Story: June 10th, 1935 is the traditional day of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. The story goes that “Bill W” and “Dr. Bob” were both alcoholics searching for ways to cope with their problems. Both of their real names are matters of public record, but by tradition they are called Bill and Dr. Bob, or variants of these names. Both had had partial success with medical treatments for alcoholism, and partial success with religious approaches to dealing with alcoholism. “Bill W ” had become convinced that spirituality was part of the solution, as was medicine, but that the other element he personally needed to stay sober was the caring support of other alcoholics who were trying to do the same thing, who had been there, who somewhat understood. So Bill W. searched discretely for another alcoholic to share his troubles with, and found Dr. Bob. Now, Dr. Bob was skeptical at first, but rapidly became friends with Bill W. Indeed, Bill moved into Dr. Bob and his wife’s house.
They talked about what worked and what didn’t, what helped them stay sober and what wasn’t quite right. Dr. Bob returned to drinking heavily at a medical convention, but when he got home Bill W. rode him to return to sobriety. They made plans to take their proposals for alcoholics mutual support groups on the road. On, June 10, 1935 Dr. Bob had the last drink of his life, a single beer to steady his hands for performing surgery. June 10, 1935 has become the traditional date for the founding of AA, because it was the first time the AA approach WORKED, the first time that the combination of spiritual surrender and mentorship by another recovering alcoholic was used intentionally to allow an alcoholic to remain sober the rest of his life.
Shortly, there after Bill W. and Dr. Bob began targeting other alcoholics for their planned treatments, and Dr Bob’s home became a kind of center for alcoholics, in Akron OH. The method wasn’t exactly the 12 steps at first, and indeed they thought of it largely in terms of the ideas of the Evangelical Christian Oxford Group. Before long, Bill W. moved back to New York and established a group there as well. By 1937, Bill W.’s group in New York and Dr. Bob’s group in Akron were working quite differently, and Bill W’s group was coming into increasing friction with the Oxford Group. Eventually there was a split, the Oxford group understood this as Bill W. quitting, but Bill’s wife claims they were kicked out. Nonetheless, Bill W.’s group continued, focusing solely on alcoholics rather than a mix of spiritual problems, and accepting practicing Catholics, or others whose religion wasn’t quite in line with the Oxford group. By 1939, the Akron group split with the Oxford Group as well, and both groups agonized about how to spread their method more broadly. Bill W. proposed a grand plan involving writing a book, sending out paid alcoholic missionaries, and setting up a recovery center, which went against several of the spiritual principles of the Oxford Group. The 18 alcoholics still with the Akron and New York groups took a vote, and in the end approved the writing of the book by 1 vote, but refused to fund the more elaborate plan.
Bill W was the primary writer at first, and was working to secure various sources of funding. He succeeded in getting a little funding from John D. Rockefeller Jr., but did not receive the millions he hoped for, for the recovery center and professional ex-alcoholic missionaries. Rockefeller argued that the power of Bill’s method was one man carrying the message to another man out of goodwill and having been there, and that money would ruin the spiritual power of the approach. Yes, "man," AA was all male at first. By 1939 the “Big Book” was published, it was entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous” and was over 400 pages long. Bill had expanded the initial draft of 6 steps into 12 steps, somewhat modeled on the 12 apostles. In 1939 AA had around 100 members in 3 cities, and the book did not sell well. But things did slowly pick up. AA started publishing a newsletter. In 1946, Bill W developed the “twelve traditions” to help govern individual AA meetings. By 1950 there were 100,000 AA members, and soon Narcotics Anonymous was created as the first AA spin-off group. By the 70s there were a million AA members. Today it is estimated that there are over 2 million AA members, and there are over 100,000 official AA meetings, in 150 countries.
