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CLERGY CONFERENCE ON ALCOHOLISM
THE "BLUE BOOK", Vol. 12, 179-210, 1960
of Alcoholics Anonymous
Raymond J.H. Kennedy, S.J. - Chairman.
KENNEDY: Your Excellency, Right Reverend and Very Reverend
Fathers, Members and Guests of the Conference: We come now
to what, for most of us, is undoubtedly the high point of
six or seven years ago I attended the Yale School of Alcohol
Studies and, when we were leaving, our class was urged,
as is every class, that, when we returned to our home cities,
we should try to do something practical with the knowledge
and training we had received at Yale. So I devised the idea
of conducting in Syracuse a lecture series for the general
public on Problems of Alcohol in general and on alcoholism
in particular. I was fortunate enough to be able to bring
to our city a number of lecturers of national renown including
Doctor Bacon of Yale, Father Ford, and Mrs. Marty Mann.
But from the very outset I had one great hope, namely, that
I would be able to have the one surviving Co-Founder of
Alcoholics Anonymous as the final lecturer of our series.
Our local A.A. people were, of course, thrilled with the
idea. They warned me that it would be practically impossible
because they happened to know that, at that time, the gentleman
who I am about to introduce to you, had been quite unwell
and that also that he had very recently the great sorrow
of burying his father. I was, of course, dismayed to hear
this but I wrote to him anyway and asked if it would be
possible for him to come. In reply I had a very delightful
phone call in which he assured me he would be very happy
to give the lecture. The result was startling. Our local
A.A. people spread the word and what a response we had!
Whereas the other lectures had addressed groups of fifty
to seventy-five people, seven hundred appeared for the closing
lecture. They came by the busload: they came from Albany,
from Rochester, from Buffalo. They even came from Ottawa
and Toronto. On that memorable evening and throughout the
following day, when he remained as my guest in our city,
I personally became very much attached to this man and,
since then, he has favored me with his personal friendship
in many ways and on many occasions.
of this conference have tried two or three times in the
past to have him come to address us but each time that we
invited him something seemed to come up to prevent him from
appearing on the program. Each time, I sincerely believed
him, because I never forgot that when he was free to accept
an invitation he did come, in spite of illness and even
of personal sorrow in his own family. I consider it a deep
personal honor and privilege to be permitted to present
to this Conference Bill W.
and Friends: My thanks to Father Ray for his introduction.
He has us off to an appropriate start. This hour with you
is most meaningful to me and I trust it will be to you and
to A.A. as a whole. Every thoughtful A.A. realizes that
the divine grace which has always flowed through the Church
is the ultimate foundation on which A.A. rests. Our spiritual
origins are Christian.
the transforming grace that expels our alcohol obsession
has come down across the centuries through you. In this
connection d like to tell you the story of my long
connection with Father Edward Dowling, whose funeral I have
shall I have a finer friend, a wiser adviser, nor in all
probability such a channel of grace as he personally afforded
me over the years.
Ed., as we affectionately call him, was the first clergyman
of the Catholic faith ever to take notice of us AA5. It
happened in this way. Our textbook, Alcoholics Anonymous
was published in the spring of 1939. A few months later
Father Ed read the book and very evidently liked what he
The Queens Work, the magazine of the Sodality, he
wrote a piece about us which in effect said to all people
of the Catholic faith, "Folks, AA is good; come and
get it." Because we could have had no idea of how the
AA book would be received by the clergy, this forthright
recommendation brought us great excitement, rejoicing, and
thereafter my wife Lois and I had moved to AAs first
clubhouse on 24th Street here in New York. Our own house
had been lost and the future for our society was uncertain
indeed. Though a formula for recovery from alcoholism was
in sight, we were just beginning the great test to see whether
we rather erratic people could live and work together. The
problems of that club and its people were terrific; only
God knew if we could survive.
first unforgettable contact with Father Ed came about in
was early in 1940, though late in the winter. Save for old
Tom, the fireman we had lately rescued from Rockland Asylum,
the club was empty. My wife Lois was out somewhere. It had
been a hectic day, full of disappointments. I lay upstairs
in our room, consumed with self-pity. This had brought on
one of my characteristic imaginary ulcer attacks. It was
a bitter night, frightfully windy. Hail and sleet beat on
the tin roof over my head.
the front doorbell rang and I heard old Tom toddle of f
to answer it. A minute later he looked into the doorway
of my room, obviously much annoyed. Then he said, "Bill,
there is some old damn bum down there from St. Louis, and
he wants to see you." Great heavens, I thought, this
cant be still another one!" Wearily, and even
resentfully, I said to Tom, "Oh well, bring him up,
bring him up." Then a strange figure appeared in my
bedroom door. He wore a shapeless black hat that somehow
reminded me of a cabbage leaf. His coat collar was drawn
around his neck, and he leaned heavily on a cane. He was
plastered with sleet. Thinking him to be just another drunk,
I didnt even get of f the bed. Then he unbuttoned
his coat and I saw that he was a clergyman.
moment later I realized with great joy that he was the clergyman
who had put that wonderful plug for AA into The Queens
Work. My weariness and annoyance instantly evaporated.
talked of many things, not always about serious matters
either. Then I began to be aware of one of the most remarkable
pair of eyes I had ever seen. And, as we talked on, the
room increasingly filled with what seemed to me to be the
presence of God which flowed through my new friend. It was
one of the most extraordinary experiences that I have ever
had. Such was his rare ability to transmit grace. Nor was
my experience at all unique. Hundreds of AAs have
reported having exactly this experience when in his presence.
was the beginning of our of the deepest and most inspiring
friendships that I shall ever know. This was the first meaningful
contact that I had ever had with the clergymen of your faith.
months later I visited St. Louis and Father Ed met me at
the air field. By contrast this was a blistering day, and
Father Ed had come to bring me to the Sodality Headquarters
in St. Louis. I was struck by the delightful informality.
Of course I had never been in such a place before. I had
been raised in a small Vermont village, Yankee-style. Happily
there was no bigotry in my grandfather who raised me. But
neither was there much religious contact or understanding.
