All serious historians of alcohol and drugs will be saddened to hear of the passing, last week, of Ernest (“Ernie”) Kurtz, the first and foremost historian of Alcoholics Anonymous. Kurtz’s commanding Not-God: a History of Alcoholics Anonymous was published in 1979 by Hazelden. Though Ernie often talked about how AA history in the decades since Not-God appeared had outstripped its claims, and in fact called from the pages of Points for a revised and updated history of AA, his book remains the definitive word on the fellowship’s founding and early growth.
Kurtz wrote Not-God as his dissertation; he earned a Phd in the American Civilization program at Harvard University (a fact that I don’t hold against him, even though I attended a different and really much better American Studies program down the road). The volume’s power arises from his ability to situate its founders and their fledgling organization within the context of American religious and cultural history. Like two other compelling historians of AA, Damien McElrath and Glenn Chesnutt, Kurtz was positioned well to inquire into the program’s spiritual foundations: after earning a BA in philosophy from St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, New York, he entered the priesthood and served as a parish priest from 1961 to 1966. I’ll leave it to better Catholics than myself to sort out whether it was Ernie’s seminary training or his departure from the church in the late 1970s that gave him such penetrating insight into the ways AA manifested what he came to call “the spirituality of imperfection.”
I met Ernie Kurtz at the first (and to my knowledge, only) Kirk Collection Works-in-Progress Seminar at Brown University, in the summer of 2002. He was assigned to comment on my paper, a situation that would be fairly nerve-wracking for anyone, even someone who was not a materialist feminist, a junior scholar, and a researcher with no training in addiction medicine or religious history and no personal investment in AA. Fortunately for me, he was willing to overlook my mistakes and, more important, to welcome my somewhat unorthodox angle of vision on the recovery movement. This fabulous generosity–of intellect as well as spirit– was well-known. In February, historian Bill White will grace Points with a more extensive tribute to Ernie’s intellectual legacy.
“Let it begin with me” is not an AA but an Al-Anon slogan, but it’s a fitting way to close. Scholarly history of AA began with Ernie Kurtz. His willingness to engage and share, to encourage thought and research among academic disciplines, between the academy and the public, and, yes, across the sectarian rifts within AA itself– this willingness provided a model for the many collaborative projects through which AA history is now being done: the national AA archives workshops, the Sedona-Mago history symposia, the revitalization of Dr. Bob’s House and Stepping Stones, the publication projects of the Hindsfoot Foundation, and the work of Points. When anyone, anywhere, reached out for help with AA history, the hand of Ernie Kurtz was there– inspiring, prompting, gently correcting, encouraging us all (a couple of generations now) to take part in the mystery of collaborative exploration of our history. For that I am grateful, and I know I’m not alone.