by Harrison Johnston
The story of “Alcoholics Anonymous,” which now includes a Baltimore group, is the story, in the words of one of its members, of a “bunch of drunks trying to help one another stop drinking.
This may sound like the scenario for a Mack Sennett comedy, but it isn’t. For members of “Alcoholics Anonymous,” and thousands like them, escape from under the thumb of alcohol is the most important and difficult of life’s problems. And medicine, while it has finally come to recognize alcoholism as a disease rather than moral delinquency, has yet to devise a permanent cure or even an effective preventive.
Last year, for example, almost seventeen percent of the total first admissions to Maryland hospitals were because of alcoholism. Every year some 56,000 persons are added to the vast number of chronic alcoholics in the United States, variously estimated as high as 900,000. Every year in this country fifteen of every 100,000 persons die while confined in institutions because of chronic alcoholism. Medicine has so far been hard put to lower these figures; at best its “cures,” in the opinion of most informed specialists, are merely periodic “refreshers” which enable a man to keep his job.
Where Group Comes In
This failure on the part of medicine has become the starting point for “Alcoholics Anonymous,” a sort of psycho-religious movement with faith in divine assistance and the practice of public confession and group contact between continuing and reformed delinquents—in this case, continuing and reformed (or “dry”) alcoholics.
“Alcoholics Anonymous” meet regularly as a group twice a week—once in a semi-formal “business” meeting, once in a completely informal and spontaneous social gathering—without benefit of alcohol. They base their hopes of success on a mystical belief in aid from without themselves (all else having failed), from God, “as we understand Him,” and on constant association with other alcoholics who can understand and help them and whom they in turn can understand and try to help. They may thereby draw upon the companionship of other alcoholics, men and women like themselves with whom they alone are psychologically able to discuss their difficulties, and try to lose themselves in the rehabilitation of others even less controlled than they, a proven form of uplift characteristic of all group organizations, the church itself not least among them.
From out this mixture, without any recourse whatsoever to medicine, “Alcoholics Anonymous” claims complete success—with no relapses—with about fifty percent of its members (always supposing them to be sincere in their efforts to stop; and eventual success—after occasional relapses—with an additional twenty-five percent.
Founded by New Yorker
“Alcoholics Anonymous” was founded five years ago by a New York broker who had lost two fortunes largely because of alcoholism. After money and medicine failed to effect a “cure,” the financier, a widely-read man, thought to seek aid from the omnipotent, whatever or whoever that might be, and formulated twelve “suggested steps” for the turning over of the alcoholics’ problem to God. These still serve the “Alcoholics Anonymous” as a Sort of creed. With a handful of other alcoholics, he then established in New York the first group of “Alcoholics Anonymous.”
With the publication shortly afterward of a book of case histories of alcoholics, also called “Alcoholics Anonymous,” on which a mid-Western physician collaborated with the New York broker, the movement began to spread. Today it includes some 2,000 members and fifty groups, located as far south as Texas, as far west as San Francisco. Growth in the mid-West, under the motivation of the collaborating physician, has been especially rapid and the Cleveland group is the largest in the country. The New York group, which might logically be expected to be the largest. is kept down by existence of surrounding, smaller groups, in the Oranges and on Long Island.
40 In Baltimore Group
The Baltimore group was founded only eight months ago, in June, 1940, and now numbers about forty members, of whom five are women. It may be contacted through Box 155 at the Baltimore Post Office. Most of its members are married, most of them are middle-aged. One is a youngster of 22. On the whole, they are a well-groomed, not un-prosperous looking lot, few of whom display noticeable scars of battle.
The founding fathers of the Baltimore group were three, one of whom shortly fell by the way. One of the founders and one of the men who have joined since had been “dry” for fairly long-periods prior to entering “Alcoholics Anonymous”; all of the others came in as very active alcoholics, as they themselves are the first to admit.
Not all of them, of course, here or elsewhere, are sincere. As one doctor who has worked very closely and enthusiastically with the local group points out, there are some false-faces among them. The groups in two distant cities, for example, were originally founded by a sharper who hoped to chisel his way to a small fortune and a woman neurotic who simply desired to bask in the reflected publicity.
