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Alcoholics Anonymous Celebrates Its 50th Year
years ago this summer two men managed to cast
the chains of their alcohol addiction. The fellowship
they founded has saved the lives of millions.
a year of Jack Alexander’s report on Alcoholics Anonymous
in The Saturday Evening Post, AA 's ranks leaped from 2,000
to 8,000 and continued to climb. The Post is still hearing
from grateful relatives of alcoholics. We received this
letter in 1982: “Your magazine did the ultimate service
for my father. . . . Physically a wreck, having d.t.’s,
he would not have lived long. . . . I took him to the nearest
chapter meeting. . . and he swore he would never drink again.”
March 1, 1941, Saturday Evening Post (adorned with an appealing
Norman Rockwell cover and costing five cents) is a historic
issue. It contains a Jack Alexander story that turned Alcoholics
Anonymous, an obscure self-help organization, into an American
growth has not leveled off in the intervening years. The
fellowship now has more than one million members, and its
message of spiritual renewal is felt world-wide.
July in Montreal, Canada, some 50,000 people from around
the world will meet to celebrate AA’s 50th birthday.
They will gather without
hoopla or hype, for AA has a firm policy against promotion.
The meeting, nonetheless, will be one of celebration, an
expression of “sheer joy” by recovered alcoholics
and their families. Among the honored guests will be the
surviving relatives of two strong-willed men without whom
Alcoholics Anonymous would never have been founded. This
is their incredible story:
Anonymous was founded in 1935 after a New York stockbroker,
William Griffith Wilson, met a fellow alcoholic, Dr. Robert
Holbrook Smith, in Akron, Ohio. The fellowship is reckoned
to have started on June 10 of that year, the day that Dr.
Smith took his last drink, a beer accompanied by a tranquilizer.
Dr. Smith needed to steady his nerves--he was about to perform
whole story starts a few years earlier. A pebble from the
Alps had started the avalanche of recovery that was to become
Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1931 the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl
Jung was treating an American named Rowland H. for a drinking
problem. No sooner had therapy ended, however, than Rowland
lapsed back into drunkenness. Refusing to take him back
as a patient, Jung told Rowland bluntly that further psychiatric
measure were pointless. His only hope of recovery, said
Jung, lay in a “vital” spiritual experience.
to the United States, Rowland found spirituality--and sobriety--with
the Oxford Group, an evangelistic organization founded by
a Lutheran minister, Dr. Frank Buchman. Rowland shared Jung’s
message, and his own experience, with other problem drinkers
whom he met through the group.
a result of Rowland’s efforts, at least one member,
Ebby T., was able to stop drinking for a time. Near the
end of 1934, Ebby, then about six months sober, went to
Brooklyn to see his old friend Bill Wilson, who had fallen
upon hard times.
a tall, good-looking man, had been one of the first, and
best, security analysts on the New York Stock Exchange.
He had conceived the notion that investors would do well
to take a closer look at the businesses whose stocks they
were buying. He and his wife, Lois, had quit their jobs
and taken to the road to do just that.
breakthrough was to discover the great investment potential
of the General Electric Company at the advent of radio.
Other coups followed and brought Bill prestige and success.
The crash of 1929 hurt Bill, but he made no less than two
financial recoveries in the early ’30s. Alcohol (in
the heart of the Prohibition!) finally reduced him to poverty.
A friend remembered how things were during this period:
half a century has passed, but I can still see Bill coming
into Ye Olde Illegal Bar on a freezing afternoon with a
slow stride-he never hurried-and looking over with lofty
dignity at the stack of bottles back of the bar, containing
those rare imported beverages straight off the line from
Hoboken. One time at Whitehall subway station, not far from
Busto’s [a speak-easy] he took a tumble down the steps.
