Seeking Recovery, Finding Confusion: AA Group Leads Members Away From Traditions

When Kristen was 17 and drinking out of control, her psychologist referred her to an Alcoholics Anonymous group that specialized in helping the youngest drinkers. In the Midtown Group, members and outsiders agree, young people could find new friends, constant fellowship, daily meetings, summer-long beach parties, and a charismatic leader who would steer them through sobriety.

But according to more than a dozen young people who structured their lives around the group, the unusual adaptation of AA that Michael Quinones created from his home in Bethesda became a confusing blend of comfort and crisis. They described a rigidly insular world of group homes and socializing, in which older men had sex with teenage girls, ties to family and friends were severed or strained, and the most vulnerable of alcoholics, some suffering from emotional problems, were encouraged to stop taking prescribed medications.

Kristen, now 26, said that for eight years, she was “passed along” from one middle-aged male leader of Midtown to another. She said her sponsor urged her to have sex with Quinones — widely known as Mike Q. — as a way to solidify her sobriety and spiritual revival. Kristen, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used in keeping with AA traditions, also recalled helping to persuade other teenage girls to sleep with older men in the group.

“I pimped my sponsees out to sponsors,” she said, referring to the AA members who agree to watch over a fellow member’s sobriety. “I encouraged them to sleep with their sponsors because I really believed that this would help with their sobriety.”

Rianne McNair, who left Midtown in 2005 after three years in the group, said, “Several of my friends had sex with Mike Q. One of my friends went to the beach house, and her sponsor assigned her to Mike Q.’s bedroom. The younger girls looked up to these guys; Mike is idolized, like, ‘I got invited to Mike Q.’s house for dinner tonight. Can you believe it?’ ”

Midtown, also known as the Q Group after its leader, has expanded steadily to about 400 members since Quinones assumed leadership in the 1980s, but appears to be reaching a turning point. Quinones, a 63-year-old real estate agent who grew up in Baltimore and served in the Army in Vietnam, is fighting an advanced case of prostate cancer, according to group members, friends and relatives. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In response to questions raised by some parents, therapists and churches where Midtown held meetings, the group this spring issued a statement denying improper acts. “We cannot be all things to all people . . . ” the statement said. “We do not condone underage sex. While we are not the arbiter of other people’s sex conduct, underage sex is illegal and our experience shows that it can endanger your sobriety.

“We cannot tell you what to do with regard to taking medications such as anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, etc. While we have no opinion of medication in general, based on our personal experience, many members of the Midtown Group do not sponsor people who take mood-altering medication.”

Outside Quinones’s house, young Midtown members who often hang out around the front steps declined to talk to a reporter. A senior member of the group, who is close to Quinones and who spoke on condition he not be named because of AA’s tradition of anonymity, said, “Anyone who has anything positive to say about the group is going to respect AA’s policy of dignified silence in the media.”

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Montgomery County police said they are looking into allegations of underage sexual relations. But they said the women who have come forward have told of relationships that took place when they were 16 or 17; Maryland law considers women 15 and younger to be underage. Many of the allegations were aired in Montgomery County District Court in a domestic relations civil suit involving a member of the group.

“We interviewed 15 to 20 people, and they all said he’s doing it. But it was all, ‘It wasn’t me,’ ” said Montgomery police Sgt. Ron Collins of the department’s pedophile section. “Nobody’s come forward with anything we could charge him with. The girls can be 16 or 17, and it’s legal.”

Controlled by Leaders

Over eight decades, Alcoholics Anonymous, a pioneer in the support-group model of treatment, has grown to attract about 2 million members in more than 100,000 groups.

Despite a stellar reputation and worldwide brand, it has never been more than a set of bedrock traditions. It has no firm hierarchy, no official regulations, and exercises no oversight of individual groups. Disgruntled former Midtown members discovered this in recent months when they tried to get the central AA office in New York to condemn Midtown’s tactics and departures from the traditions, including a highly unusual practice of assigning older men to sponsor young women.

“The assumption since our founding was that groups that did not follow the traditions and concepts would fall away,” said a staff member at AA’s General Service Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity “because we are all alcoholics, and that is our policy.”

The main office does offer “strong suggestions” for how groups should operate, including how to pair each member with a sponsor who shares confidences and helps the member stay sober. AA recommends that “it’s best if a man sponsors a man and a woman sponsors a woman, so that there are not outside distractions,” the staffer said.

In Midtown, Quinones and several friends, who are also longtime AA members, have taken on leadership roles that go well beyond the typical part played by organizers of meetings, according to local therapists, ministers and AA members. AA tradition suggests that “our leaders are but trusted servants,” the New York staffer said. “They do not govern.”

Quinones and other senior members have not only run two dozen weekly meetings across the Washington region but also organized ski trips and summer beach parties, helped young members find jobs at stores such as Nordstrom and the old Hecht’s, and encouraged young members to live together in group houses in Gaithersburg, Rockville and Bethesda, members and ex-members said.

“It’s like a prepackaged community,” said David, 26, a former Midtown member who initially adored the group but now is highly critical of it. “You’re thinking, okay, maybe I can stay sober for the rest of my life, but how do I have fun? I went to a different group, and it was 50-year-old men who went bowling on Tuesdays. That wasn’t going to do it for me. At Midtown, everything is there for you. Here are your women, here are your dances every weekend, ski trip every March.”