So here I was in some kind of a monastery. Even then, believe
it or not, I still toyed with the notion that Catholicism
was somehow a superstition of the Irish!
Father Ed and his Jesuit partners commenced to ask me questions.
They wanted to know about the recently published AA book
and especially about Ms Twelve Steps. To my surprise
they had supposed that I must have had a Catholic education.
They seemed doubly surprised when I informed them that at
the age of eleven I had quit the Congregational Sunday school
because my teacher had asked me to sign a temperance pledge.
This had been the extent of my religious education.
questions were asked about Ms Twelve Steps. I explained
how a few years earlier some of us had been associated with
the Oxford Groups; that we had picked up from these good
people the ideas of self-survey, confession, restitution,
helpfulness to others and prayer, ideas that we might have
got in many other quarters as well. After our withdrawal
from the Oxford Groups, these principles and attitudes had
been formed into a wordof-mouth program, to which
we had added a step of our own to the effect "that
we were powerless over alcohol." Our Twelve Steps were
the result of my effort to define more sharply and elaborate
upon these word-of-mouth principles so that alcoholic readers
would have a more specific program: that there could be
no escape from what we deemed to be essential principles
and attitudes. This had been my sole idea in their composition.
This enlarged version of our program had been set down rather
quickly - perhaps in twenty or thirty minutes - on a night
when I had been very badly out of sorts. Why the Steps were
written down in the order in which they appear today and
just why they were worded as they are, I had no idea whatever.
this explanation of mine my new Jesuit friends pointed to
a chart that hung on the wall. They explained that this
was a comparison between the Spiritual Exercises of St.
Ignatius and the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, that,
in principle, this correspondence was amazingly exact. I
believe they also made the somewhat startling statement
that spiritual principles set forth in our Twelve Steps
appeared in the identical order that they do in the Ignatian
my abysmal ignorance, I actually inquired, "Please
tell me - who is this fellow Ignatius?"
of course the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous contain
nothing new, there seems no doubt that this singular and
exact identification with the Ignatian Exercises has done
much to make the close and fruitful relation that we now
enjoy with the Church.
Origins of A.A.
now occurs to me that it may be profitable if we were to
review the origins of AA; to take a look at some of its
underlying mechanisms - an interior look as it were. Of
course I am here reflecting my own views, and some of these
are bound to be speculative. At any rate, here they are.
M roots are in the centuries-old Christian community, there
seems little doubt that in an immediate sense our fellowship
began in the office of the much respected Dr. Carl Jung
you know, Dr. Jung is one of the pioneers of the psychiatric
art who believes that man has a conscience and a soul. In
1930 he had under treatment a prominent American business
man who had exhausted all other sources of recovery. He
remained with Carl Jung a whole year. And when he left that
great doctor he felt very confident that he had made a complete
comeback. He felt that the inner springs of his motivations
to drink had been revealed; that through this immensely
improved understanding he could now manage his own life.
Yet, quite unaccountably, he was soon seized with the old
malignant compulsion; he was drunk again. In utter despair,
he returned to Dr. Jung. In effect, this is what he had
to say. "Doctor, you have been my court of last resort.
Tell me frankly, is this the end of the line? You know how
badly I want to stop. Is there no hope?"
this plea, Dr. Jung made a rejoinder of great candor, humility
and perception, a statement that laid the foundation for
Step One of the AA program.
said to his patient, "I thought that you might be one
of the few who might be reeducated. But Im obliged
to conclude that you are like nearly all the rest of the
alcoholics Ive treated. There is nothing whatever
in my art that can do anything for " "But,"
persisted the patient, "is there no other way, is there
no other chance?"
said Dr. Jung, "there is a chancea very small
one. Your bare chance is that somehow, somewhere you will
find a transforming spiritual experience that will expel
remonstrated his client, "Im a man of faith.
In fact I used to be an Episcopal vestryman. I still have
a faith of sorts. But perhaps God hasnt much faith
in me?" Then Dr. Jung further explained as follows:
"Faith is indispensable, but in cases such as yours,
it isnt enough. I am talking of a transforming experience,
a conversion, if you like. Im talking about conversion
at depth, something that will expel your obsession, render
you sane, remotivate you. All through the centuries this
sort of thing has happened, but only occasionally; sometimes
under religious auspices, sometimes quite spontaneously,
and always inexplicably. I can only suggest that you expose
yourself to some sort of religious influence and hope for
the best, admitting that you can do nothing of your own
thereafter Dr. Jungs patient - one I shall call Roland
- joined up with the Oxford Groups, a society which in more
recent years has been called Moral ReArmament. As
we shall see, AA owes this fellowship a great deal on two
counts. From them we learned what, and what not to do. At
any rate, our friend Roland did there find a truly transforming
experience, an experience that kept him in sobriety for
a number of years.
one of those unusual Oxford Groupers interested in alcoholism,
Roland went out of his way to help a former school mate
of mine. A serious alcoholic, my old school chum "Ebby"
was about to be committed for alcoholic insanity just as
Roland reached him.
when Roland contacted my friend "Ebby," another
element was cast into the synthesis that was to become AA.
Here was one alcoholic talking to another. Roland could
not only identify with "Ebby" as an alcoholic,
he could also bring "Ebby" Dr. Jungs verdict
of the medical hopelessness of the malady. Just as importantly,
he could bring "Ebby" hope of release through
a spiritual experience. He could also tell "Ebby"
what conditions needed to be met in order to become worthy
of such a gift of grace - namely, self-survey, an examination
of conscience (as you would call it), restitution for harms
done, helpfulness to others without demands of prestige
or money reward, prayer to God as we understand Him. These
were the essential attitudes and principles that Roland
transmitted to "Ebby," who was to become my own
moment "Ebby" accepted these principles and conditions,
he was released from his desire to drink, and this release
lasted for a couple of years, during which he contacted
Meets John Barleycorn
at this point I should acquaint you with my own experience
as an alcoholic. There have been, of course, childhood maladjustments.
As a kid, I was over-sized, but not strong. I couldnt
win in fights and contests. My mother and father were divorced.
This resulted in great inferiority and much depression.
