JOURNAL OF PSYCHIATRY© Vol. 106, 1949.
THE SOCIETY OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
WILLIAM W., CO-FOUNDER
Alcoholics Anonymous is grateful for this
invitation to appear before The American
Psychiatric Association. It is a most happy
Being laymen, we have naught but a story to
tell, hence the quite personal and
unscientific character of this narrative.
Whatever their deeper implications the
attitudes and events leading to the
formation of Alcoholics Anonymous are easy
alcoholics talk across a kitchen table. One
is drinking, the other is not. Severe
chronics, the threat of commitment hangs
over both. The time is November 1934. The
active drinker became, years later, the
writer of this paper.
My sober visitor was
an old friend and schoolmate, long catalogued by
physicians and family as hopeless. I enjoyed the
same rating and well knew it. My friend had arrived
to tell me how he had been released from alcohol.
In truth, the quality of his sobriety seemed
different. Having made contact with the Oxford
Group, a nondenominational, evangelical movement, my
friend had been specially impressed by an alcoholic
he had met, a former patient of C. G. Jung.
Unsuccessfully treating this individual for a year,
Dr. Jung had finally advised him to try religious
conversion as his last chance. While disagreeing
with many tenets of the Oxford Group, my former
schoolmate did, however, ascribe his new sobriety to
certain ideas that this alcoholic and other Oxford
people had given him. The particular practices my
friend had selected for himself were simple:
1. He admitted he was powerless to solve his own
2. He got honest with himself as never before; made
an examination of conscience.
3. He made a rigorous confession of his personal
4. He surveyed his distorted relations with people,
visiting them to make restitution.
5. He resolved to devote himself to helping others
in need, without the usual demand for personal
prestige or material gain.
6. By meditation he sought God's direction for his
life and help to practice these principles at all
This sounded pretty naive to me. Nevertheless my
friend stuck to the plain tale of what had happened
-- no evangelizing. He related how practicing these
precepts, his drinking had unaccountably stopped.
Fear and isolation left and he had received
considerable peace of mind. With no hard
disciplines nor any great resolves, these attributes
began to appear the moment he conformed. His
release was a byproduct. Though sober but months, he
felt he had a basic answer. Wisely avoiding any
argument, he then took leave. The spark that was to
become Alcoholics Anonymous had been struck.
What then did happen at the kitchen table? Perhaps
this speculation were better left to medicine and
religion. I confess I do not know. Possibly
conversion will never be fully understood.
Looking outward from such an experience, I can only
say with fidelity what seemed to happen. Yet
something did happen that instantly changed the
current of my life. I haven't had a drink for over
fourteen years. All else will be mere personal
opinion -- or just fancy.
My friend's story had generated mixed emotions; I
was drawn and revolted by turns. My solitary
drinking went on, but I could not forget his visit.
Several themes coursed in my mind: First, that his
evident state of release was strangely and immensely
convincing. Second, that he had been pronounced
hopeless by competent medicos. Third, that those
age-old precepts, when transmitted by him, had
struck me with great power. Fourth, that I could
not, and would not, go along with any God concept.
No conversion nonsense for me. Thus did I ponder.
Trying to divert my thoughts, I found it no use By
cords of understanding, suffering, and simple
verity, another alcoholic had bound me to him. I
shall not break away.
One morning after my gin a realization welled up.
Who are you, I asked, to choose how you are going to
get well? Beggars are not choosers. Suppose
medicine said carcinoma was your trouble. You would
not turn to Pond's extract. In abject haste you
would beg a doctor to kill those hellish cancer
cells. If he didn't stop them, and you thought
conversion could, your pride would fly away. You
would soon stand in public squares crying Amen along
with other victims.
What difference then, I reflected, between you and
the cancer victim? His sick body crumbles.
Likewise your personality crumbles, your obsession
consigns you to madness or the undertaker. Are you
going to try your friends formula -- or not?
Of course I did try. In December, 1934, I appeared
at Towns Hospital, New York.
My old friend, Dr. W. D. Silkworth, shook his head.
Soon free of sedation and alcohol, I felt horribly
depressed. My alcoholic friend turned up. Though
glad to see him, I shrank a little. I feared
evangelism. Nothing of the sort happened. After
small talk, I again asked him about the Oxford
Groups. Quietly, sanely enough, he told me, and
Lying there in conflict, I dropped into a black
depression. Momentarily my prideful obstinacy was
crushed. I cried out: Now Iím ready to do anything
- anything to receive what my good friend has.