The old brown hat stayed on; but, wrapped up in that long
overcoat, he looked like a collapsed sailboat on the subway
platform. I recall how his face lit up when he fished out
of the heap of clothes an unbroken bottle of gin,”
the time of Ebby’s visit, Bill was becoming violent
and increasingly abusive; his doctor suspected brain damage.
For Bill, self-hate was the daily companion to the terror
that he and Lois felt. Ebby, on the other hand, looked and
felt good. Rather hesitantly, he explained how he had stopped
drinking. He didn’t really expect to get through,
but as Bill was to confess later, “In no waking moment
could I get that man or his message out of my head.”
continued, however, to drink. A month later, he was back
in Charles B. Towns hospital, an alcoholic rehabilitation
center, for the fourth time. Ebby paid him another visit
there. Bill asked him to repeat the “neat little formula”
that had enabled him to stop drinking; Ebby did so “in
perfectly good humor.” The process involved admitting
that you were beaten, getting honest with yourself, talking
it our with somebody else, making restitution to the people
you had harmed and praying to your own
conception of a God.
was, to say the least, uncomfortable with the idea of a
higher power, but he was in the grip of a terrible depression--his
pride could no longer hold out against the danger and disgrace
drinking had brought upon him. Suddenly he found himself
prepared to do “anything, anything at all.”
Without faith or hope he cried, “If there be a God,
let Him show Himself!”
came an event that would change everything. "Suddenly
the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up
in an ecstasy that there are no words to describe. It seemed
to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain
and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And
then it burst upon me that I was a free man.”
later years Bill was to downplay this event. With cheerful
iconoclasm, he would refer to it as his “hot flash”
experience. He insisted that his real battle with ignorance
and arrogance lay ahead. But he never took another drink.
the skeptical Yankee, Bill suspected initially that his
“hot flash” might have been nothing more than
a hallucination associated with the d.t.‘s. He discussed
this fear with the hospital’s chief of staff, Dr.
William D. Silkworth. Silkworth, a neurologist, had already
introduced Bill to the idea, unorthodox at the time, that
alcoholism was a disease rather than a moral weakness. Now
he affirmed that Bill had undergone “some great psychic
occurrence” and advised him to hold on to it.
began anew for the Wilsons. They attended Oxford Group meetings
and lived off the small wages Lois was earning as a salesclerk
in a Brooklyn department store. Bill yearned to become the
family’s breadwinner once again, but he had always
been the slave of his own enthusiasm. Caught up in something,
he would give it all his considerable energies.
Bill was consumed by the idea of a movement of recovered
alcoholics who would help their still-suffering fellows.
He was convinced the message from Dr. Silkworth and from
Ebby T. could work for other alcoholics, too. Ebby’s
message had been particularly effective. Ebby knew the hopelessness
and blindness of alcoholism from the inside; surely his
empathy had enabled him to get through to Bill when nobody
else--not even Lois--could. The first six months of Bill’s
sobriety were spent in
enthusiastic but fruitless attempts to help other alcoholics.
Bill’s approach was almost exclusively spiritual.
Finally, Dr. Silkworth, who was permitting him to speak
to patients at Towns, suggested bluntly that he “stop
preaching at drunks” and concentrate on the medical
facts instead. If an alcoholic could be told by another
alcoholic that he had a serious illness, that might do the
trick. . . .
did not put this advice into practice immediately. A business
opportunity intervened. He went to Akron to take part in
a proxy voting battle for the control of the National Rubber
Machinery Company. The prize would be a position as an officer
in the company and a new career. He was, after all, only
39, and great things still seemed possible. For a while,
the proxy solicitations went well, and victory appeared
to be in Bill’s grasp. Abruptly, however, the tide
turned in favor of the opposition. Bill’s past offered
them an excellent weapon they did not hesitate to use. The
battle was lost. Bill’s associates returned to New
York and left him alone in Akron to salvage the situation.
