Excerpts from Must Read Books & Articles on Mental Health
Books, Part XI
Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous- Ernest Kurtz
Chapter III. Independent Existence: November 1937- October 1939, pp. 59-82
When Dr. Bob Smith had first attained sobriety and had embraced Bill Wilson's largely
unformed ideas in June 1935, A.A.'s co-founders did not advert to their implicit debts to
the influences of Carl Jung, William James, Dr. William Silkworth, and the Oxford Group.
By November 1937, however, Wilson and Smith felt that they had a "program," and
so they were able to think more explicitly about the ideas they had drawn from these
These ideas remained understandings of persons/alcoholics rather than
of any thing/alcoholism. The concept fundamental to Alcoholics Anonymous continued to be
the pragmatic one of the alcoholic rather than any speculative reaching at some
direct comprehension of alcoholism. Their tentative understanding of alcoholism as
"an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer" obviously described
the alcoholic rather than analyzed the malady. The core perception of the drinking
alcoholic's problem as "selfishness" likewise remained unchanged. Indeed, its
further grasp at depth and the spelling out that followed from that grasp furnished the
vehicle for Wilson and Smith to deepen their thinking about a "program." Within
months, Bill, seeking to set forth in writing what they had agreed about "How It
Works," baldly summed up his and Dr. Bob's understanding of the alcoholic's dire
condition: "Selfishness - self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our
troubles. . . . First of all we had to quit playing God. . . . The alcoholic is an extreme
example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so"
"Though he usually doesn't think so." If there be an example
of intentional understatement in self-confessed extremist Bill Wilson's extensive
writings, it lies concealed in that "usually." Especially in the unsuccessful
phase of their efforts with drinking alcoholics, Bill and Bob had early and clearly
isolated the obstacle inhibiting those who failed to grasp their ideas and so to attain
sobriety--denial, denial fundamentally of being "an alcoholic." This denial,
Wilson and Smith had learned from their failures as well as from their successes, tended
to be expressed in especially two contrary insistences: the "claim to be able to
drink like other people"; and the "exceptional thinking" that insisted that
even though the problem-drinker's outward experience seemed to place him in the alcoholic
camp, he was somehow "different"--an exception. The problem lay in the
implications of "being different." Did identity flow from the ways one
was like other people, or the ways in which one was unlike them? And to just which
"other people" did one look in achieving identity, whether by likeness or
The new program's first problem thus became the image it presented of
"the real alcoholic." Slowly, from early 1938, Bill and Bob and their fellow
admitted alcoholics progressively developed two ideas on which they had thus far relied
only implicitly. These understandings concerned how the alcoholic "hit bottom"
and the process by which a newcomer "identified" with admitted alcoholics.
Neither the phrase hitting bottom nor the word identifying appeared in the
literature of Alcoholics Anonymous for another fifteen years. When they finally did
emerge, "hitting bottom" and "identifying" were terms that Alcoholics
Anonymous immediately recognized as well summarizing how the program and fellowship had
begun and worked--clear witness to the unconscious depth of the concepts .
"The real alcoholic" continued to be understood as described
by Dr. Silkworth. "At some stage of his drinking career he begins to lose all control
of his liquor consumption, once he starts to drink." But "loss of control"
could be and, of course, was denied even more easily than was "alcoholic
behavior." Perhaps so, intuited the early A.A.s from their own abundant experience,
but the denial was only external. Their own personal histories amply testified to the fact
that, indeed, the greater the external denial, the more deeply and painfully clutched the
internal confusion, fear, and dread--especially of the specter of insanity. At some deep
level, however buried, they knew from their own experience that the drinking alcoholic
knew that he was out of control. And so the external realization could come through the
internal, and hitting bottom became understood not as loss of employment or family,
not as "sleeping in the weeds," or even immediately as the felt inability to not
drink, but as the sense of being "really licked" and hopeless in the terms, the
concepts, and especially the feelings that Bob E.'s visitors had shared with him.
As Bill Wilson summarized it in telling his own story: "No words can tell of the
loneliness and despair I found in that bitter morass of self-pity." On another
occasion, Wilson summarized explicitly what he and Dr. Smith had discovered: "You
must always remember that 'hitting bottom' is the essence of getting hold of A.A. -
really." The profound depth of this realization was perhaps best testified to in the
theme chosen by A.A.'s co-founder on the occasion of his first published "Christmas
Greeting to All Members":
Nor can men and women of A.A. ever forget that only through suffering did they
find enough humility to enter the portals of that New World. How privileged we are to
understand so well the divine paradox that strength rises from weakness, that humiliation
goes before resurrection: that pain is not only the price but the very touchstone of
A further problem immediately arose. If "hitting bottom"
was such an internal phenomenon, how could anyone transmit to another this
sobriety-inducing and so life-saving realization? Wilson's and Smith's answer was based on
what they had learned at the time of their initial meeting with each other, and that
answer's elaboration has already been glimpsed in the description of how Bob E.'s bedside
visitors treated him. The telling of personal experience--internal personal experience
laid the foundation for saving identification. The antidote for the deep symptom of denial
was identification marked by open and undemanding narration infused with profound
honesty about personal weakness.
The process of identification was offered without any demand for
reciprocity or for anything else. The sober alcoholic told his own story out of the
conviction that such honesty was required only by and necessary only to his own sobriety.
This example was evidence of the A.A. understanding that honesty was necessary to get
sobriety. Rather than any direct attack upon the mechanisms of denial or the evidence of
self-centeredness, the carrier of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous demonstrated
literally and vividly the essential necessity of honesty to his own sobriety. This honesty
basic to identification concerned precisely the speaker's weakness and vulnerability: he
bared his internal torment while drinking--in this very act becoming further vulnerable--now
even to this listener.
The therapeutic power of this process of identification arose from the
witness it gave, a witness to the healing potency of the shared honesty of mutual
vulnerability openly acknowledged. The healing response to this invitation, this
witness, lay in the act of surrender--the necessary foundation for "getting the
program" of Alcoholics Anonymous. By November 1937, the outward manifestation of
surrender had come a long way from Bill Wilson's tortured but private abdication of his
"inquiring, rational mind." For Dr. Bob Smith, the act of surrender promised on
the morning of that day ("I am going to go through with it") had been embodied
in his post-operative activities of 10 June 1935. The surgeon, in his realistic economic
fears so cravenly desirous of clinging to whatever tattered remnants endured of his
medical reputation, had finally "let go" only when he sought out, confessed to,
and promised restitution to those whom he had harmed throughout his years of a alcoholic
drinking. Perhaps because Dr. Bob's final surrender had come only as a dangerously delayed
phenomenon, the Akron co-founder tended to make the explicit act of surrender a dramatic
and required beginning. Surely Bob E.'s description of his "making surrender," a
description virtually identical with those offered by other early Akron A.A.s, pointed in
By November 1937, then, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith had come to some
understanding of hitting bottom, identification, and the surrender resulting from the
conjunction of these two key concepts and practices. As Wilson returned again from Akron
to New York City, superficially the problem facing him with the yet unformed program of
Alcoholics Anonymous concerned the proposed projects of hospitals, missionaries, and the
book about which the Akronites had been so hesitant. More deeply he wondered, as his
train's clickety-clack provided a soothing rhythmic background for his ponderings: if Dr.
Bob's greater numerical success was due to the explicit, Oxford Group style "making
surrender," how would his New Yorkers receive this intelligence? So recently and so
self-consciously separated from the Oxford Group, harboring among their number at least
one militant non-theist, acutely hostile to the very words surrender and conversion in
their wariness of religion, they would hardly return readily to so religious a practice as
kneeling to "make surrender." Was it possible to have both rapid numerical
growth and openness to skeptics such as he himself had been if dramatic conversion
experiences like his "hot flash" about which the New Yorkers warily joked were
the exception rather than the rule?
Bill's head began to ache, and he rested his wearied brain on a more
congenial Akron catch-phrase: he would just have to meet this perplexing problem, like
that of the proposed projects, "a day at a time." Fortunately, handling the
superficial problem would furnish the solution to the deeper one. The pragmatic philosophy
of immediately treating people's behavior in preference to investigating directly
underlying causes was beginning to penetrate the fellowship and program of Alcoholics
Anonymous on more than one level.
Always one to accentuate the positive, Bill Wilson stepped off' his
train at Grand Central more buoyed by the slim Akron majority favoring the proposed
projects than burdened by the awareness of deeper problems. Wilson did not realize it at
the time, but this was the beginning of' what would be for him a lifelong task within
Alcoholics Anonymous. He had become "the man in the middle," and so his became
the difficult role of mediating between different understandings of Alcoholics Anonymous
by those who were Alcoholics Anonymous. For now, despite all his own vaunted
"twin-engine drive" and promotional instincts, Bill found that his own zeal for
the projects so grudgingly accepted by the Akronites was wildly surpassed by the
enthusiasm of many of the New Yorkers, and especially by that of Hank P.
