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uniquely American phenomenon.
react to most social problems by first shouting “There
oughta be a law,” and then calming down to measure
the problem and attack
it by spontaneous individual effort. The American weakness
for drink first produced the ill-omened prohibition amendment.
Recently it has produced the more remarkable and more typical
response described here.
Alcoholics Anonymous was conceived by a drunk lying on a
bed in a drunks’ hospital in New York in 1934, and
had a hard birth in Akron, Ohio, the following year. A doctor
of medicine was present but at this critical moment was
too alcoholically jittery to know an accouchement was taking
place. The American tradition of adverse beginnings was
thus fulfilled by this organization, which today equally
fulfills the tradition of success after struggle. By birthplace,
heritage, tradition, habits, looks, and tone of voice Alcoholics
Anonymous is unmistakably American. And yet in almost every
way it contradicts the stencils by which non-American minds
gauge American achievement. It has almost no money and wishes
it could do with still less. In fifteen years its membership
has grown from nothing to 120,000, yet it never urges anyone
to join. Of formal “organization” it has almost
none, yet it avers it “ought never to have any.”
A man or woman becomes a member by simple declaration, and
need share his decision with only one other human being.
There are no pledges or constraints in A.A.; no records
that must be kept or quotas that must be broken. Seniority
confers no favors. A.A. has one purpose only: “to
help the sick alcoholic recover, if he wishes.
a world whose spiritual values have dropped close to the
vanishing point, the strange society of A.A. places its
entire proposition upon the reality of spiritual experience.
It achieves harmony among a membership in which Catholics
associate not only with Protestants and Jews but with high-decibel
agnostics or fancy religionists of species known only to
God. Its members, who know better than to contradict the
psychiatrists’ diagnosis that they are “grandiose,
infantile, and self-absorbed,” practice daily an Obedience
that has no enforcement mechanism and no system of punishment
for infraction. The one rule common to every A.A. clubhouse
is that if, as rarely occurs, a member seeks to attend a
meeting while drinking, he is escorted to the door, with
the invitation to return only as soon as he recalls his
A.A., successful and American, had a password proof against
any member’s forgetting, it would be “Failure.”
One by one, each member tackled something that proved too
big for him; only when he acknowledged his inability to
deal with a circumstance that most people can meet with
ease was he able to -become a full member of this organization,
of those for whom “one drink is too many and a thousand
aren’t enough.” Dentists and doctors, stevedores,
ministers, cops, poets, publishers, matrons, vocational-guidance
counselors, stenographers, artists, bartenders, and master
mechanics are all to be found in A.A.'s ranks, as diverse
and exclusive as a classified telephone directory. Yet all
have a common vantage point; each one, from a broad and
comfortable ridge, has a clear view downward into the Valley
of the Shadow of Death.
alcoholism is a state so complex that a leak-proof definition
is impossible here, a clinician can, in his own bald terms,
describe it simply: “a progressive, incurable and
fatally terminating disease.” That alcoholism could
be arrested was well known, but this knowledge -was for
many years almost useless, for the arrestment was up to
the drinker: would he or would he not stop? Usually he would
not, no matter how he longed to, for he was inwardly convinced
that he could not; so long as he new that a couple of quick
ones would give him a desperately bought temporary relief
from his sufferings, he could see no permanent way out.
Psychiatry’s dictum that alcoholism was only a symptom
of a deep-seated psychic disorder was not
very helpful in the crisis forever engulfing the alcoholic
and his family.
dawned on Bill W.* in 1934,
when he was close to the last stages of alcoholic disintegration,
that if he attempted to help other alcoholics he might thereby
help himself. He went to work--and found himself able to
stay sober for the first time in years. But this was cold
comfort, for the drunks on whom he worked stayed drunk.
He was on the verge of a relapse that might well have been
final when he met the drunken Dr. Bob in Akron. Only then
did it dawn that the help must flow two ways: one-sided
preachment was useless, but when help was mutually offered
and accepted between two suffering and desperate drunks,
each of whom sought to help himself by helping the other,
a new element entered into a materialistically hopeless
situation. As a result of this help from the helpless, Bill
W. stayed sober and Dr. Bob got sober, and the nucleus of
Alcoholics Anonymous was formed. By the end of that year
A.A. had three members. By the end of another year it had
fifteen. By the end of still another it had forty--divided
among Akron, New York, and Cleveland. That was all.
those years A.A. has evolved into a membership of 120,000
divided into some 4,100 local groups. Metropolitan areas
such as New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and Los Angeles may
harbor 100 to 200 groups each. Ninety prisons have A.A.
clubs within their walls, and over 100 clubs exist to further
the A.A. idea, although not formally affiliated with A.A.
