Alcoholics Anonymous, the Dangers of Success
By Jerome Ellison
Back in 1940, the late John D. Rockefeller, Jr., made headlines (John D.
Dines Tosspots) by asking 400 of his wealthy friends to dine at New
York's Union League Club and hear about a society of impoverished drunks
called Alcoholics Anonymous. At that time the fellowship had been
struggling along for a little more than four years and had about a
John D. got sick at the last minute and his son Nelson presided. About
seventy-five people showed up. The former drunks gave impressive
testimony of their suffering, restitution and recovery. The assembled
millionaires were impressed, and the ex-boozers figured their society's
financial troubles were over. But, winding up the evening, the host
expressed his father's belief that money would not be a good thing for a
movement based on selfless service — "it needs only our good will." The
millionaire went home without being asked to contribute.
Now, twenty-four years older and with a membership of 300,000 A.A. is
rich in its own right. Despite bylaws prohibiting gifts larger than $100,
money pours in to national headquarters at the rate of more than $400,000
a year and A.A. doesn't seem to know what to do with it all. Once a year
it spends $20,000 or so to bring 100 delegates in from the fifty states
for a week-long, all expense paid conference at a New York hotel. It has
leased a floor in a midtown New York office building, where a dozen
recovered housewives and spinsters answer letters, distribute pamphlets
containing material on alcoholism purchased from free-lance writers,
circulate a monthly bulletin of member's stories, articles, jokes and
cartoons called the Grapevine, print and mail press releases, and go to
These workers receive annual salaries of $7,000 to $9,000 and are backed
by a staff of stenographers and clerical employees — nonmembers. Herb M.,
a member with experience as a press agent and convention manager is paid
$18,000 a year for part-time services (three and a third days a week).
The rest of the money goes into sinking funds, which have no specific
purpose, but are nice to have, since they produce, in the form of
interest, more money for sinking funds. Bill W., the movements surviving
co-founder makes around $25,000 per year — a sum a grateful membership
does not begrudge — on royalties from three books: Alcoholics Anonymous,
which started it all, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and A.A. Comes
of Age. For a movement that was born and grew to greatness in the face of
ridicule, adversity and bitter poverty, this is indeed wealth. Even if
Nelson Rockefeller's canny father had never suggested it, the question
would now arise whether the success will prove ruinous.
The prodigies of selfless service performed by members have had a
stunning impact on a basically me-first society. Press, clergy and the
professions have fallen all over one another to heap praise on the drunks
who found a way out, and for a long time it has been almost bad manners
to speak of A.A. in any but reverent terms.
Now, however, it is a public institution and subject to the same scrutiny
accorded other community volunteer services. There are A.A. qroups in
every crossroads and neighbourhood — 10,000 of them. They have become
almost as much a part of the community scene as the visiting nurse and
the fire department, which they somewhat resemble. In a population
containing 80 million users of Alcohol and 6 million cases of active
alcoholism, they perform as necessary a life-saving function as the Coast
Guard. Alcoholism has pressed its way into public attention as the
nation's third deadliest disease, and A.A. has developed the only method
yet found that produces large numbers of enduring cures, It suddenly
finds that it has public responsibilities, that others besides its
members claim a legitimate interest in how it conducts its affairs.
Many find the fellowship of interest entirely apart from its practical
work of sobering up drunks. Though itself nonintellectual and sometimes
anti-intellectual, A.A. strikes both therapists and theorists as being an
almost classical demonstration of the psychotherapeutic theories of Carl
Jung. Jung believed in God and in "spirit." He devised another vocabulary
for transactions with agnostic professional colleagues, but firmly used
these traditional terms in his correspondence. A good part of his life
work was directed towards reconciling the insights of religion with those
of the new psychiatry. Jung approved Freud's work as far as it went, but
felt that forces unsuspected by Freud could be summoned to the aid of
distressed humanity. This belief is also at the base of A.A., commonly
described by its members as a "spiritual program."
This resemblance is not entirely coincidental for, though he did not know
it and though his contribution was inadvertent, Jung had a hand in
founding A.A. Early in the 1930s, Jung took a patient named Rolland H., a
rich American and chronic alcoholic frantically seeking a cure. After an
attempt at treatment, Jung told Rolland H. that psychiatry couldn't help
him. Then, asked the desperate patient, what could? Perhaps a religious
conversion of some kind, Jung said. Such an experience could never be
guaranteed, but one could seek the company of those who had had them, and
hope. Roland H. went to England, joined the Oxford movement, got sober
and returned to New York. There he continued his association with the
Oxford movement, taking particular interest in other inebriates. One of
these Edwin T., carried the news to Bill W., a Wall Street broker, then
prostrated by alcohol. After undergoing a shattering subjective
experience of religious enlightenment, Bill W got sober and began looking
for other alcoholics who were interested in drying out by the new method.
