Alcoholics Anonymous Turns 80, Part 1
by Keith Keller
Alcoholics Anonymous turns 80 this year! AA is the first program of recovery. The originator of the Twelve Steps, it is the flagship of all self-help organizations, its very name synonymous with sobriety. AA is a cultural icon, and has done the best for the most for the longest.
Sometime after I stopped vomiting, I began to consider the tremendous significance of Alcoholics Anonymous. Feeling profound amazement that I was actually staying sober for the first time since age 10, I understood that I had never been able to do that myself. AA was doing that, not me. This organization (Fellowship, subculture, way of life) had been there the whole time. Only when I became ready did I begin to receive the tremendous gift of recovery, and I was truly in awe as I began to comprehend the scope of all that Alcoholics Anonymous is.
Briefly, Alcoholics Anonymous was formed in 1935 by two men, William (Bill) Wilson and Robert (Dr. Bob) Smith M.D. Coincidentally, both were born in Vermont, and grew up within 75 miles of each other. Both suffered severely due to their alcoholism. Their chance meeting in Akron, Ohio was the result of Wilson’s tenacious and desperate efforts at fighting to maintain sobriety. On the brink of succumbing to relapse, Wilson had the conviction that talking to another alcoholic would help him. In their shared suffering and common experience, they found a spark that became the basis of a solution to their drinking problems. The child of identification, if there was a single moment when AA was conceived, it was probably when Bob said to Bill during their initial meeting, “Yes, that’s me, I’m like that!”
Wilson was a World War I veteran, natural leader, and a self-professed ‘power-driver’. He worked in finance on Wall Street in the era of the stock market crash of ‘29, yet his drinking hampered his career far more than prevailing economic conditions. Numerous hospitalizations were to no avail. Bill Wilson was consigned the designation of alcoholic of the hopeless variety. Despite his desire to get sober, he was simply unable to.
In his quest for a solution to his drinking, he became involved with the Oxford Group, an international religious-based organization dedicated to social and cultural change down to the individual level. Wilson was attracted to the Oxford Group’s ideals. They had a very progressive concept of personal change supported by tolerance and fellowship. Alcoholism was one of their missions.
Wilson struggled to make the leap of faith. The Oxford’s Christian God concept didn’t work for Wilson until he had a profound experience while hospitalized. William Silkworth, the doctor attending Wilson in the hospital, termed this a “conversion experience”.2 By way of helping Wilson integrate this conversion experience, he gave Wilson a book by William James, one of the founding fathers of 20th century psychology. The book documented varieties of such experiences in a framework that allowed Wilson to come to terms with this evidence of spirituality. This ‘spiritual angle’ proved to be the necessary element for Wilson to give up the drink.
To maintain the boost and momentum of the conversion experience, Wilson was compelled to help alcoholics that still suffered. This aspect, working with others, is another essential element in maintaining sobriety, and was the direct influence of the Oxford Group. Initially, Wilson worked with other alcoholics in the context of Oxford Group gatherings. He found this to be the necessary insurance against relapse in the face of cravings, waning willpower and the years of habitual drinking.
Wilson was months sober, and was attempting to reconstruct his alcohol-battered career in business and finance. These efforts found him many miles from his New York home and support system in the city of Akron, Ohio. The business having been conducted, Wilson was awaiting the outcome. It was the weekend, and he was appropriately anxious. In a strange city with his career in the balance, he was left alone with that waning willpower and the specter of those old habits.
The story goes that he paced the hotel lobby. At one end was the bar; at the other end, a payphone. In the face of mounting anxiety, he chose the payphone. He was desperate to talk to a fellow alcoholic as a measure to avoid relapse. The call he placed ultimately resulted in his first meeting with Dr. Robert Smith.
Smith was another alcoholic of the hopeless variety. Despite intense damage to his career, reputation and health, Smith was unable to stop drinking. Still more profoundly disturbing was the fact that he genuinely wanted to stop- to no avail. He was helpless in the face of his addiction to alcohol. Like Wilson, he had been dismissed as a hopeless case. At the insistence of his wife, he was brought to a friend’s home to meet Wilson. At the outset, Smith said he would remain only 15 minutes. He stayed six hours.
Wilson captured and held Smith’s attention because he could discuss alcoholism from his own experience. He knew all the answers, and not because he had read them in books. Bill W. stayed sober, and Dr. Bob would only drink one more time some weeks later.
