Mini ethnography — find a subculture you are not a part of, and would feel uncomfortable wandering into. Go hang out there for at least an hour. Write about it. This is a practice in participant-observation, a core tenant of cultural anthropology. All names have been changed, and permission granted to share.
Initially, my plan for this mini-ethno assignment was to attend mass at a local church; having been raised reform Jewish, religion was never a huge part of my life. What I do know is that most religious gatherings include rituals, both of call-and-response and activities. I know that religion is something that people hold sacred and inherently true, and being an outsider in a place full of insiders — usually from birth — is something that makes me heavily uncomfortable, especially considering the ferocity with which most religions preach that their way is the only way. I gathered information on local mass events and initially tried the Christian Center at my university, who were not holding services when they listed (unfortunately). I then set out for Mission Church on the hill, because it was conveniently close to my apartment and because it’s a healing church, which would definitely compound the uneasiness for me. After trying a few doors and risking looking like a vandal, I resigned to choosing another venue for my unease.
I brainstormed for a few minutes with my roommates upon returning home, frazzled and frustrated about where I could go at this point, since the evening was practically upon us. After setting aside the idea of marinating in the mens room or situating myself at the front of a crowd of concert-goers, I decided to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting at the suggestion of my roommate. She had previously been required to attend some sort of Anonymous meeting for a Human Services class, and claimed it to be one of the more uncomfortable experiences in her life. I’ve never had a problem with alcohol, nor had anyone close to me, so I thought this was a good idea. We looked up local meetings — which were surprisingly numerous — and I left again to go sit in a community of people with a shared identity that I was not a part of.
The meeting I chose to attend had a speaker; now, not all AA meetings have speakers. In fact, most are round-table-esque, with participants letting their guards down and revealing some of the most vulnerable parts of their past and struggles. I learned this from a gentleman sitting next to me, who afterward approached me to tell me he was also a student at my university and would be willing to come to meetings with me in the future if I chose to return. Not until after I got home and relayed this to my roommate did she inform me that this is against the rules of the meetings, and got me to thinking of what, if any, his intentions were, or whether he was also new to the community and just didn’t know this.
The first thing I noticed upon entering the room was a list of steps on a white board. I’d heard of the twelve steps of AA, so this wasn’t surprising by any means. What was, however, surprising and disconcerting to me was the emphasis on God or a higher power to achieve the goal of staying off the bottle. I imagine most people use faith to get through hard times, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be a requirement and prerequisite to healing a disease. It seems rather counterintuitive, from a secular standpoint, and made me incomprehensibly uncomfortable because I knew that I didn’t believe in God, I knew there was no higher power to which I attuned myself, and I knew that I couldn’t possibly suspend that disbelief were I to attend this meeting as an alcoholic. Coincidentally, the faith that I initially wanted to set myself in the middle of because I knew it would make me squirm wound up being an important part of this separate environment that I also found uncomfortable, raising my unease to a level I haven’t felt in a long time.
I immediately gravitated to the folding tables covered in desserts holding down ripped plastic tablecloths, thinking that maybe if I were busing eating a cookie and slowing pouring coffee I’d somehow dissolve into the background. More people began to arrive, and in a much more jovial manner than I’d anticipated; assuming alcoholism a serious issue, I guess laughter wasn’t the first thing I expected to hear in this environment. Thankfully, this eased my nerves a bit and I found a seat toward the back of the room and began to listen to some conversations before the meeting began. An older couple had relapsed for a few years and were now back on their 80-day stretch, where, if committed to quitting, members spend 80 straight days attending meetings. A group of portly older gentlemen gathered in a corner discussing football and children. A mother, with a daughter of around three, walked in and to the front of the room, at which point I instinctively cringed at the idea of bringing your child to a meeting filled with alcoholics and arguably inappropriate discussions, but what do I know?
The mother turned out to be the speaker for the evening, thankfully saving me from the otherwise customary practice of relaying your story and why you are there to the rest of the meeting-goers, one that is especially necessary if the meeting is your first. While this surely would have made my time immensely more uncomfortable having not fabricated a story beforehand, nor wanting to seem intrusive by stating that I “was just here for class” and inevitably feeling and probably being seen as unwelcome, I’m incredibly grateful it never came to this.
