THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, November 26, 1947
HERE’S HOPE FOR ALCOHOLICS
By Wilburn Echols
Alcoholics Anonymous is an important new spiritual movement. “Spiritual” is the right adjective. Let me illustrate by the story of a man now about fifty-seven years old. Bill, we will call him. Bill was left an orphan at an early age, had little schooling and was generally neglected. When he came out of the navy at the end of the First World War he was a confirmed drunkard. Being a clever mechanic and able to go reasonably straight for a while after one of his sprees, he usually had no serious difficulty in securing a job. Sometimes he worked more or less steadily for a year or two, but the craving for an uproarious drunk always caught him sooner or later and flung him into the gutter again. He not only threw to the dogs every cent he earned, but he was always thinking up tall tales to relieve relatives and acquaintances of large and small sums which disappeared in carousals that left him each time fouler and more dilapidated. At fifty-four he was a picture of frowziness and misery. He had deserted his wife and had himself been abandoned by most of his relatives. He had apparently sunk about as deep in the mud as a man can sink and keep breathing.
After a prolonged and particularly outrageous spree, a kindhearted employer who had been trying to help Bill to his feet gave up the attempt and threw him out. He disappeared and was gone for months. One evening what was left of him – a blear-eyed scarecrow – slunk to the door of a relative and begged for help. The relative got him into his car and deposited him in a state institution. After six or eight months under strict surveillance, the alcohol had pretty well evaporated and Bill looked a little cleaner and brighter. He was very anxious to be released, but it was plainly useless to go through the horrible farce again.
Matters stood like this when the relative read in the paper an account of a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. At the end of the article there was a phone number which interested persons were invited to call. He called it and was answered by a friendly voice which responded to a rapid sketch of the situation with a cheerful: “Yes, I think we can help you and your man. I’ll come and see you whenever and wherever you say.” If the relative had called up an insurance agent or ordered a new refrigerator, he couldn’t have been greeted more cordially. Puzzled but hopeful, he set a place and an hour for a meeting.
Exactly at the appointed time a handsome young business man walked into the relative’s office. “My name’s Herbert S____, ‘ I he said. “I was one of the worst drunks in the state before Alcoholics Anonymous pulled me out of it. But I might not stay pulled out if I didn’t stand ready at any hour of the day or night to help pick some other poor devil out of the gutter. When you called me to help Bill, you did me the greatest favor you could have thought of. We’ll shoo John Barleycorn off him if we can. But we can’t shoo worth a cent if Bill doesn’t want us to and won’t cooperate. Tell us how to reach him, and we’ll be there double quick.”
The relative relayed the information to Bill. Bill wasn’t enthusiastic; said he could quit without anybody’s help. But finally he consented to see Herbert. Two of the A.A.’s went to call on him. They won his heart at the first meeting. A few months later Bill was released from the institution. Now he is one of the engineers at the same place where a year ago he was an inmate. He has joined a church. (The A.A.’s discreetly leave confessional religion alone. They are members of any church or no church. But I have attended several of their open meetings and I noticed that they always, recite the Lord’s Prayer together.)
So far as I know, Bill never touches even the milder liquors. I once heard an A.A. say that one swallow may not make a spring but it’s pretty sure to make a booze-fighter out of an A.A. Bill looks you in the face now as he never looked anybody in the face in the twenty-five years I have known him. I don’t know that he couldn’t backslide, but there is something fundamentally different between this Bill and the Bill who used to peep at you out of the corner of his eye and calculate how soon he could spring a hard-luck story and panhandle you again for the price of a trip to Barleycorn heaven.
That’s Bill’s story. How it is different from the story of John B. Gough and other reformed drunkards of the past? I am not an A.A., so I cannot give a completely satisfactory answer. But I see important differences very clearly.
Before the days of Alcoholics Anonymous, the churches, the doctors and the psychiatrists among them are said to have reclaimed two or three per cent of the drunkards who tried to quit. Approximately 80 per cent of the membership of A.A.; (it has been in existence something like 12 years and has in the neighborhood of 50,000 members) have stuck. Bill’s chances for pulling loose from the devil are a good many times greater than they would be if there were no such organization behind him – a band of the saved with their arms around him and each other, like a tug-of-war team. These ex-drunks understand him because they are just like him. They don’t despise him or patronize him, because they have been just as ridiculous and just as low as he has. They love him for what he has done for them and quite as much for what they have done for him. They will never let him down because they know that if they shirk their duty to him they are pretty sure to fall flat on their faces again themselves. There is something in their situation psychologically very close to the way Napoleon’s Old Guard clung together. One could do a lot of psychologizing about the amazing loyalty which holds together this band of bruised, hopeful ex-slaves of King Alcohol. But after all was said there would still be a touch of the miraculous about it.
