Adult Children of
Alcoholics and its Beginnings
AN INTERVIEW ABOUT THE EARLY HISTORY OF ACA
(Updated for inclusion in the ACA Fellowship
Adult Children of Alcoholics officially was founded in 1978 in New
York. Tony A. is considered the primary founder
along with members of an Alateen group. Alateen is
a Twelve Step program for children of alcoholic parents. Alateen is sponsored by Al-Anon.
The Alateens and Tony formed a specially focused meeting that broke
away from Al-Anon and became the first ACA group.
The new group, Generations, focused on recovering from the effects of
being raised in a dysfunctional family rather than the Al-anon focus of
being powerless over alcohol.
Tony is the author of the Laundry List, the first piece of ACA
literature. The Laundry List is a list of 14
characteristics or common behaviors that detail the adult child
personality. Tony also developed the ACA Solution of attending meetings,
focusing on ourselves, working the Steps and feeling our
feelings. Tony died in April 2004 at the age of
Jack E. is given credit for establishing ACA in California and placing
the Laundry List in a narrative form known as the Problem.
The Problem is read at the opening of most ACA meetings.
Tony.s comments on ACA History are from a 1992
interview. This history has been updated based on
interviews with Tony and Tony.s family.
While Tony.s story mentions our eventual separation from the Al-Anon
fellowship, ACA cooperates with Al-Anon and enjoys a mutual respect of
Hope For Adult Children - Adapted
from an Interview With Tony A.
At the end of 1976 or the beginning of 1977, four or five young people
who had recently "graduated" from Alateen joined Al-Anon, a Twelve Step
fellowship for the spouses, friends and relatives of alcoholics
In Alateen, these young people had explored the impact of being raised
by alcoholic and co-alcoholic parents now known as
codependents. The teens looked at the effects of
living in an alcoholic household. Entering
Al-Anon, they were faced with the concept of learning to live serenely in
a dysfunctional setting. Stepping up to Al-Anon
meant they were faced with attending meetings that focused primarily on
adult issues or spousal drinking. Some of the
Alateens felt unsafe in their homes and believed they could not relate in
Tony said Al-Anon taught a few skills to the young people, including
how to get their own needs met. These bold teens
formed their own Al-Anon meeting which they named Hope for Adult Children
of Alcoholics. This first meeting met in the
Smithers Building in Manhattan. This group used the Al-Anon format but
improvised the meeting discussion. The discussions
involved the neglect, abuse and fear that the Alateens thought they could
not fully share about in Al-Anon. A second meeting
known as Generations would be formed but it would have no affiliation
While the first new group was being formed, the Alateens heard about
an Alcoholics Anonymous member sharing in AA about his experiences of
growing up in a violent alcoholic home. This was Tony, a 50-year-old
recovering alcoholic and New York City stockbroker.
Cindy, a member of the Hope for Adult Children of Alcoholics
group, heard Tony.s AA story and asked him to be a guest speaker at the
newly formed group.
Tony said he was 30 years older than the Alateens but their age
difference dissolved when he began telling his story. "When we began,"
Tony said, "There was a wonderful feeling of
mutual love, empathy, and understanding."
Hope for Adult Children of Alcoholics was technically an Al-Anon
meeting, however, something special was happening with each meeting and
with each story being told, Tony said. The
founding principles of ACA were being unearthed and spoken in these early
meetings. The dysfunctional family rules of "don't
talk, don't trust and don't feel.. were being challenged.
However, the meeting struggled because of a lack of structure
and focus, Tony said. After six or seven months,
instead of the increasing membership as expected, the fledgling meeting
had dwindled to three or four people. The meeting was about to
fold. Out of instinct and spiritual insight, Tony
said he invited members of AA to join the little group.
He reasoned that some of them, after all, had alcoholic
parents of their own. He was right. Seventeen AA
members showed up for the next meeting of Hope For Adult Children of
Alcoholics. At the following meeting there were 50 people. At the next
there were more than 100 people mostly from AA.