Wilson remained in Akron for several more months, during which time he and Smith forged a friendship, a bond in their sobriety, and the foundation of one of the 20th century’s most significant movements of social and spiritual change. From that first meeting arose initially a small group of recovering alcoholics. Following Bill and Bob’s simple example of talking about their drinking and desire to stop, as well as carrying the message to others so afflicted, a few men managed to stay sober. They held their own meetings, and Wilson eventually separated from the Oxford Group. Wilson and Smith worked on their ‘pitch’ for prospective members, emphasizing the hopelessness of the malady, stressing that the angle of fellow sufferers working together and the spiritual component offered a solution that worked.
Wilson and Smith complemented one another well. Wilson was driven, outgoing and imaginative. Smith was stable, grounded and inclined to think things through thoroughly, and tempered his partner’s promoter impulses. Theirs was also a partnership based on many commonalities beside alcoholism. As a layman, businessman Wilson was interested in medicine; physician Smith viewed with concern the ‘business’ of medicine. They were both men of open minds and spiritual inclination. They had a chemistry that fueled their fledgling movement.
AA’s early days were challenging. While the founders had a vision, they had no model to follow. In the face of society’s stigma regarding alcoholism, they were blazing new trails. Though the prior decade had seen a temperance movement and the resulting prohibition, there had been no solution to the alcoholic problem. Society had viewed the hopeless alcoholic as merely lacking willpower. The Oxford Group’s vague spiritual remedy was not of itself nearly sufficient. The medical approach was to restore physical sobriety, and did nothing to address the psychological and behavioral addiction component. Bill and Dr. Bob learned as they went in the first months and years.
As well as carrying the message to others, Bill and Bob had to maintain their personal recoveries. In the weeks following their meeting, Dr. Bob managed to stay sober. He stumbled once after meeting Bill, while attending a medical convention. Bill helped him through the ensuing withdrawal, and Dr. Bob’s sobriety date was June 10, 1935, the day they consider as the real founding of AA. They set about spreading the message in earnest.
The book was Wilson’s idea, of course. Within the first year, Wilson and Smith became dedicated to the cause of spreading the idea that alcoholics could recover as they had. As they slowly converted other sufferers, they realized that some sort of resource would support the effort. The name Alcoholics Anonymous was settled upon for the book’s title, and came to be the name of the organization as well. Now referred to as The Big Book, the first edition consisted of twelve chapters plus early members’ personal stories. It also included a statement from Dr Silkworth substantiating the effectiveness of AA’s approach as well as emphasizing the validity of the conversion experience. The Twelve Steps are contained within the first chapters in a narrative form. Wilson is said to have lain in bed and written them in a single evening. With only minor alteration in the form of suggestions from Bob and the other original members, he wrote the Steps almost exactly as they appear today.
On the occasion of this 80th birthday, I wonder what Bill Wilson would think about the amazing phenomenon he and Dr. Bob set in motion. After spending the first 10 years building it, Wilson focused the next 10 years on making it self-sufficient, releasing it to the General Service Conference on the occasion of AA’s 20th international convention. Despite tremendous growth in those early years, anticipating the effects of decades of cultural, medical and scientific change was a daunting proposition, even for the enlightened and forward-thinking Wilson. How is the 80-year-old program doing in terms of meeting the needs of a recovery landscape changing ever more rapidly? I think Wilson would be struck by two things.
First, the staggering magnitude of diseases of addiction in contemporary society would seem epidemic in comparison to alcoholism of the mid-20th century. Beginning in the ‘turn-on-and-tune-out’ sixties, the formerly deep underground drug culture came out of hiding. Over the subsequent decades, the notion of better living through chemistry elevated recreational drug use to the status of cultural norm. The stupefaction of America was fueled by a growing black market eager to supply the ever-increasing demand. The stoned out sixties, and heroin-addicted seventies, the coked-out eighties, the crack-head nineties… The consequence being addiction as never seen before. Forward to the present day; the phenomenon of the polysubstance abuser is now rampant. People barely out of their teens, whose intensive use of anything and everything mind altering has catastrophic consequences in both the short and long terms, careen toward the fulfillment of the proverbial zombie apocalypse.
