Bill writes in the Big Book (page 2): “I took a night law course…I studied economics and business as well as law…Potential alcoholic that I was, I nearly failed my law course. At one of the finals I was too drunk to think or write…By the time I had completed the law, I knew the law was not for me.”
Dan Demarest, a former Stepping Stones board member (Stepping Stones is where Bill & Lois lived the last half of their life) and a lawyer himself, was curious about Bill’s almost-law career and contacted Brooklyn Law School for more information. He writes:
“I spoke on the telephone yesterday with Dean Traeger of Brooklyn Law School, who had before him the School’s file on Bill Wilson’s academic career as a law student in the early 1920’s.
“He stated that, in Bill’s first year at law school, his grades varied sharply from brilliant (90 in Contracts, 89 in Torts) to mediocre (77 in Agency and in Partnerships). In his second year, his grades were ever more up and down, including some high marks and also a 67 and a 68; which were flunking grades. Both of these failed courses Bill took again and passed.
“In February of 1923, Bill flunked a course on Equity and left the Law School. His file shows that he returned in September, when all his courses were third year courses except for Equity, which he repeated and passed. “He was scheduled to graduate in June of 1924, except that he failed a course called “Executors and Administrators” (relating to wills, estates and trusts).
“He again returned in the fall and began repeating the Executors and Administrators course, but left the Law School finally on November 20, 1924 without, according to Dean Traeger’s records, again taking the exam for the Executors and Administrator’s course.
“My surmise is that in later years Bill remembered that he had more than once made up for and successfully passed a test previously failed but that he did not recall that he had not gotten around to retaking this last examination.”
“I woke up. This had to be stopped. I saw I could not take so much as one drink. I was through forever. Before then, I had written lots of sweet promises, but my wife happily observed that this time I meant business. And so I did. Shortly afterward I came home drunk.”
“Big Book” page 5.
“There were unhappy scenes in the sumptuous Livingston Street apartment. Promise followed empty promise. On October 20, 1928, Bill wrote in the family Bible, the most sacred place he knew: ‘To my beloved wife that has endured so much, let this stand as evidence of my pledge to you that I have finished with drink forever.’ By Thanksgiving Day of that year he had written, ‘My strength is renewed a thousandfold in my love for you,’ In January 1929, he added, ‘To tell you once more that I am finished with it. I love you.’
“None of those promises, however, carried the anguish Bill expressed in an undated letter to Lois: ‘I have failed again this day. That I should continue to even try to do right in the grand manner is perhaps a great foolishness. Righteousness simply does not seem to be in me. Nobody wishes it more than I. Yet no one flouts it more often.’
“Again, he wrote a promise to his wife in the family Bible: ‘Finally and for a lifetime, thank God for your love.’ The promise was dated September 3, 1930. Like those that had preceded it, it was not kept. That was the last of the Bible promises.”
“Pass It On” pages 81 & 86.
This is a transcribed talk that Bill Wilson gave back in 1944. It can be found in a book called “Alcohol, Science and Society” that came out in 1945 which contains 29 lectures with discussions as given at the Yale Summer School of Alcohol Studies. This is the only talk by Bill in the book. I love the fact that there is a question and answer part at the end!
THE FELLOWSHIP OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
As Given at the Yale School of Alcohol Studies
My first task is a joyous one; it is to voice the sincere gratitude that every member of Alcoholics Anonymous present feels tonight that we can stand in the midst of such an assembly. I know that in this assembly there are many different points of view, that we have social workers, ministers, doctors and others – people we once thought did not understand us, because we did not understand them. I think right away of one of our clergyman friends. He helped start our group in St. Louis, and when Pearl Harbor came he thought to himself, “Well this will be a hard day for the AA’s.” He expected to see us go off like firecrackers. Well, nothing much happened and the good man was rather joyously disappointed, you might say. But he was puzzled. And then he noticed with still more wonder that the AA’s seemed rather less excited about Pearl Harbor than the normal people. In fact, quite a number of the so-called normal people seemed to be getting drunk and very distressed. So he went up to one of the AA’s and said, “Tell me, how is it that you folks hold up so well under this stress, I mean this Pearl Harbor?” The A.A. looked at him, smiled, but quite seriously said, “You know, each of us has had his own private Pearl Harbor, each of us has known the utmost of humiliation, of despair, and of defeat. So why should we, who have known the resurrection, fear another Pearl Harbor?”
So you can see how grateful we are that we have found this resurrection and that so many people, not alcoholics, with so many points of view, have joined to make it a reality. I guess all of you know Marty Mann by this time. I shall always remember her story about her first A.A. meeting. She had been in a sanatorium under the care of a wonderful doctor, but how very lonely she felt! Somehow, there was a gap between that very good man and herself that could not quite be bridged. Then she went to her first A.A. meeting, wondering what she would find; and her words, when she returned to the sanatorium, in talking to her friend, another alcoholic, were: “Grenny, we are no longer alone. ” So we are a people who have known loneliness, but now stand here in the midst of many friends. Now I am sure you can see how very grateful for all this we must be.
I am sure that in this course you have heard that alcoholism is a malady; that something is dead wrong with us physically; that our reaction to alcohol has changed; that something has been very wrong with us emotionally; and that our alcoholic habit has become an obsession, an obsession which can no longer reckon even with death itself. Once firmly set, one is not able to turn it aside. In other words, a sort of allergy of the body that guarantees that we shall die if we drink, an obsession of the mind that guarantees that we shall go on drinking. Such has been the alcoholics dilemma time out of mind, and it is altogether probable that even those alcoholics who did not wish to go on drinking, not more than 5 out of 100 have ever been able to stop, before A.A.
That statement always takes me back to a summer night at a drying out place in New York where I lay upstairs at the end of a long trail. My wife was downstairs talking with the doctor, asking him, “Bill wants so badly to stop this thing, doctor, why can’t he? He was always considered a person of enormous persistence, even obstinacy, in those things that he wished to achieve. Why can’t his will power work now? It does work even yet in other areas of life, but why not in this?” And then the doctor went on to tell her something of my childhood, showing that I had grown up a rather awkward kid, how that had thrown upon me a kind of inferiority and had inspired in me a fierce desire to show other people that I could be like them; how I had become a person who abnormally craved approval, applause. He showed her the seed, planted so early, that had created me an inferiority-driven neurotic. On the surface, to be sure, very self confident, with a certain amount of worldly success in Wall Street. But along with it this habit of getting release from myself through alcohol.
You know, as strange as it may seem to some of the clergy here who are not alcoholic, the drinking of alcohol is a sort of spiritual release. Is it not true that the great fault of all individuals is abnormal self-concern? And how well alcohol seems temporarily to expel those feelings of inferiority in us, to transport us temporarily to a better world. Yes, I was one of those people to whom drink became a necessity and then an addiction. So it was 10 years ago this summer that the good doctor told my wife I could not go on much longer; that my habit of adjusting my neurosis with alcohol had now become an obsession; how that obsession of my mind condemned me to go on drinking, and how my physical sensitivity guaranteed that I would go crazy or die, perhaps within a year. Yes, that was my dilemma. It has been the dilemma of millions of us, and still is.
Some of you wonder, “Well, he had been instructed by a good physician, he had been told about his maladjustment, he understood himself, he new that his increasing physical sensitivity meant that he would go out into the dark and join the endless procession. Why couldn’t he stop? Why wouldn’t fear hold such a man in check?”
