The History of Alcoholics Anonymous
The language of alcoholism and alcohol abuse has become so widespread that terms like “therapy,” “counseling,” and even “Alcoholics Anonymous” have entered the common vernacular without much thought given to what they actually entail. But looking back at an organization that prides itself on anonymity and confidentiality tells us a lot about how alcoholism recovery has changed over the years, and how AA, in turn, has changed how we think about substance abuse and treatment. The history of Alcoholics Anonymous is as much the history of an integral cultural response to alcoholism, as it is a part of the history of alcoholism itself.
The battles of addiction are waged in the mind as well as in the body, so it’s not surprising that the seed of Alcoholics Anonymous was planted by the man who founded the discipline of analytical psychology. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist who developed the ideas of self, psyche, extraversion, and introversion that have become a natural part of the understanding of human thought and behavior, was also a pantheist. His studies of a number of world religions, philosophies, and faiths led him to believe that spiritual well-being was pivotal to a person’s existence. It is Jung’s belief in the importance of a spiritual component to a person’s life that led him to tell an alcoholic patient of his that, in light of a lack of progress in treating the condition, the only way to finally defeat the man’s substance abuse was a spiritual experience. That man was Rowland Hazard III, who took Jung’s exhortations to heart and joined a Christian evangelical movement called the Oxford Group. The group espoused Jesus Christ’s teachings of honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love as a form of personal change. The next stage of this experience required spreading that message by way of “personal evangelism,” where one enlightened person would share his story with someone who needed to hear it.
While this may sound familiar to the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous that we know today, a clear line can be traced from the Oxford Group’s philosophies to those of Alcoholics Anonymous.
According to the Oxford Group:
- All people are sinners.
- All sinners can be changed.
- Confession is a prerequisite to change.
- The change must change others.
Similarly, for Alcoholics Anonymous:
- The patient must admit he is powerless over alcohol.
- The patient must accept that, by turning control over to a higher power, he can be restored.
- The patient must admit (to God, to the patient himself, or someone else) what he has done wrong.
- The patient must spread the word to other alcoholics.
Hazard never joined Alcoholics Anonymous (although the organization remembers him under the name “Rowland H.”), but one of the people to whom he evangelized was an old friend and drinking partner of Bill Wilson. It was through this mutual contact that Wilson learned of Hazard’s dealings with Carl Jung. That, combined with Wilson’s conversion to Christianity in the depths of his own alcoholism in late 1934, was the catalyst for the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous under the partial direction of Wilson, who, in the nomenclature of AA, became “Bill W.” Before the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous, Wilson, as a member of the Oxford Group, realized that the biggest motivator for him to maintain his sobriety was to help another alcoholic. He came to this conclusion after still feeling the pull to drink, notwithstanding the dramatic spiritual experience that marked the end of his days as a drinker. Following this intuition, Wilson spoke with Dr. Bob Smith, a member of the Oxford Group who also suffered from alcoholism. When Wilson explained his spiritual experience (as well as his belief that alcoholism was not a moral failing, but a disease of body and mind), Smith approached his own problem from the same perspective, and, barring one relapse, never drank again. The date of Smith’s last drink is recorded as June 10, 1935 (a month after he started working with Wilson), which is today celebrated as the date of the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous. Convinced of the strategy’s validity, Smith and Wilson embarked on a campaign to share their message with other alcoholics and formally disassociated themselves with the Oxford Group in 1937. The split was an acrimonious one, with Wilson saying in 1955 that his vision for Alcoholics Anonymous eschewed the publicity that the group’s evangelicalism required. By 1938, Wilson and Smith had successfully helped nearly 100 alcoholics in Ohio and New York master their addictions. Buoyed by the success, the two decided to promote their program in a book. Written primarily by Wilson, the book was entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism” (affectionately known as “The Big Book”), and included Twelve Steps of activities to encourage spiritual growth. As the movement spread, it eventually adopted the name of the book and became Alcoholics Anonymous.
Who Was Bill W.?
Bill Wilson’s fall and rise have become part of the lore of Alcoholics Anonymous. Understanding what he went through to become the founder of a famous global organization sheds light on the reach and scope of what AA does today. Born William Griffith Wilson on November 26, 1895, the man who became Bill W. experienced significant trauma in his childhood and early adult years: his parents abandoned him as a child, and at the age of 17, he fell into a deep depression when a young woman he loved passed away from surgical complications. Wilson’s mental health struggles persisted during his academic life, where depression and panic attacks compelled him to drop out of Norwich University during his second semester. In 1916, he was commissioned to serve in the Vermont National Guard, where the flow of alcohol helped him overcome his shyness and social stiltedness. Even when Wilson passed out after a couple of drinking binges, no one paid it much heed because “everyone drank hard.” After serving in World War I, Wilson returned to his wife in New York, but he was dogged by his now-rampant drinking problem. He was too drunk to pick up his diploma, so he failed to graduate from law school. His wife, Lois, encouraged him to become a stock speculator, hoping that the travel schedule would preclude any consistent drinking habits. Notwithstanding some professional success, however, Wilson’s alcoholism followed him; it ruined both his business and his reputation. In 1933, Wilson was committed no less than four times to the Charles B. Towns Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addictions in New York City. His doctor was William D. Silkworth, who rejected the common consensus of alcoholism being a moral failing; instead, Dr. Silkworth told Wilson that his alcoholism could be broken down into two components: a physical craving to drink and an obsession with drinking. Crucially, Wilson realized that both components could be controlled (thinking of alcoholism as a moral failing, on the other hand, deprived the patient of any kind of say or investment in their recovery). Notwithstanding this revelation, Wilson’s addiction was so dire that he was told he would either drink himself to death or be institutionalized because of the psychological effects of his chronic alcoholism. It was at this point, in November 1934, that Bill W. came into contact with an old friend of his who had spoken to Rowland Hazard III. This friend was Wilson’s introduction to the Oxford Group.
Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith (“Dr. Bob”) initially struggled to find funding for their group. They got their break when Wilson’s brother-in-law got him in contact with an assistant for John D. Rockefeller, Jr., father of the five famous Rockefeller brothers. Wilson had hoped to tap into the legendary fortunes of the Rockefeller family, but Rockefeller Jr. felt that money would corrupt an otherwise noble enterprise. Instead, he offered $5,000 in weekly increments of $30 and then had his son Nelson host a dinner for Alcoholics Anonymous. The dinner was attended both by rich (and influential) New Yorkers, as well as AA members. Again, Wilson hoped that the Rockefellers would pledge financial resources, and again, he was disappointed. Nelson expressed the belief that AA should be self-sufficient, and that the organization’s power should not derive from financial wealth, but from word of mouth and the goodwill of its supporters. Wilson appreciated the Rockefellers for helping AA remain unburdened by heavy finances (working that philosophy into some of the Twelve Traditions), so the immediate question of how to pay the bills was answered (in part) by the publication of the Alcoholics Anonymous book. As interest fueled in the new program, Wilson decided to expand on the six steps he had originally written to explain how the “word of mouth” nature of Alcoholics Anonymous worked.
After a night of prayer, he came up with twelve steps; and drawing inspiration from the Christian example of the Twelve Apostles, he formalized what is known as the Twelve Steps in a chapter of the book entitled “How It Works”:
- 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 the care of 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 understood 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 our affairs.
The Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous arose from the growing pains of the now-burgeoning organization. Leaders of various AA groups had written to Wilson to ask how they were to moderate disputes over finances, religion, and publicity.
Wilson responded by authoring a set of guidelines in 1946, intended to show group leaders how they could better conduct their respective chapters without courting controversy and outside scrutiny (indeed, the list was initially published under the name “Twelve Points to Assure Our Future”).
- Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.
- For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
- The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
- Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.
- Each group has but one primary purpose — to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
- An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
- Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
- Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
- A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
- Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
- Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
- Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.
Wilson held the emphasis on anonymity to be integral to the success of AA’s vision. As much as he wanted to protect the privacy of people who came to AA looking for help, he also wanted to protect the organization from the damage high-profile relapses might do on what was still thought of as a very large social (and psychological) experiment. To that effect, NPR opined that 75 years after the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous, “no one knows exactly how it works.” By maintaining anonymity, members would be less likely to develop ego problems that might contribute to a relapse. Therefore, the establishment of Tradition Twelve has led to one of the core principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.
‘Alive and Growing’
When Dr. Bob died in 1950, AA had an estimated 100,000 members. When Bill W. died in 1971, his last words were “God bless you and Alcoholics Anonymous forever.” Five years later, the third edition of the Big Book was published, with membership crossing the 1 million mark. Today, the program claims more than 2 million members across the world. In 2012, The Fix quoted AA itself as saying that 33 percent of the 8,000 members in North America had maintained their sobriety for a decade or longer. The journal Recent Developments in Alcoholism called the 12-step program “an ideal recovery resource.” The Alcoholic Research & Health journal writes that even as other addiction treatment methods (like pharmacology and psychotherapy) have gained steam, the idea of mutual health groups remain “the most commonly sought source of help” for substance abuse issues.,  The influence of Alcoholics Anonymous has spread to helping people overcome other forms of compulsive behavior, some related to substance abuse (drugs and nicotine), and others related to harmful practices (such as problem gambling, sex addictions, Internet addictions, etc.). Programs also exist to help family members directly, addressing their concerns of living with a substance abuser, and making children, parents, and other dependents a part of the recovery process. Says the Recent Developments in Alcoholism Journal, “the 12-step recovery model pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous […] is alive and growing” in how it can be adapted to counter other forms of substance abuse. For people who cannot invest in the religious or spiritual nature of traditional AA programs, there exist secular and agnostic programs that redirect the members’ focus away from a “higher power,” and more towards a concept of personal self and identity. Newer schools of thought have combined AA philosophies with traditional Buddhist teachings, bringing the 12 steps to a newer world. Even though film and television distort the true workings and nature of AA for dramatic purposes, millions of people are introduced to the existence of such peer-led mutual help groups by what they see on screen. Alcoholics Anonymous (and the larger concept of 12 steps) has come under criticism for the emphasis on faith and anonymity (to the perceived detriment of science and accurately tracking and monitoring recovery). Pacific Standard has described AA as “polarizing” with mixed results, and The Atlantic put together a list of “The Surprising Failures of 12 Steps.” ,  However, support of the program still persists, with a blog at Scientific American refuting some of the skepticism by explaining how AA beats “rival treatments.” As AA celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2015 (and millions of recovering alcoholics will not be raising their glasses to toast it, according to the Daily Beast), the organization persists as the public, and anonymous, face of alcoholism rehabilitation.
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