Expecting naught, I made this frantic appeal: If
there be a God, will he show himself!
The result was instant, electric, beyond
description. The place lit up, blinding white. I
knew only ecstasy and seemed on a mountain. A great
wind blew, enveloping and permeating me. It was not
of air, but of Spirit. Blazing, came the tremendous
thought, You are a free man! Then ecstasy
subsided. Still on the bed I was now in another
world of consciousness which was suffused by a
Presence. One with the Universe, a great peace
stole over me and I thought, So this is the God of
the preachers; this is the Great Reality. But
reason returned, my modern education took over.
Obviously I had gone crazy. I became terribly
Dr. Silkworth came in to hear my trembling account
of the phenomenon. He assured me I was not mad;
that I had perhaps undergone an experience which
might solve my problems. Skeptical man of science
he then was; this was most kind and astute. If he
had said hallucination I might now be dead. To him
I shall be eternally grateful.
Good fortune pursued me. Somebody brought a book
entitled Varieties of Religious Experience and I
devoured it. Written by James, the psychologist, it
suggests that conversion can have objective
reality. Conversion does alter motivation, and does
semi-automatically enable a person to be and do the
formerly impossible. Significant it was, that
marked conversion experiences come mostly to
individuals who know complete defeat in a
controlling area. The book certainly showed
variety. But bright or dim, cataclysmic or gradual,
theological or intellectual in bearing, such
conversions did have common denominators, they did
change utterly defeated people. And so declared
William James. The shoe fitted. I have tried to
wear it ever since. For drunks, the obvious answer
was deflation at depth and more of it. That seemed
plain as a pikestaff. I had been trained as an
engineer, so the views of this authoritative
psychologist meant everything to me.
Armored now by utter conviction and fortified by my
characteristic power drive, I took off to cure
alcoholics wholesale. It was twin jet propulsion;
difficulties meant nothing. The vast conceit of my
project never occurred to me. I pressed my assault
for six months; my home was filled with alcoholics
Harangues with scores produced not the slightest
result. None of them got it. Disappointingly, my
friend of the kitchen table, who was sicker than I
realized, took little interest in these other
alcoholics. This fact may have caused his endless
backslides later on. For I had found that working
with alcoholics had a huge bearing on my own
But why wouldnít any of my new prospects sober up?
Slowly the bugs came to light. Like a religious
crank, I was obsessed with the idea that everybody
must have a spiritual experience just like mine.
Iíd forgotten that there were many varieties. So my
brother alcoholics just stared incredulously or
kidded me about my hot flash. This had spoiled the
potent identification so easy to get with them. I
had turned evangelist. Clearly the deal had to be
streamlined. What came to me in six minutes might
require six months in others.
It was to be learned that words are things, that one
must be prudent. It was also certain that something
ailed the deflationary technique. It definitely
Reasoning that the alcoholic's hex, or compulsion,
must issue from some deep level, it followed that
ego deflation must also go deep or else there
couldnít be any fundamental release. Apparently
religious practice would not touch the alcoholic
until his underlying situation was made ready.
Fortunately all the tools were right at hand. You
doctors supplied them.
The emphasis was straightway shifted from sin to
sickness -- the fatal malady, alcoholism. We quoted
doctors that alcoholism was more lethal than cancer;
that it consisted of an obsession of the mind
coupled to increasing body sensitivity. These were
our Twin Ogres of Madness and Death. We leaned
heavily on Dr. Jung's statement how hopeless the
condition could be and then poured that devastating
dose into every drunk within range. To modern man
science is omnipotent; it is a god. Hence if science
would pass a death sentence on the drunk, and we
placed that verdict on our alcoholic transmission
belt, it might shatter him completely. Perhaps he
would then turn to the God of the theologian, there
being no place else to go. Whatever the truth in
this device, it certainly had practical merit.
Immediately our whole atmosphere changed. Things
began to look up.
