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CHRISTIAN CENTURY, November 26, 1947
HOPE FOR ALCOHOLICS
Anonymous is an important new spiritual movement. "Spiritual"
is the right adjective. Let me illustrate by the story of
a man now about fifty-seven years old. Bill, we will call
him. Bill was left an orphan at an early age, had little
schooling and was generally neglected. When he came out
of the navy at the end of the First World War he was a confirmed
drunkard. Being a clever mechanic and able to go reasonably
straight for a while after one of his sprees, he usually
had no serious difficulty in securing a job. Sometimes he
worked more or less steadily for a year or two, but the
craving for an uproarious drunk always caught him sooner
or later and flung him into the gutter again. He not only
threw to the dogs every cent he earned, but he was always
thinking up tall tales to relieve relatives and acquaintances
of large and small sums which disappeared in carousals that
left him each time fouler and more dilapidated. At fifty-four
he was a picture of frowziness and misery. He had deserted
his wife and had himself been abandoned by most of his relatives.
He had apparently sunk about as deep in the mud as a man
can sink and keep breathing.
a prolonged and particularly outrageous spree, a kindhearted
employer who had been trying to help Bill to his feet gave
up the attempt and threw him out. He disappeared and was
gone for months. One evening what was left of him - a blear-eyed
scarecrow - slunk to the door of a relative and begged for
help. The relative got him into his car and deposited him
in a state institution. After six or eight months under
strict surveillance, the alcohol had pretty well evaporated
and Bill looked a little cleaner and brighter. He was very
anxious to be released, but it was plainly useless to go
through the horrible farce again.
stood like this when the relative read in the paper an account
of a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. At the end of the
article there was a phone number which interested persons
were invited to call. He called it and was answered by a
friendly voice which responded to a rapid sketch of the
situation with a cheerful: "Yes, I think we can help
you and your man. I'll come and see you whenever and wherever
you say." If the relative had called up an insurance
agent or ordered a new refrigerator, he couldn't have been
greeted more cordially. Puzzled but hopeful, he set a place
and an hour for a meeting.
at the appointed time a handsome young business man walked
into the relative's office. "My name's Herbert S____,
' I he said. "I was one of the worst drunks in the
state before Alcoholics Anonymous pulled me out of it. But
I might not stay pulled out if I didn't stand ready at any
hour of the day or night to help pick some other poor devil
out of the gutter. When you called me to help Bill, you
did me the greatest favor you could have thought of. We'll
shoo John Barleycorn off him if we can. But we can't shoo
worth a cent if Bill doesn't want us to and won't cooperate.
Tell us how to reach him, and we'll be there double quick."
relative relayed the information to Bill. Bill wasn't enthusiastic;
said he could quit without anybody's help. But finally he
consented to see Herbert. Two of the A.A.'s went to call
on him. They won his heart at the first meeting. A few months
later Bill was released from the institution. Now he is
one of the engineers at the same place where a year ago
he was an inmate. He has joined a church. (The A.A.'s discreetly
leave confessional religion alone. They are members of any
church or no church. But I have attended several of their
open meetings and I noticed that they always, recite the
Lord's Prayer together.)
far as I know, Bill never touches even the milder liquors.
I once heard an A.A. say that one swallow may not make a
spring but it's pretty sure to make a booze-fighter out
of an A.A. Bill looks you in the face now as he never looked
anybody in the face in the twenty-five years I have known
him. I don't know that he couldn't backslide, but there
is something fundamentally different between this Bill and
the Bill who used to peep at you out of the corner of his
eye and calculate how soon he could spring a hard-luck story
and panhandle you again for the price of a trip to Barleycorn
Bill's story. How it is different from the story of John
B. Gough and other reformed drunkards of the past? I am
not an A.A., so I cannot give a completely satisfactory
answer. But I see important differences very clearly.
the days of Alcoholics Anonymous, the churches, the doctors
and the psychiatrists among them are said to have reclaimed
two or three per cent of the drunkards who tried to quit.
Approximately 80 per cent of the membership of A.A.; (it
has been in existence something like 12 years and has in
the neighborhood of 50,000 members) have stuck. Bill's chances
for pulling loose from the devil are a good many times greater
than they would be if there were no such organization behind
him - a band of the saved with their arms around him and
each other, like a tug-of-war team. These ex-drunks understand
him because they are just like him. They don't despise him
or patronize him, because they have been just as ridiculous
and just as low as he has. They love him for what he has
done for them and quite as much for what they have done
for him. They will never let him down because they know
that if they shirk their duty to him they are pretty sure
to fall flat on their faces again themselves. There is something
in their situation psychologically very close to the way
Napoleon's Old Guard clung together. One could do a lot
of psychologizing about the amazing loyalty which holds
together this band of bruised, hopeful ex-slaves of King
Alcohol. But after all was said there would still be a touch
of the miraculous about it.
a man joins the A.A. without any strings attached,"
one serious fellow said to me, "something happens to
him. He belongs to the A.A. soul and body. He'd get up in
the middle of the coldest night and cross the country in
a blizzard to sit with another A.A. who felt the thirst
on him and couldn't fight it alone. He'd have to. There
wouldn't be any question about it, any more than about reaching
for food if he was starving. He wouldn't just have to, he'd
want to. He wouldn't and couldn't do anything else. I guess
getting to be a real, honest-to-goodness A.A. is like getting
religion. Only it means a million times more than getting
religion seems to mean to most people."
is a strong emotional element in the movement which borders
on mysticism; indeed I have heard educated A.A.'s use that
word more than once. For there are educated and prosperous
A.A.'s just as there are very humble and ignorant A.A.'s.
