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A Talk with Leonard Blumenthal

Volume 62 No. 3 - August 2005 - A.A. Grapevine

The new chair of AA's General Service Board

GV: How did you get involved in AA in the first place?

LB: I was hired as a junior counselor at a local counseling center in 1966, and the staff suggested I go to an AA meeting here in Edmonton, Alberta. “Just come and see what happens,” they said. Like every meeting in those days, it was held in a church basement, there was smoke from the floor to the ceiling, and there was the worst coffee in the world. And I thought, How can this help anyone? I went to more meetings, and I became more intrigued. And I came across clients at meetings who had stopped seeing me who said they had found what they needed in AA. I still go to that first group; they’ve made me an honorary member.

GV: As a nonalcoholic, is it difficult to understand?

LB: Alcoholics Anonymous can be confusing. AA has its own jargon, its own ritual, and people talk about things that people don’t usually talk about. You have to get into it. And it really helps if you knew some of the people when they were drinking.

GV: What kept you coming back?

LB: As a professional in the field, I wanted to know why it was working. I went to hundreds of meetings in three years, and one night I realized that that isn’t really important. That question is like, “Why am I an alcoholic?” I had to just accept that AA worked. The philosophy of the agency where I worked was to get people ready for AA. That’s all we can do.

GV: Have you seen AA change since 1966?

LB: The alcoholic population has changed. People come into AA much younger; there are many more female AA members; and the stigma of alcoholism is not what it was. People aren’t ashamed to go into recovery. And people coming into AA have used multiple substances. In the 1960s, you still saw the pure alcoholic, and nowadays that isn’t always the case, but alcohol is still the primary problem. In the 1960s, you also saw more people who were going to church. AA has adapted in some ways, and in other ways it hasn’t. You have the purists and then a lot of people who were never involved in anything spiritual or religious.

GV: You came into your first meeting thirty-nine years ago. When did you first get involved in general service?

LB: I wrote an article for the Grapevine fifteen years ago, and I got more of a reaction to that than to anything else I’ve ever published. I got close to 500 inquiries and replies to that one article [“It Works!” May 1990].

GV: But you didn’t join the service structure until five years ago?

LB: That’s right, in 2000. I’d been to thousands of meetings, but I didn’t know there was a service structure. I would often think, Why doesn’t someone do something about this? Or call in the AA police? But it wasn’t until 2000, when I was elected to be a trustee, that I saw that there was a service structure and that trustees were like directors of a corporation — though the upside-down pyramid structure, which has directors reporting to groups, was a real eye-opener.

GV: Do you think AA needs to make any changes in the near future?

LB: I really don’t think it has to change a whole lot. But we do need to address two issues: We should look at how the membership has flattened, why AA is not as attractive to alcoholics as it could be. And we need to think about how AA can utilize our Class A trustees to the greatest extent possible to promote AA.

GV: Why do you think Alcoholics Anonymous has flattened out in terms of membership?

LB: There’s no scientific way of measuring, and I don’t have an opinion about that. But there’s no other solution than to try to change it at the local level. Sometimes I wonder if people understand twelfth-stepping the way that they used to. I know that nowadays, people drop a drunk off at detox and let the professionals take over, whereas before, AAs sat with someone and helped to physically sober them up.

GV: Where do you see the future growth of Alcoholics Anonymous?

LB: It could be in third-world countries, which are desperately looking for help. AA is free, portable, and can be put into place with innovation where there is no other help available. The way Bill and Dr. Bob did it.

GV: What about concerns about the contradictions between the Traditions and local custom in different parts of the world?

LB: We carry the message, we do not enforce it. In 1989, I was a guest in the Soviet Union, long before I knew about AA’s service structure. I was a guest as a result of my counseling work. I saw AA growing in the Soviet Union, even when it had two things working against it: People were not used to sitting around and talking because you never knew who was an informer, and the whole idea of God was alien.

GV: You clearly love AA and devote a great deal of time and effort to the program. And you’re about to devote even more time and effort. Do you find it helps you personally?

LB: Yes. Alcoholics Anonymous is a program for living a good life. And I found it a good one for myself.This way of life must work, because there are something like 300 copycat programs, so the basic principles are very valuable. After thirty-nine years, I feel like I am a part of the program. I really identify with it.

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Last updated 2005/08/26

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