After I left that place, fear did keep me in check for 2 or 3 months. Then came a day when I drank again. And then came a time when an old friend, a former alcoholic, called me on the phone and said that he was coming over. It was perhaps right there on that very day that the Alcoholics Anonymous commenced to take shape. I remember his coming into my kitchen, where I was half drunk. I was afraid that perhaps he had come to reform me. You know, curiously enough, we alcoholics are very sensitive on this subject of reform. I could not quite make out my friend. I could see something different about him but I could put my finger on it. So finally I said, “Ebby, what’s got into you?” And he said, “Well, I’ve got religion.” That shocked me terribly, for I was one of those people with a dandy modern education which had taught me that self-sufficiency would be enough to carry me through life, and here was a man talking a point of view which collided with mine.
Ebby did not go on colliding with me. He knew, as a former agnostic, what my prejudices were, so he said to me, blandly enough, “Well, Bill, I don’t know that I’d call it religion exactly, but call it what you may, it works.” I said, “What is it? What do you mean? Tell me more about this thing?” He said, “Some people came and got hold of me. They said, “Ebby, you’ve tried medicine, you’ve tried religion, you’ve tried change of environment, I guess you’ve tried love, and none of these things has been able to cure you of your liquor. Now, here is an idea for you.” And then he went on to tell me how they explained, they said, “First of all, Ebby, why don’t you make a thorough appraisal of yourself? Stop finding fault with other people. Make a thoroughgoing moral appraisal of yourself. When have you been selfish, dishonest? And, especially, where have you been intolerant? Perhaps those are the things that underlie this alcoholism. And after you have made such an appraisal of yourself, why don’t you sit down and talk it out with someone in full and quit this accursed business of living alone? Put an end to this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation into which you have fallen. And then, why don’t you continue this policy of abating the disturbance in yourself? Why don’t you take stock of all the people among your acquaintances that you have hurt -all of the people who annoy you, who disturb you. Why don’t you go out to them and make amends; set things right and talk things out, and get down these strains that exist between you and them? Then, Ebby, we have still another proposal. Why don’t you try the kind of giving that demands no reward? We don’t mean the mere giving of money, though you once had plenty of that. No, we mean the giving of yourself to someone who is in need. Why don’t you try that? Seek out someone in need and forget your own troubles by becoming interested in his.” Ebby said, “Where does religion come in?” And his friends went on to say, “Ebby, it is our experience that no one can carry out such a program with enough thoroughness and enough continuity on pure self-sufficiency. One must have help. Now we are willing to help you, as individuals, but we think you ought to call upon a power greater than yourself, for your dilemma is well nigh insurmountable. So, call on God, as you understand God. Try prayer.” Well, in effect, that was the explanation my friend made to me. Those of you who know a little of the A.A. are already able to see a little of the basic idea.
You see, here was my friend talking to me, one alcoholic talking to another. I could no longer say, “He doesn’t understand me.” Sure he understood me. We had done a lot of drinking together, and gone the route of humiliation, despair and defeat. Yes, he could understand. But now he had something. He did not shock me by calling it the resurrection, but that’s what it was. He had something I did not have, and those were the terms upon which it could be obtained.
Honesty with oneself and other people, the kind of giving that demands no return, and prayer. Those were the essentials. My friend then got up and went away, but he had been very careful not to force any of his views upon me. In no sense could I have the feeling that he was moralizing with me or preaching, because I knew it was not long ago that he was no better than I. He merely said that he was leaving these ideas with me, hoping that they would help.
Even so, I was irritated, because he had struck a blow at my pet philosophy of self-sufficiency, and was talking about dependence upon some power greater than myself. “Ah yes,” I thought, as I went on drinking, “yes it’s this preacher stuff. Yes, I remember, up in the old home town where my grandfather raised me, how the deacon, who was so good, treated Ed MacDonald, the local drunk – as dirt under his feet; and more than that, the old son of a gun short weighted my good old grandfather in his grocery store. If that’s religion, I don’t want any of it.” Such were my prejudices. But the whole point of this was that my friend had got onto my level. He had penetrated my prejudices, although he had not swept them all away.
I drank on but I kept turning this thing over in my mind, and finally asked myself, “Well how much better off am I than a cancer patient.” But a small percentage of those people recover, and the same is true with alcoholics, for by this time I knew quite a good deal about alcoholism. I knew that my chances were very, very slim. I knew that, in spite of all the vigilance in the world, this obsession would pursue me, even if I dried up temporarily. Yes, how much better off was I than a cancer patient? Then I began to say to myself, “Well who are beggars to be choosers? Why should a man be talking about self-sufficiency when an obsession has condemned him to have none of it? Then I became utterly willing to do anything, to try to accept any point of view, to make any sacrifice, yes, even to try to love my enemies, if I could get rid of this obsession. First, I went up to a hospital to ask the doctor to clear me up so I could think things through clearly. And again, came my friend, the second day that I was there. Again I was afraid, knowing that he had religion, that he was going to reform me. I cannot express the unreasonable prejudice that the alcoholics have against reform. That is one reason that it has been so hard to reach them. We should not be that way but we are. And here was my friend, trying to do his best for me, but the first thought that flashed across my mind was, “I guess this is the day that he is going to save me. Look out! He’ll bring in that high powered sweetness and light, he’ll be talking about a lot of this prayer business.” But Ebby was a good general, and it’s a good thing for me he was.
No, he did not collide with those prejudices of mine. He just paid me a friendly visit, and he came up there quite early in the morning. I kept waiting and waiting for him to start his reform talk, but no, he didn’t. So finally I had to ask for some of it myself. I said, “Ebby, tell me once more about how you dried up.” And he reviewed it again for me.
Honesty with oneself, of a kind I had never had before. Complete honesty with someone else. Straightening out all my twisted relationships as best I could. Giving of myself to help someone else in need. And prayer.
When he had gone away, I fell into a very deep depression, the blackest that I had ever known. And in that desperation, I cried out, “If there is a God, will He show Himself?” Then came a sudden experience in which it seemed the room lit up. It felt as though I stood on the top of a mountain, that a great clean wind blew, that I was free. The sublime paradox of strength coming out of weakness.
So I called in the doctor and tried to tell him, as best I could, what had happened. And he said, “Yes, I have read of such experiences but I have never seen one.” I said, “Well doctor, examine me, have I gone crazy?” And he did examine me and said, “No boy, you’re not crazy. Whatever it is, you’d better hold onto it. It’s so much better than what had you just a few hours ago.” Well, along with thousands of other alcoholics, I have been holding on to it ever since.
But that was only the beginning. And at the time, I actually thought that it was the end, you might say, of all my troubles. I began there, out of this sudden illumination, not only to get benefits, but also to draw some serious liabilities. One of those that came immediately was one that you might call Divine Appointment. I actually thought, I had the conceit really to believe, that God had selected me, by this sudden flash of Presence, to dry up all the drunks in the world. I really believed it. I also got another liability out of the experience, and that was that it had to happen in some particular way just like mine or else it would be of no use. In other words, I conceived myself as going out, getting hold of these drunks, and producing in them just the same kind of experience that I had had. Down in New York, where they knew me pretty well in the A.A., they facetiously call these sudden experiences that we sometimes have a “W.W. hot flash.” I really thought that I had been endowed with the power to go out and produce a “hot flash” just like mine in every drunk.
Well, I started off; I was inspired; I knew just how to do it, as I thought then. Well, I worked like thunder for 6 months and not one alcoholic got dried up. What were the natural reactions then? I suppose some of you here, who have worked with alcoholics, have a pretty good idea. The first reaction was one of great self-pity; the other was a kind of martyrdom. I began to say, “Well, I suppose that this is the kind of stuff that martyrs are made of but I will keep on at all costs.” I kept on, and I kept on, until I finally got so full of self-pity and intolerance (our two greatest enemies in the A.A.) that I nearly got drunk myself. So I began to reconsider. I began to say, “Yes, I found my relief in this particular way, and glorious it was and is, for it is still the central experience of my whole life. But who am I to suppose that every other human being ought to think, act and react just as I do? Maybe were all very much alike in a great many respects but, as individuals, we’re different too.”