was Friday afternoon, and Bill faced a weekend alone in
a strange city. Lonely, and resentful over his defeat, he
paced up and down in the lobby of his hotel. At one end
of his beat was a bar, where the familiar buzz of a drinking
crowd offered comfort and conversation. Bill was gripped
by fear. He thought of his work with other alcoholics during
the past six months. Unsuccessful as it had been from their
point of view, the work had certainly kept him sober. Now
he needed another alcoholic as much as that person needed
called an Episcopal clergyman listed on the church directory
displayed in the lobby and explained his situation as frankly
as he could. One call led to another, and by Sunday he found
himself in the home of a young woman member of the Oxford
Group. She wanted him to speak to her friend, Dr. Robert
Smith, who had recently confessed to being a drinker. Dr.
Smith arrived at five that afternoon with his wife and teen-age
son in tow. Hung over, he explained he could only stay 15
minutes. He stayed six hours.
Smith’s drinking has been a serious problem since
he had been at medical school. The suffering involved in
maintaining a façade through the subsequent years
had been considerable. Fifty-five years old, he had by all
accounts been an excellent doctor. Now, however, his career
was in ruin, and his financial position desperate.
the invitation of Bob’s wife, Anne, Bill stayed with
the Smiths for the rest of his time in Akron. A month later,
Bob took his last drink. Only weeks later Bob and Bill carried
the message to another man, Bill D., a lawyer who had had
to be tied to his hospital bed after he had blackened the
eyes of two nurses. Bill D. found permanent sobriety.
Bob and Bill’s efforts the self-help society began
to grow. Bill was the pioneer, the promoter and the organizer,
but Bob was unsurpassed at working personally with alcoholics.
In the next few years, he would treat thousands without
charge--in addition to rebuilding his career as a surgeon.
“It is difficult,” wrote a priest who worked
with Bob, “to speak of Dr. Smith without going into
eulogistic superlatives. While he lived, he laughed them
off, and now, though [he is] dead, I feel he still laughs
them off.” A classmate from medical school recalls
a day near the end of Bob’s life in 1950. “One
of the outstanding incidents of my life is the Sunday we
spent with him at his home in Akron. It was something like
people coming to Lourdes--people he’d never seen or
heard of. One was a dean of a large college in Ohio. Two
people who stand out in my memory were a lawyer and his
wife. They had driven all the way from Detroit to tell him
what he’d done for them through AA.”
years after their first meeting, Bill and Bob could count
at least 40 sober alcoholics, some of them “very grim,
last-gasp cases that had been sober a couple of years.”
They realized the chain reaction they had started could
spread throughout the world. “What a tremendous realization
that was!” Bill wrote. “At last we were sure.
There would be no more flying totally blind.”
Bob continued to build the fellowship in Akron, Bill began
writing a book (Alcoholic Anonymous: AA members call it
“The Big Book”) about its methods and philosophy.
Until then AA’s message had been transmitted exclusively
face-to-face. For a while, it seemed that the potent magic
of that message had been lost in print--the book simply
didn’t sell. Local newspapers and word-of-mouth continued,
however, to spread the news of hope for alcoholics, and
before long a steady trickle of orders began coming in.
Jack Alexander began working on an article about AA for
The Saturday Evening Post. Initially prepared to
debunk the fellowship, Alexander, after an exhaustive investigation,
became an enthusiastic believer. No sooner had his article
appeared in the March 1, 1941, Post than the group’s
small office in New York was swamped with orders for the
book and letters asking for assistance. Somehow, the staff
(a young woman, Ruth Hock) and volunteers (everybody else)
managed to send a personal reply to each inquiry. Throughout
North America (and indeed, the world) the Big Book took
the place of the personal “sponsorship” that
had brought sobriety to pre-1941 members.
almost burst upon the world too soon. At the time of the
Post explosion, it had just begun to develop its unique
“corporate poverty” policy--without which it
could not have attained its present power and importance.
had been a problem for Bill and Bob from the start. Both
had spent their early years of sobriety in straitened circumstances.