Wilson explained the concerns of the Akronites, who were--he had to
point out often--a solid numerical majority of the new fellowship. But the New Yorkers,
flushed with self-confidence, revealed no inclination to learn. They agreed that a book
was the first appropriate and most important endeavor. Led by Hank and newcomer Jim B.,
most even seemed to feel that this project's most significant effect would be the
education of the benighted Akronites.
On one matter, Wilson saw the possibility of agreement. A major worry
of the Akron alcoholics was the financial condition of Dr. Bob Smith: threatened with
bankruptcy, he seemed certain to lose his home by foreclosure of its mortgage. Bound to
Oxford Group principles as they, were, the Akronites harbored no thought of selling their
program or even of making a profit from the book which would set it forth, but they were
convinced that such faithful, aggressive evangelism would, in God's providence, attract
the support which the program and its cofounders needed. The New Yorkers shared a similar
attitude toward "professionalism," as an incident earlier in the year had
In mid-1937, the financial situation at 182 Clinton Street had become
acute. Lois Wilson's income as an interior decorator was barely sufficient to support her
husband and maintain their home. Its pitiful inadequacy, even without the added burden of
live-in drunks most of whom made no contribution towards board, came home to Bill with the
realization that some of the sober alcoholics who were coming each week to the Tuesday
evening meetings were back on their feet financially and were earning good money back in
the world of business. So it was that when Charlie Towns, the entrepreneur who ran Towns
Hospital, one day met Wilson making corridor rounds in search of prospects, the
proposition that he presented struck Bill as more than merely attractive. "'Look
here, Bill, said he, I've got a hunch that this A.A. business of yours is someday going to
fill Madison Square Garden . . . Look, Bill, don't you see you're getting the bad end of
the deal? All around you, these drunks are getting well and making money, but you're
giving this work full-time, and still you're broke. It isn't fair."
These sentiments uncannily summarized many of Wilson's own thoughts.
But then Towns continued with a proposal that offered an opportunity to do something.
"'Why don't you move your work in here? I'll give you an office, a decent drawing
account, and a very healthy slice of the profits. What I propose is perfectly ethical. You
can become a lay therapist, and more successful than anybody in the business."' Bill
later recorded that at this prospect he had been "bowled over." The Oxford
Group-trained co-founder felt "a few twinges of conscience" over his rising,
hopeful enthusiasm, but Towns' stress on "ethical" and his own guilt over the
burden Lois had shouldered quickly relieved these. That very evening happened to be
meeting night at 182 Clinton Street, and no sooner had the group assembled than Wilson
burst into the story of his opportunity. As he explained its details and implications,
however, Bill's ardor shifted to uneasy misgiving before the stolid impassivity of his
hearers. "With waning enthusiasm, my story trailed off to the end. There was a long
silence." Finally, a spokesman for the for once quiet group cleared his throat.
"'We know how hard up you are, Bill . . . it bothers us a lot [But] don't you realize
that you can never become a professional? You tell us that Charlie's proposal is ethical.
Sure, it's ethical. But what we've got won't run on ethics only; it has to be better.
Sure, Charlie's idea is good, but it isn't good enough. This is a matter of life and
death, Bill, and nothing but the very best will do."
And so Bill Wilson, having heard for the first time the voice of what
he would later term and praise as "the group conscience," had obeyed it and had
politely declined Towns' generous offer. Now, some six months later, Bill knew that he
need have no fear that any difference in attitude towards "professionalism"
could jeopardize the tenuous unity between the New York and Akron contingents of the
fellowship. If anything, he realized, this shared, Oxford Group-derived understanding
might furnish the sound basis for cementing the threatened unity. Wilson adjusted his
argument to meet the needs of the situation at hand. The special importance of a book, he
pointed out, would be to demonstrate that the program was not the property of
professionals, was not for sale.
Given this sense and this concern, prior funding for publication was
imperitive. Since one advantage that the New Yorkers enjoyed from their very location as
well as from the personal pasts of many of them was possible access to persons of wealth,
Bill noted, their immediate responsibility was clear. They could more than pull their
weight in the agreed upon projects--even all three of them--by obtaining the funds
necessary to implement them. The problem of' obtaining money, without strings
attached became primary. The New York alcoholics drew up a list of wealthy prospects. In
the alcoholics' hopeful expectation, the startling fact that they--sober--could approach
potential donors who knew them to be hopeless drunks would provide the best proof possible
of the worth of the program they were promoting. To their very real astonishment, then,
they obtained neither one cent nor a single promise of support. "Some of the wealthy
exhibited mild concern and sympathy, but they were not really interested. Almost
unanimously they seemed to think that tuberculosis, cancer, and the Red Cross were better
charity investments. Why should they try to revive a lot of down-and-out alcoholics who
had brought their troubles upon themselves? In great dejection we finally saw that drunks
as objects of large charity might never be a popular cause."
Angry and depressed, Wilson vented his spleen to his brother-in-law,
Dr. Leonard V. Strong, in a "diatribe about the stinginess and shortsightedness of
the rich." Bill had chosen his listener well and perhaps craftily. Leonard Strong was
a close friend of Willard Richardson, the deeply religious man who administered the
private charities of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. After hearing out his wife's brother, the
doctor called his well-placed friend, and the next day introduced Wilson to him in person.
Richardson, an ordained minister, showed interest, and so in late December a meeting was
arranged, to be "held in Mr. Rockefeller's private board room." Besides
Richardson, Bill Wilson and Leonard Strong, in attendance were to be: Albert Scott,
Chairman of the Trustees of Riverside Church; Frank Amos, an advertising man close to
Rockefeller; and A. LeRov Chipman, an associate who looked after some of Rockefeller's
personal affairs. Dr. William Silkworth, Dr. Bob Smith, and some of both the Akron and the
New York alcoholics were also to attend.
The meeting proved historic but began awkwardly. As the Rockefeller
coterie waited to hear the presentation of the strangers who had attracted their attention
by such a round-about route, the alcoholics for once sat mute--awed as much by the
trappings of the room as by the wealth and power of their hosts. Finally, someone
suggested that each alcoholic tell his story. The successive tales of misery, degradation,
hopeless compulsion, and finally sober salvation made a deep impression. When the last
alcoholic ended his pilgrim's tale, Albert Scott, who had chaired the meeting, stood up at
the head of' the table and exclaimed, "Why, this is first century Christianity! What
can we do to help?"
The longed-for and eagerly sought-after moment had come. Wilson spoke
up, "going for broke." He mentioned the need for money, for paid workers, chains
of hospitals, and especially literature, stressing the urgency as well as the worthiness
of his appeal. Dr. Silkworth and the rest of the contingent--even those from Akron had
been moved by Bill's plea and the proximity of assistance--enthusiastically seconded all
the points made, noting with satisfaction nods of agreement among the assembled advisors
to great wealth. But then Albert Scott spoke up with yet another question, one which
followed up his earlier query from an unanticipated direction: "Won't money spoil
Discussion resumed along lines not very different from those first laid
down in Akron a month before. Toward its end, agreement was reached that whatever the
final decision, the enterprise--yet unnamed--surely needed some money. Frank Amos offered
to investigate, proposing that his findings could then serve as the basis for a direct
presentation to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Wilson and Smith, still hopeful and enthusiastic,
suggested that Amos look first at Akron--it was the older and larger group, and Dr. Bob's
financial needs were the more pressing.
Conflicting memories veil the outcome of this journey, the next step in
the history of Alcoholics Anonymous. According to Henrietta Seiberling, she and others
convinced Amos that money would indeed "spoil this thing," and he so reported to
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who agreed. In Bill Wilson's memory Amos returned from Akron as
enthusiastic as were the New York alcoholics, and "he recommended that Mr.
Rockefeller grant us $50,000just as a starter." Wilson reported that "Uncle
Dick" Richardson became just as enthusiastic, finding in this "conjunction of
medicine, religion, and a great good work" something uniquely worthy of the
Rockefeller beneficence. It was John D. himself, according to Wilson, who expressed again
the concern of Albert Scott. On the basis that money would spoil any attempted living out
of first century Christianity, the world's richest man flatly refused to fund the
enterprise. One concession, however, Rockefeller did make: $5,000 was placed in the
treasury of Riverside Church to furnish necessary temporary assistance to Bill and Dr. Bob
Bill Wilson had, at the time of' these early 1938 events, come to his
perception of the necessity of "deflation at depth" for the individual
alcoholic. He had not yet extended this insight to the newly formed and yet unnamed group
of non-drinking alcoholics that would become Alcoholics Anonymous. Sensing that
Richardson, Amos, Chipman, and Strong were not in complete agreement with Rockefeller,
Wilson sought further meetings with these four, hoping through them to continue soliciting
other persons of wealth. From this beginning came--in the Spring of 1938--the Alcoholic
Foundation, which eventually evolved into the General Service Board of Alcoholics
Anonymous. Among its first trustees were Richardson, Amos, Chipman, and Strong, and thus
began the long and later troublesome tradition that made a majority of the organization's
trustees non-alcoholics. In the circumstances of this origin was rooted another important
development in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous. Because of the legal impossibility of
defining "alcoholic," the group formalized itself under a simple trust agreement
rather than by seeking any kind of legal charter.
