Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Matthew J. Raphael, a retired professor of English. Raphael is author of Bill W. and Mr. Wilson (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), as well as other books and essays on the place of alcohol in American literature and culture.
“Over the years,” observes William H. Schaberg in Writing the Big Book, the image of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith laying the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous “has become deeply encrusted with so many layers of adulation and myth that it is hard to recapture the reality of the moment.” The objective of Schaberg’s book, the most important study of A.A. since Ernest Kurtz’s monumental Not-God, is to challenge the hoary stories of A.A.’s early days, from Wilson’s attaining sobriety in 1935 to the publication of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939.
Ten years in the making, based on exhaustive research in the A.A. archives and other collections, Writing the Big Book runs nearly 800 pages: thicker and heavier than the original Big Book. The book is truly definitive – a word thrown mindlessly around – insofar as it will never likely be redone and thus will remain unsurpassed.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Jeremy Milloy, the W. P. Bell Postdoctoral Fellow at Mount Allison University. In it, he adds to our Points Bookshelf series, where we examine and review recent books about alcohol and drug history. More than a traditional review, however, Milloy also interviews Miller. Enjoy!
Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most successful social movements in history. It has exercised more influence over treatment of substance use disorder than probably any other non-state organization in history. AA programming is the foundation of upscale private rehabs and prison programs alike. Today almost two million people are believed to be AA members, with many more in the myriad of other 12-step fellowships created in its image. But for the great majority of people who go to AA, it doesn’t work.
Why then, did AA become the first, and often, the last treatment option? Why does it remain so today? These are some of the questions journalist and English professor Joe Miller tackles in his timely and trenchant new history US Of AA: How The Twelve Steps Hijacked The Science of Alcoholism. In it, Miller deftly combines a personal narrative about his struggles with alcohol and journey through AA to stable program of moderation with the larger history of AA itself.
Editor’s note: Today sees the final installment of the Points tribute to AA historian Glenn C. Commentator Jackie B. graduated in 2002 with a degree in Theater and Performance Studies from U.C. Berkeley. Sober since 2006, she is the founder and Artistic Director of Recovery Works Theater (RWT) in San Francisco. Her work has been seen by tens of thousands of recovering alcoholics and addicts throughout the United States in a range of venues from convention centers and black box theaters to county jails. Rooted in rigorous research and a reverence for history, Jackie’s plays seek to create a living connection between the audience’s personal experience and the experiences of the early members and groups of Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step fellowships. Her most recent work, I Am Responsible, premiered in February 2017 in San Francisco.
In 2008, I began writing original plays about A.A. history, specifically created for performers and audiences in Twelve Step recovery. My interest in A.A. history was sparked when I was two years sober by a San Francisco old-timer during a Traditions study who shared a story about Joe McQ. of the Joe and Charlie Big Book study series. That’s how I learned that “Big Book” Joe, as he was called back home in Arkansas, was the first black man to get sober in A.A. in Little Rock. That was the night I learned about the lengths that many members had to go through to receive the same opportunity I had been so generously given, without question or demand, at my first A.A. meeting.
I was introduced to Glenn’s work while researching my first A.A. history play, In Our Own Words: Pioneers of Alcoholics Anonymous. Written in the documentary style of The Laramie Project, a tradition also known as verbatim theater, the dialogue was taken word for word from primary material, including A.A. speaker tapes, group histories, Grapevine stories and the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. The second half of the play was devoted to Third Tradition stories, stories like that of Joe McQ., and other marginalized people who paved a way inside the fellowship, creating a safe space for future members who identify as women, LGBTQ, young people and people of color.