Such differences don't count among them. There may be some
friction in the groups sometimes, but if there is, outsiders
don't know much about it. When the Athenians were driving
back the Persian invaders at Marathon? they did not waste
much time and energy fighting each other.
is a touching lot of kindness and helpfulness among the
A.A.'s. One day a faithful? hard-working member whose funds
were low met a fellow member, a clothing store clerk, in
an eating house. "Come over to the store when you're
through eating, Bob," said the clerk. "I've got
something for you." Bob ate his hamburger and went
over. "I've been paid," said the clerk, "for
a stetson hat, a suit of clothes, a pair of shoes, a white
shirt, a pair of socks and a necktie - all your size. I'm
not allowed to tell you who's footing the bill." Bob
went out of the store a good deal less shabby than he went
in. To this day he doesn't know who his Santa Claus was,
but he can make a pretty safe guess that Santa was an ex-alcoholic
or a group of ex-alcoholics, with more cash than he but
with exactly the same determination to fight liquor to a
standstill and back up anybody else who is fighting the
A.A.'s have regular meetings? weekly or oftener. The spirit
of comradeship that develops among them is so strong that
they often spend a great deal of time in each others company.
Most of them give a good fraction of their time to A.A.
work. I know a group in a fairly large city which has about
300 members. A dozen or two miles away in every direction
are small towns each of which has an organization with 20
or 30 members. Thus there are a score or more of groups
within easy driving distance of each other, and they are
constantly holding combined meetings, taking a ride out
to help a handful of alcoholics start a new group, and collecting
new data on possible new members.
don't proselytize, for they have found that if a man joins
because he lacks sales resistance instead of because he
sees that he is on his way to disease, insanity, poverty
and early death, he won't last long as an A.A. and will
make himself a nuisance while he is pretending to be one.
A young buck who is proud of getting soused occasionally
has nothing in common with the A.A.'s. In a college town
where there is an A.A. group, a bunch of students have a
drinking fraternity which they call "Alcoholics Unanimous.''
The A.A.'s laugh at it, because they are good sports and
because they know better than anybody else what a funny
fool a drunkard is. But any youngster who sees the light
and decides to transfer from the Unanimous to the Anonymous
will find a band of decent citizens who were once poor idiots
like him, ready to grasp his hand and haul him out of the
are A.A. meetings like? The regular meetings are naturally
secret. In these the members presumably thrash out their
common problems. They are incomparably closer together than
a group of Presbyterians or Masons or college fraternity
brothers. But they have frequent public meetings which everyone
is welcome to attend and at which invited speakers who have
special knowledge of alcoholism - physicians, ministers,
psychiatrists, social workers and members of other A.A.
groups - discuss alcoholism and related matters. I have
attended a number of these meetings. The A.A.'s themselves
are almost always amazingly frank, straightforward, humble,
and wise with the wisdom that comes from ghastly experience.
Nobody can tell you as much about hell as the soul that
has suffered torment. And no matter who is speaking or how
well or how inadequately he gets across, the A.A.'s listen
as though their lives depend on attentiveness. Besides the
alcoholics are their wives and other relatives. Often these
others have been as roughly handled by drink as the drunkards
themselves. All this means hope and help to them. They are
men who have earned a reprieve which they hope to lengthen
out into a full pardon. It is very pathetic, very beautiful.
about woman drunkards? They are free to join, but to date
I believe there have not been enough of them to make a perfectly
easy and natural place for themselves. This is one of the
problems which still have to be solved.
have mentioned the organization's caution in the matter
of religion. A man could scarcely be a member if he had
no God and no hope in the world. But A.A.Is don't sermonize
a great deal. They are inclined to be matter-of-fact, serious
but not sentimental, jocose, masculine, but clean, kind,
courteous. They probably do not often meet without women's
being present. I have never caught anything of the off-color
"stag" element in any of the meetings. These men
are no sissies, but they have been through a baptism of
fire. Many of them smoke a good deal and drink quantities
of strong coffee. This is a sort of "tapering off"
which they often allow themselves. Their wings aren't sprouting
yet, but I can say with conviction that they seem to me
the most honest, brave and promising aggregation of "reformed
sinners" I have ever known.
Anonymous has a publishing house which issues a shrewd,
and manly "textbook" detailing twelve points of
reform and retribution (these are practically their Ten
Commandments) and various interesting pamphlets. Anyone
interested can learn all about these matters by making contact
with an A.A. There will be no trouble in finding one. A.A.
has hundreds of groups all over the country. They are anonymous
but not underground. They are eager to know you, especially
if you are convinced, from experience or otherwise, that
booze is the devil's own medicine. That's their life business.
To say they mean business is putting it mildly.