The Spring of 1938 was further significant, but not because of any
success of the Foundation as its end had been conceived. The money raising efforts
"fizzled out. . . . It looked like the end of the line. But the idea of a book
remained. Bill Wilson, whose writing experience had been confined to the company reports
which he had submitted to Wall Street brokers during his 1920s personal heyday, found that
he did not know how to begin a work of the scope contemplated. Weighed down by many grand
ideas and hopes, he felt driven by a need to tell it all, and the impossibility of this
for a time inhibited him from even beginning. Dr. Bob advised, as always, "Keep it
simple." Trustees Frank Amos and LeRoy Chipman requested promotional literature for
their fundraising efforts; and in reply to Wilson's query about what they wanted, the
non-alcoholic trustees pointed back to the fact that their own interest and enthusiasm had
been awakened first by what they had heard at the December 1937 meeting--the stories of
the assembled alcoholics. Wilson therefore produced what became the first two chapters of'
Alcoholics Anonymous: "Bill's Story" and "There Is A Solution."
Whether these were drafts for a book or promotional literature was not quite clear to
Bill. What became increasingly clear was that whether primarily because of the titillating
view of the underside of human life afforded, or primarily because of the potential for
identification, or primarily because a pragmatic people responded to and thrived upon
experience, the main marketable commodity that any alcoholic had to offer was his story.
Himself a product of all that pragmatism, Bill Wilson did not think in terms of
A similar realization took place among the New York alcoholics. Their
Oxford Group origins had acquainted them with the long religious and psychological
tradition of the usefulness of confession. For the Oxford Group, this carried some
connotation of "public"--although there was the distinction between
"sharing for confession" which was private and "sharing for witness,"
which, of its nature, was public. A difference of opinion over this distinction, indeed,
had been one factor in the New York alcoholics' departure from the Oxford Group, as had
been the increased "group guidance" which Wilson found especially oppressive.
But the separation from the Buchmanites having taken place, the
alcoholics had to decide what was to be done at their own meetings. Aimed as this early
experience was at potential adherents with whom some identification had to be established,
the telling and re-telling of "stories" began un-self-consciously to develop
into the practice that best embodied the core therapeutic process of what would soon
become Alcoholics Anonymous. The book itself furthered this development. The remote
internal pull to the publication of 41coholics Anonymous was Bill's and Dr. Bob's
November 1937 vision. The proximate external push came from an early fall 1938 meeting
arranged by trustee Frank Amos between Bill Wilson and Eugene Exman, religious editor of
Harper Brothers publishers. As attractive as Bill found the $1,500 advance promised him,
the more promotionally-inclined New York spokesman for the rapidly developing "group
conscience" decided that the fellowship should own its own book, and further that if
it had enough merit to prompt an advance from Harper's, the book could solve their
financial problems and so show up the thus far unproductive Trustees and Foundation. The
decision was made to form a stock company, and "Works Publishing, Inc." was
In 1953, Works Publishing, Inc. would become A.A. Publishing, Inc., and
finally, in 1959, A.A. World Services, Inc., but its original name bore a telling
significance in the early history of Alcoholics Anonymous. According to most of the New
York alcoholics at the time the name "Works Publishing" was chosen, "This
name derived from a common expression, used in the group, "It works." According
to the early Akronites, the "Works" in "Works Publishing" reflected
the St. James quotation that had played such a prominent part in the "infusion of
spirituality" during that first summer of 1935. The book was to be the first of the
fellowship's "works" following out the Jamesian call to live faith
externally--by works. Both interpretations were true--each in its own way. Perhaps Wilson
even consciously used the ambiguity inherent in the word Works. It reflected the
New Yorkers' fascination with and promotional stress on proven results; at the same time,
it reassured the Akronites still hesitant about even this project. They would be
encouraged when they heard this echo of "Anne Smith's favorite quote.
Meanwhile, through the final months of 1938 and into 1939, Bill Wilson
labored at writing. As he slowly roughed out the chapters, Wilson read them to the weekly
meeting at his Clinton Street home and sent them as well to Dr. Bob for comment by the
Akronites. In New York especially, there was heated discussion. Thus it was a
not-very-serene Bill Wilson who, after much hesitation and even stalling, finally set out
to put down in words the heart of the program through which he and close to one hundred
other alcoholics had achieved sobriety. Sprawling on his bed in an "anything but
spiritual mood" one evening, Wilson poised his yellow pencil over the school tablet
propped before him. Quickly, lest he block, he scrawled the words "How It Works"
across the top of the page, then paused to meditate about the six-step procedure which his
associates at the previous meeting had agreed pretty well summed up what they had learned
from the Oxford Group:
1. We admitted that we were licked, that we were powerless over alcohol.
2. We made an inventory of our defects or sins.
3. We confessed or shared our shortcomings with another person in confidence.
4. We made restitution to all those we had harmed by our drinking.
5. We tried to help other alcoholics, with no thought of reward in money or prestige.
6. We prayed to whatever God we thought there was for power to practice these precepts.
Too preachy, too goody-goody, he winced; also too complex and even
unclear if one did not know the teachings of the Oxford Group. In any event, it was
certainly no way to begin this chapter, and--against his will--the echo of "Oxford
Group" reminded Bill again of the difference between the Akron and New York
approaches. His correspondence and telephone conversations with Dr. Bob, and especially
the surgeon's increasing leadership in Akron, had somewhat soothed that difficulty, but
the problem remained unsolved. Quickly, before that thought could overwhelm him, Wilson
began to write, seeking to set down a theme of hope--something on which all could agree.
"Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path." Bill's
pencil began to fly over the paper, and his thoughts continued to flow as he wrote a
Half measures will avail you nothing. You stand at the turning point. Throw yourself
under God's protection and care with complete abandon.
Now we think you can take it! Here are the steps we took our program of recovery:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
Came to believe that God could restore us to sanity.
Made a decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care of God.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Admitted to God, to ourselves,
and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Humbly on our knees asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure
them or others.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying
only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this
message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Wilson paused. His intention had been to "break up into smaller
pieces . . . our six chunks of truth . . . to be as clear and comprehensible as possible,
[leaving] not a single loophole through which the rationalizing alcoholic could wriggle
out." Almost idly, he began to number the new steps: "They added up to twelve.
Somehow this number seemed significant. Without any special rhyme or reason I connected
them with the twelve apostles. Feeling greatly relieved now, I commenced to reread the
draft. Debate began almost immediately, as visitors arrived and Bill completed his first
rereading aloud to them. Three points of view emerged. "Conservatives . . . thought
that the book ought to be Christian in the doctrinal sense of the word and that it should
say so"; "liberals" who "had no objection to the use of the word 'God'
throughout the book, but . . . were dead set against any other theological
proposition"; and the "radical left wing . . . the atheists and agnostics"
who "wanted the word 'God' deleted from the book entirely. . . . They wanted psychological
book which would lure the alcoholic in. Once in, the prospect could take God or leave Him
alone as he wished." Caught in this apparently inescapable cross fire, Wilson asked
for a truce. Despairing of' satisfying everyone, he finally secured temporary agreement
that he would be the final judge of what the book would say.
Wilson returned to his writing only to discover another problem. The
most important parts of any book that sought to capture the attention and to change the
habits of readers, he realized, were the beginning and the end. The beginning, after one
false start, had posed no problem. His own story, after all, was the beginning of
Alcoholics Anonymous. But how to conclude tortured him--briefly. Bill's first efforts
proved invariably too "preachy" - a quality that over the years jarred many when
they came to the conclusion of the substantive part of the book ,A1coholics Anonymous, for
neither Wilson nor A.A. ever did solve this problem:
Abandon yourself' to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to Him and to your
fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us.
We shall be with you in the Fellowship of the Spirit, and you will surely meet some of us
as you trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.
May God bless you and keep you - until then.
