A Message of Tolerance and Celebration: The Portrayal of Multiple
Pathways of Recovery in the Writings of Alcoholics Anonymous CoFounder Bill Wilson
William White, M.A. and Ernest Kurtz, Ph.D.
One of the central messages of the New Recovery Advocacy
Movement is the declaration that there are many pathways and styles of
long-term recovery from severe alcohol and other drug problems. This
message is of historical note, but it is not surprising. The recovery advocates
who have forged this grassroots movement represent a broad spectrum of
religious, spiritual, and secular pathways of recovery and represent quite
variable styles of recovery practices within these respective frameworks of
recovery (White, 2006, 2007).
Such diversity does not preclude the fact that the majority of recovery
advocates have past or current affiliation with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA),
Narcotics Anonymous (NA), or another Twelve Step recovery program.
Such backgrounds are not obvious because most advocates with Twelve
Step recovery experience, in keeping with Twelve Step traditions, maintain
anonymity at the level of press regarding their past or present affiliation with
Twelve Step groups. When they stand and speak in their advocacy roles,
they do so as persons in recovery, not as members of AA, NA, or other
Twelve Step fellowships (Advocacy and Anonymity, 2006).
But, given the high representation of people with Twelve Step
backgrounds within this movement, how can these recovery advocates’
declaration of the legitimacy of multiple pathways of recovery be reconciled
with the charges by Twelve Step critics that AA and other Twelve Step
groups practice coercive and cult-like indoctrination and a “one size fits all,”
anti-professional, anti-scientific approach to addiction recovery?
Such criticism is part of a “backlash movement” against AA, AA-oriented addiction
treatment, and the portrayal of addiction as a disease. This backlash movement has its
own leaders, celebrity speakers, literature, and websites. This movement rarely
distinguishes 12-step groups from 12-step oriented professional interventionists, 12-step
oriented treatment, and external authorities who may mandate participation in 12-step
recovery advocates heretics within their Twelve Step societies for their
support of the legitimacy of multiple recovery pathways? Or have the
philosophies of Twelve Step programs toward alternative frameworks of
recovery been misrepresented by their critics? This brief essay will explore
these questions using the writings of AA co-founder Bill Wilson as a guide
to how AA views itself and alternative frameworks of addiction recovery.
Defining what AA does and does not believe or does and does not
practice is difficult in light of the variability across Twelve Step programs,
the lack of central leadership within such programs, and the varieties of local
practices that can be found under the Twelve Step umbrella. We have been
struck by the number of people we have encountered who have talked with a
few AA members or attended an open AA meeting where they talked to a
few willing informants and left such experiences feeling as if they
understood AA. As long-time researchers of AA, it is our experience that
the person most willing to speak first on behalf of AA is, by definition, the
least qualified to do so. Wilson addressed this question of the voice of AA
by first depicting two archetypal AA roles—the “bleeding deacon” and the
“AA show-off”—who are most likely to assert themselves as the
embodiment and voice of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1957, p. 122, 133).
Wilson went on to suggest that most AA members matured out of this role to
become the “elder statesmen” whose humility, wisdom, patience, and
example qualified them as the “true voice of Alcoholics Anonymous”
(Alcoholics Anonymous, 1957, p. 122). The best access we have to this
voice is in AA’s core literature through which Wilson attempted to express
the collective experience of those who shared this “kinship of common
suffering” and who had reaped the promises of recovery (Alcoholics
Anonymous, 1957, p. 59). The clearest definition of Twelve Step
philosophy can be found in AA’s basic texts and the other writings of AA
co-founder Bill Wilson, particularly his articles in the AA Grapevine.
Focusing on AA (as opposed to other Twelve Step groups) and the
writings of Bill Wilson to answer the questions we have posed is warranted
for several reasons:
AA is the first and longest surviving Twelve Step program. groups (e.g., professional licensing boards, judges, probation/parole officers, child
welfare agencies.) For representative literature of this movement, see Bufe, 1991;
Fransway, 2000; Peele, 1989; Peele, Bufe, & Brodsky, 2000; Ragge, 1998; for
representative websites, see http://www.orange-papers.org/;
AA is the largest (in total membership—1.9 million members—and
number of registered groups—more than 114,000) and most
geographically dispersed (more than 180 countries) Twelve Step
AA’s Steps and Traditions constitute the program from which all
other Twelve Step programs have been adapted.