To compensate for this condition, I developed a fierce desire
to excel - the well-know power drive. By the time I reached
boarding school, I was possessed by a consuming desire to
be first in everything. This was more than legitimate ambition
- this was a veritable obsession.
first drink came during World War I, just before going to
service abroad. It was a tremendous experience, tinder alcohol
all my remaining inferioritys disappeared. I could
draw near to people and they seemed to draw near to me.
I was part of life at last. And alcohol was my elixir. Alcohol
could not only banish shyness and inferiority, it could
kill depression. Even better, it could elate me beyond description.
I could dream vast dreams of power and accomplishment. Therefore
alcohol meant far more to me than to the average person
- I had begun to use it as a cure for my neurotic difficulties.
the World War, this habit of finding surcease in the bottle
became truly obsessive, and uncontrollable. But it was a
long time before my wife and I realized how grim that alcohol
obsession could be. I entered Wall Street and became successful
for a time, making more money than was good for some so
young. In this period there were no depressions, only the
mad and elated pursuit of fame and money. By 1929 the hangovers
were terrific. But I had a good constitution, and I always
dreamed of controlling my drinking the next time I tried
came the 1929 crash. I was wiped out and plunged into debt.
Times were very bad and my drinking was well known. Therefore
there was no financial comeback. Again I began to drink
to cover up frustration and depression. Presently I began
the weary round of hospitals.
Dr. William D. Silkworth of Towns Hospital at New York,
a medical saint if there ever was one, took an interest
in my case. Knowing my desperate desire to stop, he thought
I might be one of the rare ones who could recover. But in
the end he had to give up. Gently, but very definitely,
he had to tell my wife: "Your husband has an obsession
that condemns him to drink; Nothing that I know, no treatment
at all can put an end to it. He also has some sort of physical
defect -maybe an allergythat guarantees he will damage
his brain if he keeps on. Indeed, there is a little damage
already." Such was the verdict of a doctor in whom
Lois and I had every confidence. Strangely this verdict
of medical hopelessness, this exact and awful statement
of the nature of the alcohol malady, was to become a vital
part of the AA program a little later on. By then it was
the summer of 1934. It looked as though I would have to
be locked up for good, or else go mad and die.
I left the hospital, still in freedom, and by dint of great
vigilance and discipline, I kept away from liquor until
Armistice Day of 1934. Then the strange obsession was upon
me, and I was drunk again.
day, while on that bout, the telephone rang as I sat drinking
alone - my wife was working in a department store, supporting
me- and here was my old friend Ebby. I had heard that he
was about to be committed for alcoholic insanity; indeed,
I had never seen him sober in New York before. I could instantly
sense something about him - something different. It was
a sort of a psychic hunch. He sat down at my kitchen table.
I pushed a crock of gin towards him. But he said, "No
thanks." So I inquired, "Well Ebby, are you on
the water wagon?" "No," he replied, "I
wouldnt say Im on the water wagon. Im
just not drinking now."
course I was mystified. What was all this about? I had looked
forward to a drinking bout with my friend. We would talk
about the good old days. That would be a relief because
the present was intolerable and I knew there was to be no
future for either of us. But he would have none of my gin.
What on earth had got into him? When I put this question,
he replied, simply and smilingly, "Ive got religion."
was a poser, indeed it was a shocker. At college I had had
a scientific training from which Id inferred that
man was the spearhead of evolution, was just about all the
God there was. However, I felt I ought to be polite. So
I said, "So youve got religion, Ebby? Well, tell
me what brand it is." He replied that it wasnt
exactly a brand - he wouldnt exactly call it a religion.
Then he explained how he had run into those Oxford Groups.
He also added that they were pretty evangelical for him.
Nevertheless he had met a drunk or two there, notably one
Roland, who had been a patient of Dr. Jungs. And then
he outlined the simple program that I have just described.
He told me just how it worked for him, how quite unaccountably
he had been released the moment that he became willing to
accept it; indeed he had been released before he had done
much about applying those principles and attitudes. He emphasized
the fact that he had been "released." I could
deeply sense that this was true. Ebbys sobriety was
certainly much more than the "water wagon" variety.
then dwelt on Rolands experience with Dr. Jung, how
hopeless this man of science said alcoholism was. Of course
this corresponded exactly with what Dr. Silkworth had already
told Lois and me. Though his new belief in God jarred me
not a little, I nevertheless listened with rapt attention.
In a way he was telling me nothing new at all, yet what
he had to say carried an immense impact. Here was one alcoholic
talking to another - at very great depth, no question.
deflation which had begun. with Dr. Silkworths grim
verdict was nearing completion. I was powerless on my own
resources. Yet here was hope. In Ebbys person, in
his very evident state of release, Ebby carried immense
conviction. Though I went on drinking for a while longer,
in no waking moment could I forget his face and words as
he sat and talked to me across the kitchen table. He had
bound me to him with cords of verity and understanding -
and a common suffering. From these benign ties I was not
it must be confessed that I still gagged on a belief in
God. I could and would try anything else - but not this.
But I always had to come back to the thought that Ebby was
released. He was sober, and I was hopelessly drunk. Who
was I to say there is no God? Maybe I had better go to the
hospital and get Dr. Silkworth to sober me up. Of course
there mustnt be any emotional conversion -that wouldnt
do for a Vermont Yankee! Anyway, Id have a good clear
I started for the hospital, very drunk. Dr. Silkworth shook
his head. I brandished a bottle and shouted, "Ive
got something new, Doc." He could only reply, "Maybe
you had better go to bed." And this I did. But I wasnt
in too awful shape. In three days time, I was perfectly
sober. One morning my friend Ebby appeared in the doorway
and he found me in a terrible depression. I was still in
my old friend didnt try to evangelize me. Instead
he put me in the position of asking, "Ebby, what is
that neat little formula of yours for getting sober?"