The somewhat radical Al-Anon meeting was on its way with a lot of help
from some good AA friends. Yet, the group still
lacked consistent structure and clear distinction of its message.
The Laundry List - ACA's first
piece of literature.
A second meeting was established known as Generations but it had no
affiliation with Al-Anon. The group met at St.
Jean Baptiste Church. Tony served as the chairman
of the meeting but he also attended the Hope for Adult Children of
Alcoholics meeting during this period. ACA was
still not officially established yet. Hope for
Adult Children of Alcoholics was connected to Al-Anon and the independent
Generations meeting still had no true focus other than the Alateens
sharing raw emotions about their abuse and neglect.
For about six months, the Generations meeting operated with
no format. Tony recalled how the members of the
group sternly encouraged him to formalize a format to address the
somewhat chaotic group sharing. This
confrontation by the group created the moment and circumstances by which
Tony penned our first piece of ACA literature. On
the day after Generations members urged him to formalize the group, Tony
said he sat down at work and jotted down 13 characteristics of an adult
child of an alcoholic. "It was as if Someone Else
was writing the list through me," Tony, said describing the
The list of common
behaviors took two hours to complete and Tony added one more trait when
he edited the traits with Chris, a group member, who offered to type up
the list. Tony realized he'd forgotten to add a
mention of fear. But he had second
thoughts. "No, they'd never admit fear,.. he
thought. "Excitement. Yeah, better. They'd accept
excitement. "We became addicted to excitement,." Tony
With that addition, ACA had its 14 characteristics or common behaviors
that would be read as the Problem in the Generations meeting.
He also wrote the solution edited by Chris.
When Tony read The Characteristics at the next meeting, one of the
members, Barry, said, "Hey, that's my laundry list!"
Since then the 14 common behaviors or traits have been known
as the "The Laundry List."
Tony marks this as the official beginning of ACA or ACoA. It was early
spring of 1978. No one quite remembers the exact
date of this moment but the Problem and the ACA Solution would allow ACA
to become a worldwide movement of adult children.
At the conclusion of a Generations meeting in late 1979 or early 1980,
two women from General Services of Al-Anon approached Tony.
They invited the Generations group to join
Al-Anon. To join, the meeting had to discontinue
reading or using The Laundry List. The group
unanimously agreed that it would not give up its Laundry List. The
decision marked the beginning of ACA's break with Al-Anon.
Today there are 580 ACA meetings across the
globe. Al-Anon meetings that have an adult child
focus are not associated with ACA or ACA World Service Organization.
In 1979, Newsweek magazine published an ACA article about Dr. Claudia
Black, Dr. Stephanie Brown and Sharon Wegscheider (now
Wegscheider-Cruse). The article was the first nationwide announcement
that family alcoholism could and did cause life-long patterns of
dysfunctional behavior even for those who never took a drink.
The family systems concept of addiction and family
dysfunction became more visible as well. Before
that time, most addiction or mental health models focused on the
individual addict. Black and others were saying
that the disease of family dysfunction had long-range effects on the
children, who became adults. The children were affected by the alcoholism
even though they were not putting alcohol into their
The AA Adapted Steps for ACA
At this time, 1979 or 1980, Tony recalls raising questions about the
adaptability of AA steps for ACA meetings. While
Tony believed in the AA steps and their ability to sober up an alcoholic,
he had reservations about the steps being a good fit for ACA.
For one thing, the AA-adapted steps directed the adult child
away from looking at the family system of dysfunction.
Tony believed this occurred in Steps Four and Five, the steps
on self inventory and an admission of wrongs. In
these steps, the adult child is required to focus primarily on one's self
and one.s wrongs. The adult child is directed away
from raising the question of the effects of being raised in a
dysfunctional home. Tony believed that this served
as a disconnect between an inventory of the adult child.s behavior and
the contribution that dysfunctional parents had in planting that
behavior. Tony believed in adult children taking
responsibility for their behavior and changing; however, he also believed
in fairly distributing the cause of an adult child.s destructive and
anti-social behavior found in Steps Four and Five.