I very much wanted to include the story of an early African-American woman in the program. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a single story from the 1940’s. Not in the Big Book or the Grapevine digital archives. Almost ready to admit defeat, I came across a mention of early black A.A. members in a 2005 book called The Factory Owner and the Convict: Vol. 1 of the Lives and Teachings of the A.A. Old-Timersby Glenn C. The text was originally written for local intergroups, to show how A.A. started in the cities and towns along the St. Joseph River, as it wound its way through Indiana and Michigan to the Great Lakes. Requests for copies came in from all around the country, and the author, a Professor of History and Religious Studies at Indiana University in South Bend, self-published it and made an excerpt available on www.hindsfoot.org. I eagerly ordered the book, and when it arrived I found a remarkable interview between Glenn and a black woman named Jimmy M., who got sober in A.A. in 1948. From that interview I was able to construct a monologue for Jimmy, creating one of the most powerful and revelatory scenes of In Our Own Words:
My little troupe of actors in recovery began to perform In Our Own Words outside of San Francisco. We traveled all over California. We performed in church sanctuaries, middle school auditoriums and jail pods. Over and over again, audience members would come up to me afterwards and thank me for sharing Joe and Jimmy’s stories, telling me that for the first time, they felt a part of A.A. history too. That was all made possible by Glenn’s dedicated and meticulous work. Finally, in 2010, we were given the opportunity to perform at a major international conference in San Antonio. I invited Glenn, reaching him through the AA History Lovers Yahoo Group. I didn’t know if he would make it, whether he would even get through the doors. The conference plays were so popular that year, the hotel had to shut down its elevators to keep more conventioneers from trying to get into the packed hall, far exceeding its maximum capacity. And still the conventioneers came, sneaking in through fire doors, climbing ten sets of stairs, and even stealing our set furniture from onstage to snag a seat.
After the performance, Glenn introduced himself. I wish I could remember more of that first face-to-face conversation. But I remember he hugged me and he hugged and took pictures with the lovely actress who played Jimmy. We exchanged numbers and emails and less than a week later, Glenn wrote to me, and that was the start of a seven-year friendship and mentorship that has shaped me as a thinker, writer and person in recovery.
When Glenn and his delightful wife Sue decided to winter in Fremont, California, my sponsee and I became regular guests at his new home. Anyone who has had the pleasure of spending one-on-one time with Glenn can attest to the mischievous delight he takes in the exchange of ideas and stories, everything from tidbits of oral history and classical literature, recovery wisdom and philosophical quandaries. Nestled deep in a cozy armchair, Glenn proved himself both an emphatic listener and a consummate teacher, insisting from the moment we first met in San Antonio that I am a historian.
In the foreword to my second play, a history of the Twelve Traditions called Our Experience Has Taught Us, Glenn described me as a historian of “the new generation.” For many years during our correspondence, I would counter that I was just a storyteller. Even as I began to do more rigorous primary research in archives around the country, I held back from calling myself a historian. I was a “history buff,” an A.A. history nerd. It wasn’t until I shared a stage with Glenn at the 2016 A.A. History Symposium at the Sedona Mago Retreat that I embraced the mantle of historian. Glenn C., who is arguably the most prolific writer of recovery history, generously shared his 45-minute presentation slot with a young female artist and scholar, as we shared the experiences of early gay, lesbians and people of color in A.A., including the stories of Jimmy M. and Joe McQ. It was a moment I will never forget; my journey with Glenn had come full circle. I will cherish every moment I have spent with Glenn, every email, every phone call, and every story. I could not be more proud to call him a mentor, a friend, and a fellow traveler on the broad highway.
To talk about my relationship with Glenn C. requires some exposition that will appear a bit egocentric. But, truth be told, it was my book, or rather a tattered manuscript back then, that brought me to the Hindsfoot Foundation and, of course, Glenn.
The book, , wasn’t really my idea either. At one time, like when I was nine or ten, I wanted to be a pal with Roy Rogers, maybe Gene Autry. I was torn. But I wound up being an associate professor of communication, pursuing the books and files of the Pittman Archives in Center City, Minnesota. That of course is Hazelden. I was honored as the first academic researcher to use the archives (July-August 1995) courtesy of a development grant from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
I was in search of a topic for a monograph, or at least a couple of academic articles. I knew about alcoholism and Hazelden. I’ll leave it at that. Moments of grace do happen.
The first just such moment occurred when I met Bill Pittman in the archives. We chatted informally. He asked me if I would be interested in working in an area that could surely lead to a book. A book? You betcha. I was soon back in my department in a meeting with my colleagues, hoping that my sabbatical could take place during the summer of 1997. In the meantime I began my research on the influences on the early AA thinkers. Bill sent me a couple of boxes of books to get me started. Guided by Ernie Kurtz’s Not-God, I read in and around the history of AA, discovering new names.