My opinion is that Wilson would be pleased with the trend toward a more homogenous mix. It’s common today for a significant proportion of people at AA meetings to identify themselves as alcoholic addict. The attraction of AA’s high-quality recovery draws many who don’t even consider themselves to be alcoholic. A desire to be sober has replaced the outdated requirement of a desire to stop drinking. Along with cultural and social diversity, people with a wide assortment of addictive issues identify with and support one another in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and groups.
Second, and equally great in magnitude, is the self-help movement of today, which owes much to AA. Wilson would likely be impressed by the depth and breadth of a broad-based trend toward maximizing human potential. As the size of the self-help section in any bookstore will attest, there is a tremendous volume of information on personal transformation available out there. People today hunger for deeper insight into their lives and solutions to their problems. And Alcoholics Anonymous itself has inspired literally dozens of self-help programs, many based in the twelve steps. As information and knowledge expand exponentially in the areas of medicine, science and psychology, new ideas and approaches are many. Spirituality in the broad sense is overflowing the outmoded container of organized religion; people are looking for answers to the perennial questions about existence, yearning to find meaning. The desire to attach significance to our lives drives us more than ever, and circles back to one of Bill Wilson’s own ideas… that underlying alcoholism, or indeed any disease of addiction, is a search for meaning.
Wilson was ahead of the curve in many ways. His spiritual perspective was unconventional for the day. He believed that life, or existence anyway, does not end with physical death. He and his wife Lois hosted weekly “spook sessions” in which they used Ouija boards.3 In his open-minded pursuit of new ways to help the alcoholic, he explored some controversial possibilities, including the use of vitamin supplements and an experimental laboratory drug called lysergic acid diethylamide.4 That’s right! Bill Wilson took LSD under medical supervision, in hopes that it might aid the conversion experience in others. His position as leader of the alcoholic recovery movement allowed him correspondence with and support from some of the great thinkers of the era. It was Dr. Carl Jung, one of the giants of psychiatry, who supported Wilson’s notion of alcoholism as search for meaning.
Wilson liked to spend lots of time just thinking about how to better help alcoholics. Today, I suspect he would think hard on two things. For the newcomer, there is no real orientation or introduction explaining how AA works. The newcomer is at the mercy of happenstance. In this information age of Internet connectivity, there should be resources dedicated to the particular needs and circumstances of the brand-new person in recovery. An overview of AA, how meetings work, what to expect and what is expected, along with something directing them to beginner-appropriate meetings would better serve the newcomer. When so much depends on an initial experience, the proverbial first impression, isn’t it too important to leave to chance? Bill W. would think hard on this, and how to get more people safely from the door on their first day to that permanent, contented sobriety.
The other thing that Bill would ponder is the established AA who still struggles. To varying degrees, many people in recovery for years, even decades, still wrestle with the desire to drink. When people attend meetings, follow suggestions and do the work while still living in fear of drinking and situations involving alcohol, and in general still display the “-isms” that we talk about, something is not right. Bill would think about how to help the ones for whom the promises are not complete, the ones who haven’t attained that place of neutrality regarding alcohol. How to have harmonious balance in the elements of recovery, how to be free of the desire to drink, and how to believe in one’s own ability to stay sober under all circumstances? I think that would be Bill’s birthday wish for Alcoholics Anonymous.
Would Wilson make any changes? This is the million dollar question. For decades, the only changes have been in the form of adding some new stories to the Big Book. As the scales of the timeline tip the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous closer to the Civil War era, the literature and ideas require more abstraction to absorb. The reader is required to intellectually translate the ideas expressed into contemporary context. Like impressionist art or a Shakespeare play, it will stand on its own, well worthy of consideration and appreciation for what it is. The original literature of Alcoholics Anonymous will stand the test of time, but is becoming a period piece. Though increasingly a more bygone style, the message and meaning will always dwell within. The challenge falls increasingly more on the Fellowship to interpret and carry that message in as pure a form as possible, while making it accessible and adapting to shifting paradigms in thought and understanding.
To be continued.
1. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services: Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, A Brief History of A.A. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing, Inc., 1957), 68.
2. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services: ‘Pass It On’, the story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing Inc., 1984), 123.
3. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services: ‘Pass It On’, the story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing Inc., 1984), 278.
4. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services: ‘Pass It On’, the story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing Inc., 1984), 369.