Such or a similar conclusion, Wilson felt understandably, might move
a few readers to jump up and shout "Amen." It was hardly likely, experience had
taught, to induce many to try the program. In that realization, however, gleamed the light
of a solution. "Experience had taught" that what made the program work was the
telling of their stories by now sober alcoholics. In the weeks during which Bill Wilson
wrestled with the problem of how to conclude, he was reading what he had written to those
who gathered at his home each Tuesday evening. From this practice and experience emerged
the obvious solution of "the story or case history section" which not only
concludes but comprises well over half the bulk of Alcoholics Anonymous. The main
criticism that his hearers offered Wilson was that there was not enough "evidence in
the form of living proof" that the program did indeed work. The decision to include a
segment, "The Doctor's Opinion," in which Dr. Silkworth set forth his
understanding of alcoholism and his endorsement of Alcoholics Anonymous was one step to
meet this concern. But this piece, too, when submitted, ended by speaking of prayer and
"mental uplift," and so it ultimately served as informal preface rather than
Meanwhile, the telling of stories emerged in another, less direct,
fashion as the best "evidence in the form of living proof " and--more--the very
thing that made the program work. As the weeks of Bill's manuscript reading wore on, a
division arose which seemed to threaten the unity of the New York group itself. The
"oldtimers" who dated from 1936 and early 1937 shared Bill's enthusiasm for
publication. They looked forward each week to hearing the work-in-progress and to
discussing if not arguing over Bill's ideas and presentation. Those more recently arrived
and savoring the glow of new sobriety longed to share this experience with their former
drinking companions--and besides, they were being told that this, indeed, was the only way
in which they could keep their own sobriety. But to bring some drunk quavering in the
early stages of withdrawal, or even someone recently discharged from Towns Hospital and
half-hopefully seeking the "new way of life" of which he had heard, all the way
over to Brooklyn to hear arguments about a book "just didn't work." Nobody else
was getting sober, and according to what they had been taught, their own sobriety was
And so story-telling took on two sharper functions: as a reinforcement
for "Remember When," especially useful when the "when" experience
wasn't vividly present to them in the person of some still-shaking sufferer; and as both
the bait to attract and the means to convey the message that "this program
works" to whatever suffering contacts they could "scoop," in their colorful
term. Even after they had left the Oxford Group, the nameless members of the fledgling
fellowship continued to receive word of mouth referrals and requests for help. They
responded and each told his own story, but each also experienced the frustration of
alcoholic exceptionalism. Whether the response was phrased, "But you're
different" or "But I'm different," these "'Twelfth Step calls"
which attempted to carry the message even before the formulation of the 'Twelfth Step
produced few new recruits. From this experience derived one specific of later A.A.
practice: Twelfth Step calls were always to be made by at least two people. From this
experience also came powerful impetus in a direction already marked out, the centrality of
each drinker's story, especially at open meetings. Inclusion of a "story
section" in Alcoholics Anonymous was, therefore, not a mere afterthought, but
an experiential lesson learned in several diverse ways. While "How It Works"
might contain the heart of the program, "How do you get it to work?" was a prior
question, and one which could be laid hold of only by having the ex-drinkers tell their
Given the announced intention in each of the three editions of Alcoholics
Anonymous to demonstrate through the story section the variety of people who had found
sobriety in A.A., the limits to the diversity actually portrayed is instructive. In the
first edition, eighteen of the twenty-eight stories were furnished by "Akronites who
had substantial sobriety records for testimonial materials. At the time, of course, there
were hardly enough "recovering alcoholics" to allow Wilson--and the others
concerned with the breadth of the program--to choose among them. The problem was met by
editing to accent different phases of the drinkers' common experience .
For example: only thirteen of the twenty-eight stories indicated
anything of childhood religious background, but of these, ten revealed very intensive
training. Similarly, of the fifteen who mentioned education, eight clearly testified to
college attendance, while the remaining seven stressed the fact that they did not even
"finish school." Twelve--nine of these not having indicated early religious
training--recalled their initial cynicism that any religious approach could help them.
Social or economic class was less easily masked, for a common
"bottom experience" was the loss of livelihood. Nineteen of the twenty-eight
stories clearly revealed at least middle-class status: one doctor (Smith), three
engineers, five in managerial or executive positions, two editors, six who owned their own
businesses, plus a driver of Cadillacs who had supported "playgirls" and a woman
who had frequented "teas" and "bridge parties.
A special facet of the "bottom experience" of most alcoholics
who successfully got the A.A. program was the painful awareness of dissonant behavior,
that is, behavior under the influence of alcohol that clashed with ideals derived from
social, educational, and religious background. Beyond being fired or losing their own
businesses through drinking, five reported serious automobile accidents; eight, asylum
hospitalization; and four, family break-ups. Also recounted were one suicide attempt, one
case in which the drinker intentionally set fire to his own home, and instances of missing
one's own engagement party, one's mother's funeral, and the birth of one's child.
'I'he almost perfectly typical story of Bill D., "A.A. Number Three," was not
included. His "credentials," in fact the usual ones for "getting the
program" in these early years, were apparently too blatant: highly respectable upper
middle-class background, above average education, intensive youthful religious training
which had since been rejected, and former social prominence recently nullified by such
behavior as his assault on two nurses. Despite the omission of Bill D.'s story, Wilson and
the others surely did wish to convey in their book the important point that such people
could be alcoholics. The program of "Alcoholics Anonymous" would attract few
customers as long as the term "alcoholic" evoked only the stereotyped image of a
Skid-Row bum with a few days growth of beard, half-empty bottle of muscatel protruding
from the top pocket of his ragged, too large overcoat, as in baggy trousers and outworn
shoes he rummaged through a trash-barrel in search of the newspapers that would furnish
that night's mattress and blanket. In the futures however, an even more troublesome
problem would arise. Granted that the respectable, middle-class types portrayed could be
alcoholics, were such the only type able to profit from the therapy of Alcoholics
Anonymous? This concern, only latent in 1939, provided one motive for expanding the story
section in succeeding editions of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous.
By the end of January 1939, Wilson was ready to rush the book to press. Then,
mindful of the dual origins of the program, .someone sounded a note of caution: alcoholics
could be awfully critical people. What if the book contained medical errors,
or--worse--proved offensive to some religious faith? So, four hundred multilith "loan
copies" went out for evaluation. Comments were offered, but the most significant
result occurred within the group itself. Wilson had written on the cover page of the
multilith printing Alcoholic's Anonymous [sic) but many in New York--and more in
Akron--found this unacceptable as a title. True, after leaving the Oxford Group in 1937,
the New Yorkers had begun referring to themselves as a "nameless bunch of
alcoholics," and by October 1938 some informally used the term "Alcoholics
Anonymous." But from the time of the early 1938 financial endeavor, the search for a
happy euphemism had led the non-drinking alcoholics to refer to themselves in writing as
"The One Hundred Men Corporation," calling attention to the point that this was
not a fluke enterprise--that the number of recoveries was substantial.
A majority of the group in New York--and just about all in Akron--also
felt it most important to transmit hope, and so the title The Way Out became very
popular. For a time, Bill Wilson later confessed, he was attracted to this title because
he contemplated expanding it to The Way Out: The B. W. Movement. Vigorously slapped
down by the few on which he tested the idea, however, Bill began leaning toward Alcoholic
Anonymous, in time carrying most of the New Yorkers with him but totally failing to
convince the Akronites. Finally, a New York oldtimer, visiting his family farm in
Maryland, was asked to investigate titles in the Library of Congress. He responded by
telegram: "Library of Congress has 25 books The Way Out, 12 The Way . . . None
Alcoholics Anonymous. All agreed that they deserved a better fate than being the
thirteenth "'The Way," much less the twenty-sixth "The Way Out," and
thus the book--and eventually the society--received its name.
The distributed multiliths returned, but the readers' comments produced
few alterations in the final text. One striking and significant change came at the
suggestion of a New Jersey psychiatrist, Dr. Howard. Most of the "we haves" and
"we trieds" that many new readers found so attractive after years of being
preached at and ordered to were originally "yous" and "musts." It was
Dr. Howard who suggested that the insanity and death so vividly portrayed in the book as
consequences of alcoholism were so persuasive that no further force was needed. Thus
A.A.'s debt to the medical profession deepened.
From the world of religion," Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick returned
his copy without criticism, expressed deepest satisfaction wiith it, and sent a favorable
review of the book which he encouraged A.A. to release as it wished. Morgan R., the
group's first Catholic adherent, presented the manuscript to a friend on the New York
Archdiocesan Committee on Publications. That committee, Morgan reported, "had nothing
but the best to say of our efforts. From their point of view the book was perfectly all
right as far as it went. A very few editorial suggestions understood as for improvement
rather than as criticism were readily and gratfully incorporated, especially in the
section treating of prayer and meditation. Only one change was requested: at the
conclusion of' Wilson's own story, he "had made a rhetorical flourish to the effect
that 'we have found Heaven right here on this good old earth."' The committee gently
suggested changing "Heaven" to "Utopia": "'After all, we
Catholics are promising folks something much better later on!"'