At that juncture I was in Akron on a trip, and I got a very severe business setback. I was walking along in the corridor of the hotel, wondering how God could be so mean. After all the good I had done Him – why, I had worked here with drunks for six months and nothing had happened – and now here was a situation that was going to set me up in business and I had been thrown out of it by dishonest people. Then I began to think, “That spiritual experience – was it real?” I began to have doubts. Then I suddenly realized that I might get drunk. Buy I also realized that those other times when I had had self-pity, those other times when I had had resentment and intolerance, those other times when there was that feeling of insecurity, that worry as to where the next meal would come from; yes, to talk with another alcoholic even though I failed with him, was better than to do nothing. But notice how my motivation was shifting all this time. No longer was I preaching from any moral hilltop or from the vantage point of a wonderful spiritual experience. No, this time I was looking for another alcoholic, because I felt that I needed him twice as much as he needed me. And that’s when I came across Dr. “Bob” S. out in Akron. That was just nine years ago this summer.
And Bob S. recovered. Then we two frantically set to work on alcoholics in Akron. Well, again came this tendency to preach, again this feeling that it has to be done in some particular way, again discouragement, so our progress was very slow. But little by little we were forced to analyze our experiences and say, “This approach didn’t work very well with that fellow. Why not? Let’s try to put ourselves in his shoes and stop this preaching. See how we might be approached if we were he.” That began to lead us to the idea that A.A. should be no set of fixed ideas, but should be a growing thing, growing out of experience. After a while, we began to reflect: ” This wonderful blessing that has come to us, from what does it get its origin?” It was a spiritual awakening growing out of painful adversity. So then we began to look the harder for our mistakes, to correct them, to capitalize upon our errors. And little by little we began to grow so that there were 5 of us at the end of that first year; at the end of the second year, 15; at the end of the third year, 40; at the end of the forth year, 100.
During those first 4 years most of us had another bad form of intolerance. As we commenced to have a little success, I am afraid our pride got the better of us and it was our tendency to forget about our friends. We were very likely to say, “Well, those doctors didn’t do anything for us, and as for these sky pilots, well, they just don’t know the score.” And we became snobbish and patronizing.
Then we read a book by Dr. Carrel. From that book came an argument that is now a part of our system. (How much we may agree with the book in general, I don’t know, but in this respect the AA’s think he had something.) Dr. Carrel wrote, in effect; the world is full of analysts. We have tons of ore in the mines and we have all kinds of building materials above ground. Here is a man specializing in this, there is a man specializing in that, and another one in something else. The modern world is full of wonderful analysts and diggers, but there are very few who deliberately synthesize, who bring together different materials, who assemble new things. We are much too shy on synthetic thinking – the kind of thinking that’s willing to reach out now here and now there to see if something new cannot be evolved.
On reading that book some of us realized that was just what we had been groping toward. We had been trying to build out of our own experiences. At this point we thought, “Let’s reach into other people’s experiences. Let’s go back to our friends the doctors, let’s go back to our friends the preachers, the social workers, all those who have been concerned with us, and again review what they have got above ground and bring that into the synthesis. And let us, where we can, bring them in where they will fit.” So our process of trial and error began and, at the end of 4 years, the material was cast in the form of a book known as Alcoholics Anonymous. And then our friends of the press came in and they began to say nice things about us. That was not too hard for them to do because by that time we had gotten hold of the idea of not fighting anything or anyone. We began to say, “Our only motive as an organization is to help the alcoholic. And to help him we’ve got to reach him. Therefore, we can’t collide with his prejudices. So we aren’t going to get mixed up with controversial questions, no matter what we, as individuals, think of them. We can’t get concerned with prohibition, or whether to drink or not to drink. We can’t get concerned with doctrine and dogma in a religious sense. We can’t get into politics, because that will arouse prejudice which might keep away alcoholics who will go off and die when they might have recovered.”
We began, then, to have a good press, because after all we were just a lot of very sick people trying to help those who wanted to be helped. And I am very happy to say that in all the years since, not a syllable of ridicule, or criticism, has ever been printed about us. For this we are very grateful.
That experience led us to examine some of the obscure phrases that we sometimes see in the Bible. It could not have been presented at first, but sooner or later in his second, third, or fourth year, the A.A. will be found reading his Bible quite as often – or more -as he will a standard psychological work. And you know, there we found a phrase that began to stick in the minds of some of us. It was this:
“Resist not evil.” Well, after all, what is one going to think? In this modern world, where everybody is fighting, here came someone saying, “Resist not evil.” What did that mean? Did it mean anything? Was there anything in that phrase for the AA’s?
Well we began to have some cases on which we could try out that principle. I remember one case, out of which some will get a kick, and I imagine some others here may be a little shocked, but I think there is a lesson in it, at least there was for us, a lesson in tolerance. One time, after A.A. had been going for 3 or 4 years, an alcoholic was brought into our house over in Brooklyn where we were holding a meeting. He is the type that some of us now call the blockbuster variety. He often tells the story himself. His name is Jimmy. Well, Jimmy came in and he was a man who had some very, very fixed points of view. As a class, we alcoholics are the worst possible people in this respect. I had many, many fixed points of view myself, but Jimmy eclipsed us all. Jimmy came into our little group – I guess there were then 30 or 40 of us meeting – and said, “I think you’ve got a pretty good idea here. This idea of straightening things out with other people is fine. Going over your own defects is all right. Working with other drunks, that’s swell. But I don’t like this God business.” He got very emphatic about it and we thought that he would quiet down or else he would get drunk. He did neither. Time went on and Jimmy did not quiet down; he began to tell the other people in the group, “You don’t need this God business. Look, I’m staying sober.” Finally, he got up in the meeting at our house, the first time he was invited to speak – he had then been around for a couple of months – and he went through his usual song and dance of the desirability of being honest, straightening things out with other people, etc. Then he said, “Damn this God business.” At that, people began to wince. I was deeply shocked, and we had a hurried meeting of the “elders” over in the corner. We said, “This fellow has got to be suppressed. We can’t have anyone ridiculing the very idea by which we live.”
We got hold of Jimmy and said, “Listen, you’ve got to stop this anti-God talk if you’re going to be around this section.” Jimmy was cocky and he said, “Is that so? Isn’t it a fact that you folks have been trying to write a book called Alcoholics Anonymous, and haven’t you got a typewritten introduction in that book, lying over there on that shelf, and didn’t we read it here about a month ago and agree to it?” And Jimmy went over and took down the introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous and read out of it: “The only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous is an honest desire to get over drinking.” Jimmy said, “Do you mean it or don’t you?” He rather had us there. He said, “I’ve been honest. Didn’t I get my wife back? Aren’t I paying my bills? And I’m helping other drunks every day.” There was nothing we could say. Then we began secretly to hope. Our intolerance caused us to hope that he would get drunk. Well, he confounded us; he did not get drunk, and louder and louder did he get with his anti-God talk. Then we used to console ourselves and say, “Well, after all, this is a very good practice in tolerance for us, trying to accommodate ourselves to Jimmy.” But we never did really get accommodated.