He found one — again through the Oxford movement — on a business trip to
Akron, Ohio. His new friend was a down-and-out alcoholic physician, Dr.
Robert S. The two founded Alcoholics Anonymous and led the movement
jointly until Robert S. died, sober in 1950.
A.A. was not completely without precedent. More than a century ago, a
remarkable similar organization, The Washington Temperance Society,
sprang up in Washington, D.C. and soon had branches in most big cities.
Lincoln, concerned about alcoholism through the suffering of his law
partner, Herndon, encouraged the members whenever he could, and even
addressed them on one occasion. The Washingtonians had all the main
features of A.A. — alcoholics helping one another, weekly alcoholics
meetings, shared experience, readily available group fellowship, reliance
on "the Higher Power." Bill W. and Bob S., added a spiritual regimen
designed to produce personal improvement, a rule of anonymity, the
practice of exchanging speakers between groups, and a membership
restricted to those who confessed a problem with alcohol. The Twelve
Steps of surrender, confession, self-examination, restitution and service
were taken with only slight changes from the Oxford movement. The
anonymity and alcoholics only rules were innovations.
AAs great expansion began with the publication of an article by Jack
Alexander in the Saturday Evening Post of March 1, 1941. Ten years later
the membership was up to 150,000: in ten more years it doubled that.
America was suffering from the hangovers of a national binge begun with
the repeal of Prohibition and not yet ended. By aggressive lobbying, the
liquor industry cleared away the remaining restraints on the sale of
booze. Saturation advertising disfigured the approaches to the major
cities with five story whiskey bottles and bombarded the populace with
reminders to drink. Consumption rose until it reached the present figures
of a billion quarts of spirits, 2 billion quarts of wine and 12 billion
quarts of beer a year. The industry employs a million people and pays
them $5 billion a year — more than we spend on the combined crude oil,
natural gas, coal and ore-mining industries, and nearly twice what we
spend on education.
Trouble arose along with sales figures. Those who drink consume, on the
average, a quart of whiskey, two quarts of wine and four gallons of beer
a month. Some, of course drink far less than this, others — especially the
6 million chronic alcoholics — much more. Excessive drinking costs the
nation $35 million annually in medical care, $30 million in jail
maintenance, $100 million in accidents, $500 million in wage losses,
according to estimates based on a Public Affairs Committee pamphlet.
About a million people a year are admitted to be treated for alcoholism.
One in twelve drinkers becomes an alcoholic: 14,000 deaths and 40,000
injuries a year result from the mixture of alcohol and traffic. 21,000
people die annually from cirrhosis, 6 million families are shadowed by
alcohol and 12 million children suffer from their parents excessive
In the light of such figures, it is not surprising that A.A. seemed an
answer to prayer in hundreds of thousands of families. A household
devastated by booze is an isolated unit, plagued by debt, ridden by
internal strife, with little hope, few friends, many enemies and a
skeleton grown too big for the closet. AA replaces despair with hope. The
family has friends again, understanding friends, people who have been
through the mill, ready at any time for a cup of coffee and a chat. The
necessity of total abstinence, and the means for attaining it, are made
clear. The transformations are so impressive, and so often enduring, that
the word "miracle" is frequently and understandably employed. Even
physicians and psychiatrists, conditioned by occupation to disregard the
claims of laymen, sought to learn from AAs source of clinical information
on the management of a syndrome that had baffled their professions.
Alcoholics, even sober ones, are only human, and can tolerate only
limited amounts of adulation without becoming dizzy. Effective speakers
were in great demand to tell their "stories," not only at AA weekly
meetings in distant places, but at convocations of professional groups,
civic associations and service clubs. Big city groups stage annual
banquets drawing up to a thousand people and costing up to $10 a plate.
Resort hotels are taken over for State and regional conventions. All this
has gone to the head of many a reformed booze fighter, and a type of
paragon known in the local groups as "Mr. AA" pushed himself into key
positions in the committee structure.