Bankrupt at the time, I stumbled into a business
venture. It took me to Akron, Ohio, where the deal
quickly collapsed leaving me dispirited. Alone, I
panicked in fear of getting drunk. This was
something new for I realized that I hadnít thought
of drinking since the December 1934 experience. I
could now see my peril clearly and thus brush off
the usual rationalizations. With relief, I
perceived that my new spiritual conditioning really
meant something now that the heat was on. But that
didnít stop the compulsive up rush of drinking
desire. I needed to talk to another alcoholic, and
Shortly I was introduced to Dr. Robert S., a
surgeon. He was an alcoholic in a bad way. This
time there was no preachment from me. I told him my
experience and what I thought I knew about
alcoholism. Needing him as much as he did me, there
was a genuine mutuality for the first time and, as
we now say in A.A., he soon clicked never to drink
again. That was June 1935. We began to spend long
hours on drunks at a local hospital. One of them is
sober yet, no relapse. Though nameless, the first
A.A. Group had actually started. Dr. S. has since
hospitalized some 4,000 cases at Akron. The bulk
have recovered. All this too without a cent of
monetary return to him. Thus he became co-founder
of Alcoholics Anonymous. As I left Akron in
September 1935 three alcoholics were staying sober.
Arrived at New York, I set to work and another A.A.
group took shape. But nothing was very sure; we
still flew blind.
It was soon necessary to retire from the Oxford
Group. The good people there had disapproved of
us. For our purpose, the Oxford Group atmosphere
wasnít entirely right. Their demands for absolute
moral rectitude encouraged guilt and rebellion.
Either will get alcoholics drunk, and did. As
nonalcoholic evangelists, they couldnít understand
that. Good friends these, we owed them much. From
them we had learned what, and what not, to do.
Then commenced a 3 year season of trial and error
eventuating in our textbook Alcoholics Anonymous,
published in 1939. That book, now backbone of our
A.A. society, opens with a typical story of drinking
and recovery. Next comes a chapter of hope,
entitled There Is A Solution. In A.A. vernacular
two chapters describe alcoholism and the alcoholic,
their object being of course to first identify and
then deflate. A chapter is devoted to softening up
This leads to the Twelve Steps of present-day
Alcoholics Anonymous. The heart of our therapy, and
a practical way of life, these Steps are little but
an amplified and streamlined version of the
principles enumerated by my friend of the kitchen
The balance of the text is mostly devoted to
practical application of these Twelve Steps, and to
reducing the inner resistance of the reader.
Working with other alcoholics is very heavily
emphasized. Chapters are devoted to wives, family
relations, and employers. The final chapter
pictures the new society and begs the recovered
alcoholic to form a group himself. This ideology is
then shored up by 30 case histories, or rather
stories, written by A.A. members. These complete
the identification and stir hope. The 400 pages of
Alcoholics Anonymous contain no theory; they narrate
When the book appeared in April 1939, we had about
100 members. One-third of these had impressive
sobriety records. The movement had spread to
Cleveland and drifted toward Chicago and Detroit.
In the East it inclined to Philadelphia and
Washington. There was an extraordinary event at
Cleveland. The Plain Dealer published strong pieces
about us backed by editorials. A barrage of
telephone calls descended on 20 A.A. members, mostly
new people. A.A. book in hand, they took on all
comers. New members worked with the still newer.
Two years later, Cleveland had garnered by this
chain reaction hundreds of new members.
The batting average was excellent. It was our first
evidence that we might digest huge numbers rapidly.
Then came great national publicity. The Saturday
Evening Post piece (March 1941) shot thousands of
frantic inquiries into our tiny New York office.
This gave us lists of alcoholics in hundreds of
cities. Business men traveling out of established
A.A. centers used these names to start new groups.
By sending literature and writing often, A.A. groups
sprung up by mail. With no personal contact
whatever, this was astounding. Clergy and medical
men began to give their approval. I wish to say
that Dr. Harry Tiebout, chairman of our discussion
today, was the first psychiatrist ever to observe
and befriend us. Alcoholics Anonymous mushroomed.
The pioneering had ended. We were on the U.S. map.
As of 1949 our quantity results are these. The
14-year-old society of Alcoholics Anonymous has
80,000 members in about 3,000 groups. We have
entered into 30 foreign countries and U.S.
possessions; translations are going forward. By
occupation we are an accurate cross section of
America. By religious affiliation we are about 40%
Catholic; nominal and active Protestants, also many
former agnostics, and a sprinkling of Jews comprise
the remainder. Ten to 15% are women. Some Negroes
are recovering without undue difficulty. Top
medical and religious endorsements are almost
universal. A.A. membership is pyramiding, chain
style, at the rate of about 30% a year. During
1949, we expect 20,000 permanent recoveries, at
least. Half of these will be medium or mild cases
(average age about 36) a fairly recent development.