One day Jimmy got a job that took him out on the road, out from under the old A.A. tent, you might say. And somewhere out on the road his purely psychological system of staying dry broke wide open, and sure enough he got drunk. In those days, when an alcoholic got drunk, all the brethren would come running, because we were still very afraid for ourselves and no one knew who might be next. So there was great concern about the brother who got drunk. But in Jimmy’s case there was no concern at all. He lay in a little hotel over in Providence and he began to call up long distance. He wanted money, he wanted this, and he wanted that. After a while, Jimmy hitchhiked back to New York. He put up at the house of a friend of mine, where I was staying, and I came in late that night. The next morning, Jimmy came walking downstairs where my friend and I were consuming our morning gallon of coffee. Jimmy looked at us and said, “Oh, have you people had any meditation or prayer this morning?” We thought he was being very sarcastic. But no, he meant it. We could not get very much out of Jimmy about his experience, but it appeared that over in that little second-rate hotel he had nearly died from the worst seizure he had ever had, and something in him had given way. I think it is just what gave way in me. It was his prideful obstinacy. He had thought to himself, “Maybe these fellows have got something with their God-business.” His hand reached out, in the darkness, and touched something on his bureau. It was a Gideon Bible. Jimmy picked it up and he read from it. I do not know just what he read, and I have always had a queer reluctance to ask him. But Jimmy has not had a drink to this day, and that was about 5 years ago.
But there were other fruits of what little tolerance and understanding we did have. Not long ago I was in Philadelphia where we have a large and strong group. I was asked to speak, and the man who asked me was Jimmy, who was chairman of the meeting. About 400 people were there. I told this story about him and added: “Supposing that we had cast Jimmy out in the dark, supposing that our intolerance of his point of view had turned him away. Not only would Jimmy be dead, but how many of us would be together here tonight so happily secure?” So we in A.A. find that we have to carry tolerance of other people’s viewpoints to very great lengths. As someone well put it, “Honesty gets us sober but tolerance keeps us sober.
I would like to tell, in conclusion, one story about a man in a little southern community. You know, we used to think that perhaps A.A. was just for the big places; that in a small town the social ostracism of the alcoholic would be so great that they would be reluctant to get together as a group; that there would be so much unkind gossip that we sensitive folk just could not be brought together.
One day our central office in New York received a little letter, and it came from a narcotic addict who was just leaving the Government hospital down in Lexington. Speaking of intolerance, it is a strange fact that we alcoholics are very, very intolerant of people who take “dope,” and it is just as strange that they are very intolerant of us. I remember meeting one, one day, in the corridor of a hospital. I thought he was an alcoholic, so I stopped the man and asked him for a match. He drew himself up with great hauteur and said, “Get away from me you dammed alcoholic.” At any rate, here was a letter from a narcotic addict who explained that once upon a time he had been an alcoholic, but for 12 years had been a drug addict. He had got hold of the book Alcoholics Anonymous and thought the spirit of that book had got hold of him, and he wanted to go back to his own little southern town that was, Shelby, North Carolina, and start an A.A. group. We were very skeptical of the offer. The very idea of a narcotic addict starting an A.A. group, even if he had once been an alcoholic! And here he was going to try to start it in a little southern town in the midst of all this local pride and gossip.
We began to get letters from him and apparently he was doing all right. He was a medical doctor, by the way, and he told us modestly, as time went on, about getting a small crowd of alcoholics together and having his trials and tribulations. Mind you, we had never seen him all this time; he had just been writing. He said that his practice had come back somewhat. And so 3 years passed. We had a little pin on a map showing that there was an Alcoholics Anonymous group at Shelby, North Carolina. It happened that I was taking a trip south to visit one of our southern groups. By this time the movement had grown and I had gotten to be kind of a big shot, so I thought, and I wondered, “Should I stop off at Shelby? You know, after all, that’s kind of a small group.” It is a great thing that I did stop off at Shelby, as you will soon see. Down the station came a man, followed by two others. The two in back of him were alcoholics, all right, but one looked a little bit different. I saw, as he drew near, that his lips were badly mangled, and I realized that this was the drug addict, Dr. M. In the agony of his hangovers he had chewed his lips to pieces. Yes, it was our man, and he proved to be a wonderful person. He was really modest, and that is something you seldom see in an ex-alcoholic. He introduced me to the others, and we got into his car and went over to the town of Shelby. I soon found myself sitting at a table in one of those delightful southern ancestral homes. Here was the man s mother -and his wife. They had been married about 2 years and there was a new baby. The practice had begun to come back. Still, there was very little shoptalk at that meal; and there is no such thing as an A.A. meal without shoptalk. I said, “Indeed, this fellow is a very modest man, I never saw an alcoholic like him.” He spoke very little of his accomplishments for the group. And then came the meeting that night. Here, next to the barber shop in the hotel, on the most prominent corner in Shelby, was the A.A. meeting room, with “A.A.” looming big up over the door. I thought, “Well, this chap must be some persuader.”
I went inside and there were 40 alcoholics and their wives and friends. We had our meeting; I talked too much as I always do, and the meeting was over. I began to reflect that this was the largest Alcoholics Anonymous in all America in proportion to the size of the town. What a wonderful accomplishment! The next morning, my telephone rang in the hotel. A man was downstairs and he said, “I’d like to come up. There are some things you ought to know about Dr. M. who got the A.A. group together in this town.”
Up came this individual, and said, “You know, I too, was once an alcoholic but for 22 years I’ve been on dope. I used to meet our friend Dr. M. over in Lexington, and when he got out of there and came back here, I heard he’d beaten the dope game. So when I left, I started for Shelby, but on my way I got back on morphine again. He took me into his home and took me off it. Yes, I used to be a respectable citizen of this state, I helped organize a lot of banks here, but I’ve heard from my family only second-hand for many years. It’s my guess you don’t know what southern pride is, and you haven’t any idea what this man faced when he came back to this town to face the music. People wouldn’t speak to him for months. They’d say, “Why this fellow, the son of our leading doctor, goes away, studies medicine, comes back, and he’s a drunk, and after a while, he’s on the dope. The townspeople wouldn’t have much to do with him when he first came, and I’m ashamed to say that the local drunks wouldn’t either, because they said, we am’ t going to be sobered up by a dope addict. But you see, Dr. M. himself had once been an alcoholic, so that he could get that indispensable bond of identification across. Little by little, alcoholics began to rally around him.”
My visitor continued, “Well, that was the beginning. Intolerance, misunderstanding, gossip, scandal, failure, defeat, all those things faced our friend when he came into this town. And that was 3 years ago. Well, Bill, you’ve seen his mother, you’ve seen his wife, you’ve seen his baby, and you’ve seen the group. But he hasn’t told you that he now has the largest medical practice in this whole town, if not in the county. And he hasn’t told you hat he has been made head of our local hospital. And I know you don’t know this – every year in this town the citizens have a great meeting at which they cast a ballot, and last spring, at the annual casting of the ballot, the people of this town almost unanimously declared by their ballot that Dr. M. had been the towns most useful citizen during the 12 months gone by.” So I thought to myself, “So you were the big shot who planned to go straight past Shelby.” I looked at my visitor and said, “Indeed, What hath God wrought!”
Potts: Mr. W., is it possible for someone who hasn’t been drunk, or ever been an alcoholic, to do what an alcoholic has done? Have you found any possibility that laymen or preachers could begin to do such work? Is there anything in your experience that might lead to that possibility?