Now, I’ve never benefited directly from AA, but I’d wager I know plenty of people who have. Part of what interests me are the personal characteristics of Bill W, and Dr. Bob. Yesterday I praised experimental charity. Both of Charles Dickens experimental charities worked only passingly well. They probably weren’t wastes of money, but neither were they heavily imitated in later years. But Dr. Bob and Bill W. struck upon a model for charity that was fairly novel at its time, and has worked extremely well and been widely imitated since. But they didn’t strike upon it all at once. The idea of group psychological counseling cropped up in several places in the 1930s, including another of my heroes Jacob Moreno. AA got it largely through the Oxford Group, a group spiritual and religious practice. Similarly the medical model of Alcoholism as mental disorder rather than moral weakness, predates AA, and the idea clearly got to Bill W via one of his earlier doctors, Dr. Silkwood. But the model, not of doctors helping alcoholics, or religious professionals helping alcoholics, but alcoholics helping each other - that was novel. Similarly, the 12 step format was a spiritual path that is reminiscent of, but isn’t exactly like, earlier Christian ideas of humbling and healing. Similarly it was more than a decade after AA’s founding that it developed the 12 traditions, the rules of anonymity, neutrality, non-professionalism, openness and so on, that explicated the model for how AA was going to work at the group level, rather than just at the personal level. The 12 traditions are a sociological innovation, at least as much as the 12 steps are a spiritual one. And Bill W., himself, disagreed with several at these at various points of the story. The alcoholics group he ran in 1935 was only open to alcoholics who were still sober and had already undertaken a serious surrender to God, rather than open to anyone at all that is trying to recover, as specified by the third tradition. Bill W. argued strenuously against traditions 7 and 8 when he was looking for financial support from John Rockefeller in 1937. AA, evolved, changing many times in its first few decades. Bill W. was amazingly willing to let it evolve. Another good example is political neutrality. Bill W. himself was quite conservative politically, but he wanted AA to stay out of politics, to be as open to all alcoholics as possible. He continued even after founding AA, to be very open to new possible spiritual or medical approaches to treating alcoholism. He participated in medical experiments with LSD, under Aldous Huxley in the 50s, and studies on niacin in the 60s. He was interested in spiritualism and parapsychology, his house had a "spook room" where he and his wife used the Ouija board and conducted seances. He believed that the spirit of a 15th century monk named Boniface helped him write the book “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” Much of that was later swept under the rug, but my point is that he was very open and innovating, intellectually and spiritually.
Bill W. was undoubtedly a terribly flawed individual. He drank his way to flunking out of law school. He was a failed stock speculator in the 1920s. There is decent evidence that he cheated on his wife with 3 or 4 AA members after AA started letting in women. After he gave up alcohol, he smoked like a chimney, (starting that AA stereotype, Dr. Bob forbid smoking at the early Akron meetings …) and he died of emphysema. But he kept trying, and he was flexible in his approach. He was also supremely humble, building his success on humbling himself at the beginning, calling on others to humble themselves, seeking to structure his organization in ways that would insure continued humility, writing genuinely heartfelt praises to the value of humility that are quite unique in 20th century literature.
Dr. Bob, who took his last drink on that June 10th, was never the humble leader, or writer, or theorist that Bill W was. But he, too helped forge AA in the early days, and he was the personal sponsor of over 5000 recovering alcoholics during the last 30 years of his life, and was by all accounts an amazing sponsor.
I am grateful for all the lives saved, and improved by AA.
I am grateful for the many spin off organizations to AA.
I am grateful for the pluralistic model of recovering victims helping other recovering victims, rather than the hierarchical model of superiors descending to aid their inferiors.
I am grateful for the spiritual searchers dedicated to looking for ways to apply the spiritual to solving the problems of today.
I am grateful for flexible minds willing to try new things and adapt and experiment.
I am grateful for the humility of the 12 traditions, seeking to minimize organization lest the organization be suborned
I am grateful for skillful use of neutrality, understanding when to be open to many political positions, or religious positions, or walks of life.
I am grateful again and again for everyday heroes of self-reform.
Other Notables for me for today
The births of b. of Howlin’ Wolf(musician), Judy Garland (actor), Maurice Sendak (children’s author), Kim Deal (Musician, Pixies Breeders), Elizabeth Hurley (actor)
The martyrdom of Giacomo Matteotti, the last real opponent of Fascism in Italy. The death of Alexander the Great, Marcus Garvey (controversial racial theorist), Bernard Williams (2003, philosopher, promoter of virtue theory, I’ve used his textbooks).