During the summer of 1996 I made a trip to Boston, funded by the Hazelden Foundation. Most of work was done in the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Episcopal Church Archives, Diocese of Boston. The experience, especially in the Mass Historical Society, was one of hushed silence, wearing white linen gloves when handling papers, and organizing material that was being photocopied. I mailed a complete manuscript to Bill Pittman on August 15, 1997. Now a different type of task unfolded, one that would require the encouragement, friendship, expertise and professional know-how of Glenn.
The manuscript sat until spring 1998 when Bill Pittman informed me that new material on Rowland Hazard III at the Rhode Island Historical Society would make a valuable and relevant addition to the book. I spent a week that summer gathering and organizing material, and in the fall mailed the new chapter on Rowland Hazard to Hazelden.
No word regarding the fate of the manuscript. A sense doom closes in. I expressed my concern to a few prominent AA scholars. None less than Ernest Kurtz advised me to develop some options. Hazelden’s support was instrumental in the eventual creation of the actual book; I am grateful to them and certainly to Bill Pittman. (Hazelden currently has my research notes and photocopied archival material in their archives. I am likewise grateful for this.) To this day I am not sure what happened their; perhaps a change in management philosophy?
This was a dark period. My manuscript was read by a university press, and received a positive evaluation but one that concluded with “sorry.” It was understandable given the then (and now) publishing environment. My book was certainly specialized and wasn’t going to generate the revenue that university presses needed. I figured I could simply post the manuscript in cyberspace and that would be that, perhaps as a link on my university webpage. I more or less lost interest.
During this period I began work on an AA-related paper: “Sober Sleuths…”, comparing the crime fiction detective heroes of Lawrence Block and James Lee Burke. Things looked bleak except that Bill White and Ernie Kurtz were in my corner and wanted to see my book published. They paved the way for me to seek a solution to the problem: The Hindsfoot Foundation, and, of course, Glenn C.
I got in touch with Glenn and during 2003 letters, papers, computer discs and the like flew back and forth. Glenn received my material and I thought it was all but done. Not so. There was all the permission business, an index, and the need for some
punching up here and there. Plus, I admit to being a person who needs a push now and then. Glenn’s sincere interest and drive kept me going. But, truthfully, it was he who did most of the driving and reading and rewriting, additions and deletions, that needed to be done.
The Long & Winding “Road”
Even the earliest emails from Glenn, say March 2003, were filled with an interest in my work, not only this book, and my thoughts on AA. Over the distance, via the internet, I had made a colleague and true friend. Though we had never met, not spoken to each other, we developed a true scholarly camaraderie, dare I say a kinship. The production of The Road to Fellowship moved quickly. I was guided through all the legal and technical consideration by Glenn, who sensed my own fatigue and was a forgiving mentor. The publication date was 2004.
After that, I was reading in other areas of Christian theology and would occasionally have a question. One example was my puzzlement with various interpretations of atonement. A more prosaic person might have thrown a few references at me, perhaps a comment or two, and have sent me on my way. But not Glenn. I still have pages of his downloaded emails, explaining not only atonement but any other idea or thought that I was having. He knew of my dissertation on Paul Tillich and the graduate work I had done at Drew University as part of my Ph.D. program at Purdue. Perhaps those two factors linked us and provided the basis for our scholarly friendship. And it has continued. That continuation exists in that his The Higher Power of the Twelve-Step Program… and God and Spirituality: Philosophical Essays sit on my nightstand. My scholarly and spiritual journey continues as a gift of my Higher Power, but it has been in no small way guided by this truly magnanimous man. I am grateful to have had the help and friendship of Glenn.
Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Annette R. Smith, and is taken from her 2007 book The Social World of Alcoholics Anonymous: How It Works. Smith received her masters in social work from the University of California, Berkeley in 1961, and her Ph.D. from UC San Diego in 1991. She worked for several years as a psychiatric social worker at Napa State Hospital in California, where she helped develop an innovative co-educational unit for treating alcoholics, who had long been merely warehoused in those giant institutions. As one of the key elements in this new approach, she worked with the local A.A. Hospital and Institutions Committee in bringing A.A. to the inpatients in that program. This experience began her lifetime association with the fellowship. The Social World of Alcoholics Anonymous assertsthe value of viewing AA as a social world, and argues that the success of AA is dependent on integration into the social world. Enjoy!