He quickly repeated it. I reflected, too, that he was definitely
practicing what he preached. Why was he at my hospital so
early in the morning, when he himself should have been looking
for a job? He had simply retold his own story. There was
no evangelizing. Presently he was gone and I was left to
I fell into a prodigious depression, one of the most frightful
experiences I have ever known. Momentarily, I suppose, this
completely deflated me; at great depth the conviction was
carried to me that by myself I was nothing at all. I was
helpless and hopeless. Since this inner collapse was so
sweeping, so complete, I suppose this may explain the tremendous
experience that immediately followed.
of my black depression I found myself crying, just like
a child in the dark, "If there is a God, will He show
Himself? Now I am ready, ready to do anything, even to believe."
Then came the great experience.
room filled with a blinding white light. I was caught into
an ecstasy for which there is no description. In my minds
eye I seemed to be on a mountain top; a great wind was blowing.
Then I thought, "This is not air, this is spirit. This
is the God of the preachers." How long this state lasted
I have no idea. But at length I found myself still, of course
on the bed. Now however I seemed to be in a new dimension.
All around and through me I felt a sense of Presence.
great peace settled over me. With this came the mighty assurance
that no matter how wrong things were with the world, all
things were right with God. I had a tremendous sense of
belonging. Here was purpose and destiny. Here was God. Such,
in substance, was my transforming experience. I later found
that my obsession to drink was snapped of f instantly -
never to return again in any dangerous form. Almost immediately
a vision of a chain reaction among alcoholics, one carrying
the good news to the other, began to possess me.
might be well to here observe that every M does have a transforming
spiritual experience, though it seldom has the suddenness
or dramatic content that mine did. What happened to me in
perhaps six minutes, may in most cases require six months
or even a year or more. But the fruits are the same. There
must always be that same ego collapse at depth, at least,
so far as alcohol is concerned. There must also be a turning
to a higher Power for Gods gift of grace, without
which the obsession can practically never be expelled.
my sudden experience did give me a wonderful rebirth and
an enormous stimulation to work with alcoholics, it did
nevertheless have its liabilities. For a time I really thought
I had been appointed by God to fix up all the drunks in
the world! Along with the positive experience, some of my
old paranoia had returned. Anyhow, the main outlines of
todays M program were already in sight, save only
a lacking element or so.
Concept Versus Responsibility
in A.A.s history, very natural questions arose among
theologians. There was a Mr. Link who had written a popular
treatise called "The Return to Religion." One
day I received a call from him. He strongly objected to
the A.A. position that alcoholism was an illness. This concept,
he felt, removed moral responsibility from alcoholics. He
had been voicing this complaint about psychiatrists in the
American Mercury. And now, he said, he was going to lambaste
course I made haste to point out that we Ms did not use
the concept of sickness to absolve our members from moral
responsibility. On the contrary, we used the fact of fatal
illness to clamp the heaviest kind of moral responsibility
on to the sufferer. The further point was made that in his
early days of drinking the alcoholic often was no doubt
guilty of irresponsibility and gluttony. But once the time
of compulsive drinking, veritable lunacy, had arrived, he
couldnt very well be held accountable for his conduct.
He then had a lunacy which condemned him to drink in spite
of all he could do; he had developed a bodily sensitivity
to alcohol that guaranteed his final madness and death.
When this state of affairs was pointed out to him, he was
placed immediately under the heaviest kind of pressure to
accept Ms moral and spiritual program of regeneration
- namely, our Twelve Steps. Fortunately, Mr. Link was satisfied
with this view of the use that we were making of the alcoholics
illness. I am glad to report that nearly all theologians
who have since thought about this matter have also agreed
with that early position.
it is most obvious that free choice in the matter of alcohol
has virtually disappeared in most cases, we Ms do point
out that plenty of free will is left in other areas. It
certainly takes a large amount of willingness, and a great
exertion of the will to accept and practice the M program.
It is by this very exertion of the will that the alcoholic
corresponds with the grace by which his drinking obsession
can be expelled.
what about the alcoholic who says that he cannot possibly
believe in God? A great many of these come to AA and they
complain that they are trapped. By this they mean that we
have convinced them that they are fatally ill, yet they
cannot accept a belief in God and His grace as a means of
recovery. Happily this does not prove to be an impossible
dilemma at all. We simply suggest that the newcomer take
an easy stance and an open mind; that he proceed to practice
those parts of the Twelve Steps which anyones common
sense would readily recommend. He can certainly admit that
he is an alcoholic; that he ought to make a moral inventory;
that he ought to discuss his defects with another person;
that he should make restitution for harms done; and that
he can be helpful to other alcoholics. We emphasize the
"open mind," that at least he should admit that
there might be a "Higher Power." He can certainly
admit that he is not God, nor is mankind in general. If
he wishes he can for a time place his dependence upon his
own M group. That group is certainly a "Higher Power,"
so far as recovery from alcoholism is concerned. If these
reasonable conditions are met, he then finds himself released
from the compulsion to drink; he discovers that his motivations
have been changed far out of proportion to anything that
could have been achieved by a simple association with us
or by the practice of a little more honesty, humility, tolerance,
and helpfulness. Little by little he becomes aware that
a higher Power is indeed at work. In a matter of months,
or at least in a year or two, he is talking freely about
God as he understands Him. He has received the gift of Gods
grace - and he knows it.
Lunacy of Alcoholism
a little more should be said about the obsessional character
of alcoholism. When our fellowship was about three years
old some of us called on Dr. Lawrence Kolb, then assistant
surgeon general of the United States. He said that our report
of progress had given him his first hope for alcoholics
in general. Not long before, the U.S. Public Health Department
had thought of trying to do something about the alcoholic
situation. But after a careful survey of the obsessional
character of our malady, this had been given up. Indeed,
Dr. Kolb felt that dope addicts had a better chance. Accordingly
the government had built a hospital for their treatment
at Lexington, Kentucky. But for alcoholics - well, there
simply wasnt any use at all, so he thought.
many people still go on insisting that the alcoholic is
not a sick manhe is simply weak or willful, and sinful.
Even today we often hear the remark "That drunk could
get well if he wanted to."
is no doubt, too, that the deeply obsessional character
of the alcoholics drinking is obscured by the fact
that drinking is a socially acceptable custom. By contrast,
stealing, or let us say shop-lifting, is not. Practically
everybody has heard of that form of lunacy known as kleptomania.