Lecturer: Yes, there is a great deal in our experience that leads to the idea that our friends of the nonalcoholic world can participate. While it’s true that the core of our process is the transmission of these things from one alcoholic to another, it is a fact that very often a minister or a doctor can lay the groundwork for our approach. Then, too, there is a class of people that we alcoholics flatter by calling them “dry” alcoholics. In other words, they’re neurotics of our description who don’t drink, and we recognize them as more or less kindred spirits; sometimes they approach our group and are well received. On the other hand, sometimes people who, from their life experience, just couldn’t get the pitch or couldn’t make the identification would be regarded by some of the groups as complete outsiders. You know, one of other faults is that of snobbishness. We AA’s have become extremely snobbish, strange as that may be. But it is true that this is a synthesis and we draw upon the resources of both medicine and religion. Of course, the doctor helps us on the physical side of the treatment. He can often prepare the groundwork with the potential by pointing out that he has the symptoms of a well-nigh fatal malady. The preacher, or the friend, would do well to emphasize the idea of sickness rather than of immorality. The alcoholic knows he’s a louse in most cases, even though he won’t admit it, and to be told so once more by someone who never took a glass of beer seems to annoy him greatly. That is not because the other fellow is wrong; we’re wrong, but we’re just built that way and it’s a matter of taking things as they are.
Stoneburner: What can ministers do to cooperate with A.A.?
Lecturer: Of course the approach to the alcoholic is everything. I think the preacher could do well if he does as we do. First find out all you can about the case, how the man reacts, whether he wants to get over his drinking or not. You see, it is very difficult to make any impressions upon a man who still wants to drink. At some point in their drinking career, most alcoholics get punished enough so that they want to stop, but then it’s far too late to do it alone. Sometimes, if the alcoholic can be impressed with the fact that he is a sick man, or a potentially sick man, then, in effect, you raise the bottom up to him instead of allowing him to drop down those extra hard years to reach it. I don’t know any substitute for sympathy and understanding, as much as the outsider can have. No preaching, no moralizing, but the emphasis on the idea that the alcoholic is a sick man.
In other words, the minister might first say to the alcoholic, “Well, all my life I’ve misunderstood you people, I’ve taken you people to be immoral by choice and perverse and weak, but now I realize that even if there have been such factors, they really no longer count, now you’re a sick man.” You might win the patient by not placing yourself up on a hilltop and looking down on him, but by getting down to some level of understanding that he gets, or partially gets. Then, if you can present this thing as a fatal and progressive malady, and you can present our group as a group of people who are not seeking to do anything against his will – we merely want to help if he wants to be helped – then sometimes you’ve laid the groundwork.
I think the clergyman can often do a great deal with the family. You see, we alcoholics are prone to talk too much about ourselves without sufficiently considering the collateral effects. For example, any family, wife and children, who have had to live with an alcoholic 10 or 15 years, are bound to be rather neurotic and distorted themselves. They just can’t help it. After all, when you expect the old gent to come home on a shutter every night, it’s wearing. Children get a very distorted point of view; so does the wife. Well, if they constantly hear it emphasized that this fellow is a terrible sinner, that he’s a rotter, that he’s in disgrace, and all that sort of thing, you’re not improving the condition of the family at all because, as they become persuaded of it, they get highly intolerant of the alcoholic and that merely generates more intolerance in him. Therefore, the gulf that must be bridged is widened, and that is why moralizing pushes people, who might have something to offer, further away from the alcoholic. You may say that it shouldn’t be so, but it’s one of those things that is so.
Robinson: Would local A.A. groups be interested in preventing the development of alcoholics by giving cooperation to local option movements or other programs to that end?
Lecturer: I don’t think so. That may be a very hard thing to explain. I’m sure that many people who are in the reform movement are very, very much disappointed with AA’s because they don’t seem to want to cooperate. Now I make haste to say right away that on this question of reform, this question of prohibition or moderation or what have you, there are just as many points of view among the AA’s and their families as there are among the next thousand people who walk by this place. Therefore, no MA. group can very well say, “We have a particular view about prohibition, or this or that degree of prohibition, or about any educational program that involves controversial issues.” You see we AA’s are of particular and unique use to other alcoholics, therefore we have to be very careful about anything that is going to get between them and us. In other words, we can’t do anything that is going to arouse prejudice. For example, if I were to make the statement here that I believe in prohibition, or that I don’t believe in prohibition, and either of those points of view were quoted publicly, I would inevitably arouse prejudice. If I said, “Well I don’t believe in prohibition and that’s my personal view,” then a great many good people who do believe in prohibition would get annoyed; they might go out and say to the alcoholic’s wife, ‘Well, I don’t like that crowd of AA’s because they don’t believe in prohibition and look what liquor has done to your husband.” So she doesn’t suggest A.A. to her husband and he eventually dies because we have been foolish enough to arouse prejudice in somebody’s mind.
Likewise, if we said, “Well, we believe in prohibition,” and that were quoted, every alcoholic, almost without exception, reading that in the newspapers, would say, “Why, that’s a bunch of reformers! And none of that for me.” He shouldn’t react that way, but he does. Since ours is a life and death job, you can understand why, as a group, we are very careful not to express any opinions on controversial questions. As a group we have no opinion on any kind of controversy regardless of the merit of either side, because if we show such an interest, as a group, then we cut down our own peculiar usefulness.
It isn’t that there aren’t bonds of sympathy between us and a great many points of view. It isn’t that individuals among us don’t have points of view. But I wouldn’t for the world, in a place like this, express my personal views about any controversial question lest my opinion be imputed publicly to the group, to A.A. Then we would be thrown into a controversy that could only prejudice our efforts and not help anybody very much. It isn’t a lack of understanding or lack of sympathy; it’s a matter of policy about which we have to be unusually careful.
Question: How many drug addicts are there in the A.A. and in the organization similar to A.A., which operates among drug addicts?
Lecturer: We have quite a number of drug addicts who were once alcoholics. So far, I don’t know of any case of pure drug addiction that we have been able to approach. In other words, we can no more approach a simon-pure addict than the outsider can usually approach us. We are in exactly the same position with them that the doctor and the clergyman have been in respect to the alcoholic. We just don’t talk that fellow’s language. He always looks at us and says, “Well, those alcoholics are the scum of the earth and besides, what do they know about addiction?” Now, however, since we have a good number of addicts who were once alcoholics, those addicts in their turn are making an effort, here and there, to transfer the thing over to the straight addict. In that way we hope the bridge is going to be crossed. There may be a case here and there that has been helped. But in all, I suppose, there may be around 50 cases of real morphine addiction in former alcoholics who have been helped by A.A. Of course we have a great many barbital users, but we don’t consider those people particularly difficult if they really want to do something about it, and particularly if it’s associated with liquor. They seem to get out of it after a while. But where you have morphine, or some of those derivatives, then it gets very tough. Then you have to have a “dope” talk to a “dope,” and I hope that we can find, some day, a bridge to the addict.
Rogers: How many members do you have in A.A.? How many A.A. groups are there?
Lecturer: I might have made that point, although, I suppose that the A.A. ‘s here would have advertised it from the housetops. We have, I think, about 15,000 members, and A.A. groups are in about 367 places. A.A. is showing a capacity to spread by way of literature and correspondence even outside of the United States. We have a very successful group now in Honolulu and until recently they had had no contacts with us except by mail.
Question: If an alcoholic comes to an A.A. meeting under the influence of alcohol, how do you treat him or handle him during the meeting itself?
Lecturer: Groups will run usually run amuck on that sort of question. At first we are likely to say that we’re going to be supermen and save every drunk in town. The fact is that a great many of them just don’t want to stop. They come, but they interfere very greatly with the meeting. Then, being still rather intolerant, the group will swing way over in the other direction and say, “No drunks around these meetings.” We get forcible with them and put them out of the meeting, saying, “You’re welcome here if your sober.” But the general rule in most places is that if a person comes for the first or second time and can sit quietly in the meeting, without creating an uproar, nobody bothers him. On the other hand, if he’s a chronic “slipper” and interferes with the meetings, we lead him out gently, or maybe not so gently, on the theory that one man cannot be permitted to hold up the recovery of others. The theory is “the greatest good for the greatest number.”