This reminder of his tendency to extremes and grandiosity made it
easier for Wilson to accept a final change now more insistently demanded by the
"radicals" among the New York group. These few, led by Hank P. and Jim B.,
became adamant in pressing their concern that there was "too much God" in the
Twelve Steps. Bill had learned the dangers of his tendency toward "too much"
from Dr. Howard and from Morgan's Catholic contacts. He apparently also was aware that at
least one Catholic priest in Cleveland, although happy to see his parishioners sober, had
forbidden two of them to journey to Akron to participate in what was to him obviously a
religious gathering not under Catholic auspices. And so, Wilson accepted the utility of
. . . In Step Two we decided to describe God as a "Power greater than
ourselves." In Steps Three and Eleven we inserted the words "God as we
understand Him." From Step Seven we deleted the expression "on our knees."
And, as a lead-in sentence to all the steps we wrote these words: "Here are the steps
we took which are suggested as a Program of Recovery." A.A.'s Twelve Steps were to be
Having argued over virtually everything else concerning their book's
writing and publication, the newly sober alcoholics were hardly about to pass by in staid
silence the one final opportunity for debate over their work: what price was to be charged
for it? Stockholders Wilson and Hank P. argued for a price of $3.50. The book, in their
view, was not only to spread the program, but to support its operations. Others, however,
wondered--loudly--how many alcoholics needing the program would be able to spend that
amount on a book in the spring of 1939. The prices they suggested ranged from $2.50 down
to $1.00. Bill's telling of the tale had Hank finally winning out, but a touch of the
Wilson humor appeared in the final compromise: "As a consolation to the contestants,
we directed Mr. Blackwell to do the job on the thickest paper in his shop. The original
volume proved to be so bulky that it became known as the 'Big Book.' Of course the idea
was to convince the alcoholic that he was indeed getting his money's worth."
If, after this happy outcome, Bill Wilson, alcoholic author, needed
further deflation, he received it. A presumably promised and implicitly relied upon
supportive article in The Reader's Digest did not come to be, the bank foreclosed
the mortgage on the Clinton Street home, evicting Bill and Lois; all attempts through the
summer of 1939 to obtain national magazine publicity for Alcoholics Anonymous failed;
and despite a barrage of twenty thousand postcards unleashed upon every physician east of
the Mississippi River and timed to coincide with the appearance of a New York alcoholic on
nationwide radio, only two book orders materialized. Further, Hank began to manifest the
first signs of his later paranoia, and the spreading suspicion that he had begun or would
begin drinking again soon proved frighteningly accurate. Even Ebby the man who had brought
to Bill Wilson the seed of what was to become Alcoholics Anonymous--had gone back to
drinking and showed no sign of interest in stopping, even for "a day at a time."
Through the hot summer of 1939, despite the fact that its program had finally been
crystallized and published, the situation of Alcoholics Anonymous looked bleak indeed--and
especially to its more inclined-to-enthusiasm and leaning-on-hope New York branch.
Different yet related developments in Akron were as profoundly shaping
the rapid evolution of the fellowship into Alcoholics Anonymous. Four significant
occurrences are noteworthy, and all were separations: of the alcoholics within the Oxford
Group: of the visiting Cleveland alcoholics from their Akron base: of Dr. Bob Smith's
practice with alcoholics from Akron City hospital: and finally of' the newly
self-conscious Alcoholics Anonymous from any Oxford Group association. Almost immediately
upon Bill Wilson's departure from Akron in November 1937, and probably related to the
co-founders' conversations, the Akron surgeon began to invite the alcoholics attending
each Wednesday's Oxford Group meeting at the Williams home to gather separately, from the
nonalcoholic Oxford Groupers after the regular session. The distinction between
"closed meetings" (those for alcoholics only) and "open meetings"
(those which non-alcoholics were welcome to attend) had not yet entered A.A.
consciousness. Yet in New York at Clinton Street each week, after the "regular
meeting" usually attended also by wives, alcoholics who wished to ask private
questions about the program adjourned with Wilson to a smaller upstairs living room. The
nature of the questions asked and the obvious utility of this practice in the
all-important matter of honesty had no doubt led Bill to urge it upon Dr. Bob. In any
case, by early 1938 the Akron alcoholics were meeting briefly but separately each week
after the regular Oxford Group meeting.
Early 1938 had also brought the first commuting Clevelanders to Akron
each Wednesday evening. These men, after being sobered up by Dr. Bob at Akron City
Hospital, had usually spent a few weeks in Akron--sharing the daily round of camaraderie
that characterized these years. Eventually, however they had to return to their families
an--if lucky--their jobs in Cleveland, and when they did so, the loss of that intense
feeling of fellowship proved painful. Thus began the practice of the Clevelanders making
the seventy-five mile round-trip by car each Wednesday, a further testimony to the
importance they attached to this meeting.
Growth in Cleveland was at first very slow, but by early 1939, nine to
twelve of that city's alcoholics were making the journey each week. At this point there
emerged both a problem and an opportunity. The dynamo powering the Cleveland effort,
Clarence S., was a zealous pigeon-pursuer, one who at times literally hauled his prospects
off bar stools. Given the nature of Cleveland's population as well as Clarence's
open-minded zeal, roughly half of the alcoholics making the weekly journey turned out to
be practicing Roman Catholics. Some of these, when first approached by Clarence, had shied
away from "the religion" they perceived in his message. But in the agony of
their active alcoholism, in their desire "to do anything" to get sober, and on
his assurance that the Akron gatherings were in no way a "religious service,"
they had agreed to give it a try.
Those who did give it a try got sober. Furthermore, despite all
Clarence's assurances, some of them began again to worry that what went on at the
Williams's in Akron each week was "a Protestant religious service." They needled
Clarence about this on the drive back to Cleveland each week, and eventually at least two
of them carried their concerns to their parish priest--who promptly pronounced Catholic
attendance at the Wednesday meetings a violation of Church law and so forbade his charges
Meanwhile, the mutililith draft of the text of Alcoholic's Anonymous
had been circulating among the Akronites, and by mid-April of 1939 the first printed
copies became available. Clarence at once borrowed from the title of the draft the name by
which he began to refer to his group. This was not "the alcoholic squadron of' the
Oxford Group" but "Alcoholics Anonymous," apparently the first clear use of
the term as a specific and exclusive name. The mere change of name did little to allay
Catholic suspicion, but the availability of a written and published program afforded
another option. At the Williams's home on Wednesday, 10 May 1939, Clarence--with the
approval of his traveling companions--announced that this would be their last visit to the
Akron meeting. On the next evening, interested alcoholics were invited to a new meeting to
be held each week in Cleveland at the home of Abby G., the most recently sober of the
visitors. This would be a meeting, Clarence declared, of "Alcoholics Anonymous."
The Akronites--alcoholics and non-alcoholic Oxford Grouper--were shaken
by this development, and the situation remained confused for the next three years.
Clarence S. was an abrasive personality. Many expressed less than regret at his departure
and predicted that there would soon be further problems in Cleveland. In this they proved
correct, but the difficulties within Cleveland A.A. did not move any alcoholics to return
to Akron or to renew connections with the Oxford Group. Yet the Clevelanders did continue
to send their "really difficult cases" back to Dr. Bob in Akron for treatment.
Some of these, after their release from the hospital, continued the practice of remaining
in Akron for a time in order to absorb the intensive daily fellowship. Having developed
strong bonds of affection and especially a sense of loyalty to T. Henry Williams, a few of
these, even after they had returned to Cleveland and had joined a group there, continued
to journey to Akron each week for the Wednesday meeting--even after, in late 1939, Dr.
Smith and most of the Akron alcoholics had separated from the Oxford Group setting of the
Williams's home. Only in 1942, under the impact of World War II gasoline rationing, did
the visits of this significant minority cease.
Meanwhile yet another unforeseen occurrence took on significance
because of early A.A.'s wariness of Roman Catholic opinion. Dr. Bob Smith had treated his
alcoholics, under varying diagnoses, at two hospitals--Akron City and Green Cross.
Hospitals at the time were reluctant to admit alcoholics under any diagnosis, less over
moral or treatment concerns than because of the blunt fact that alcoholics rarely paid
their bills. In the spring of 1939, administrators at the Akron City and Green Cross
Hospitals, noting that Dr. Smith's mysterious patients owed over five thousand dollars,
began scrutinizing his admissions more carefully.
Since 1934, Dr. Bob had been on the visiting staff of St. Thomas
Hospital, a Catholic institution in Akron. Much of his practice there was in the emergency
room, and he had often lamented over coffee with the gentle nun who was the hospital's
admissions officer the ravages caused by alcohol-related accidents and fights. In the
course of one such conversation, in the spring of 1939, A.A.'s medical co-founder
confessed his own alcoholism to this nun, Sister lgnatia of the Sisters of Charity of
Saint Augustine who staffed the facility. If the sister was surprised by this admission,
she was less shocked by the request that followed it. "Sister, these people need
medical treatment - I know. Do you think we could smuggle at least a couple who I'm
sure I could help in here?" In later years both Sister lgnatia and Dr. Bob Smith
relished a specific descriptive word and an ironic circumstance in describing the events
of the next months. The sickly nun and the alcoholic surgeon cherished the thrill of
"bootlegging" alcoholics into St. Thomas--most often under the diagnosis of
"acute gastritis." And, to prevent discovery of their deception, they ensconced
their patients who were in the most acute stages of withdrawal in the hospital's
"flower room" - a nook previously used only for patients who had died and were
awaiting removal to the morgue or funeral parlor."