Oftentimes kleptomaniacs are splendid people in all other
respects. Yet they are under an absolute compulsion to steal
- just for the kick. A kleptomaniac enters a store and pockets
a piece of merchandise. He is arrested and lands in the
police station. The judge gives him a jail term. He is stigmatized
and humiliated. Just like the alcoholic, he swears that
never, never will he do this again.
on his release from the jail, he wanders down the street
past a department store. Unaccountably he is drawn inside.
He sees, for example, a red tin fire engine, a childs
toy. He instantly forgets all about his misery in the jail.
He begins to rationalize. He says, "Well, this little
tin fire engine is of no real value. The store wouldnt
miss it." So he pockets the toy, the store detective
collars him, and he is eight back in the clink. Everybody
recognizes this type of stealing as sheer lunacy.
lets compare this behavior with that of an alcoholic.
He, too, has landed in jail. He has already lost family
and friends. He suffers heavy stigma and guilt. He has been
physically tortured by his hangover. Like the kleptomaniac
he swears that he will never get into this fix again. Perhaps
he actually knows that he is an alcoholic. He may understand
just what that means. He may be fully aware of what the
fearful risk of that first drink is.
on his release the alcoholic behaves just like the kleptomaniac.
He passes a bar. At the first temptation he may say, "No
I mustnt go in there; liquor is not for me."
But when he arrives at the next drinking place, he is gripped
by a rationalization. Perhaps he says, "Well, one beer
wont hurt me. After all, beer isnt liquor."
Completely unmindful of his recent miseries, he steps inside.
He takes that fatal first drink. The following day, the
police have him again. Yet his fellow citizens continue
to say he is only weak or willful. Actually, his is just
as crazy as the kleptomaniac ever was. At this stage, his
free will in regard to alcoholism has evaporated. He cannot
very well be held accountable for his behavior.
a final thought. Many a non-alcoholic clergyman asks these
questions about Alcoholics Anonymous: "Why do clergymen
so often fail with alcoholics, when AA so often succeeds?
Is it possible that the grace of M is superior to that of
the Church? Is Alcoholics Anonymous a new religion, a competitor
of the Church?"
these misgivings had real substance, they would be serious
indeed. But, as I have already indicated, Alcoholics Anonymous
cannot in the least be regarded as a new religion. Our Twelve
Steps have no theological content, except that which speaks
of "God as we understand Him." This means that
each individual M member may define God according to whatever
faith or creed he may have. Therefore there isnt the
slightest interference with the religious views of any of
our membership. The rest of the Twelve Steps define moral
attitudes and helpful practices, all of the precisely Christian
in character. Therefore, as far as they go, the Steps are
good Christianity, indeed they are good Catholicism, something
which Catholic writers have affirmed more than once.
does M exert the slightest religious authority over its
members: No one is compelled to believe anything. No one
is compelled to meet membership conditions. No one is obliged
to pay anything. Therefore we have no system of authority,
spiritual or temporal, that is comparable to or in the least
competitive with the Church. At the center of our society
we have a Board of Trustees. This body is accountable yearly
to a Conference of elected Delegates. These Delegates represent
the conscience and desire of AA as regards functional or
service matters. Our Tradition contains an emphatic injunction
that these Trustees may never constitute themselves as a
government - they are to merely provide certain services
that enable M as a whole to function. The same principles
apply at our group and area level.
Bob, my co-partner, had his own religious views. For whatever
they may be worth, I have my own. But both of us have gone
heavily on record to the effect that these personal views
and preferences can never under any conditions be injected
into the M program as a working part of it. AA is a sort
of spiritual kindergarten, but that is all. Never could
it be called a religion.
should any clergyman, because he does not happen to be a
channel of grace to alcoholics, feel that he or his Church
is lacking in grace. No real question of grace is involved
at allit is just a question of who can best transmit
Gods abundance. It so happens that we who have suffered
alcoholism, we who can identify so deeply with other sufferers,
are the ones usually best suited for this particular work.
Certainly no clergyman ought to feel any inferiority just
because he himself is not an alcoholic! Then, as I have
already emphasized, AA has actually derived all of its principles,
directly or indirectly, from the Church.
gentlemen, is a debt of gratitude far beyond any ability
of mine to express. On behalf of M members everywhere, I
give you our deepest thanks for the warm understanding and
the wonderful co-operation that you have everywhere afforded
us. Please also have my gratitude for the privilege of being
with you this morning. This is an hour that I shall remember
Period: A Synopsis
N.: I d like to ask this question. After a prolonged
period of drinking, I think the nerves of the body are deadened,
that is, the optical nerve. As the alcohol wears off there
is sometimes an impression of blinding light. I merely want
to know what you think about that.
W.: Actually that was never my own experience. At the time
of my sudden spiritual awakening I was perfectly sober.
Perhaps you raise the question of hallucination versus the
Divine imagery of a genuine spiritual experience. Perhaps
nobody has ever defined what an hallucination truly is.
But we who have been the fortunate recipients of great spiritual
experiences are able to declare for their reality. We think
that the best evidence of the reality of religious experiences
are in their subsequent fruits. Those who receive these
genuine gifts of grace are much altered people, almost invariably
for the better. This can scarcely be said of those who hallucinateWitness
it is presumptuous of me to say whether my own spiritual
experience was real or unreal. But whether God made use
of an alcoholic haze before my eyes, or whether I actually
glimpsed His face, I can surely report that in my own life
and in the lives of many others there has been a very considerable
pay-off. Which ever way it may have happened, I am unutterably
grateful for His unbelievable gift to me.
W.: Bill, could you explain what you mean by "mental
obsession?" What is this?
W.: Well, as I understand it, we are all born with a freedom
of choice. The degree of this varies from person to person,
and from area to area in our lives. In the case of neurotic
people, our instincts take on certain patterns and directions,
sometimes so compulsive they cannot be broken by any ordinary
effort of the will. The alcoholics compulsion to drink
is like that. As a smoker, for example, I have a deeply
ingrained habitIm almost an addict. But I do
not think this habit is an actual obsession. Doubtless it
could be broken by an act of my own will. If badly enough
hurt, I could in all probability give up tobacco. Should
smoking repeatedly land me in Bellevue Hospital, I doubt
if I would make the trip many times before quitting. But
with my alcoholism well that was something else again. No
amount of desire to stop, no amount of punishment, could
enable me to quit. What was once a habit of drinking became
an obsession of drinking - a genuine lunacy.