The Impact Of Alcoholism
Hearings before the Special Subcommittee on Alcoholism and Narcotics of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, United States Senate, ninety-first Congress, first session, on examination of the impact of alcoholism, Thursday, July 24, 1969.
The subcommittee met at 9:30 a.m., pursuant to call in room 4232, New Senate Office Building, Senator Harold E. Hughes (chairman of the Subcommittee) presiding.
Present: Senators Hughes, Yarborough, Williams, Javits, Dominick, and Bellmon.
* * * * * * * *
Senator Hughes – For the next witness there will be no television. There will be no pictures taken. The next witness is Bill W., Co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Audio is fine. You may photograph the Senators or you may photograph Bill W. from the back of the head if you want to.
Bill, you may proceed with your statement as you desire.
STATEMENT OF BILL W., CO-FOUNDER OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS.
Mr. Bill W. – Mr. Chairman, Senators, we of AA, it is already apparent, are going to have reason for great gratitude on account of your invitation to put in an appearance here. For me this is an extremely moving and significant occasion. It may well mark the advent of the new era in this old business of alcoholism.
I think that the activities of this committee and what they may lead to may be a turning point historically. This is splashdown day for Apollo. The impossible is happening. Like my dear friend Marty [Marty Mann], who has just spoken to you, I share with her the opinion that in this field of alcoholism we are now seeing the beginning of the achievement of the impossible.
Because of my appearance here as an AA member, I have to limit myself pretty much to statements about AA. But you must remember that as time passes in these hearings a great many AA’s will be testifying as citizens, and they will be far more free to express opinions on the general field and their activities in it than I am.
So I take it that my mission here today will be to acquaint you with the resources that AA may reveal for treatment, for education and so on.
I shall start off by taking the dry part of my recital first: a few figures. Our national magazine, “The AA Grapevine,” makes a brief and simple statement as to what AA is: “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.”
“The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for membership. We are self-supporting through our own contributions.”
“AA is not allied with any sect denomination, politics, organization or institution, does not wish to engage in controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.”
Now, as a little more background for my presentation, let me present just a few figures. Our last census, that is to say, reports of our group sessions, shows that we have 15,000 AA groups throughout the world and an active membership of 285,000.
Besides the 285,000 there are hundreds of thousands — maybe 200,000, for all we know, 300,000 recovered AA’s on the sidelines who do not get caught up in the active statistics, people who have remained for the greater part sober, who are carrying AA attitudes and practices and philosophies into the community life.
So AA is much more in reality than a generator of mere sobriety, it is returning us to citizenship in the world.
Now, then, that breaks down these figures into something like this: groups in the United States, 9,000, active members, 148,000; groups in Canada, 1,500; members in Canada, 21,000; groups overseas, 3,300, membership, 62,000; internationalists, 344. We mean by that, people on ships, largely, who travel from port to port spreading the AA message.
We have 648 groups in hospitals, members in hospitals (and this means largely mental institutions), 18,500; and groups in prisons, 33,000. And lone members throughout the world, who correspond with the world headquarters, 522.
Those statistics are of interest, but they are scarcely inspiring, because they are not as yet connected with the flesh and blood of human experience. I think the best way of presenting some of that experience would be to relate to you certain fragments of AA history that have a particular bearing upon this occasion.
Oddly enough, and contrary to the information of most people, Alcoholics Anonymous, we see in retrospect, very definitely had its start in the offices of one of the founders of modern psychiatry. I refer to Carl Jung, who in the early 1930s received a patient from America, a well-known businessman. He had run the gamut of the cures of the time, and desperately wanted to stop and could get no help at all.
He came to Jung and stayed with him about a year. He came to love the great man. During this period the hidden springs of his motivation were revealed. He felt now with this new understanding, plus communication with this new and wonderful friend that he had really shed this strange illness of mind, body and spirit.
Leaving there, he was taken drunk, as we AA’s say, in a matter of a month, perhaps, and coming back, he said, “Carl, what does this all mean?” Then this man made the statement that I think led to the formation of AA. It took a great man to make it.
He said, “Rowland, up until recently I thought you might be one of those rare cases who could be aided and made to recover by the practice of my art. But like most who will pass through here, I must confess that my art can do nothing for you.”
“What,” said the patient, “Doctor, you are my port of last resort. Where shall I turn now? Is there no other recourse?”
The Doctor said, “Yes, there may be. There is the off chance. I am speaking to you of the possibility of a spiritual awakening, if you like, a conversion.”
“Oh,” said the patient “but I am a religious man. I used to be a vestryman in the Episcopal Church. I still have faith in God, but He has little in me, I should think.”
Jung said, “I mean something that goes deeper than that Rowland, not just a question of faith. I am talking about a transformation of spirit that can motivate you and set you free from this. Time after time alcoholics have recovered by these means. The lightning strikes here and there, and no one can say why or how. All I can suggest is that you expose yourself to some religious environment of your own choice.”
The patient went to England. He became associated with the group of that day in later years called “Moral Rearmament,” [the Oxford Groups] and to his great surprise he began to feel released from this hideous compulsion.
He returned to America. He had a place in Vermont. There he ran into a friend of mine about to be committed, a friend that we AA’s lovingly call Ebby. Ebby, at the time a wealthy man, had just run his car through the house of a farmer, into the kitchen, pushing in the wall, and when he stopped, out stepped a horrified lady from inside and he said, “How about a cup of coffee?”
This was the extent of his illness and he was about to be committed. The patient, Rowland, got hold of him, took him to New York, exposed him to the Oxford Groups, whose emphasis was upon admission of hopelessness, in a sense, on one’s unaided resources a human being could not go too far.
Another was self-survey. Another was a species of confession, and then there was restitution and belief in a Higher Power.
That movement was rather evangelical, but AA owes it a great debt in what to do and also in what not to do.
Then, thinking of me, and I was about at the end of my rope, my friend visited me. In the previous summer I had been in a drying-out emporium in New York City, and there my doctor, who was to make a crucial contribution to AA, had said to my wife, “Lois, I am afraid, my dear, that I can do nothing. I thought that he might be one of those rare instances in which I could help him stay sober, but I am afraid not. He is the victim of a compulsion to drink against his will, and, as much as he desires, that compulsion I don’t think can be broken; and this compulsion is coupled with what I call an allergy.
“It is a misnomer, but it is indicating that there is something wrong with this man physically. Therefore, the eternal dilemma has been this eternal compulsion to drink, to the point almost of lunacy, coupled with the physical allergy that guarantees insanity and death. I think you will have to lock him up.”
After that treatment I came home and a few months later this friend appeared, sat across the kitchen table where there was a big pitcher of gin and pineapple juice. I was a solitary drinker of about two or three bottles of bathtub gin a day. The year is 1934.
Enters this friend of mine that I had known to be a very hopeless case.
At once it struck me that he was in a state of release, this just was not another drunk on the wagon. Then he told me this story, how he had felt this relief, the moment he had gotten honest with himself and adhered to their simple program, he began to feel this release, how much more he had gotten through his friend, Rowland. He told me the story about him.
Finally I put the question to him. I said, “Ebby, you say you don’t want to drink, you are not drinking today. What does this mean?”
He said, “Well, I have got religion.” I said, “Well, what brand is it?” So he revealed to me his story. I was deeply impressed, really, because here was somebody that I knew had lived in this strange world of alcoholism, where I, too, was a denizen. So this transmission of the fatal nature of this malady in many cases struck me. I think it caused a great personal deflation and laid the ground for what was subsequently to happen.
My friend went off. I didn’t see him for a few days. In no waking hour could I forget the face across the kitchen table. Yet I gagged on this concept of a Higher Power, even in its lowest denominator.