As AA became more prominent this tendency was noted outside the
organization, and drew comment. A group of letters addressed last year to
the editor of Harper's, was pointed: "Now that the myth of the
Golden-Hearted prostitute has been laid to rest, let's tackle the
Omniscient Ex-Lush." "The fanatics who prevail in some groups seem bent
on making AA into a hostile, fundamentalist religion." "The movement
needs to recover some of the good spirit it had before it became proud of
its humility." These letters were occasioned by an article in which
Arthur Cain pointed out tendencies toward cultism and narrow orthodoxy
that limited the fellowship's therapeutic effectiveness.
My own experience with AA dates back more than 10 years. While writing a
series of articles for a national magazine, I attended hundreds of AA
local meetings and a number of state and regional affairs, and developed
a wide acquaintanceship in the movement. My articles aroused the interest
of Bill W., and I was invited to evaluate, as a paid consultant, some of
AAs publications and activities.
This chore consumed a number of months in 1962 and 1963, and afforded an
intimate view of the organization's national headquarters and policy
making boards. Since my recommendations were not confidential — "AA has no
secrets but the names of its members" is a hallowed tenet — they can be
disclosed. They contained little more that had not been said before, some
of it by Arthur Cain. Anyone else undertaking a similar survey would, I
think, have reached the same conclusions.
At headquarters, I missed almost completely the bubbling good will, the
creative open-mindedness, the open and stimulating swapping of ideas that
made so many of the weekly neighborhood meetings memorable. Everybody was
an expert, with a cluster of ideas closed to amendment. Bill W., The
movement's traditional leader and a main source of the spiritual
inspiration, had lost out in committee maneuvering to a policy of
"putting the thing on a business basis." Committee politics took up half
the working day; gossip was venomous. In quick succession I was told that
the co-founder (in my opinion still sharp-witted at seventy) was senile,
that a staff worker was a hypochondriac and a committeeman a homosexual.
The accused were at pains to assure me, separately and without
encouragement, that the accusers were a nymphomaniac, a schizophrenic and
a megalomaniac, I observed nothing to substantiate any of these charges.
However, there was no inclination toward the "fearless and searching
moral inventory" recommended by AAs Twelve Suggested Steps.
The non-alcoholic Board of Trustees responsible for national policy was
ultraconservative (one member, Archibald Roosevelt, had furnished
literature for distribution by the John Birch Society) and this, I
reported, had served the movement poorly. The board's rigid conservatism
was reflected in a number of unfortunate policies, the most odious of
which was a tact endorsement of racial segregation within the branches.
When a member submitted an article for the monthly bulletin pointing out
that nearly all Southern AA groups and a great many Northern ones were
racially segregated, and that AAs Negro membership had failed to keep
pace with the growing problem of Negro alcoholism, the article was turned
down on the grounds that it "might disrupt AA unity." Local AA groups are
free from any national control other than moral suasion. That even this
influence should be withheld on so fundamental point seemed to me a
serious error. It is, however, in keeping with the fact that there are no
Negroes on the headquarters staff or on any of the numerous AA national
boards and committees.
The policy on publications, I reported, is likely to cost AA its once
acknowledged leadership in its field. When Alcoholics Anonymous was first
published a quarter of a century ago, it won universal acknowledgement
that AA was well in advance of the field. But though the medical and
psychiatric professions have been remarkably slow in coming to terms with
alcohol addiction, much progress has lately been made, and the AA "Big
Book" is beginning to have an Out-of-date, early century, historical
sound. The Board, however, has ruled that no further word shall be
spoken. Despite the fact that the rank and file teems with exciting,
relevant, informed and up-to-the-minute experience, none of it is
permitted to appear in book form. To publish such literature, it is felt,
would be to risk heresy. As a result, AAs official books, unfertilized by
fresh documentation, tend to sound more archaic each year.
I concluded that AAs headquarters had been captured by an
ultraconservative clique that was doing the society appreciable harm.
This finding, was, of course, received by that clique without thanks and,
despite the efforts of a small free-speech party, was prevented from
reaching the delegates of the rank and file for whom it was intended. AA,
at least in its national offices, bears heavily the marks of its culture
in its time — affluence and the shortsighted conservatism that affluence
Fortunately for future generations, the influence of headquarters on
local groups is not decisive. "Oh, those guys!", is a typical reaction
from a local group secretary. "We send 'em their three bucks a year per
member and forget about 'em." Many groups make no contributions to "the
national." In the neighborhoods and at the crossroads will surely be
preserved in living practice those ideas that give mankind new hope
whenever they achieve a renaissance — candor, humility, friendliness,
enlightened understanding, a good-natured readiness to pitch in at any
hour in any way to help a baffled human being.
Source: The Nation, March 2, 1964