X.: Bill, I noticed that in your talk you did not use the
word disease. Did you intend to make any kind
of distinction between disease and sickness?
W.: We Ms have never called alcoholism a disease because,
technically speaking, it is not a disease entity. For example,
there is no such thing as heart disease. Instead there are
many separate heart ailments or combinations of them. It
is something like that with alcoholism. Therefore we did
not wish to get in wrong with the medical profession by
pronouncing alcoholism a disease entity. Hence we have always
called it an illness or a malady - a far safer term for
us to use.
Y.: Bill, you are, as it were, coauthor of the Twelve
Steps. We all realize that these steps are suggestions.
Would you think it possible for any alcoholic to neglect
any one of these Twelve Steps and still hope to maintain
W.: Well, where the breakeven or safety is varies
a great deal. But it is hardly prudent for any of us to
take many chances with this sort of neglect. Nevertheless,
it is truly amazing on what little practice of the Steps
of AA some people stay sober. On the contrary, it is astonishing
how difficult for certain others to remain dry even though
they work diligently at the steps.
this connection, there is an observation to be made about
the several motivations we have respecting the practice
of Ms Twelve Steps. At first we try the Steps, or
at least some of them, because we absolutely must. It is
a question of do or die. Then we observe AA principles because
we begin to feel they ought to be observed because this
is the right thing to do. We may still rebel, but we do
try. Then there is a higher plateau which we sometimes touch.
In a state of no resistance at all we practice Ms
principles because we like to practice them, because we
actually want to live by them all.
course, there is some virtue in following the M program
because we must. There is a lot more when, though in rebellion,
we practice spiritual principles because they are right.
When we are finally released from rebellion and when we
live by M principles because we actually and continuously
want to live that way, then I think we are the recipients
of a great amount of grace indeed.
E.: Id like to ask about Recovery Inc., that society
which deals with mental and emotional ailments. To what
extent might Recovery Inc. help along the person who just
has a problem of drinking before it gets too bad. And also,
after one is a member of AA might not Recovery Inc. help
him? Would this interfere with ones loyalty to Alcoholics
Anonymous? Are you acquainted with how Recovery Inc. operates?
W.: I have always looked with great sympathy upon Recovery
Inc. The founder of that movement was a psychiatrist. In
actuality, Recovery Inc. is very much of a heresy to M.
But its the kind of heresy that often seems to work.
Those good people operate on the basis that through a program
of discipline and constant exertion of the will, their several
compulsions and hexes can be directly attacked and eliminated.
When this is tried in a group such as theirs, they also
get the benefit of group intercommunication and power.
In many cases their results have been extraordinary. Perhaps
some of you know that Father Edward Dowling took a great
interest in this enterprise. Some time ago he told me that
one of his Jesuit friends had benefited immensely from this
group and had contributed much to it. I believe that Recovery
Inc. is undergoing considerable modification nowadays, since
the death of its founder. They are broadening their scope.
Altogether I have the highest opinion of that outfit.
W.: I d like to make Bill feel more comfortable. He
has brought out something that has impressed me very much
when he said Im called the author of the Twelve Steps.
In them we have tried not to offend the medical profession
or the clergy. Ive just been trying to help drunks
get sober and stay sober. He takes the stance that he is
just the oldest living member of AP, an originator, only
in that sense. He doesnt want to pontificate. Does
that state your position correctly, Bill?
W.: You are entirely right. Being such an early member and
having been prominent in the production of our literature
and the management of our service affairs, it is natural
that my part in the founding of M gets much overstated.
As you know we have a history book called M Comes of Age.
This volume clearly reveals that grace flowed through a
great many people to bring into being what is M today. It
took a whole lot of forces and influences, way beyond my
own comprehension to bring our fellowship into being.
one time I felt pretty important to the M venture. But the
more I reflect on the past, the more I find nowadays that
my own part diminishes in significance.
A.J.: Bill, I would like you an experience I had a few years
ago, and have your comment. In Cleveland, on this occasion,
I met one of the first fifty members of M. I forget what
his name was. We were talking about the similarity of the
Twelve Steps and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
This old time AA made remarks which ran as follows: I dont
know if everybody realizes it, but the Twelve Steps were
not concurrent with the beginning of AA. They came into
existence three or four years later. There were two men
who were trying to be sober, but they couldnt. Some
AA members at that time insisted that you and Dr. Bob write
down the method by which they obtained sobriety. Either
Dr. Bob or you said to a certain young man: "You heard
us talk, you had an education. Now why dont you write
down something in black and white, so that we can give it
this nameless young fellow wrote down five or six paragraphs,
which were the sum total of the philosophy of M at that
time. The story is that you and Dr. Bob developed the Twelve
Steps from these writings. So I would like you to say, Bill
whether this is fiction. Also I wish you would tell us more
about Sister Ignatia - who she is, and what part she played.
W.: The story of the writing of the Twelve Steps and what
preceded this event has been told in our history book, M
Comes of Age. This account reflects not only my own recollection
of the matter; it has been carefully checked with other
Ms who were living at the time. I believe it to be substantially
true. This account shows that Ms First Step was derived
largely from my own physician, Dr. Silkworth, and my sponsor
Ebby and his friend, from Dr. Jung of Zurich. I refer to
the medical hopelessness of alcoholismour powerlessness
rest of the Twelve Steps stem directly from those Oxford
Group teachings that applied specifically to us. Of course
these teachings were nothing new; we might have obtained
them from your own Church. They were in effect an examination
of conscience, confession, restitution, helpfulness to others,
the Twelve Steps were written, these ideas were circulated
in some six "word of mouth" steps. I dont
remember that anybody in particular formulated these. If
this formulation was the work of some one person, he merely
stated in our language what we had already learned from
the Oxford Groups. When the Twelve Steps were written, it
was thought wise to further define and amplify these basic
ideas. That is the substance of it, as well as I can recollect.