Soon, the nun saw some of the amazing results of Dr. Smith's
ministrations and sought to learn more about his technique. Chatting with the endless
stream of visitors who daily stopped by to visit her charges, Sister Ignatia learned of
the Oxford Group connection and in this found another cause for possible concern if she
were to ask the Sister Administrator openly to admit Dr. Smith's alcoholics. She took her
problem to a young assistant pastor from the neighboring St. Martin's parish, a priest
whose newly ordained zeal touched her heart and upon whom she was in the habit of calling
when obvious alcoholics seemed in need of spiritual ministrations
Father Vincent Haas listened quietly and carefully. Yes, it was
wonderful what Dr. Smith was doing. He himself knew only frustration in his efforts at
counseling alcoholics and their families--they just didn't seem to hear him. Yes, of
course he would look in on one of "those meetings"--if Dr. Smith approved. So it
was that one evening in early 1940 Father Haas trundled off to the King School where, by
that time, the alcoholics were meeting. A profoundly spiritual man who saw the whole world
through the prism of deep faith, the young priest found less "primitive
Christianity" than "a movement just like the early Franciscans." Entranced,
enthralled, and enthusiastic, he reported this perception and the warm welcome accorded
him not only to Sister Ignatia but (at her urging) to her administrative superior, and Dr.
Bob's St. Thomas practice found secure footing and sure support. The few Clevelanders who
were visiting the King School each week of course carried this news back to their city and
thus laid to rest the lingering bogey which still haunted some of that metropolis's more
scrupulous Catholic alcoholics.
Accidental circumstances had dictated that the first exposure of Father
Haas was to "Alcoholics Anonymous" at the King School rather than to "the
alcoholic squadron of the Oxford Group" at the Williams's home. Despite the departure
of the Clevelanders, in the year 1939, "the alcoholic squadron of the Oxford Group
increased in numbers and noise--until we took the place over." Bob E. gives the best
account. "Instead of being the alcoholic squad of the Oxford Group, we were the main
body there and we had the most to say and we were kind of running the thing." The
committed Oxford Group members did not make this surrender easily. Bob E. says, "They
had us in silence, listening for guidance half the time. . . . That's the way it started.
That made the drunks very restless. We couldn't stand that--get the jitters, you know. As
we increased in numbers and influence, that was almost cut out. They could see where their
fundamentals were not being adhered to."
Two further problems exacerbated the rapidly deteriorating situation.
When the book A1coholics Anonymous was published and distributed, some in the
Oxford Group complained that the program was "being commercialized." These
Groupers had no use for the alcoholics' pride in their literary venture. Also, not only
were the alcoholics themselves feeling uncomfortably crowded sprawled across the floor and
on thirty folding chairs in the Williams's living room, but Clarence Williams spoke to
Henrietta Seiberling about her increasing anxiety over "what was happening"--to
her home as well as to Oxford Group principles.
Finally, in late October 1939, most of the alcoholics left the
Williams's home and began meeting at the home of Dr. Bob and Anne Smith. The friendship
among Henrietta Seiberling, Clarence Williams, and Anne Smith had seemed about to snap
under the strain from the two factions in the Group. The most poignant yet apparently
accurate memory recalled: "We pulled out rather suddenly. There were some hot
conversations on the telephone; it was a 3-way thing between Clarence, Annie--the women
decided it, as was usually the case in a thing like that. 'Hen' and Clarence and Annie
decided right there and Doc went along with Annie. But we pulled out all of a sudden
without any warning and so we had no place to go, so we held our meeting from October to
December at Doc's house. The Smith home, however, soon also became overcrowded with
"between seventy to eighty people in my small living room and dining room."
Before long, the alcoholics moved to the King School
For a time some of the Akron Oxford Group had difficulty accepting the
separation. T. Henrv Williams, of whom all factions always spoke most highly, finally
shared some of his own pain and confusion with Bill and Lois Wilson. After apologizing for
his delay in writing, he explained:
Have been waiting trying to think through what to tell you and still do not know what
to say. The boys are all free, white, and twenty-one. Therefore I have nothing to hold
them here. Bob came over and insisted that the boys were not satisfied and felt we were
unfriendly and insisted they meet elsewhere. He also insisted I make a statement telling
them they were free to leave. . . . Do you think we would turn the boys out after what it
has meant to us? Our door is open and we love everyone of the boys and they will always be
By late October 1939, Alcoholics Anonymous had come into a clear
existence of its own. The book presenting its program had been published. Its final
separation from Oxford Group sponsorship had been successfully completed. Most
importantly, a new group flourished in a new city under the sole name "Alcoholics
Anonymous," and without any direct impetus from either of A.A.'s co-founders."'
Yet there were also problems. Differences of opinion about publicizing the book as well as
about financing the other projects persisted, especially in New York. Tensions and
controversies over the Oxford Group connection smoldered, especially in Akron. And in
Cleveland, there began to appear the first hints that the further development of
Alcoholics Anonymous--both that desired and that feared--not only would continue, but
would continue to be beyond the fellowship's own total control.
Sober as well as drunk, the members of Alcoholics Anonymous were
learning they were limited and therefore needed others. But that need of others was also
limited. Alcoholics Anonymous had been born--now it needed not only to grow but also to
mature. Yet as was the case with the sobriety of its individual members, A.A.'s growth had
to precede its maturity. In its growth as fellowship over the next two years, Alcoholics
Anonymous honed its awareness of its style of needing others. By doing so, A.A. set the
stage for its further development as program.
A Beautiful Mind- Sylvia Nasar
Chapter 44: A Man All Alone in a Strange World: Roanoke, 1967-70
"And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down -- And hit a
World, at every plunge. . . . " Emily Dickinson, Number 280
The summer Nash turned forty, in 1968, he looked into the mirror in the bathroom of his
mother's apartment and saw what he later called "a cadaver, almost."
Hollow-cheeked, sunken-eyed, gray-haired, with his shoulders hunched forward, he looked
more like an old man than one just entering middle age. He wrote to a friend: "You
should pity me . . . aging and drying processes have taken their toll." Images of
death-in-life crowded his mind: in a letter to another friend he invoked the images of the
Parsee "Towers of Silence" in Bombay, where followers of Zoroaster leave their
dead to be devoured by vultures.
He had been living in Roanoke for nearly a year. He still had his
Rambler and some savings, but eight years of illness had exhausted his former wife and
friends and ruined much of his credit with the world. He had nowhere else to go. For him,
Roanoke--a pretty little city at the foot of the Appalachians and the headquarters of the
Norfolk & Western Railroad -- was the end of the line.
He lived with Virginia in a small garden apartment on Grandin Road .
Martha and Charlie lived a few streets away. No one knew him there. The existence of
someone with schizophrenia has been compared to that of the person living in a glass
prison pounding on the walls, unable to be heard, yet very visible. Martha recalled in
1994: "Roanoke was not a good place to be. There were no intellectuals there. He'd be
too much alone. He would wander around town whistling."
On many days, he simply paced round and round the apartment, his long
fingers curled around one of Virginia's delicate Japanese teacups (a souvenir of her
long-ago summer in Berkeley), sipping Formosa oolong, whistling Bach. The sleepwalker's
gait and fixed, faraway expression gave few hints of the vast unending dramas unfolding in
his mind. "Apparently I am simply passing time visiting my mother," he wrote,
"but actually I've been under persecutions which I'm hoping will ease."
His daily rounds extended no farther than the library or the shop's at
the of Grandin Road, but in his own mind, he traveled to the remotest reaches of globe:
Cairo, Zebak, Kabul, Bangui, Thebes, Guyana, Mongolia. In these faraway places; he lived
in refugee camps, foreign embassies, prisons, bomb shelters. Other times, he felt that he
was inhabiting an inferno, a purgatory, or a polluted heaven ("a decayed rotting
house infested by rats and termites and other vermin.") His identities, like the
return addresses on his letters, were like the skins of an onion. Underneath each one
lurked another: He was C.O.R.P.S.E. (a Palestinian Arab refugee), a great Japanese shogun,
C1423, Esau, L'homme d'Or, Chin Hsiang, Job, Jorap Castro, Janos Norses, even, at times, a
mouse. His companions were samurai, devils, prophets, Nazis, priests, and judges. Baleful
deities--Napoleon, Iblis, Mora, Satan, Platinum Man, Titan, Nahipotleeron, Napoleon
Shirkelgruber--threatened him. He lived in constant fear of annihilation, both of the
world (genocide, Armageddon, the Apocalypse, Final Day of Judgment, Day of Resolution of
Singularities) and of himself (death and bankruptcy). Certain dates struck him as ominous,
among them May 29.
