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.
In his first section, Jensen discusses storytelling as practiced by the Washingtonians, a temperance organization much like AA. He also discusses the influence of the Oxford Group’s (an international and interdenominational religious movement seeking to recapture the enthusiasm and dedication of first-century Christianity) spiritual program to the development of AA’s Twelve Steps. The remainder of the first section serves as an introduction of the culture of AA to outsiders.
In the second section, Jensen covers 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 devotes an entire chapter in this section to explaining 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. He shows how newcomers to AA move away from their egocentric personae as practicing alcoholics to adopt a new identity within AA. Drawing further on Bakhtin, he examines the autobiographical moments of AA talks, stressing that these moments never become fully autobiographical. 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.