But some former members describe the Midtown life as overwhelmingly controlling. McNair said she was pressured to pay $950 for a share in a three-bedroom summer house in which 20 Midtown members slept, most of them on air mattresses on the floor. Kristen described being pressed to pay $1,200 for a summer house share in which she slept on the floor.

Some therapists who used to refer young people to Midtown and some pastors whose churches have hosted Midtown meetings say they have heard of too many disturbing practices to maintain a relationship with the group.

Ellen Dye, a clinical psychologist in Rockville, said two of her clients “suffered significant harm as a result of their involvement with Mike Q. and his followers.” One young woman said she was assigned a boyfriend and encouraged to go off her antidepressants and cut off contact with Dye, the psychologist said.

Without her medication, the woman became acutely suicidal and was hospitalized, Dye said. When Midtown members learned that the woman was back on medication, she was ostracized and “was considered to have relapsed,” Dye said.

That young woman told The Washington Post that her sponsor in Midtown refused to continue as her adviser if the woman kept taking prescription medications. The sponsor also directed her to stop seeing a therapist ” ‘because you need one clear voice — your sponsor’s,’ ” the woman said.

“These are very needy people — they’re young people who can be looking for a parent figure,” Dye said. “Mike Q. plays that role. Midtown is doctrinaire and controlling. It’s totally against the ‘Big Book,’ ” the written traditions that guide AA groups. Now, Dye said, she warns clients and colleagues about Midtown and even has become reluctant to refer clients to any AA group.

After hearing about sexual relationships inside Midtown, Clancy Imislund, managing director of Midnight Mission, a Los Angeles nonprofit group that serves the homeless, said he asked senior Midtown members about the allegations and found that “there probably have been some excesses, but they have helped more sober alcoholics in Washington than any other group by far.”

Imislund, who speaks frequently to AA groups across the country, said he concluded that if sexual relations between older men and young girls “ever did take place, it’s not taking place now. It had been an issue, but wherever you have a lot of young, neurotic people, they’re going to cling to each other.”

Although Imislund portrayed parents of young people in Midtown as “immensely grateful that this group has managed to get their children sober when no one else could,” other parents said they were appalled to see the group draw children away from their families.

Barred From Some Churches

Cathy McCleskey became alarmed after hearing her daughter and other young people in Midtown talk about one practice after another that would not occur in most AA groups: They described being told by Midtown’s leaders to stop taking medication prescribed by a psychiatrist, being permitted to visit family only in the company of other Midtown members and regularly cleaning Mike Q.’s house, mowing his lawn and doing his laundry. Her daughter had a male sponsor.

“On one hand, she was sober for nine months, and I was so glad that I thought, whatever’s happening with this group is fine by me,” McCleskey said. “But then, after about a year in Midtown, I got a call that she was in a mental hospital.” McCleskey said her daughter remained there for four weeks, depressed and suicidal. The daughter is now out of Midtown and faring well.

McCleskey said she tried to get AA’s local coordinating body to look into allegations against Midtown but was told that each group governs itself.

Parents and former members, armed with a recent Newsweek article on the control Midtown exerts over young alcoholics, approached several area churches this summer to ask them to bar the group from meeting at their facilities. A meeting held on Sunday evenings for nearly two decades at the Church of the Pilgrims near Dupont Circle left the church this year after ex-Midtown members provided “detailed and credible allegations,” said the Rev. Ashley Goff, director of Christian education at the church. Midtown leaders told pastors they were being criticized unfairly by “disgruntled people who couldn’t keep their act together,” Goff recalled.

Even though some church members said Midtown had saved them from addiction, church leaders concluded that “this group crossed boundaries in very strong ways,” Goff said. “Clearly, they were targeting young women who were in their first rehab program — the most vulnerable people.”

Doctor Says...

Informed that the church was “about to make a decision about asking them to leave,” Goff said, “Midtown came to us and said, ‘Oh, our group’s gotten too big, and we’re going to leave.’ ”

Goff added: “Our fellowship hall is huge.”

At St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Rockville — the site of one of 20 or so weekly Midtown meetings across the region — the Rev. Roy W. Howard said that after Midtown leaders refused “to give me an explanation of the allegations against them, I decided to ask them not to meet” at the church anymore. St. Mark still provides facilities for six of the hundreds of Washington area AA groups not connected with Midtown.

And at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington, the Rev. Elizabeth S. McWhorter told congregants in May that although the allegations against Midtown “would have been difficult to prove or disprove,” the group “will not be returning to St. Patrick’s.”

But at United Church of Christ in Bethesda, the Rev. Allison Smith said she concluded that “there was really no bite behind the charges,” so “we’ve decided not to ask them to leave.” After meeting with Midtown leaders, Smith said that “maybe there were some incidents of an older male taking advantage of a younger woman who was in recovery, and that’s terrible. But was it a systemic policy? We really haven’t found anything to back up those charges at the group that meets here.”

When Kristen left Midtown, she was utterly alone. “Everyone in my cellphone was Midtown,” she said. “I was 24, and I knew literally nobody. I had cut off my ties with my family at the direction of my sponsor.”

“Eight years of my life was wasted,” Kristen said.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday July 22, 2007.
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