In Chicago the weekly “intergroup” meeting never
brings out fewer than 1,200 A.A.'s at a time. In New York,
the “Annual Banquet” may have to be abandoned
unless some way can be devised of splitting it into sections,
for no hotel has a ballroom large enough to seat it.
more important are the statistics of sobriety. Of those
who make a genuine effort to stop drinking through A.A.
principles, 50 per cent get sober at once, and stay that
way. Another 25 per cent get sober after some relapses.
The remaining 25 per cent show improvement. A.A. is not
out to make a showing. It refuses to screen its membership,
as some doctors would like, to eliminate the “hopeless”
cases; gaining a statistical advantage is not A.A.'s purpose--and
furthermore an impressive number of “hopeless”
cases have recovered. A.A. quietly and with good cause believes
that all those who relapse or drop away will be back later
and permanently, if they live. The word “cure,”
however, is not in the A.A. vocabulary. On the contrary
the man who succeeds in staying sober must still recognize
himself as an alcoholic.
you were to go to an open meeting of A.A., as you are perfectly
free to do. You would find yourself in a group of from thirty
to 300 people, one-third of whom might be women. (Only 10
to 15 per cent of A.A.'s active membership is female, but
non-alcoholic wives of alcoholic husbands are attending
meetings in increasing numbers, and this attendance is strongly
encouraged.) The average age would be between thirty-five
and forty and is steadily growing younger; it used to be
that an alcoholic seldom recognized his trouble until his
middle forties, whereas now, with greater publicity for
the whole problem, he sees what is wrong sooner; today,
some A.A.'s are not much over thirty. Prosperous, less prosperous,
and poor would be represented in about equal thirds; so
would the educational levels of college, high school, or
less. If this were a typical meeting, 40 per cent of those
present would be Catholics--double the number you would
encounter in an exact sample of the U.S. population. At
the other end of the scale are the Jews--represented by
no more than a sprinkling, even in New York.**
is no use trying to draw conclusions from appearances; the
blowzy old lady near the front may be a casual visitor who
never had a drink in her life, whereas the pink-cheeked,
white-haired gentleman who looks like a deacon may have
had a record of fifty alcoholic admissions into hospitals
and jails. The group is probably meeting in the parish house
of a church, a political clubhouse, a public auditorium,
or a small mezzanine banquet room of a hotel--any place
where an evening’s rent is reasonable and the atmosphere
is neither so high-toned as to discourage a man wearing
out his last pair of shoes nor so forbidding as to scare
a Caspar Milquetoast. The air is dense with tobacco smoke,
and the evening’s chairman has to bang his gavel hard
to cut through the loud, familiar talk. There is no set
speech for chairmen, but a typical opening might be something
and gentlemen, I wonder if the new people who are here for
the first, second, or third
time would please raise their hands. . . . That’s
fine. I’ll ask the old-timers to please make themselves
known to the new people and try to see they have a good
time. As you know, AA. groups have two kinds of meetings,
open and closed. The closed meetings are for alcoholics
only, but tonight is an open meeting, so everybody is welcome.
If there are any reporters here I just want to remind them
that they can write anything they like so long as they don’t
use anybody’s name. You’ve got to respect us
on that because some people are funny: they usen’t
to mind being seen in the Hotel Metropolis so drunk they
couldn’t stand up, but they’re still a little
bit sensitive about being seen sitting down here cold sober.
. . .
you think we have some fancy test that can tell you whether
you’re an alcoholic or not. But we haven’t.
The only person who can decide
whether you’re an alcoholic is yourself. If you want
a little helpful hint I’ll tell you something I heard
Fanny J. say at a meeting a couple of months ago: when anybody
stops boasting about how much he had to drink the night
before and starts lying about it, there’s maybe just
a little bit of a chance that he’s getting to be one
of us. But that’s up to you.
people are able to get the A.A. program while they still
have their jobs and their wives and their homes, but there
are others who don’t seem to be able to quit drinking
until they’ve lost everything. That’s given
rise to the saying that there are ‘high-bottom’
drunks and ‘low-bottom’ drunks. But remember
what Bill W. said: ‘The difference between the high-bottom
drunk and the low-bottom drunk is that both are lying in
the gutter but the high-bottom drunk has his head on the
curb.’ We are all drunks. If you think you are a drunk
we invite you to join us.
going to hear from three members tonight, and they’re
all going to have very different stories to tell. All we
ask of you new people is that you keep an open mind. If
you don’t happen to hear anything tonight that fits
in with your own story, or reminds you of your own pattern
of drinking, please keep coming, for sooner or later you’re
bound to hear something
that hits you right where you live.