Bill Wilson is the primary author of A.A.’s basic texts and was the
primary interpreter of AA history, philosophy, and practices during
AA’s seminal years of development.
The AA literature authored by Bill Wilson, perhaps more than the
literature of any other recovery support group, exerted a significant
and continuing influence on the practice of addiction treatment,
particularly in the United States.
Bill Wilson, the intellectual engineer of AA and by derivation, other
Twelve Step recovery programs, died in 1971. He did not live to witness
and offer commentary on the more than 60 adjunctive and alternative
addiction recovery mutual aid societies that have risen since his passing (see
White, 2010 for a chronology of such groups). He did not live to share his
thoughts on the rapidly growing varieties of spiritual, religious, and secular
approaches to addiction recovery within and outside of AA. However, his
early writings provide important clues to his appreciation and even
celebration of such diverse recovery experiences. It is hoped that this essay
will bring Wilson’s own words to a new audience of readers who are not
aware of his reflections on what continue to be contentious issues within and
outside of AA. Wilson’s words are offered here with a minimum of
accompanying commentary. They speak for themselves on several
pervasive themes: respect for the varieties of recovery experience within
AA, respect for the varieties of recovery that can be achieved outside the
fellowship of AA, an unending search for ways to widen the doorways of
entry into recovery and respect for AA’s critics.
Varieties of AA Experience
AA’s Core Values: If one reads through AA’s basic texts (Alcoholics
Anonymous, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and Alcoholics
Anonymous Comes of Age) and the other voluminous writings of AA cofounder
Bill Wilson, even the casual reader will note several core values that
permeate these works. These core values guide AA’s internal and external
relationships as well as AA’s view of alternative approaches to alcoholism
recovery. The most frequently referenced of these values in AA literature
are honesty, modesty, humility, humor, tolerance, patience, unselfishness,
kindliness, love, and service.
The values of tolerance and modesty form a particularly important
foundation to the writings cited in this paper.
Most of us sense that real tolerance of other people’s shortcomings
and viewpoints and a respect for their opinions are attitudes which
make us more useful to others. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1939, p. 30)
Personal glorification, overweening pride, consuming ambition,
exhibitionism, intolerant smugness, money or power madness, refusal
to admit mistakes and learn from them, self-satisfaction, lazy
complacency—these and many more are the garden variety ills which
so often beset movements as well as individuals…. Let us never say,
“It can’t happen here.” (Wilson, 1945/1988a, p. 4)
AA’s own modesty is evident in Bill Wilson’s repeated declarations
that the core philosophy of AA is not new.
At the very outset we should like it made ever so clear that AA is a
synthetic concept—a synthetic gadget, as it were, drawing upon the
resources of medicine, psychiatry, religion and our own experience of
drinking and recovery. You will search in vain for a single new
fundamental. (Wilson, 1944, p 1805)
Does Alcoholics Anonymous contain any new principle? Strictly
speaking it does not. AA merely relates the alcoholic to time tested
truths in a brand new way. (Wilson, 1950)
Such modesty is also evident in Wilson’s repeated denials that AA is the
only way to solve alcohol problems.
AA has no monopoly on reviving alcoholics. (Wilson, 1944/1988,
The average member of Alcoholics Anonymous does not suppose we
have a cure- all. (Wilson, 1945b, p. 239)
In all probability, we shall never be able to touch more than a fair
fraction of the alcohol problem in all its ramifications. Upon therapy
for the alcoholic himself, we surely have no monopoly. (Alcoholics
Anonymous, 1955, p. ix)
In no circumstances should members feel that Alcoholics Anonymous
is the know- all and do-all of alcoholism. (Wilson, 1965/1988, p. 332)
Then, too, it would be a product of false pride to believe that
Alcoholics Anonymous is a cure-all, even for alcoholism. (Wilson,
1963/1988, p. 346)
When you consider the ramifications of this disease, we have just
scratched the surface. I think we should humbly remember this.
(Wilson, 1969, p. 9)
AA’s elevation of humility as an aspirational value is perhaps best
exemplified through it’s rejection of absolutes—a position that led to its
early split from the Oxford Group—and through what in AA folklore
became reified as Rule No. 62: “Don’t take yourself too damned seriously”
(Kurtz, 1979; Alcoholics Anonymous, 1957, p. 104).