When AA was three years old, Bill was offered “an
office, a decent drawing account and a very healthy slice
of the profits” of Towns hospital in exchange for
“moving his work” into that institution. Initially
he was delighted, but other members of the New York group
persuaded him to refuse. (Today, many AA members work as
paid alcoholism counselors--but in the fellowship’s
formative years salaries might have been too heavy a strain
on AA’s all-important tradition of free and voluntary
assistance.) Shortly after deciding to keep his AA work
non-professional, Bill lost his home. For the next two years
he and Lois lived with friends and moved more than 50 times
before they could afford their own home.
personal gain, Bill, however, clung to the idea that AA
itself should be liberally funded. He believed that AA should
build a chain of hospitals and mount a public education
campaign. With these aims in mind, he and his associates
approached John D. Rockefeller, Jr., for financial assistance.
Rockefeller dispatched an investigator to Akron. The report
he received made him a life-long supporter of the group--and
a firm believer that money would spoil it. In 1940, he gave
a dinner for AA and invited the leading members of New York’s
financial community. At this dinner, he asked his son Nelson
to announce that he (John D.) was donating only $1,000 and
to explain that AA required little more in the way of financial
assistance. The other guests followed suit-one banker sent
a check for $10!
some members of the fellowship now began questioning whether
they really wanted a well-funded organization with a powerful
executive. AA had, after all, been founded on the power
and enthusiasm of the individual. While the group debated
this issue, the steady growth of the first years was suddenly
overtaken by waves of new members in the wake of the Post
article. AA began to realize it enjoyed a fabulous amount
of good will. It did not need Rockefeller.
issue of funding came to a head when one-well-wisher left
AA a legacy of $10,000. After a lively discussion, the group
made a unique decision. They would not accept it. ".
. . [A]t the slightest intimation to the general public
from our Trustees that we needed money, we could become
immensely rich. Compared to this prospect the $10,000 was
not much, but like the alcoholic’s first drink, it
would, if taken, inevitably set up a disastrous chain reaction.
Where would that land us? Whoever pays the piper calls the
tune, and if the AA foundation obtained money from outside
sources, its Trustees might be tempted to run things without
reference to the wishes of AA as a whole. Every alcoholic
feeling relieved of responsibility would shrug and say,
‘Oh the foundation is wealthy! Why should I bother?’
The pressure of that fat treasury would surely tempt the
Board to do good with such funds, and so divert AA from
its primary purpose.” As the result of this decision,
AA neither solicits nor accepts any outside contributions.
Only members may contribute, and even they are asked not
to donate more than $500 per year.
Bill had avoided becoming the president of yet another wealthy
New York charitable foundation and became, instead, “the
greatest social architect of the century,” in Aldous
Huxley’s words. He died in relative obscurity in 1971.
In the last part of his life, he avoided fame as assiduously
as he had sought it earlier; he refused publicity and awards--a
Time cover portrait, an honorary doctorate from Yale.
in particular was no stranger to the lure of fame and wealth,
but he had come to believe that seeking personal gain-including
prestige-from the connection with AA would be short-sighted.
This belief lies at the heart of AA’s all-important
12th tradition, which reads, “Anonymity is the spiritual
foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place
principles before personalities.”
enough, the Akron meeting of Bill Wilson and Bob Smith had
its origins in the consulting rooms of Carl Jung, that great
believer in synchronicity-“significant” coindid-
ences. Today, 50 years after that meeting, more than one
million people have found sobriety in AA. That any single
one of them is staying sober is in itself so unlikely, one
must conclude that the lives of each one of those men and
women have been the product of synchronicity, or what some
might call a miracle.
Edmeades is a Canadian writer with legal training.
He became interested in the history and financial structure
of Alcoholics Anonymous while researching the law of nonprofit
corporations and associations for the province of Alberta,
where he lives.
The Saturday Evening Post, August 1985)