Annette R. Smith
After several years working as a clinical social worker and program manager in the alcoholism treatment field, and being involved as an associate of Alcoholics Anonymous, I returned to school to obtain a doctorate in sociology. As I became more aware of sociological constructs, it became clear to me that although there was considerable literature on the history and philosophy of AA, its value as treatment, its bases of affiliation and the experiences of its members, AA as a social organization and the impact of that organization upon recovery, had not been widely examined.
(Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by contributing editor Mat Savelli, a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.)
Yugoslavia had a problem with alcoholism.
Or at the very least, that’s what the country’s psychiatrists generally thought. During the Communist era (from the end of the WWII through to the country’s collapse in 1991), leading Yugoslav physicians routinely warned about the population’s rapid descent into widespread alcoholism.
Year after year, the statistics on drinking seemed to grow. Yugoslavs were consuming more and were beginning to drink heavily at a younger age. Even more problematically, excessive drinking seemed to be spreading to new populations, with women and the country’s substantial Muslim population increasingly taking to booze.
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.”Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: This post is from Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan.
I’ll begin with two anecdotes, the first of which is probably familiar to most Points readers. In 1935, a stockbroker named Bill Wilson found himself in Akron, Ohio for a business deal. When it fell through and Wilson felt the urge to drink again after a period of sobriety, he reached out through area ministers and was put in touch with a woman who arranged a conversation between him and Dr. Robert Smith, a local physician who also struggled with his drinking. Their conversation is now recognized as the genesis moment of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by the venerable Trysh Travis, former Points managing editor.
A friend with a drinking problem has been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings lately, and finding them not very helpful. “I can’t stand all the God talk,” she explained. She was raised in an Islamic country where God is routinely invoked—sometimes consciously, other times mechanistically—as a punitive, fearsome presence whose main purpose in the world seemed to be to limit the freedoms of women like herself. God was the last person she felt like turning to for help.
Before you go getting up on your Fox News soapbox and calling in more drone strikes in the name of an oppressed Third World Woman, let me just note that I’ve had American friends—Baptists, Catholics, and Jews—who had the same gripe with 12-Step culture. Twelve-Step recovery’s official posture may be that it is “spiritual, not religious,” but the niceties of that distinction may be lost on people for whom “God” is hot-button issue.
Twelve-step sponsorship is so twentieth century—or so The New York Times would have us believe. In an article published last month in the newspaper’s Fashion and Style section, author Marisa Fox made the case that “recovery coaches,” “once consigned to Hollywood entourages to keep celebrities on the straight and narrow,” are currently trending among upper-class women “from the Upper East Side to the beachfront homes of Boca Raton.”
Last weekend, NPR’s All Things Considered followed the trend, offering a more inclusive description of recovery coaches’ clientele (the stock image that accompanied the report was still a view from the beach).
Diane Diederich/iStockphoto featured on NPR.com
The historical angle adopted by both news outlets was obvious. The old-fashioned practice of sponsorship—defined by Alcoholics Anonymous as the process by which a person “who has made some progress in the recovery program shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety”— presents shortcomings in today’s treatment marketplace. The women featured in the Times have the ability to buy their way out of the social awkwardness and fear of exposure that twelve-step meeting attendance invites. The NPR piece notes that people in early recovery don’t always gravitate toward the most adept supporters— coaches, who are trained to provide practical as well as spiritual guidance, can help solve this long-standing problem.
Clipping from Hazelden’s MORE program pamphlet. The program offers coaching for clients in early recovery.
As historian and clinician Bill White explained, coaches are not sponsors (they don’t do voluntary twelve-step work on “paid time”) and they’re not quite counselors (they don’t diagnose or probe underlying psychological issues). They occupy a new niche in the service economy that employs more than 75 percent of today’s American workers. They are “the new Pilates instructors,” one coach told the Times. They are compensated to be both “cheerleaders” and “beacons of hope,” another told NPR.
Like NPR reporter Martha Bebinger, I think coaches can produce tremendous benefits, both for people in recovery and for the treatment system as a whole. But the proper role of recovery coaches in today’s health service sector also deserves a systemic critique—and not the trolling, “New York Times Style Suction” sort.