I have no recollection of the person you have described.
passing, I should our great debt to the Oxford Group people.
It was fortunate that they laid particular emphasis on spiritual
principles that we needed. But in fairness it should also
be said that many of their attitudes and practices did not
work well at all for us alcoholics. These were rejected
one by one and they caused our later withdrawal from this
society to a fellowship of our own - todays Alcoholics
Ignatia was the marvelous associate of my partner, Dr. Bob,
in Ms early time. Though not a Catholic, Dr. Bob was
admitted to the Staff of St. Thomas Hospital in Akron. Sometime
prior to this, he had hospitalized alcoholics there and
Sister Ignatia ministered to both their physical and spiritual
needs. Dr. Bob as a physician tended them medically at no
cost whatever. From about 1940 until Dr. Bobs death
in 1950, these two great people gave hospital care and took
the M message to some 5,000 sick alcoholics. Since that
time, at St. Vincents Charity Hospital in Cleveland,
Sister Ignatia has been provided with a special ward, largely
through the aid of local Ms who helped to construct it.
And there she has since treated and ministered to some 7,000
cases more. What all these thousands of alcoholics owe to
her, what A.A. as a whole owes to this dear lady, is a total
which only God Himself could reckon.
leaving the subject of the Oxford Groups, perhaps I should
specifically outline why we felt it necessary to part company
with them. To begin with, the climate of their undertaking
was not well suited to us alcoholics. They were aggressively
evangelical, they sought to revitalize the Christian
message in such a way as to "change the world."
Most of us alcoholics had been subjected to pressure of
evangelism and we had never liked it. The object of saving
the world -when it was still much in doubt if we could save
ourselves - seemed better left to other people. By reason
of some of its terminology and by the exertion of huge pressure,
the Oxford Group set a moral stride that was too fast, particularly
for our newer alcoholics. They constantly talked of Absolute
Purity, Absolute Unselfishness, Absolute Honesty, and Absolute
Love. While sound theology must always have its absolute
values, the Oxford Groups created the feeling that one should
arrive at these destinations in short order, maybe by next
Thursday! Perhaps they didnt mean to create such an
impression but that was the effect. Sometimes their public
"witnessing" was of such a character as to cause
us to be shy. They also believe that by "converting"
prominent people to their beliefs, they would hasten the
salvation of the many who were less prominent. This attitude
could scarcely appeal to the average drunk since he was
anything but distinguished.
Oxford Group also had attitudes and practices which added
up to a highly coercive authority. This was exercised by
"teams" of older members. They would gather in
meditation and receive specific guidance for the life conduct
of newcomers. This guidance could cover all possible situations
from the most trivial to the most serious. If the directions
so obtained were not followed the enforcement machinery
began to operate. It consisted of a sort of coldness and
aloofness which made recalcitrants feel they werent
wanted. At one time, for example, a "team" got
guidance for me to the effect that I was no longer to work
with alcoholics. This I couldnt accept.
example: When I first contacted the Oxford Groups, Catholics
were permitted to attend their meetings because they were
strictly non-denominational. But after a time the Catholic
Church forbade its members to attend and the reason for
this seemed a good one. Through the Oxford Group teams Catholic
Church members were actually receiving very specific guidance
for their lives; they were often infused with the idea that
their own Church had become rather horse-and-buggy, and
needed to be "changed." Guidance was frequently
given that contributions should be made to the Oxford Groups.
In a way this amounted to putting Catholics under a separate
ecclesiastical jurisdiction. At this time there were few
Catholics in our own alcoholic groups. Obviously we could
not approach any more Catholics under Oxford Group auspices.
Therefore this was another and the basic reason for the
withdrawal of our alcoholic crowd from the Oxford Groups
notwithstanding our great indebtedness to them.
Down The Twelve Steps
you would be interested in a further account of the writing
down of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
the spring of 1938 we had commenced to prepare a book showing
the methods of our then nameless fellowship. We thought
there should be .a text for this which could be supported
by stories, or case histories, written by some of our recovered
work proceeded very slowly until some four chapters were
done. The content of these chapters had been the subject
of endless discussion and even hot argument.
preliminary chapters consisted of my own story, a rationalization
of AA for the benefit of the agnostic, plus descriptions
of the alcoholic illness. Even over this much material the
haggling had been so great that I had begun to feel much
more like an umpire than an author.
then at what is now Chapter Five, it was realized that a
specific program for recovery had to be laid down as a basis
for any further progress. By then I felt pretty frazzled
night, in a bad mood I must confess, I lay in bed at home
considering our next move. After a time, the idea hit me
that we might take our "word of mouth" program,
the one Ive already described, and amplify it into
several more steps. This would make our program perfectly
explicit. The necessary ground could be covered so thoroughly
that no rationalizing alcoholic could misunderstand or wiggle
away by that familiar process. We might also be able to
hit readers at a distance, people to whom we could offer
no personal help at the moment. Therefore a more thorough
job of codification had to be done.
only this in mind I began to sketch the new steps on a yellow
pad. To my astonishment they seemed to come very easily,
and with incredible rapidity. Perhaps the writing required
no more than twenty or thirty minutes. Seemingly I had to
think little at all. It was only when I came to the end
of the writing that I re-read and counted them. Curiously
enough, they numbered twelve and required almost no editing.
They looked suprisingly good - at least to me. Of course
I felt vastly encouraged.
the course of this writing, I had considerably changed the
order of the presentation. In our word-of-mouth program,
we had reversed mention of God to the very end. For some
reason, unknown to me, I had transposed this to almost the
very beginning. In my original draft of the Twelve Steps,
God was mentioned several times and only as God. It never
occurred to me to qualify this to "God as we understand
Him" as we did later on. Otherwise the Twelve Steps
stand today almost exactly as they were first written.
these Steps were shown to my friends, their reactions were
quite mixed indeed. Some argued that six steps had worked
fine, so why twelve? From our agnostic contingent there
were loud cries of too much "God." Others objected
to an expression which I had included which suggested getting
on ones knees while in prayer. I heavily resisted
these objections for months. But finally did take out my
statement about a suitable prayerful posture and I finally
went along with that now tremendously important expression,
"God as we understand Him"this expression
having been coined, I think, by one of our former atheist
members. This was indeed a ten-strike. That one has since
enabled thousands to join M who would have otherwise gone
away. It enabled people of fine religious training and those
of none at all to associate freely and to work together.