On Dogma and Coercion: Bill Wilson feared that dogma—seeing AA
as the only way to recover or reducing AA to a concretized set of beliefs or
rules—could injure AA as such dogma had injured AA’s predecessors.
It is an historical fact that practically all groupings of men and
women tend to become more dogmatic; their beliefs and practices
harden and sometimes freeze. This is a natural and almost inevitable
process…. But dogma also has its liabilities. Simply because we have
convictions that work well for us, it becomes very easy to assume that
we have all the truth….This isn’t good dogma; it’s very bad dogma. It
could be especially destructive for us of AA to indulge in this sort of
thing. (Wilson, 1965/1988, p. 333)
The degree of Wilson’s fear about the harmful effects of imposing a set of
beliefs on new AA members is indicated by the number of times he returned
to this subject. The excerpts below, spanning nearly 20 years, are
representative of his expressed concerns.
Most strongly we point out that adherence to these principles [the
Steps] is not a condition of AA membership. Any alcoholic who
admits he has a problem is an AA member regardless of how much he
disagrees with the program. Based upon our experience, the whole
program is a suggestion only. (Wilson, 1944, p. 1807)
It is a tradition among us that the individual has the unlimited right to
his own opinion on any subject under the sun. He is compelled to
agree with no one; if he likes, he can disagree with everyone. (Wilson,
1944/1988, p. 98)
…the Twelve Steps of our AA program are not crammed down
anybody’s throat. They are not sustained by any human authority.
Yet we powerfully unite around them because the truth they contain
has saved our lives, has opened the door to a new world. (Wilson,
1945/1988b, p. 8)
This clearly implies that an alcoholic is a member if he says so; that
we can’t deny him membership; that we can’t demand from him a
cent; that we can’t force our beliefs and practices upon him; that he
may flout everything we stand for and still be a member. In fact, our
Tradition carries the principle of independence for the individual to
such an apparently fantastic length that, so long as there is the
slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most antisocial,
the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits
and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been
formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our recovery program, even
anti-each other—these rampant individuals are still an AA group if
they think so. (Wilson, 1946/1988a, p. 33)
Perhaps there is no society on earth more solicitous of personal
welfare, more careful to grant the individual the greatest possible
liberty of belief and action. Alcoholics Anonymous has no
“musts”….compliance or noncompliance with any AA principle is a
matter of conscience of the individual…. (Wilson, 1947/1988b, p. 76)
We realize that he is altogether too weak and confused to jump
hurdles. If we raise obstacles, he might stay away and perish. He
might be denied his priceless opportunity. (Wilson, 1948/1988, p. 79)
Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand that you believe in anything.
All of its Twelve Steps are but suggestions. (Alcoholics Anonymous,
1952, p. 26)
Neither does AA exert the slightest religious authority over its
members. No one is compelled to meet membership conditions. No
one is obliged to pay anything. Therefore we have no system for
authority, spiritual or temporal…. (Wilson, 1960)
So this is the substance of the AA party line as I happen to see it. But
please be assured you don’t necessarily have to see it the same way.
Plenty of people differ with me, and yet remain sober…. AA’s
orthodoxy, if it can be called that, is merely what the majority
experience suggests. You can still take your pick! (Wilson,
1962/1988b, p. 274)
Varieties of AA Experience: Wilson often remarked that, beyond the
“suggestions” set forth in AA’s Twelve Steps, there is no ONE true brand of
AA. Wilson chastised those AA members who conveyed the message,
“Folks, listen to us. We have the only true brand of AA—and you’d better
get it!” (Wilson, 1961/1988b, p. 252). He illustrated the futility such an
attitude in the following 1946 reflection on AA’s early history.
Two or three years ago the Central Office [of AA] asked the groups
to list their membership rules and send them in. After they arrived we
set them all down. They took a great many sheets of paper. A little
reflection upon those rules brought us to an astonishing conclusion.
If all these edicts had been in force everywhere at once, it would have
been practically impossible for any alcoholic to have ever joined
Alcoholics Anonymous. About nine-tenths of our oldest and best
members could never have gotten by! (Wilson, 1946/1988, p. 37)
That understanding was subsequently codified in AA’s Third Tradition,
“The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking”,
which stated unequivocally that “any alcoholic is a member of our Society
when he says so” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1952/1981, p. 139, 145)
Wilson further illustrated his respect for the varieties of recovery
experience within AA by contrasting styles of change within AA—from his
own experience of sudden transformational change to the more typical
incremental change experienced by most AA members.