Persistent, complex, and compelling delusions are among the defining
symptoms of schizophrenia. Delusions are false beliefs, beliefs that constitute a dramatic
rejection of consensual reality. Often, they involve misinterpretations of perceptions or
experiences. They are thought, nowadays, to arise primarily because of the gross
distortions in sensory data and the way thought and emotion are processed deep in the
brain. Thus, their convoluted and mysterious logic is sometimes seen as the product of the
mind's solitary struggle to make sense of the strange and uncanny. E. Fuller Torrey, a
researcher at St. Elizabeth's in Washington, D.C., and author of Surviving Schizophrenia,
calls them "logical outgrowths of what the brain is experiencing" as well as
"heroic efforts to maintain some sort of mental equilibrium."
The syndrome we now call schizophrenia was once called "dementia
praecox," but, in fact, the delusional states typical of schizophrenia often have
little in common with the dementia associated with, for example, Alzheimer's
disease." Rather than cloudiness, confusion, and meaninglessness, there is
hyperawareness, over-acuity and an uncanny wakefulness. Urgent preoccupations, elaborate
rationales, and ingenious theories dominate. However literal, tangential, or
self-contradictory, thought is not random but adheres to obscure and hard-to-understand
rules. And the ability to accurately apprehend certain aspects of everyday reality remains
curiously intact. Had anyone asked Nash what year it was or who was in the White House or
where he was living, he could no doubt have answered perfectly accurately, had he wished
Indeed, even as he entertained the most surreal notions, Nash displayed
an ironic awareness that his insights were essentially private, unique to himself, and
bound to seem strange or unbelievable to others. "This concept that I want to
describe . . . will perhaps sound absurd," is the sort of preface of which he was
quite capable. His sentences were filled with phrases like "consider," "as
if," "may be thought of as," as if he were conducting a thought experiment
or realizing that someone reading what he wrote would have to translate it into another
Like all other manifestations of the syndrome, delusions are not unique
to schizophrenia; they can be present in a variety of mental disorders, including mania,
depression, and a variety of somatic illnesses. But the types of delusions that Nash
suffered from are particularly characteristic of schizophrenia, specifically of paranoid
schizophrenia, the variant of the syndrome from which Nash apparently suffered. Their
content was, as it often is, both grandiose and persecutory, often shifting from one to
the other in the space of moments or even including both at the same time. At different
times, as we know, Nash thought of himself as uniquely powerful, as a prince or an
emperor; at other times he thought of himself as extraordinarily weak and vulnerable, as a
refugee or a defendant in a trial. As is quite typical, his beliefs were what is called
referential, in that he believed that a host of environmental clues--from newspaper
passages to particular numbers--were specifically directed at him and that he alone was
capable of appreciating their true meaning. And his delusions were multiple, a
particularly common feature of paranoid schizophrenia, although all were organized, in
subtle ways, around coherent themes.
Bizarreness is thought to be especially characteristic of schizophrenic
delusions. Nash's delusions were clearly implausible, difficult to penetrate, and not
obviously derived from life experiences. Yet they were less bizarre, on the whole, than
many delusions reported by other people with schizophrenia, and their connections to
Nash's life history and his immediate circumstances, though indirect, were often
discernible (or would have been had anyone who knew him well been willing to study in the
same spirit as the loyal wife of Balzac's Louis Lambent). Many people with schizophrenia
believe that their thoughts have been captured by outside forces, or that outside forces
have inserted thoughts into their minds, but such beliefs did not seem to play a
predominant role in Nash's thinking. Occasionally, as in Rome, he might think that
thoughts were being inserted directly into his mind via machines, or, as in Cambridge in
early 1959, that his actions were being directed by God. But, by and large, Nash
maintained a sense of himself, or selves, as the primary actor. And many of his
beliefs--such as that he was a conscientious objector in danger of being drafted; that he
was stateless; that mathematicians belonging to the American Mathematical Society were
ruining his career; that various persons, posing as sympathizers, were conspiring, with
malevolent intent, to have him incarcerated in a mental institution--were no more
implausible than, say, a belief that one is being spied on by the police or the CIA. Thus,
in a sense, the breakdown of reality and boundaries between self and outside world had
limits for him, even in Roanoke.
In particular, although Nash later referred to his delusional states as
"the time of my irrationality," he kept the role of the thinker, the theorist,
the scholar trying to make sense of complicated phenomena. He was "perfecting the
ideology of liberation from slavery," finding "a simple method," creating
"a model" or "a theory." The actions he referred to are mostly feats
of mind, or involve language. At most, he was "negotiating" or
"petitioning" or trying to persuade.
His letters were Joycean monologues, written in a private language of
his own invention, full of dreamlike logic and subtle non sequiturs. His theories were
astronomical, game theoretical, geopolitical, and religious. And while, years later, Nash
often referred to pleasant aspects of the delusional state, it seems clear that these
waking dreams were extremely unpleasant, full of anxiety and dread. Before the 1967
Arab-Israeli war, he explained, he was a left-wing Palestinian Arab refugee, a member of
the PLO, and a refugee making a "g-indent" in Israel's border, petitioning Arab
nations to protect him from "falling under the power of the Israeli state.'' Soon
afterward, he imagined that he was a go board whose four sides were labeled Los Angeles,
Boston, Seattle, and Bluefield. He was covered with white stones representing Confucians
and black stones representing Muhammadans. The "first-order" game was being
played by his sons, John David and John Charles. The "second-order," derivative
game was "an ideological conflict between me, personally and the Jews
A few weeks later he was thinking of another go board whose four sides
were labeled with cars that he had owned: Studebaker, Olds, Mercedes, Plymouth Belvedere.
He thought it might be possible to construct "an elaborate oscilloscope display . . .
a repentingness function." It seemed to him also that certain truths were
"visible in the stars." He realized that Saturn is associated with Esau and
Adam, with whom he identified, and that Titan, Saturn's second moon, was Jacob as well as
an enemy of Buddha, Iblis. "I've discovered a B theory of Saturn. . . . The B theory
is simply that Jack Bricker is Satan. `Iblisianism' is a frightening problem connected to
the Final day of Judgement" "
At this point, the grandiose delusions in which Nash was a powerful
figure, the Prince of Peace, the Left Foot of God, and the Emperor of Antarctica were no
longer in evidence; instead, the theme became predominantly persecutory. He discerned that
"the root of all evil, as far as my personal life is concerned (life history) are
Jews, in particular Jack Bricker who is Hitler, a trinity of evil comprised of Mora, Iblis
and Napoleon." These were, he said, simply "Jack Bricker in relation to me.'' At
another point, he said, referring to Bricker, "Imagine if there would be a person who
pats a guy on the back . . . with compliments and praises, while at the same time stabbing
him in the abdomen with a deadly rabbit punch." Seeing the picture so clearly, he
concluded that he must petition the Jews and also mathematicians and Arabs, "so that
they have the opportunity for redress of wrongs," which must, however, "not be
too openly revealed." He also had the idea that he must turn to churches, foreign
governments, and civil-rights organizations for help.
In the story of Jacob and Esau, told in Genesis, Nash saw a parable
full of meaning for his own life. Jacob and Esau are brothers, the sons of Isaac and
Rebekah, who love each other. Esau is the elder, and his father, Isaac, loves him, but
Rebekah, their mother, loves Jacob more. As the story unfolds, Esau is twice supplanted by
Jacob. First, Jacob tricks Esau into making a bad bargain and selling his birthright.
Then, Jacob steals the blessing of the now blind Isaac, who had intended it for Esau. He
does so by impersonating his brother. When Esau discovers Jacob's deception, Isaac rejects
his claim. "See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be/and away from
the dew of heaven on high./By your sword you shall live,/and you shall serve your
brother;/but where you break loose,/you shall break his yoke from your neck." Esau,
full of hatred for his brother, tells himself, "The days of mourning for my father
are approaching; then I will kill my ` brother Jacob:'
Nash believed that he had been cast out ("I've been in a situation
of loss of favor") and ostracized. He was constantly threatened with bankruptcy and
expropriation. "If accounts are held for a trustee, in effect, who is as good as
defunct, through lack of `rational consistency.' . . .It's as if accounts are held for
persons, suffering in an Inferno. They can never benefit from them because it's as if they
were supposed to come from the Inferno to the bank offices and collect, but they need, as
it were, a revolutionary ending of the Inferno before having any sort of possibility of
benefiting from their accounts."