Tony believed that the AA-adapted steps created a gross vulnerability
for adult children in Steps Eight and Nine. In
these amends steps, Tony believed, the adult child could be sent to make
amends to violent or abusive parents still in denial about the harm they
had rained upon the adult child.
Tony recalled the odd looks he received from AA members as he raised
these questions. "They were looking at me like I
was a little crazy..."
Tony advocated for a
departure from the AA Steps. In 1979, with the help of
Don D., Tony wrote his own variation
of the Twelve Steps, which he believed more fitting for adult children
and victims of abuse. These Steps encouraged taking an a "blameless"
inventory of the parents and focusing on self love.
During the next 10 years, Tony refined these steps,
publishing another version of the Twelve Steps in his 1991 book "The
Laundry List..." In the end, Tony's version of the
Twelve Steps balanced taking a "blameless.." inventory of the parents
with a focused program of self love and self forgiveness.
In 1984, the ACA fellowship voted to become an autonomous Twelve Steps
and Twelve Traditions fellowship, using the AA-adapted steps.
This was seven years before Tony published his version of the
steps. Some ACA groups use Tony's steps and his
book, which is allowable under the suggested ACA literature policy.
For the most part, the AA-adapted steps have been accepted by the ACA
fellowship. ACA members, in practice, have
modified them to allow the person to look at the family system, beginning
in Step One. This family history or inventory
includes the behavior of the parents in addition to naming family roles,
dysfunctional rules and abuse. Meanwhile,
counselors and informed sponsors are aware of the vulnerability an adult
child faces when considering a possible amends to a sick or abusive
parent or parents. Some parents are too dangerous
or too sick to approach.
In ACA today, the adult child looks at the patterns of family
dysfunction and is encouraged to talk about all aspects of the childhood
in ACA meetings and with a sponsor or informed counselor.
At the same time, the AA-adapted steps require the individual
to inventory one's self and to change destructive behavior.
We take responsibility for our behavior knowing that some of
that behavior was handed off to us by our parents.
At one point, Tony stepped away from the fellowship he helped found
because he felt as if he was being exalted or placed in a position of
authority. At the end of his life, however, Tony
continued to practice ACA principles and pass on ACA
recovery. In the last days of life, he answered
calls from adult children seeking help. The
following is a quote from 1992.
"I never expected ACoA to become a worldwide program when it began. We
were working on trying to keep a little meeting going back then. The
first time I got a glimpse that ACoA had national or international
possibilities was when Barry said to copyright The Laundry List. He did
foresee this, but I had no idea. I felt The Laundry List should be
anonymous at that time and never copyrighted it.
The concept of Adult Child came from the Alateens who began the Hope
for Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting. The original members of our
fellowship, who were over eighteen years old, were adults; but as
children they grew up in alcoholic homes. Adult Child also means that
when confronted, we regress to a stage in our childhood.
There are three parts of me: the Higher Power, me, and Little Tony. I
have to love Little Tony---my child within---if I'm ever going to unite
with God. Little Tony is my connection to God. I learned this from a
Hawaiian Kahuna teaching. Several months
afterwards, I heard about the Inner Child work beginning in the
When we started the Generations meeting, it was
anti-organization. My wish for the fellowship is
to use the original Laundry List and the new ACoA Steps written in 1991
in my book.
This program is about learning to love myself and then others
unconditionally. We are not God-connected if we don't. Trust has to
become a process, and love is a process. When I can trust and love me, I
can trust and love others.
I think we have to become as little children. Feelings are the
Spiritual Path of an adventure to know God. Our
goal is God.."
Tony A.-- October 5, 1992