I ought to tell the newcomers that we don’t practice
any religious ritual of any sort here, except that we end
every meeting by standing up and reciting the Lord’s
Prayer, and we ask you all to join. The first speaker this
evening . . . "
first speaker, and every speaker at every A.A. meeting,
begins with one standard line: “My name is_____, and
I am an alcoholic.” Thereafter he says exactly what
he likes, and what he usually likes is to tell the story
of his drinking, and how, eventually, he came into AA. What
a newcomer, feeling in his heart of hearts that he is an
alcoholic, expects to experience at the first meeting can
never be known, except it is a good bet he does not expect
to be shaken with laughter. But that is what usually does
happen to him, and what usually dissolves his intention
of leaving after the first twenty minutes and making a dash
for the nearest bar. No one has quite such terrific stories
to tell as an alcoholic, and once he is released from his
fears and shames by having put his alcoholic activity behind
him he makes a formidable raconteur, using his old self
as the butt of his new. The laughter that shakes the hall
is the laughter of recognition.
and over, the newcomer hears references to the Twelve Steps
and in particular to the Twelfth Step. The Twelve Steps
constitute at once the philosophy of A.A. and its means
to therapy for the alcoholic who is making an honest attempt
to stop drinking. They are not absolutes, but are presented
as suggestions. In condensed form for the quick-reading
non-alcoholic, they are these:
the alcoholic admits that he has become powerless over alcohol;
that his life has become unmanageable. This is the admission
of failure without which his ego does not undergo the deep
deflation that seems the key to success.
he comes to believe that only a Power greater than himself
can restore his life, and turns his will and his life over
to the care of God as he understands Him.
via nine detailed suggestions, the alcoholic undertakes
a searching moral inventory of himself; admits to God and
one human being his wrongs and shortcomings, asking God
to remove them, and himself making the human amends possible.
He seeks by prayer and meditation to improve his conscious
contact with God as he understands Him, praying only for
knowledge of His will, and the power to carry that out.
having had a spiritual experience, he tries to carry this
message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles
in all his affairs (the Twelfth Step).
Anonymous”’ said Bill W. when the American Psychiatric
Association invited him to address it in 1949, “is
not a religious organization; there is no dogma. The one
theological proposition is ‘Power greater than one’s
self,’ but even this concept is forced on no one.
The newcomer merely immerses himself in our society and
tries the program as best he can. Left alone, he will surely
report the gradual onset of a transforming experience, call
it what he may. Observers thought A.A. could appeal only
to the religiously susceptible. Yet our membership includes
a former member of the American Atheist Society and about
20,000 others almost as tough. The dying can become remarkably
open-minded. Of course we speak little of conversion nowadays
because so many people really dread being God-bitten. But
conversion, as broadly described by William James, does
seem to be our basic process. . . .
deep kinship, the urgency of our mission, the need to abate
our neurosis for contented survival; all these, together
with love for God and man, have contained us in surprising
unity. There seems safety in numbers. Enough sandbags muffle
any amount of dynamite. We think we are a pretty secure,
happy family. Drop by any A.A. meeting for a look.”
the toughest of the tough, the lowest of the low, the most
cynical of the cynical, the program works. The alcoholic,
man or woman, is merely urged to look again at the idea
of a Higher Power, and to dissociate that idea from the
old-man-with-the-whiskers, the angry Santa Claus, the avenging
anthropomorphic tyrant with which he was stuffed and terrified
in his childhood. Gradually the phrase “as you understand
Him” takes hold. Sometimes the concept of the Higher
Power can be accepted only by some elaborate stratagem.
One alcoholic, determined in his agnosticism, at last solved
his problem by accepting as a Power greater than himself
the steam radiator that clanked and hissed in his miserable
room. It was hot and full of energy and burned him when
he touched it. It was sufficient. The radiator clanked inscrutably;
the alcoholic stopped drinking.
by one, the speakers who rise and tell their stories 12,000
times or more a week the country over are driven to say
the same thing: “I don’t understand it, but
I don’t need to; it works.” Certainly one thing
that works is the feeling of fellowship engendered by several
hundred people in the same room, every one of whom knows
at firsthand the exact horrible details of alcoholic suffering.