There is a presumption of guilt. Punishment, penitence, contrition,
atonement, confession, and repentance are constant themes--along with fears of exposure
and the need for indirection and secrecy--and seem directly connected, but not limited, to
his feelings about homosexuality. He refers to "the really dubious things that I have
done in all the history of my personal life," including "draft dodging,
Arrests, trials, and imprisonment were also recurring themes. Like
Joseph K in Kafka's novel The Trial, Nash imagined that he was on trial "sufficiently
complete in absentia." He recognizes that "it is as if the accused is his own
chief accuser . . the road of self-accusation is a road that leads to death not
redemption." He thinks of a "court of inquiry" investigating "the life
histories and . . . interactions" of Jacob and Esau, whom he identifies as Bricker
These are guilty, fearful dreams. Nash's state of imprisonment did not,
it seems, refer to his illness, for he did not regard himself as ill except physically. It
was existential. To Eleanor he wrote, "U see, U must sympathize more with the true
needs of liberation, liberation from slavery, liberation from `castration,' liberation
from prison, liberation from isolation . . . I'm a refugee, in fact, from false symbols
and dangerous symbols.." At times, he felt that he was in danger of crucifixion.
His own needs, he said, were "to be free, and to be safe and for
friends." He was always, he said, "in fear of `death' (Indian style) through an
Armageddon with Iblis . . . at the Day of Judgement." Even in these very dark hours
he clung to a vision of liberation--which later became, more concretely, a wish for sexual
liberation. "I'm hoping fervently to be saved (delivered) before reaching 40 in
age," he had written a few weeks before his birthday. "One cannot substitute
free life and love of the 40s for the lost possibilities of the 20s and 30s and also
Nash was acutely aware of the passage of time. "It does seem to me
that I've been as if the victim of an excessively long wait for liberation. . . . It's as
if there wasn't a ransom forthcoming, as if from Kuwait, which would have really
substantially shortened the time of waiting for me." He was waiting for deliverance.
"I see, it seems surprisingly clearly, how there's as it were, a. time of grace
before that time, a precious time of grace which is forever lost if not seized carpe diem
and fully effective in its significance." Nash was also hearing voices, voices that
frightened him. "My head is as if a bloated windbag, with Voices which dispute
Hallucinations can involve any of the senses--hearing, smell, taste,
touch, sight--but voices, one or several, familiar or strange but distinct from one's own
thoughts, are the most characteristic of schizophrenia. These are quite distinct from the
hallucinations that are part of religious experience, or the humming inside one's head,
hearing one's name called occasionally, or hallucinations that occur while falling asleep
or waking up. The content of schizophrenic hallucinations can be benign, but they usually
involve ridicule, criticism, and threats, typically related to the content of the
delusional theme. The integration of voices with thought can produce an acute sense of
The so-called negative symptoms of schizophrenia are, most clinicians
agree, even more crippling than the delusions and hallucinations. The terms used to
describe them are derived from the Greek: affective flattening, alogia, and avolition.
There was no trace of the sharp looks, the enthusiastic gesturing, the brash body language
that announced, "I'm Nash with a capital N. His face was blank, his eyes empty, as if
the fires of delusion had consumed everything that was once alive and left an empty husk.
One would feel comforted if one could believe that Nash, of this
terrible time in his life, was at least spared the sight of his own condition. One of the
consequences of chronic schizophrenia, noted long ago and verified since by numerous
studies, is a curious insensitivity to physical pain. This insensitivity is often so great
that there are high rates of premature deaths from physical illnesses among
schizophrenics, at least in the era when such people spent most of their lives in
institutions. Might there not be a similar dulling that would anesthetize one to psychic
pain? Possibly. But for Nash there were moments of lucid self-knowledge, unbearable in
their sadness. "So long a time has passed. I feel there are many sad tragedies. Today
I feel very sad and depressed."
It is often difficult to distinguish the effects of disease from those
of its treatment. But Nash's condition during the two and a half years he spent in Roanoke
was probably almost purely the consequence of his disease. Six years had passed since Nash
had received insulin treatments and well over a year since he had been taking neuroleptics
regularly. While some of his memory loss was, no doubt, a. result of the insulin
treatments of the first half of 1961 and some of his extreme quietness in the early months
following his return to Cambridge no doubt reflected the side effects of Stelazine, his
condition in Roanoke is a strong testament that lassitude, indifference, and the
peculiarities of his thought were primarily the consequences of his illness and not of the
early attempts to treat it. The popular view that antipsychotics were chemical
straitjackets that suppressed clear thinking and voluntary activity seems not to be borne
out in Nash's case. If anything, the only periods when he was relatively free of
hallucinations, delusions, and the erosion of will were the periods following either
insulin treatment or the use of antipsychotics. In other words, rather than reducing Nash
to a zombie, medication seemed to have reduced zombielike behavior. Nash was clearly
among the majority of those with schizophrenia who benefited from traditional
antipsychotics. These drugs were the only ones available between 1952 and 1988, when the
more effective Clozapine arrived on the scene.
Peter Newman, an economist at Johns Hopkins, was editing a volume of
important contributions to mathematical economics. He wanted to include Nash's NAS note on
Nash equilibrium. Newman states: "The first problem was finding him. I found him
teaching or something at a small women's college near Roanoke. I wrote to him there to ask
his permission to reprint the article. What I got back was an envelope on which my address
was written in different-colored crayons. There was also a list of "yous" in
different languages. Du, Vous, You, etc., and a plea for universal brotherhood. There was
nothing inside the envelope at all. I then asked the in-house editor at the Johns Hopkins
Press to call Nash. He did and he said it was the strangest telephone conversation he'd
ever had in his life. Then we tried Solomon Lefschetz, since he was the one who sponsored
the note. Calling Lefschetz wasn't easy either. Lefschetz only said, "Ah yes. He is
not what he was." So I had to give it up. Later; when the book was reviewed,
reviewers chided me for not including the Nash equilibrium."
Nash was constantly fearful that Martha and Virginia would hospitalize
him again. As he said in one letter, "It is the mechanism of how all the persons
involved would collaborate in hospitalizing me which endangers me and which I fear."
Most letters from this period end with a paragraph like the following: "Let me beg
(humbly) of U that U will favor the view that I ought to be guarded against the danger of
hospitalization in the mental hospital (involuntarily or 'falsely'), . . . simply for
personal intellectual survival as a 'conscious' and 'reasonably conscientious' human being
. . . and 'good memory retention.'"
For Nash's mother,Virginia, Nash's illness was something that his
sister, Martha, later called, in her tactful and understated way, "a private
sorrow." Virginia never talked about it with the few acquaintances she had in
Roanoke, mostly people she had met playing bridge, and only rarely with Martha. Her
friends couldn't possibly have understood what it was like for her. It was also a
practical nightmare. Nash was making so many long-distance telephone calls that Virginia
had to put a lock on her phone.
Martha, whose second child was born in 1969, was at least angry.
"It was so frustrating day by day. You wondered, is this ever going to get any
better?" She realized, at least, that Roanoke was not a kind environment. "Only
one time did I ask for help," recalled Martha. "The minister stopped me after
church and told me I should be helping my mother more. He didn't ask whether I needed
help. Later on I called and asked would he come to call. He didn't come. The retired
minister came but he wasn't the one I wanted."
Virginia and Nash were nearly evicted from their apartment at one point
Martha's voice is still full of outrage thirty years later. There had been a fire that
started in the incinerator. Nash was home at the time. He called the fire department.
"The landlord accused John of setting it," Martha recalled. He had talked to the
neighbors, who were up in arms. They found this large, strange man who walked around the
grounds of the apartment complex alarming. It was only by begging that Martha was able to
convince the landlord to let Virginia and Nash move back in.
Virginia died shortly before Thanksgiving in 1969. Afterward, Nash was
sure there was something sinister about her death. He also felt that perhaps he had done
wrong by going to the corner store to buy her whiskey. Martha recalled, "When Mother
died, it was not a good time. We weren't close. He felt threatened. He felt that I would
put him in a hospital." At this point, the mother of Nash's first son, Eleanor, got a
court order to force Nash to continue child-support payments. When his money had run out,
Virginia had taken over the payments. She also left small legacies for both her grandsons.
Nash then lived briefly with Martha and Charlie, but Martha found it impossible to cope
with her brother. "Once Mother was gone, I couldn't clean with him in my home. I was
here with the children and he's wandering around drinking tea and whistling. He'd take
ideas and twist them into something strange."
Martha arranged to have Nash committed right after Christmas. She said:
"After Mother died, I was afraid he'd leave town. I was hoping to get the hospital to
appoint a committee so he could get Social Security and also get it for his son. We went
to a judge. We got a court order. The court sent the police to pick him up. We had my
mother's lawyer, Leonard Muse. You could get someone committed for observation. You didn't
have to establish anything very drastic. In the hospital they decided whether to keep
somebody. De Jarnette decided that John had paranoid ideas but that he was capable of
maintaining himself." Nash was released from DeJarnette State Sanitorium in Staunton,
Virginia, in February. He wrote a final letter to Martha, breaking off all relations with
her because of her role in his hospitalization. Then he boarded a bus for Princeton.