Is comedian and author Russell Brand’s repackaging of Alcoholics Anonymous for the masses just entertaining his messiah complex? Or is he truly aiming to be a global ‘mentor’?

By Jenny Valentish.

Russell Brand’s AA reform plan

Russell Brand sermonising to his fans.
Russell Brand sermonising to his fans.

As leaders go, he’s a strange one: a renowned womaniser with a rampant addictive nature and a tendency to be canned from jobs. His detractors accuse him of seeking the limelight, but even they can’t deny his quick wit and genius for marketing. He’s known to be a voracious reader and autodidact, keen to rub up against the brilliance of big thinkers. And yet, his leadership arose from what he calls a spiritual awakening.

I could be talking of Russell Brand, but I refer to Bill Wilson, who died in 1971, four years before Brand’s birth. As the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, his bold new system reinvigorated addiction treatment. As a man with an inquiring mind, his associations with Carl Jung, LSD researcher Dr Sidney Cohen and Aldous Huxley, who called him a “social architect”, were concerned with expanding it. So it is in admiration that Brand has dubbed Wilson “a madman, a prophet”.

Brand’s new book, Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions, takes Wilson’s 12 steps and audaciously repackages the 78-year-old dogma for our times, broadening drugs and alcohol to any kind of addictive behaviour. Brand prefers “fucked up” to “powerless”, “new perspective” to “spiritual awakening”, “The Solution” to “the program”. While he is seemingly lining himself up as the world’s sponsor, he would say “mentor”.

Recovery may lack a stringent edit, but that’s nothing when you consider the original 12 steps were written in 30 minutes. It’s easy to see why Brand would admire Wilson’s model: it’s rousing, formed on the fly, and triggered by a rebirth. And Re:Birth is the name of Brand’s forthcoming British tour, because whereas Brand Mark 1 was a heroin-using MTV host, disgraced Radio 1 star and self-confessed sex addict, Brand Mark 2 is an evangelical abstainer and motivational guru.

You could say he’s been preparing for this his whole life. On childhood visits to his father, they’d listen to the old man’s M. Scott Peck and Tony Robbins tapes in the car. In his 20s, he proved to be a think-out-loud philosopher on his radio shows. But it was in 2013 that he really began to channel his attention into shaping minds. Since then he’s filmed 366 episodes of web series The Trews, delivering to-camera social commentary, and books such as 2014’s Revolution, which advocates an anti-capitalist uprising. A podcast was launched this year, Under the Skin, extracting the big ideas of philosophers, politicians and theologians. The promotional empire he is building to broadcast his ideologies may be rivalled only by that of Oprah Winfrey.

If Recovery seems like an impudent rebrand of AA, then it’s in the same tradition of Deepak Chopra reinterpreting Ayurvedic medicine with a splash of “quantum mechanics”; and Eckhart Tolle repackaging Buddhist ideas; and Rhonda Byrne making The Secret, which sold nearly 20 million copies in its first year, out of the 19th-century New Thought concept of the law of attraction, as did Louise Hay with You Can Heal Your Life. Come to that, AA itself was faintly based on the principles of Christian organisation The Oxford Group.

As a self-appointed poster boy, Brand could be to AA what Tom Cruise is to Scientology – the Hollywood face with dazzling white teeth. But AA resolutely does not want a poster boy. As the 12th tradition has it, “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” Brand gets around it by never specifically referring to AA/NA, just “12 Step”… which is a bit like substituting “The Big Apple” for “New York”. In any case, his cover as a member was already blown when he made the 2012 documentary Russell Brand: From Addiction to Recovery, and the 12-step program attracts so many actors and comedians that its members are probably used to slips of discretion.

Far more outrageous are Brand’s accounts of his amends. When explaining step nine, he details his apologies to his stepfather, former colleagues and a promoter, including their responses, suggesting that even when he partakes in a program of spirituality, nothing is sacred. Perhaps that comes down to the 12-step adage that an alcoholic or addict has “low self-esteem and a big ego”. As a former AA member myself, I certainly didn’t feel like being humble or discreet; I mean, I’d just achieved the gargantuan feat of stopping drinking, so I’d basically reinvented the wheel. For me, ego meant dropping into a share session a few mentions of my latest book launch or an after-party. I would have hated for anyone to assume my life revolved around those church-hall shindigs.

“The other day I accidentally asked for an AA pass instead of an AAA pass,” I might chortle, hoping one of the members would pick up on my ability to procure access-all-areas laminates.

“You should stop that,” advised my sponsor. “It’s wise not to get too specific. Or to show off.”

Sponsors tend to project, though. For example, if your sponsor was a root rat in their first year sober, they’ll set you the mission of refraining from sexual contact for your own first 12 months. My sponsor seemed hell-bent on pointing out my self-righteous nature, which she deemed to be my “leading character defect”. “No, not ‘right’ – but ‘righteous’,” she’d correct me, with a wry chuckle. Sure, I had a tendency to send colleagues bullet-pointed emails, but then, I’d chosen this woman to be my sponsor because I’d seen her rolling her eyes at someone else’s share.

Russell Brand projects his entire experience of addiction and recovery onto the reader, to the extent that the book could have been subtitled What Worked for Me Will Work for You. It’s not surprising, really. He’s often joked about having a messiah complex, as one of his comedy tours was named, and he owns a T-shirt depicting Jesus walking on water. His overriding drive is to spread the word – as was the same with Chopra, Tolle and Hay – and if that’s to succeed, it necessitates becoming a relatable figurehead. Even Bill Wilson wasn’t immune to ego. He may have reluctantly turned down a Time magazine cover and an honorary degree from Yale at the advice of his AA peers, but he enjoyed the perks of fame, to the chagrin of his loyal wife.

I’ve noticed some other interesting commonalities in the stories of these gurus. Most had difficult childhoods: Hay had a violent stepfather; Winfrey was born to a teenage single mother and experienced sexual abuse; Tolle was the product of an unhappy marriage; Robbins has said his home life was abusive; Wilson’s parents abandoned their children; Brand was molested and didn’t get on with his stepfather.

Then, in young adulthood, most cycled hungrily through different models of self-improvement. Hay joined the First Church of Religious Science and devoured the New Thought authors of the 19th century; Peck had cyclic interests in Buddhism, Islamic mysticism and Christianity; Brand practised Transcendental Meditation and at one point, he has said, wanted to join the Church of Scientology, before being blocked by Tom Cruise.

Finally, there’s the dramatic spiritual awakening. Eckhart Tolle’s description of his awakening in The Power of Now is strikingly close to that of David Icke, the British footballer-turned-New Age conspiracy theorist. Both recall being pulled into a vortex of energy, experiencing a violent shaking, hearing a calm voice that seemingly did not belong to them, then losing awareness. Bill Wilson found himself at a sanitorium, where, pumped full of barbiturates and belladonna, he shouted in despair, “If there be a God, let Him show Himself.” In a vision, he saw himself standing atop a mountain, as a wind blew through his body.

It’s that kind of gusty, galvanising experience that can create a table-thumping zeal in an individual, but, for me, getting my addictions under control was more of a subtle rebrand – and one that I reserve the right to tweak. The danger in claiming to be the way, the truth and the life is that our all-too-human urges might wind up knocking us off our own pedestal.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2017 as "The 13th step".

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Jenny Valentish is the author of Everything Harder Than Everyone Else: Why Some of Us Push Our Bodies to Extremes, and Woman of Substances: A Journey Into Addiction and Treatment.

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