, and I would drive them in my car alone to strange places. I realize now that… Nothing happened, but it could have. I think one thing I just want to get across to women or anyone who is new in recovery, you’re not obliged to help anyone, even if they’re an old timer or someone with a lot of clean time. You can respect them, but you don’t have to do everything to please them, because they’re just human and they might also have their own issues, and they could be using you for their own… They could have ulterior motives or whatever.

John: Our next speaker is Lisa X. from Rochester, New York.


Lisa X: This guy, he was at one of my meetings and I was going to about five meetings a week, minimum. So, I was really active, and I was starting to feel better. And this was about May or June. He just started getting really friendly with me and I realized looking back at the time you’re just kind of numb. I don’t know. You don’t have your wits about you. And he was just really pressuring me into, “Oh, can you give me a ride?” He didn’t have his license, and so he had a bike. I felt sorry for him, so I started giving him rides.

Lisa: And I told him, “I’m still grieving for the death of this person and I’m not interested in anything more than friendship.” But, he persisted, and by August I just kind of gave in. Because, we just like… We weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend. We were just kind of casual, I don’t know. But it just turned out that I saw things about him in the beginning. When they say you should really trust your gut? [chuckle] I should have trusted my gut.

Lisa: There was something not right about him. He was very pompous and arrogant. He had had some sobriety, long term sobriety, and had relapsed, so he was about two years sober at that point. But he was just a know-it-all, and he was telling me all about all the meetings in town and this person and that person, and I just said, “Look I would just like to remain innocent or unaware of these things.” I just wanted to stay close to AA. I don’t want to know all the bad stuff. Just let me have my pink cloud.

Lisa: It turned out when I had broke it off, he got really nasty and he started talking about me and saying really horrible things. We actually had to get his sponsor involved to tell him to cut it the hell out because he was just being really, really mean.

Lisa: And I was thinking had I not had that really close-knit group of AA, my network of friends, I could possibly have just stopped going to meetings to avoid the guy. How awful that would have been. It’s the same thing as the God stuff. I think it’s just so important to not drive people away for whatever reason.

Lisa: You’re there because it’s safe. And to make it unsafe and to be afraid of people having bad agendas, the predatory stuff— that’s just wrong. And to this day, I still feel safest in women’s meetings.

Lisa: I was so naive, I was so trusting. I just thought, “Oh well, they’re in AA. They’re good.” I was just like, I don’t know. I did see everything with rose colored glasses in the beginning, which was good because I don’t think I would have stayed had I had all the preconceived notions. Had I not set aside all my preconceived notions. Which later turned out to be, some of those were kind of true.

Lisa: But anyway yeah, I think it’s dangerous, especially for young women. When I was about two years sober, I went to this meeting and there were a lot of guys, young guys in their 30s, and they would have… I could hear them talking, having conversations about checking out this person and that person, “fresh meat.” I thought, “God, that’s awful.”

Lisa: So many people, like myself, had such low self-esteem, and I think looking back, it was because he paid attention to me and a little bit of flattery. I was lonely. And I just, I don’t know, I fell for it. [chuckle] Just sad, anyways.

John: And now for our final speaker, Jennifer W. From Toronto, Ontario.


Jennifer W: My name’s Jennifer W, and I got sober on October 21st, 1994, in a small city east of Toronto, in a group there. While I was there, there was a man who started coming to our meeting. And he was wealthy, and he owned his own business, and he was married, and he had a lot of gold rings, and he had a long leather coat, so he made quite an image. That’s for sure. And he was very nice, very affable, very friendly. And that was great, and he was a good addition to our group.

Jennifer: But probably about three months in, we noticed that he was arriving at the meeting with women from our group that were… I would call vulnerable. They were single, they were probably… They didn’t have a job or they didn’t have a lot of money. They weren’t doing the best. They were doing the best they could but… And he would show up with different women at different times or different meetings and then he would… He would go out for coffee with them. You notice this because there was a smoking area right at the parking lot, so we’d see him pull up.

Jennifer: And I think maybe a month of this, or a little over that, we became concerned. I think I was probably two years sober at the time. So, it was really interesting because it was an informal buzz of… A quiet buzz of talk amongst the members making coffee before the meeting, after the meeting, discussing this man. We found that we were all very concerned, but really there was… Nobody really knew that within the 12 traditions there was any context to do anything about this situation. So, it was just quietly decided amongst the senior members, the men in the group, that they would take him out for coffee one night after a meeting.

Jennifer: They set it up. And we all used to go to the same coffee shop. So, one night not all of us went. It would just be the men and this gentlemen. And I don’t know how long they spent there. And I don’t know what they said. But I do know that at the next meeting, a very chastened man showed up alone in his Lincoln [chuckle] for the next meeting. And he started sitting, even within the meetings, in open and discussion meetings, with the men.

Jennifer: And I just really love the way that it was handled. Again, this wasn’t, “Well, let’s look at the 12 traditions.”  It was very informal. But it was handled that way, and I really appreciated it because there was no gossip. Nobody had to leave. Nobody got angry. And they just handled it so well. They took him in, actually, into the men’s zone of the group.

Jennifer: He didn’t even stop coming, which I thought was, “Wow how did they pull that off?” But they did. And I just really loved and respected the men in my group for the way that they handled it. And all the women collectively breathed a sigh of relief. And it was just the power of the fellowship. The best of it, in action. And it was very remarkable for me to witness. I was really glad that I got to see that happen.


John: Well, that wraps up another episode of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast. Thank you for listening everybody. We certainly appreciate all of your support. We’ll be back again next week, speaking with Dan M. from London, England. Dan will be telling us about secular AA in England. We certainly look forward to that. Until then, you all take care and be well.