There is a very natural tendency to set apart those experiences of
awakenings which happen to be sudden, spectacular, or visionproducing….
It now seems clear that the only special feature of my
experience was its electric suddenness and the overwhelming and
immediate conviction that it carried to me…. I am sure that my own
experience was not in the least different from that received by every
AA member who has strenuously practiced our recovery program.
(Wilson, 1962/1988a, p. 275)
Wilson’s earliest writings did not address the subject of styles of AA
participation, but as early as 1945, he did note people who were recovering
in AA without access to AA meetings.
It was discovered several years ago that the “A.A.” job could be done
solely through correspondence and our literature. (Wilson, 1945b, p.
When he testified before a Senate Subcommittee in 1969, Wilson also
alluded to the number of people who had achieved sobriety in AA,
disengaged from active AA participation, and sustained their recovery
without AA involvement.
Besides the 285,000 [AA’s active membership in 1969] there are
hundreds of thousands—maybe 200,000, for all we know, 300,000
recovered AA’s on the sidelines who do not get caught up in the active
statistics, people who have remained for the greater part sober, who
are carrying AA attitudes and practices and philosophies into the
community life. (Wilson, 1969, p. 3)
Varieties of Recovery Outside of AA
The question of alternative pathways of recovery came up early in the
history of AA. The September 1944 issue of the AA Grapevine included an
article by noted author Philip Wylie, who described his solo recovery from
alcoholism (without the help of AA). Anticipating some potential resistance
among AA readers, the Grapevine editor asked Bill Wilson to offer
comment on Wylie’s story. Bill declared that Wylie’s article should
“endear” Wylie to every AA member.
No AA should be disturbed if he cannot fully agree with all of Mr.
Wiley’s truly stimulating discourse. Rather shall we reflect that the
roads to recovery are many; that any story or theory of recovery from
one who has trod the highway is bound to contain much truth.
(Wilson, 1944/1988, p. 98)
Bill Wilson responded similarly to the question of whether people could
recover from alcoholism through professional help alone. Here is an excerpt
from his address to the New York State Medical Society on Alcoholism in
Your President and other pioneers in and outside your Society have
been achieving notable results for a long time, many of their patients
having made good recoveries without any A.A. at all. It should be
noted that some of the recovery methods employed outside A.A. are
quite in contradiction to AA principles and practices. Nevertheless,
we of AA ought to applaud the fact that certain of these efforts are
meeting with increasing success. (Wilson, 1958)
Two years later, Bill Wilson was asked whether the principles of
Recovery, Inc.—a self-help mental health recovery program founded in
1937 by Dr. Abraham A. Low—might be used to help alcoholics. Wilson’s
response illustrates AA’s values of modesty and tolerance even in judging
ideas, people, and programs counter to AA central tenets.
I have always looked with great sympathy upon Recovery, Inc. The
founder of that movement was a psychiatrist. In actuality, Recovery
Inc. is very much of a heresy to AA. But it’s the kind of heresy that
often seems to work. Those good people operate on the basis that
through a program of discipline and constant exertion of the will,
their several compulsions and hexes can be directly attacked and
eliminated…. In many cases their results have been extraordinary….
Altogether I have the highest opinion of that outfit. (Wilson, 1960)
The Question of Secular Recovery: Bill Wilson wrestled for many
years with the question of recovery from alcoholism that did not apparently
involve a spiritual dimension. He first noted the numbers of atheists and
agnostics who had recovered in AA.
Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious organization; there is no
dogma. The one theological proposition is a “power greater than
one’s self.” Even this concept is forced on no one. The newcomer
merely immerses himself in our society and tries the program as best
he can. Left alone, he will surely report the gradual onset of a
transforming experience, call it what he may. (Wilson, 1949/1994, pp.
Bill Wilson thought that the potential for successful non-spiritual
recovery from alcoholism depended primarily on the severity of alcoholism.
He believed that non-spiritual approaches could work for those with less
severe alcohol problems but that a spiritual awakening might well be
necessary for the most severe forms of alcoholism.