Of alcoholics who stay with us and really try, 50%
get sober at once and stay that way, 25% do so after
some relapses and the remainder usually show
improvement. But many problem drinkers do quit A.A.
after a brief contact, maybe three or four out of
five. Some are too psychopathic or damaged. But
the majority have powerful rationalizations yet to
be broken down. Eventually this does happen
providing they get what A.A. calls a good exposure,
on first contact. Alcohol then builds such a hot
fire that they are finally driven back to us, often
They tell us that they had to return; it was A.A, or
else. They had learned about alcoholism from
alcoholics; they were hit harder than they had
known. Such cases leave us the agreeable impression
that half our original exposures will eventually
return, most of them to recover. So we just
indoctrinate the newcomer.
We never evangelize; Barleycorn will look after
that. The clergy declare we have capitalized the
Devil. These claims are considerable but we think
them conservative. The ultimate recovery rate will
certainly be larger than once supposed.
Such is a glimpse of our origin, central therapeutic
idea, and quantity result.
The qualitative result is assuredly too large a
subject for this paper.
Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious
organization; there is no dogma. The one
theological proposition is a Power greater than
one's self. Even this concept is forced on no one.
The newcomer merely immerses himself in our society
and tries the program as best he can. Left alone, he
will surely report the gradual onset of a
transforming experience, call it what he may.
Observers once thought A.A. could appeal only to the
religiously susceptible. Yet our membership
includes a former member of the American Atheist
Society and about 20,000 others almost as tough.
The dying can become remarkably open minded. Of
course we speak little of conversion nowadays
because so many people really dread being
God-bitten. But conversion, as broadly described by
James, does seem to be our basic process; all other
devices are but the foundation. When one alcoholic
works with another, he but consolidates and sustains
that essential experience.
The forces of anarchy, democracy, and dictatorship
play impressive roles in the structure and
containment of our society; Barleycorn the Tyrant
Dictator is quite impersonal. But Hitler never did
have a Gestapo half so effective. When the anarchy
of the alcoholic faces his tyrant, that alcoholic
must become a social animal or perish. Perforce,
our society has settled for the purest kind of
Naturally, the explosive potential of our rather
neurotic fellowship is enormous. As elsewhere, it
gathers closely around those eternal provocateurs:
power, money and sex. Throughout A.A. these
subterranean volcanoes erupt at least a thousand
times daily; explosions we now view with some humor,
considerable magnanimity, and little fear at all.
We think them valuable object lessons for
development. Our deep kinship, the urgency of our
mission, the need to abate our neurosis for
contented survival; all these, together with love
for God and man, have contained us in surprising
unity. There seems safety in numbers. Enough sand
bags muffle any amount of dynamite. We think we are
a pretty secure, happy family. Drop by any A.A.
meeting for a look.
But, there isnít the slightest evidence that violent
neurosis, drunkenness, or lunacy is to be the
destiny of Alcoholics Anonymous. Such dark
forecasts have not materialized.
Many an alcoholic is now sent to A.A. by his own
psychiatrist. Relieved of his drinking, he returns
to the doctor a far easier subject. Practically
every alcoholicís wife has become, to a degree, his
possessive mother. Most alcoholic women, if they
still have a husband, live with a baffled father.
This sometimes spells trouble aplenty. We A.A.ís
certainly ought to know! So, gentlemen, here is a
big problem right up your alley.
Now to conclude: We of A.A. try to be aware that we
may never touch but a segment of the total alcohol
problem. We try to remember that our growing
success may prove a heady wine; that our own
resources will always be limited.
So then, will you men and women of
medicine be our partners; physicians wielding well
your invisible scalpels; workers all, in our common
cause? We like to think Alcoholics Anonymous a
middle ground between medicine and religion, the
missing catalyst of a new synthesis. This to the
end that the millions who still suffer may presently
issue from their darkness into the light of day!
I am sure that none, attending this great Hall of
Medicine will feel it untoward if I leave the last
word to our silent partner, Religion:
God grant us the serenity to accept the things we
cannot change, courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
Read at the 105th Annual Meeting of the American
Psychiatric Association, Montreal, Quebec, May