So I finally decided I would go to the hospital, get detoxified. I appeared at the hospital. Dr. Silkworth began treatment. I announced that I had found something new, I thought, I wanted to get sobered up.
I could not have any emotional conversion. So after about 3 days detoxification, I found myself falling into a terrible depression. I felt trapped.
In other words, I was asking the impossible, to believe in a Higher Power, let alone cast my dependence on it on the one side, and yet my guide in science [Dr. Silkworth] was saying, “But medically you are pretty hopeless.”
Out of this eventuated a very sudden spiritual awakening in which I was released from this compulsion to drink, a compulsion on my mind morning, noon and night for several years. I was suddenly released from it.
Mine was a rather spectacular experience. But it is quite identical to what happens to any good AA. In other words, their experiences are apt to take a longer time and they are not so sensational, but we do get the transforming effect on motivation.
With the experience came this thought: Why can’t this be induced chain style? In other words, I can identify myself with another alcoholic through this kinship of suffering, then why can’t that inflate him and perhaps he will be motivated and one can talk to the other.
I came out of the hospital, began to feverishly work with alcoholics. We had a house full of them. I was so keyed up with the paranoid side with my spiritual awakening; I even thought I had a kind of divine appointment about all the alcoholics in the world.
There was 6 months of complete failure. Finally I went to Akron on a business trip to see if I could regain my fortunes. I was away from my friends. The business deal fell through. I had hardly carfare home and all of a sudden the old desire to drink started to come back. I was frightened.
Then I realized that in talking and trying to help other alcoholics, even though the cases had all been failures, this had a great deal to do with my staying sober. These were the elements of the process and through a strange set of circumstances I was led to a physicist and from there to the doctor in town who was to become my partner in this thing.
He, too, when the nature of his malady was revealed to him in medical terms, one drunk talking to another, achieved sobriety that he had long since thought impossible.
Shortly after that, in one of the Akron hospitals, No. 3 got sober, and an AA group, the first one really, came into existence in June 1935 in Akron, Ohio. Then there was a return to New York and a group started there. A few people in from Cleveland began to come to the group meetings in Akron.
We grew very, very slowly, trial and error all along the line. If it seemed to work, get with it, if it failed, discard it. That was our practice until about 4 years later, after hundreds of failures; we found that we had a hundred people sober. At that time, having retired from the Oxford Group, and yet having no name actually, we just called ourselves a nameless bunch of drunks trying to help each other get well.
At that time we began to think in terms of a book, which supported by case histories would portray our approach. The book is called “Alcoholics Anonymous” and it was published when we had a hundred members.
Up to this time we had been virtually a secret society. Then we realized that we would have to be publicized. So we were very reluctant about this, what kind of people would come in?
We were publicized first by Liberty magazine, and flooded by 6,700 inquiries into a post office box in New York. We gave these inquiries to a few of our traveling people out of the small-established groups. Then came an experience in mass production of sobriety, which I think is most relevant to any presentation here.
Up until the fall of 1939, 5 years after I had sobered up, we had thought that the presentation of our case to the other alcoholics was up to the founding fathers or the elder hierarchy or whatnot. We thought it to be a very slow business indeed.
The idea of a mass revival was very far from our minds. The Cleveland Plain Dealer decided to publish a series of articles about us. There was a chap doing the articles who himself was an alcoholic. The poor devil never recovered, but he could talk our language.
These articles were placed in a box on the editorial page every 3 or 4 days and a supporting editorial was written. Then our friends of the press and the communications media began this benign process of bringing us customers.
At this time the group in Cleveland numbered only about 20 people. They were suddenly confronted with hundreds of frantic telephone calls to hospitals and people with or without money, people who were hospitalized this week, next-week were going with an older member to see somebody in the hospital. This thing pyramided so that in the succeeding year of 1940 these 20 had pyramided themselves into what had turned out to be several hundred sound recoveries.
Now this is the final suggestion, that the resources of Alcoholics Anonymous for mass society have hardly been touched. This set of figures shows in the last
10 years Alcoholics Anonymous membership has pyramided at the rate of only 8 or 10 percent a year, when in the early days, in the first decade, increases
of 100 percent 500 percent 1,000 percent were very common. Therefore, we have a tremendous lot of people with whom to deal. This is partly due to the reluctance of the alcoholic himself.
Figures tell us that we have 5 million alcoholics in America. This means 5 million poor souls who are in all stages of this dissolution and in the early years scarcely one of these people can be brought to believe that he is actually beginning to be sick.
This rationalization can exist right through all sorts of evidence of sickness right down to the undertaker himself. It is this mass capability of the alcoholic to rationalize himself out of this predicament. This is one of the great obstacles to bringing alcoholics toward treatment. In fact this is the obstacle that all of the remarkable agencies we now have at work are running against, how do we get these people in?
It is a process of education, but what kind of education we simply don’t know. Another part of the resistance of Alcoholics Anonymous stems from the fact that it has a spiritual content and a great many of our professional friends are apt to believe Alcoholics Anonymous is for the religiously susceptible only.
Well, this is a very mistaken impression. At last year’s New York dinner, we were talking about this topic and it suddenly occurred to me that of the four speakers on the platform, only one of us four had any religious background whatever.
Why were they in AA? They were driven there because there was no other place to go, no other place to get well.
So these are the treatment resources.
How can the resources of experience which have to do with the other agencies and disciplines in the field be brought to this committee by our friends and by AA members who are also working in these areas? You have begun to surmise that in effect, we are coming out of the woodwork, we are in practically all of these efforts bringing the AA experience to them, making it available and that kind of experience can be made available by any members here in these committee hearings if they come here acting as citizens and recovered alcoholics [but not as AA members].
We have to do that as a protective thing for AA. Now we have great numbers of friends. Those, too, can be called upon and I notice that some are going to be available here. For instance here is Jack Norris, a nonalcoholic.
Many of you know him. He is chairman of our board of trustees. He is second in charge, or was until his retirement in the medical department of Eastman Kodak, the second industrial company to give the nod to AA and make use of the resources.
In Wilmington, for example, we have Dr. Glanto, the head of the medical department of the first company ever to make AA arrangements with AA. I think he would be quite happy to testify.
On our board we have Mr. Austin McCormick, one of the country’s great criminologists, and I think he could throw much light on the situation. We have AA members beyond count.
So you have that sort of resource available for treatment and for experience.
Well, I think I am presenting this overlong and perhaps you gentlemen would like to ask questions at this point.
Senator Hughes – Bill, I thank you for yours bring us up to date on the beginnings and where you are now. I would like to ask some pointed questions. No.1, I have never been in a prison institution, I have never been in mental hospital institution, where there was not an AA group in my years in public life, not only of the inmates but of people coming in from the outside who were conducting meetings in an effort to help these people recover. This is also true in the case of halfway houses, private treatment centers, and every public treatment center that I know of dealing with the alcoholic where there are Government programs sponsored by State, community, or county divisions. I take from your testimony that as a cofounder of AA you certainly believe that in any program this committee and this Congress might develop, that there would be a place and a willingness for AA members to work in recovery, education, and counseling of the ailing alcoholics, and prevention also?
Mr. Bill W. – I should think so. Of course, this is the pleasure of our friends. But certainly this experience is of great value and in respect of this communication one alcoholic is certainly of unique value.
Senator Hughes – I think what you indicated is what I expected. No. 1, we have available through Alcoholics Anonymous a resource of willing people whom you have indicated have the capabilities of multiplying not 100 percent, but 1,000 percent if they can get to the people.
Mr. Bill W. – If we can get to the people.