Whether such a person can quit upon a non-spiritual basis depends
upon the extent to which he has already lost the power to choose
whether he will drink or not. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1939, p. 45)
…it doesn’t matter too much how the transforming spiritual
experience is brought about so long as one gets one that works for
him. Somehow the alcoholic must get enough objectivity about
himself to abate his fears and collapse his false pride. If he can do all
that through his intellect, and thereafter support his life structure
upon a “transcendent symbol,” more power to him! …the more
intellectual techniques do work sometimes, reaching those who might
never take the stronger dose. (Wilson, 1944/1988, p. 98)
Religion and Recovery: Bill Wilson’s respect for the varieties of AA
experience is further reflected in his comments on the role of religion in
We think it no concern of ours what religious bodies our members
identify themselves with as individuals. This should be an entirely
personal affair which each one decides for himself in the light of past
associations, or his present choice. Not all of us have joined religious
bodies, but most of us favor such memberships. (Alcoholics
Anonymous, 1939, p. 39)
If he thinks he can do the job in some other way, or prefers some other
spiritual approach, encourage him to follow his own conscience. We
have no monopoly on God; we merely have an approach that worked
with us. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1939, p. 108)
As Wilson drafted what became the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, he
faced a dilemma. He knew that many alcoholics had a distinct aversion to
anything smacking of God and religion, yet he had to convey the role
spiritual experience had played in the recoveries of AA’s first members. As
work on the book continued, a great tension rose between conservative,
liberal, and radical viewpoints on the role of religion in the AA program of
recovery. The conservatives wanted an explicitly Christianized framework
of recovery, the liberals were okay with “God” but rejected any attempt to
inject religious doctrine into the AA program, and the radicals (atheists and
agnostics) wanted no reference to God. The challenge for codifying AA’s
program was crafting language that reflected this diversity of recovery
experience (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1957).
Wilson’s way out of this dilemma was through four propositions.
First, he defined the problem of alcoholism as a problem of power (“Lack of
power, that was our dilemma”; Alcoholics Anonymous, 1939, p. 57).
Second, he defined the essential task of recovery as the acquisition of power
(“We had to find a power by which we could live…; Alcoholics Anonymous,
1939, p.57). Third, that power had to transcend the assertion of personal
will (“…it had to be a Power greater than ourselves”; Alcoholics
Anonymous, 1939, p. 57). Fourth, that Power was defined broadly (“To us,
the Realm of the Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive…; Alcoholics
Anonymous, 1939, p. 59) and personally (“Experience has taught us that
these are…matters for each individual to settle for himself”; Alcoholics
Anonymous, 1939, p. 62). Conservatives, liberals, and radicals are still
embraced within the fellowship of AA, and one can get a quite different
view of AA depending on which member is describing AA through the lens
of his personal experience. Wilson was in a unique vantage point to try to
depict the diversity and totality of AA recovery experience—dimensions that
can be missed by both AA advocates and AA critics.
Medication and Recovery: As early as 1945, Bill Wilson warned AA
members of the dangers of drugs other than alcohol.
Morphine, codeine, chloral hydrate, Luminal, Seconal, Nebutal,
amytal, these and kindred drugs have killed many alcoholics. And I
once nearly killed myself with chloral hydrate. (Wilson, 1945/1988c, p.
Yet Wilson remained open throughout his life to the potential role of
pharmacological adjuncts in recovery from alcoholism. We know that he
used sedatives for an undetermined length of time during his ongoing
treatment for depression between the mid-1940s and 1953, and that he
personally used and publicly promoted LSD and Vitamin B-3 as adjuncts in
the treatment of alcoholism during the late 1950s and early 1960s—before
LSD had been christened a “drug of abuse”—at a time LSD was being
recommended by prominent psychiatrists as a potential breakthrough
treatment for alcoholism. Wilson hoped these aids might help those who
failed to get the AA program (Kurtz, 1979, 1999; Wilson, 1965a).
Wilson’s continued openness to medications in the role of recovery is
further illustrated by a story told by Dr. Vincent Dole, co-developer of
methadone maintenance and non-alcoholic trustee of AA. Dole recounts that
in one of his last conversations with Bill Wilson, Wilson had asked Dole if
there might be an analogue of methadone that could be used in the treatment
of alcoholism and encouraged Dole to undertake research to discover it
Moderation as a Solution to Alcohol Problems: Moderation had not
worked for early AA members, but they made no effort to deny that option
to others. In fact, they took quite the opposite position. AA’s (Wilsonauthored)
basic text suggested moderation as an option for some problem
Then we have a certain type of hard drinker. He may have the habit
badly enough to gradually impair him physically and mentally. It may
cause him to die a few years before his time. If a sufficiently strong
reason-ill health, falling in love, change of environment, or the
warning of a doctor-becomes operative, this man can also stop or
moderate, although he may find it difficult and troublesome and may
even need medical attention. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1939, p. 31)
If anyone, who is showing inability to control his drinking, can do the
right-about-face and drink like a gentleman, our hats are off to him.