“When a man joins the A.A. without any strings attached,” one serious fellow said to me, “something happens to him. He belongs to the A.A. soul and body. He’d get up in the middle of the coldest night and cross the country in a blizzard to sit with another A.A. who felt the thirst on him and couldn’t fight it alone. He’d have to. There wouldn’t be any question about it, any more than about reaching for food if he was starving. He wouldn’t just have to, he’d want to. He wouldn’t and couldn’t do anything else. I guess getting to be a real, honest-to-goodness A.A. is like getting religion. Only it means a million times more than getting religion seems to mean to most people.”
There is a strong emotional element in the movement which borders on mysticism; indeed I have heard educated A.A.’s use that word more than once. For there are educated and prosperous A.A.’s just as there are very humble and ignorant A.A.’s. Such differences don’t count among them. There may be some friction in the groups sometimes, but if there is, outsiders don’t know much about it. When the Athenians were driving back the Persian invaders at Marathon? they did not waste much time and energy fighting each other.
There is a touching lot of kindness and helpfulness among the A.A.’s. One day a faithful? hard-working member whose funds were low met a fellow member, a clothing store clerk, in an eating house. “Come over to the store when you’re through eating, Bob,” said the clerk. “I’ve got something for you.” Bob ate his hamburger and went over. “I’ve been paid,” said the clerk, “for a stetson hat, a suit of clothes, a pair of shoes, a white shirt, a pair of socks and a necktie – all your size. I’m not allowed to tell you who’s footing the bill.” Bob went out of the store a good deal less shabby than he went in. To this day he doesn’t know who his Santa Claus was, but he can make a pretty safe guess that Santa was an ex-alcoholic or a group of ex-alcoholics, with more cash than he but with exactly the same determination to fight liquor to a standstill and back up anybody else who is fighting the same enemy.
The A.A.’s have regular meetings? weekly or oftener. The spirit of comradeship that develops among them is so strong that they often spend a great deal of time in each others company. Most of them give a good fraction of their time to A.A. work. I know a group in a fairly large city which has about 300 members. A dozen or two miles away in every direction are small towns each of which has an organization with 20 or 30 members. Thus there are a score or more of groups within easy driving distance of each other, and they are constantly holding combined meetings, taking a ride out to help a handful of alcoholics start a new group, and collecting new data on possible new members.
They don’t proselytize, for they have found that if a man joins because he lacks sales resistance instead of because he sees that he is on his way to disease, insanity, poverty and early death, he won’t last long as an A.A. and will make himself a nuisance while he is pretending to be one. A young buck who is proud of getting soused occasionally has nothing in common with the A.A.’s. In a college town where there is an A.A. group, a bunch of students have a drinking fraternity which they call “Alcoholics Unanimous.” The A.A.’s laugh at it, because they are good sports and because they know better than anybody else what a funny fool a drunkard is. But any youngster who sees the light and decides to transfer from the Unanimous to the Anonymous will find a band of decent citizens who were once poor idiots like him, ready to grasp his hand and haul him out of the quicksand.
What are A.A. meetings like? The regular meetings are naturally secret. In these the members presumably thrash out their common problems. They are incomparably closer together than a group of Presbyterians or Masons or college fraternity brothers. But they have frequent public meetings which everyone is welcome to attend and at which invited speakers who have special knowledge of alcoholism – physicians, ministers, psychiatrists, social workers and members of other A.A. groups – discuss alcoholism and related matters. I have attended a number of these meetings. The A.A.’s themselves are almost always amazingly frank, straightforward, humble, and wise with the wisdom that comes from ghastly experience. Nobody can tell you as much about hell as the soul that has suffered torment. And no matter who is speaking or how well or how inadequately he gets across, the A.A.’s listen as though their lives depend on attentiveness. Besides the alcoholics are their wives and other relatives. Often these others have been as roughly handled by drink as the drunkards themselves. All this means hope and help to them. They are men who have earned a reprieve which they hope to lengthen out into a full pardon. It is very pathetic, very beautiful.
What about woman drunkards? They are free to join, but to date I believe there have not been enough of them to make a perfectly easy and natural place for themselves. This is one of the problems which still have to be solved.
I have mentioned the organization’s caution in the matter of religion. A man could scarcely be a member if he had no God and no hope in the world. But A.A.Is don’t sermonize a great deal. They are inclined to be matter-of-fact, serious but not sentimental, jocose, masculine, but clean, kind, courteous. They probably do not often meet without women’s being present. I have never caught anything of the off-color “stag” element in any of the meetings. These men are no sissies, but they have been through a baptism of fire. Many of them smoke a good deal and drink quantities of strong coffee. This is a sort of “tapering off” which they often allow themselves. Their wings aren’t sprouting yet, but I can say with conviction that they seem to me the most honest, brave and promising aggregation of “reformed sinners” I have ever known.
Alcoholics Anonymous has a publishing house which issues a shrewd, and manly “textbook” detailing twelve points of reform and retribution (these are practically their Ten Commandments) and various interesting pamphlets. Anyone interested can learn all about these matters by making contact with an A.A. There will be no trouble in finding one. A.A. has hundreds of groups all over the country. They are anonymous but not underground. They are eager to know you, especially if you are convinced, from experience or otherwise, that booze is the devil’s own medicine. That’s their life business. To say they mean business is putting it mildly.