It made ones religion the business of the A.A. member
himself and not that of his society.
Ms Twelve Steps have since been in such high esteem
by the Church, that members of the Jesuit Order have repeatedly
drawn attention to the similarity between them and the Ignatian
Exercises, is a matter for our great wonder and gratitude
Z.: You mentioned Dr. Shoemaker, the Episcopal Rector and
one time Oxford Grouper, who helped you so much. Somewhere
I have seen him quoted to the effect that three men started
it all. So do you mind telling us what happened to your
own sponsor, your friend Ebby?
W.: I think I have already traced the connection between
Dr. Jung, his alcoholic patient Roland and my friend Ebby.
They were of course associated in the Oxford Groups when
Ebby came to me that November day in 1934 at my home in
Brooklyn. It was Ebby who brought me the message that saved
my life and uncounted thousands of others.
of gratitude and old friendship, my wife Lois and I invited
Ebby to live at our home shortly after I sobered up. The
son of a welltodo family in Albany, he had never
learned any profession so he was broke and had to begin
all over. These were difficult circumstances, naturally.
Ebby stayed with us something like a year and a half. Being
intent on getting reestablished in life, he took little
interest in helping other alcoholics. Little by little,
he commenced the rationalization we have seen so often.
He began to say that if only he had the right romance and
the right job then things would be okay. At length, he fell
by the wayside. He would not mind if I tell thisit
is a part of his story today.
many years, my friend Ebby was on the wagon and then off.
Sometimes he could stay sober for a year or more. He tried
living with Lois and me for another considerable period.
But apparently this was of no help. Maybe we actually hindered
him. As M began to grow his position became difficult. For
a long time things went from bad to worse.
six years ago the groups down in Texas decided to try their
hand. Ebby was shipped non-stop to Dallas and placed in
an M drying out place. In these new surroundings in Texas,
far from his old failures, he has made a splendid recovery.
Excepting for one slip which occurred about a year after
his arrival down there he has been bone dry ever since.
This is one of the deepest satisfactions that has ever come
to me since A.A. started and many another A.A. can say the
Ab: Bill, you have undoubtedly through the years had much
experience with people who slip. Doubtless you know how
difficult it is for some priests to make the program. Have
you anything to say about this?
W.: Well, I must confess that in recent years I have been
greatly preoccupied with our World Service structure,
and all that sort of thing. Nevertheless some of my closest
friends are priests who have recovered through M. From time
to time I hear about their specially difficult situation.
priests enjoy very special advantages, they are, at the
same time, severely handicapped. Like medical men, they
are experts in treating people the MD treats the
body, the priest, under Gods grace, treats the soul.
The priest, especially, must feel a huge burden of guilt.
On the other side of the coin marked "guilt" is
often inscribed the words "false pride." As a
professional teacher it is pretty hard for a priest to take
M lessons from plumbers and bankers, many of whom never
had any religious training or instruction whatever. Its
the same way with the doctors, particularly with the psychiatrists.
we are extremely glad that the Church through the agency
of this Conference, is taking great notice and a new understanding
of the plight of these clergymen who are in alcohol difficulties.
know that many experiments of a special nature are being
tried for their rehabilitation. These range all the way
from straight attendance at M meetings to private groups
and to specially constructed institutional care. I am sure
that all of these resources will find applications according
to the several necessities of those needing such care, understanding,
Ab: What about slips in general? You must have witnessed
a lot of them.
W. : The subject of slips is a very large one. It takes
on a lot of territory. Slips can often be charged to rebellion
and some of us surely are more rebellious than others. Slips
can be charged to carelessness, to complacency. Many of
us fail to ride out such periods sober. Slips are due to
the illusion that one can be "cured" of alcoholism.
Things go fine for two or three years then the member is
seen no more. He gets busy putting two cars in the garage
and again returns to keeping up with the Joness. That
almost surely spells trouble. Some of us suffer extreme
guilt because of vices or practices that we cant or
wont let go of. Too much guilt, too little exertion,
too little prayerwell, this combination certainly
adds up to slips. Then some of us are far more alcoholdamaged
than others. Still others encounter a series of calamities
and cannot seem to find the spiritual resources with which
to meet them, or else in frustration they simply wont
try as hard as they can. There are those who are physically
ill. Others are subject to more or less continuous exhaustion,
anxiety, and depression. These conditions often play a part
in slips. Sometimes they seem utterly controlling.
there is the sort of acute physical tension which greatly
aggravates our emotional reactions. There seems little
doubt that the glandular system in many alcoholics is much
out of whack, that this condition is responsible for a high
degree of physical tension. This tension and its emotional
consequences finally become so terrific that some of us
are literally driven back into alcohol, or worse still,
into sleeping pill addictive. Therefore we sometimes slip
because there is a limit to their endurance. While sleeping
pills are an addictive menace, a relief we cannot use at
all, it may be that the actual physical causes of these
tensions will one day be located. If this happens, it may
be that these defects can be medically corrected without
resort to addictive materials. Let us prayerfully hope so.
condition of physical tensions explains the behavior of
many people who try ever so hard to get the M program, the
ones who mystify us because they cannot make the grade.
They may well be the subject of unbearable emotional pain.
Of course this does not absolve them from all responsibility.
It was their former behavior that doubtless deranged them
physically as well as emotionally. But as I have said, this
matter of slips is a very big subject. We can know ourselves
only a little, and other people not much at all. Therefore
these observations of mine are largely speculations, speculations
in which I trust there is at least a degree of truth.
Kennedy: Bill, I want to tell you in the name of this entire
Conference that we are deeply grateful to you for coming
W.: With all the earnestness and feeling that I can command,
I wish to thank you for this hour and for what each and
all of you have contributed to it. Most gratefully I acknowledge
what the Church has meant to me, and to so very many of
meeting and the Clergy Conference concluded with prayer.