Most alcoholics, before they encounter A.A., are convinced
that nowhere in the annals of medicine or abnormal psychology
can any parallel to themselves be found. “It may be
all right for some people but it would never work for me”
is the most common first response heard by an A.A. having
his first talk with an alcoholic who does not yet dare to
hope. Nothing is a more powerful solvent to this sort of
suffering egotism than being physically surrounded by several
hundred people, every one of whom once held precisely that
same thought, and slowly realizing that the horrors once
thought to be unique are, in reality, a universal experience
in the society of A.A. Most A.A.'s carry fat address books
in their pockets; in these are crammed the names, addresses,
and telephone numbers of the A.A.'s he has met inside or
outside his own group. This is the equipment he needs for
what is known as the Nickel Therapy: when the desire for
a drink reaches dangerous proportions, the AA. drops a 5-cent
piece in a coin telephone and dials the number of a fellow
member who will sit out the siege with him.
Twelfth Step, by which alcoholics work with alcoholics,
does not mean that A.A. evangelizes, proselytizes, or whoops
things up in any way among “hot prospects.”
If a despairing wife calls an A.A. (almost every sizable
telephone book in the U.S. has an A.A. number in it) and
asks that he “try to do something with Jim,”
the first inquiry must always be directed to the point,
“Does Jim want it?”
If the answer is “No, but God knows he ought to,”
the AA. will beg off seeing Jim and have a chat with his
wife or family instead. Only when
Jim is ready to talk will the AA. go to work directly. Even
then, there is no urging. The A.A. member will talk not
about Jim but about himself. He will emphasize that no A.A.
takes any sort of pledge of sobriety. He works, instead,
on the “Twenty-four Hour Plan,” which the A.A.
often expresses as “Tomorrow I may go on the damnedest
bender you ever heard of, but I’m not going to have
a drink today. The Twenty-four Hour Plan is of vital importance
to those who have newly stopped drinking—for to them,
nine times out of ten, the contemplation of the balance
of a lifetime without the solace of alcohol is intolerable.
Yet A.A.'s who have been dry ten years or more still wisely
make their plans for sobriety no further than a day in advance.
The first longing of someone who has stopped drinking is
to be able to resume it successfully; only slowly is this
point of view replaced by the one that says “I wouldn’t
take a drink now, even if I could.” All this the A.A.
discusses at low pressure.
the A.A. truly burns to get something across to the suffering
alcoholic is in telling him that not only is life possible
without alcohol but it is a damned sight more pleasant.
This is difficult. A universal feature of advanced alcoholism
is a sharp constriction of interests: the alcoholic who
once belonged to a choral society, went to sketch class
once a week, collected matchbooks, and went on short-line
railroad excursions has now abandoned all these things in
favor of continuous drinking. It is hard for him to find
his way back to these things alone: it is hard for him to
find his way back to society at all. But A.A. offers him
a society that will instantly welcome him, ask him no questions,
but instead begin to deluge him with the mirthful, frightful
record of its own calamities.
is founded on the Christian principle of Love. It is the
fashion, even in these dark days, for the worldly to scoff
at such a declaration, but the A.A. does not scoff and does
not blush at holding so old-fashioned an idea. Like ceasing
to drink, the A.A. finds that loving his fellow man makes
no impossible exactions of an ordinary, all-too-human being.
was once a new A.A. named Joe, who came to an older A.A.
named Fred, asking advice. Joe had encountered a third A.A.
named George whose every attribute of personality Joe found
repulsive. Was it essential that Joe should love George?
Yes, said Fred, it was. Joe thought for a long, dismal moment
and then announced that if this were true he would have
to retire from the program and resume drinking; loving George
was beyond his powers.
a minute,” said the old A.A. “There isn’t
anything to keep you from loving George. Hell, you don’t
have to like the s.o.b. any more than I do.”
Anonymity is, to the A.A., of immense spiritual significance--reminding
him “to place principles above personalities.”
Bill W. and Dr. Bob, referred to in this article, were the
first two members of A.A. and thus cannot escape some identification
as “founder” and “co-founder.” Dr.
Bob’s death late in 1950 revealed him at last to the
general public as Dr. Robert H. Smith, noted surgeon of
Of all groups needing A.A., the American Negro stands first.
AA. Welcomes him, but the Negro’s knowledge of alcoholism
as a sickness is understandably slow in developing. Only
in the last few years have A.A. groups formed in Negro communities
such as New York’s Harlem.
Fortune, February 1951)