The speaker, Julia, had a story to tell that I wound up being able to relate to despite the fact that I was not really a member of this group. Julia was from New York and attended college in Boston. Julia received exemplary grades and was a responsible student, enjoying being away from home for the first time. Julia had a father who was an alcoholic, but Julia was not; Julia would attend parties, but isn’t that what college students do? Julia began to miss class because she was too hungover to attend, and began going out drinking during the week. Julia, eventually, began prioritizing drinking over school, and was unable to finish. Julia’s story cumulated for me when she discussed the fact she KNEW she wasn’t an alcoholic; “I had seen my father and his angry drunkenness, and that wasn’t me. I was the fun one, always happy, and this was college — everyone was drunk! If I were an alcoholic, I’d be angry and violent like him, and I’m not.” It wasn’t until a great friend of Julia’s had to drive to pick her up, naked, at the apartment of a man she didn’t know because she had no recollection of the night before, that he helped her to realize that this was more than just social drinking. He went with Julia to her first meeting and eventually became her husband and the father of the little girl before us.
This story of Julia’s — and, presumably, the presence of her daughter — was the opening of a door, of sorts, for all of us at the meeting to feel comfortable sharing our own stories. She had led us through her trials, had retold a story most of us wouldn’t tell our friends, let alone a group of strangers. She had brought her daughter, and acknowledged her existence and the happiness of her family as a direct consequence of using AA to get her shit together, and that without it, she’d still be that drunken college girl, albeit an adult, which is much less socially acceptable. Many people in the room were, or seemed to be, around college-age, which was confirmed later by the gentleman who approached me, and really only makes sense in an area surrounded by universities. Her story must have resonated with them, because it resonated with me simply as a college student who had seem similar scenarios, and the fact they were at the meeting more likely than not meant that most of the struggles with alcohol she went through, the spaces she drank at, and the mindset she held were similar to theirs.
This story of Julia’s made me comfortable. The nail biting and fidgeting I’d been resorting to in an effort to self-sooth were no longer happening. I felt that through her story, we were all now members of the same group. We all connected to it in some way, and although my connecting was of a different sort, I’m sure each of the individuals in the room connected to only certain parts of her story. I felt comfortable enough to speak, and although I didn’t have alcohol-related tribulations to share, I decided it would be best and relevant to voice the concern I did have; religion. I raised my hand to ask the group whether accepting God and having faith really was a necessary part of the process. Was it something I would have to try to come to terms with in order to get better, or would I forever be stuck in the cycle of alcoholism until I accepted a savior? The responses I received were not only surprisingly varied, but carried the theme of the laugher that had made me momentarily comfortable earlier in the meeting.
Many of the older gentlemen and Julia herself explained that having faith in a higher power was necessary because alcoholics tend not to believe in themselves, and in order to successfully quit drinking, you NEED to believe in something, you NEED to have motivation, or it wouldn’t work. Before I could comment, the woman from the elderly couple that were on their 80-day meeting binge spoke up to loudly proclaim this was bullshit. “You’re in a church,” she told me, “so the people at this meeting will tell you that you need God because they did; it’s probably why their regular meeting is in this church. It’s a safe place for them and it’s gotten them to the best place they’ve been. A higher power doesn’t have to be God, it can be anything: your family, your goals for yourself, even your dog. Whatever motivates you IS that higher power. Don’t let anyone tell you that you need to believe in God to pass the twelve steps because you don’t, you just need to believe in general that you’re going to get better.” Following this, she proceeded to rant to the speaker and leader about changing the terminology of the steps to something more secular or nondenominational considering it excludes those who don’t have faith in an omnipotent being. She then told me to “screw this meeting,” because there were plenty of others that were in secular spaces and eliminate the religious “shenanigans” altogether.
Ultimately, at the end of all this, I felt strangely welcomed into this little community, but was still uncomfortable because I knew I was lying; I didn’t come to get better or to find help, I came because I didn’t belong. I’d been embraced, though, by everyone there as one of them; I received offers to help me find a meeting more suitable to my age and beliefs, phone numbers in case I felt I needed a drink and had no one to talk to. It baffled me how this openness and graciousness made me more uncomfortable due to my own intentions. I now not only felt uncomfortable, but vaguely guilty that these people were putting so much care and effort into helping me when they didn’t even know me. I guess, maybe, that’s what fieldwork is about, though; setting yourself somewhere you know you’re not a part of and attempting to become a part of it, anyway, and having to come to terms with the fact that you’ll never really belong. Or, as Keesing puts it, “an outsider who knows something of what it means to be an insider.”