Time Still Short
Not all of them have been able to walk the extremely narrow and difficult path laid out for them without an occasional false step. but as far as the members themselves know (and they know pretty well by virtue of constant individual and family contacts) slips have been relatively few. Over the Christmas holidays, only three of the then thirty-five members succumbed to the old lure. Since June only four members altogether, two men and two women are known to have slipped, and some of them only once.
In the case of the Baltimore group, of course, such a record is discounted by the fact that most of its members have belonged only four or five months or less, a period guaranteed, for example, by most of the professional “cures.” At the same time, the members feel they can take legitimate pride in their record over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. New Year’s Eve, incidentally, most of them spent in a group at a member’s house in Mount Washington with intoxicants nowhere to be found. And they say they enjoyed it.
Members come to “Alcoholics Anonymous” in a number of different ways. A few are sent by their ministers, others are brought in by friends and old drinking companions who are already members. A number have been referred by several doctors interested in the movement, including the head of one of the professional “cures” and Dr. George H. Preston, of the State Health Department, with whom Alcoholics Anonymous has an informal working agreement. He recommends alcoholics to them and they in turn are privileged to send alcoholics to one of the State hospitals to have them “defogged,” their systems cleared of alcohol.
Several have come directly from the State institutions at Cambridge and Spring Grove. One was in jail for striking his father with a bottle. His wife asked the “Alcoholics Anonymous” to go see him. Another, a girl, was tricked into attending her first meeting by being told she was going on a blind date.
Finding Jobs A Problem
When alcoholics join “Alcoholics Anonymous” they are frequently out of a job. Getting them back to work is one of the first, end most important, things the group attempts to do. Today, “early every member has a job, Some ten of them have obtained them directly as the result of efforts of other members. Four of these are doing clerical work at national defense establishments, one at a salary of over $300 a month. Another, the young man who was in jail when “Alcoholics Anonymous” first contacted him, is doing steelwork.
Among the others, a number have improved upon positions to which they were barely able to hold on heretofore. One has had two step-ups; another who went to the office every day expecting to be fired has had a raise and offers of four other positions in three weeks, and has gained twenty pounds in the process. Another has got back his old job—that of a whisky salesman—and it isn’t bothering him, at least not much.
The ”formal” Wednesday evening meetings are held in the clubroom of an uptown hotel. There are no dues, no initiation fees. A hat is passed at each meeting and each member contributes as he can afford; new members often out of a job and broke, sometimes can afford nothing and that’s just the way “Alcoholics Anonymous” want it to be. The organization of groups throughout the country is a loose one. The foundation in New York is financed by a small endowment and the sale of the book.
The meetings are formal only to the extent of having a chairman—chosen by rotation each week—and a permanent secretary. Otherwise their atmosphere is one of pleasant. almost light-hearted fellowship. Wives, husbands, friends, even interested strangers are welcome, for despite !he name “Anonymous” one of the basic principles of the movement is that its members have nothing to hide. Admission of their difficulties is a first requisite. Some of the Baltimore group even objected to having the accompanying photograph taken from the rear—for fear it might encourage people to believe they were afraid to have their identity known.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Except and quite naturally, among the very new members, there is no embarrassment. At each meeting several members tell the group, and whoever else may be present, about their difficulties with alcohol and what “Alcoholics Anonymous” is meaning for them. This, of course, is a sort of spiritual catharsis and is basic in the psycho-religious idea upon which the movement is based.
There is no softening of terminology, no shelter behind pleasant euphemisms. One member describes the group as “not bad looking for a bunch of drunks,” and as a matter of fact they are not. Such words and phrases as “bender,” “debauch, “in the gutter’ ‘” gin mill” and “horrible drunk” sprinkle their talks and conversation. Sometimes one almost feels they are carrying this sort of thing to an extreme.
One of the Baltimore group’s unsolved problems is what to do with alcoholics who wander in from out of town. Other cities with larger and older groups have clubhouses for just this purpose, or arrangements with such organizations as the Salvation Army. The Baltimore group hopes to be able, eventually, to do the same.
“Alcoholics Anonymous” are not prohibitionists. They simply admit an allergy. For those who can control their drinking, they think it is all right. But for themselves and others like them, no.