Senator Hughes – This is the essence of my question. Undoubtedly knowing the organization quite well myself, these people have dedicated themselves to doing the job of calling on alcoholics and assisting in any way they can in their recovery.
Mr. Bill W. – Yes. Of course, it ought to be observed at this point that the virtues of AA are not really earned virtues. It is a matter of do or die. Nothing is too good for the next sufferer. So our dedication is first based on the fact that our lives and fortunes have been saved and we want to share this with the next fellow, knowing that it is a part of the maintenance of our own recovery and life or death. So this is the source of the great dedication that you see among the AA.
Senator Javits – I would like to just join the Chair in what he has said and assure you, sir, from what I see here, we will do our utmost to utilize to the fullest these resources which you have so eloquently testified to.
Senator Hughes – Thank you very much, Senator Javits. Senator Yarborough?
Senator Yarborough – Mr. Bill W., I am astonished to learn that AA had its beginning in 1934 and 1935 and was very small until 1939. Because the escalation was so fast after that, so well known nationally now, that you have an idea this has gone on for generations.
Mr. Bill W. – When you consider the enormous ramifications of this disease, we have just scratched the surface. I think we should humbly remember this.
Senator Yarborough – The experience you personally described when this burden fell away from you, I have thought back in my reading, I know of only two other men who have had such a dramatic experience. One was Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus and the other was Sam Houston, the great national hero. Sam Houston, who once was called by the Indians, Big Drunk, became, while he was a U.S. Senator, a temperance lecturer all over the United States. Congratulations on what you have done for so many hundreds of thousands who are in your debt and the millions I believe who will be reached in the not distant future.
Senator Hughes – Bill, I thank you kindly for your willingness to come forward as a co-founder of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and express the basis of its founding, its willingness to cooperate, and the hope of people over the last few decades who have found their way through this. The Subcommittee and the Committee are indebted to you for your willingness to do this. I want to express also the Chair’s appreciation to the press for their cooperation in honoring tenets of your institution to retain the anonymity of your members.
Mr. Bill W. – I thank them, too, with you.
Senator Hughes – Thank you very much, Bill. The committee will recess until 1:30 p.m.
NOTE: Only four days before, the whole world had watched as Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldren had walked on the moon. Just a few years later Buzz Aldrin would participate with Senator Hughes and 50 other famous recovered alcoholics in “Operation Understanding” in Washington, D.C. They all identified themselves as recovered alcoholics in an effort to reduce stigma and increase public awareness that alcoholism is a treatable disease. This event gained extensive worldwide front-page newspaper, television and radio coverage.
(I am happy to make this testimony available. Bill assured the AA members who testified during the three days of hearings that it was perfectly permissible for them to testify “as citizens and recovered alcoholics” so long as they did not, in this public forum, reveal their membership in AA, which would have been a violation of the AA tradition. I was present at this hearing, at which both Bill Wilson and Marty Mann testified. I served on the Subcommittee professional staff from 1969 to 1980. )
(Note that Bill said the man who wrote the Cleveland Plain Dealer articles was an alcoholic who never recovered.)
Few would argue that A.A. cofounder Bill Wilson was ahead of his time. In this reprint from the September 1947 issue of “Guideposts”, Bill’s first nationally published magazine article, he poses a question that resonates today.
Our most enthusiastic friends think Alcoholics Anonymous is a modern miracle. So they ask, “Why can’t A.A. principles be applied to any personal problem?” The world today is a problem world because it is full of problem people. We are now on the greatest emotional bender of all time; practically no one of us is free from the tightening coils of insecurity, fear, resentment and avarice. If A.A. can revive an alcoholic by removing these paralyzing liabilities from him, it must be strong medicine. Perhaps the rest of us could use the same prescription.
Not being reformers, nor representing any particular sectarian or medical point of view, we A.A.’s can only tell the story of what has happened to us and suggest the simple (but not easy) principles upon which, as ex-drinkers, our very lives now depend.
Fifty thousand alcoholics (today A.A. has nearly two million members and 100,000 groups worldwide) – the men and women members of A.A. – have found release from their fatal compulsion to drink. Each month two thousand more set foot on the A.A. high road to freedom from obsession so subtly powerful that once engulfed, few alcoholics over the centuries have ever survived. We alcoholics have always been the despair of society and, as our lives became totally unmanageable, we despair of ourselves. Obsession is the word for it.
But now, largely through A.A., this impossible soul sickness is being banished. Each recovering alcoholic carries his tale to the next. In a brief dozen years the A.A. message has spread, chain letter fashion, over the United States, Canada and a dozen foreign lands. Obsession is being exorcised wholesale.
What then, is this message whose power can restore the alcoholic his sanity and thenceforth enable him to live soberly, happily and usefully in a very confused world? The A.A. Recovery Program relates it as follows:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all of our affairs.
Simple, these principles, yet a large order indeed. When one tries to apply them he is bound to collide with a most heavy obstacle. That obstacle is one’s own pride.
Who, for example, cares to admit complete defeat? Who wishes to admit to himself and others his serious defects of character? Who relishes forgiving his enemies and making amends to people he has harmed? Who would like to give freely of himself without ever demanding reward? How many can really bow before “the God of their own understanding” in real faith that a Higher Power will do for them what they cannot do for themselves?
Yet A.A.’s find that if we go “all out” in daily practice of our 12 Steps we soon commence to live in a new, unbelievable world. Our pride yields to humility and our cynicism to faith. We begin to know serenity. We learn enough patience, tolerance, honesty and service to subdue our former masters – insecurity, resentment and unsatisfied dreams of power. We find that God can be relied upon; that our strength can come out of weakness; that perhaps only those who have tasted the fruits of dependence on a Higher Power can understand the true meaning of personal liberty, freedom of the human spirit.
For us of A.A. these are not theories; they are the prime facts of our very existence. The average A.A. member feels that he deserves little personal credit for his new way of life. He knows he might never have achieved enough humility to find God unless he had been beaten to his knees by alcohol. He was once that egocentric, but in the end it had to be God.
Yet we of A.A. cannot but feel that great things certainly await those who earnestly try our 12 Steps substituting their own distressing problem for that of alcohol. Nor do we think everyone needs to be so completely beaten as we were. To us, grace is an infinite abundance which surely can be shared by all who will renounce their former selves enough to truely seek it out. We often feel like shouting this ancient charter of men’s liberty from the rooftops of thousands of our homes – A.A. homes that would never have been, but for the grace of God.
WHO IS HE?
Bill is a Vermonter, tall, lanky and homespun. He learned to drink in the First World War when he was in France. On his return home, it took him tormented years to realize what was obvious to others – that he had not learned how to drink and could not trust himself not to drink.
Being a canny, shrewd New Englander, Bill achieved a fairly immediate success on Wall Street, but all the adroitness and luck in the world could never hold up against his alcoholic obsession. Nothing and nobody could hold up against it – except Lois, the childhood sweetheart and wife who had sent an idealistic lad to war and had got herself back a two-headed problem.
Often hospitalized, Bill had been pronounced incurable by Dr. William D. Silkworth, a well-known authority on alcoholism, who in recent years has become a sort of patron saint of A.A. On his last visit to the hospital, Bill was seen by a friend who had himself recovered from alcoholism by spiritual means. This friend urged Bill to confess his faults, make restitution to those he had injured, turn to God for relief from alcoholism and help others.
Bill rebelled for he was an agnostic. But, fully realizing his hopeless condition, alone and despairing in his hospital room, he said to himself, “At last I’m ready to try anything” and then with little hope and no faith at all, he cried out, “If there is a God, will he show himself?” This was the beginning of A.A. –
For God did answer.
Editor-in-Chief, Guideposts, 1947