Heaven knows we have tried hard enough and long enough to drink
like other people! (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1939, p. 42)
Bill Wilson and the broader literature of AA make no claim that their
experience constitutes a universal truth applicable to the broader universe of
all alcohol problems. By distinguishing themselves (“real alcoholics”) from
problem drinkers, early AA members defined their own recoveries in terms
of abstinence because that is what had been successful in their experience.
Tolerance and Open-mindedness
We have illustrated the respect Bill Wilson expressed toward the
varieties of methods and styles of recovering from alcoholism and resolving
other forms of alcohol-related problems. Wilson’s tolerance and openmindedness
are further illustrated in his stand toward AA’s cooperation with
service professionals and scientists, his continual efforts to widen the
doorways of entry into recovery, his openness to change and his response to
On Cooperation with Professionals and Scientists: Wilson brought
personal experience to the question of the role of professional treatment in
alcoholism recovery, and Wilson’s treatise on the early history of AA is
replete with expressions of gratitude to the roles non-alcoholic professionals
and other non-alcoholic friends of AA played in the history of the fellowship
(Alcoholics Anonymous, 1957). He had been treated multiple times before
his successful recovery, and he often acknowledged the role of his physician,
Dr. William Silkworth, in his own recovery process and in the birth of AA—
going so far as to refer to Silkworth as a “founder of A.A.” (Alcoholics
Anonymous, 1957, p. 13). Wilson also was treated by two psychiatrists for
the depression that lingered years into his recovery. Also of interest is the
fact that Wilson came very close to accepting employment as a lay
alcoholism therapist at Charles Towns Hospital in New York City, and that
he did later briefly serve on the board of an alcoholism rehabilitation facility
(High Watch) (White, 1998). These experiences and the larger body of AA
experience with expanding alcoholism treatment resources shaped his views
of the role of treatment in recovery and the role AA members might play
working in the larger alcoholism treatment field.
…many [AA members] were called and many chosen since that day to
go into related fields [helping alcoholics] which has now got to be so
large in their promise that we of Alcoholics Anonymous are getting
down to our right size and we are only now realizing that we are only
a small part of a great big picture. We are realizing again, afresh,
that without our friends, not only could we have not existed in the first
place but we could not have grown. (Wilson, 1956)
It used to be the fashion among some of us in A.A. to decry psychiatry,
even medical aid of any description, save that barely needed for
sobering up. We pointed to the failures of psychiatry and religion.
We were apt to thump our chests and exclaim, “Look at us. We can
do it, but they can’t.” It is therefore with great relief that I can report
this to be a vanishing attitude. Thoughtful AA members everywhere
realize that psychiatrists and physicians helped to bring our Society
into being in the first place and have held up our hands ever since….
So let’s bring to this floor the total resources that can be brought to
bear on this problem…Let us think of unity among all those who work
in the field…Let us stand together in the spirit of service. (Wilson,
We clearly see that by pooling our resources we can do together what
could never be accomplished in separation; or in short-sighted
criticism and in competition. (Wilson, 1958)
We [AA members] should very seriously ask ourselves how many
alcoholics have gone on drinking because we have failed to cooperate
in good spirit with these many [alcoholism treatment] agencies—
whether they be good, bad or indifferent. No alcoholic should go mad
or die merely because he did not come straight to A.A. at the
beginning. (Wilson, 1965b)
AA does not sponsor projects in other fields. But if these projects are
constructive and non-controversial in character, AA members are free
to engage in them without criticism if they act as individuals only, and
are careful of the AA name. (Wilson, 1947/1988a, p. 46)
Wilson’s views on cooperation with professionals extended to the scientific
Please know that we [AA] hold ourselves ready for scientific
investigation; that we fully realize that we are but a small part of the
total effort going on in this broad field and so wish to aid where we
can. (Wilson, 1950)
Today, the vast majority of us [AA members] welcome any new light
that be thrown on the alcoholic’s mysterious and baffling malady. We
don’t care too much whether new and valuable knowledge issues from
a test tube, a psychiatrist’s couch, or from revealing social studies….
More and more we regard all who labor in the total field of
alcoholism as our companions on a march from darkness to light. We
see that we can accomplish together what we could never accomplish
in separation and rivalry. (Wilson, 1958/1988, p. 185)
Wilson’s Obsession: The Unrecovering Alcoholic: Bill Wilson
manifested something of an obsession throughout his years of recovery.
While others were celebrating AA’s near miraculous survival and growth,
Wilson continued to concentrate his attention on the still suffering
alcoholic—particularly those who came to AA but failed to get the program
and achieve sustained physical and emotional sobriety.
Our first concern would be with those sufferers that we are still
unable to reach…. Some cannot be reached because they are not hurt
enough, others because they are hurt too much. (Wilson, 1965/1988,
Wilson’s concerns with the still suffering alcoholic were the source of his
later interest in LSD and Vitamin B-3 as potential adjuncts in recovery from
alcoholism (see Kurtz, 1999 for a full discussion).
Openness to Change: Throughout his years of recovery, Bill Wilson
maintained an openness to change for himself and for AA. His consciously
cultivated humility undergirded Wilson’s ability to keep his current ideas
open to revision pending new knowledge and experience.
The process [trial and error] still goes on and we hope it never stops.
Should we ever harden too much, the letter might crush the spirit. We
could victimize ourselves by petty rules and prohibitions; we could
imagine that we had said the last word. We might even be asking
alcoholics to accept our rigid ideas or stay away. May we never stifle
progress like that! (Wilson, 1946/1988b, p. 20)
We have to grow or else deteriorate. For us, the “status quo” can
only be for today, never for tomorrow. Change we must; we cannot
stand still. (Wilson, 1961/1988a, p. 321)
Let us never be a closed corporation. (Wilson, 1963/1988, p. 346)
Let us never fear needed change. Once a need becomes clearly
apparent in an individual, a group, or in AA as a whole, it has long
since been found that we cannot stand still and look the other way.
(Wilson, 1965/1988, p. 334)
Let us always remember that any society of men and women that
cannot freely correct its own faults must surely fall into decay if not
collapse. Such is the universal penalty for the failure to go on
growing. Just as each AA must continue to take his moral inventory
and act upon it, so must our whole Society do if we are to survive and
if we are to serve usefully and well. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1957, p.
Pioneering in A.A. of course has not stopped. I hope it never will.
(Alcoholics Anonymous, 1957, p. 80)
Response to Critics: AA’s core values were most tested in the face of
criticism. In 1959, Bill Wilson reported to AA’s General Service
As a society, we have seen no attacks, nor have we been attacked. We
have made no aggressions on the world outside and they have not
trespassed upon us; they have befriended us. (Wilson, 1959)
For the most part, AA escaped public criticism in its first 25 years of
existence, but such criticism began in the 1960s and evolved into a fully
organized Twelve Step backlash movement in the 1980s and 1990s. When
AA members asked Bill Wilson to respond to early public criticism, he
penned an article in the April 1963 AA Grapevine entitled, “Our Critics Can
be Our Benefactors.” In that article, Wilson highlighted excerpts from earlier
writings that called upon AA to not respond to such criticism publicly, lest
AA get caught up in public controversy that diverted the fellowship from its
central mission. Instead, Wilson urged members to use such criticism as an
opportunity for self-inventory and self-improvement, going so far as to
suggest, “If a given criticism of AA is partly or wholly justified, it may be
well to acknowledge this privately to the critics, together with our thanks”
(Wilson, 1963/1988, p. 347).
This short essay has used excerpts from the writings of Bill Wilson to
illustrate AA’s understanding of its own limitations, recognition of diverse
recovery experience within AA, tolerance toward alternative pathways and
styles of recovery, openness to collaborate with service professionals and
scientists in the alcoholism field, and Wilson’s personal hope that AA would
remain an open, evolving society forever focused on service to and recovery
for the still suffering alcoholic.
About the Author: William L. White is a Senior Research Consultant at
Chestnut Health Systems and author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of
Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America. Ernest Kurtz is an Adjunct
Assistant Research Scientist within the Department of Psychiatry at the
University of Michigan Medical School and is the author of Not-God: A
History of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Acknowledgement: Support for the development of this paper was
provided by the Office of Addiction Services of the Philadelphia Department
of Behavioral Health and Mental Retardation Services.
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