Psychological vs. Spiritual
Interpretations of A.A.

Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana)

Differences between different
religious traditions were never a serious
issue in American A.A.

  In spite of the diversity of the different religious backgrounds from which they came, early A.A. people almost never got into disputes over most of the commonplace American theological issues of that period. From the very beginning, Protestants and Roman Catholics in the A.A. program seemed to have understood that they needed to be tolerant of one another, even though in the 1930's and 40's, there were many Roman Catholic priests and bishops who would rule that good Catholics could not pray together with Protestants even, at times, at innocuous functions such as weddings. And Protestants of that era often regarded all Roman Catholics as potential undercover agents for the sixteenth century Spanish Inquisition. One Catholic friend remembers in amazement a Protestant acquaintance asking her, in all seriousness, whether it was true that the Knights of Columbus building in South Bend, Indiana, had a large stock of weapons hidden in the basement, to be used when the Catholics tried to take over the country and start burning Protestants at the stake. Now, over half a century later, I realize that most young people may find this sort of mindless hostility difficult to believe, but back in that era, it was definitely there. But A.A. people back in the early days simply ignored and rose above this kind of mindless prejudice.

And when the first Jewish alcoholics came into A.A., the early A.A.'s seemed to have instinctively realized that they had as much right to their religious beliefs as anyone else in the program. The first Jew to come through Sister Ignatia's program at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron balked at going into the hospital chapel to get down on his knees and say his Third Step Prayer along with her. So Sister Ignatia said fine, and dragged him down to his knees with her in the hall outside the chapel, and in that fashion they recited the Third Step Prayer together. It didn't matter that he was Jewish and she was Catholic, it just didn't matter at all. With good will, they could figure out some way to pray together in such a fashion that he could call upon the divine grace to help him overcome the power of the alcoholic compulsion.

Everyone was delighted when a request came from a Buddhist country for information about A.A., and the Buddhist religious authorities quickly decreed that good Buddhists could easily work the A.A. program by simply interpreting the Higher Power in a way that fit naturally into their religion.

Genuine atheism was
not a major issue

  There was, notoriously, one highly vocal and antagonistic atheist in the early New York A.A. group, and talking about this single individual has sometimes colored our whole picture of early A.A. in ways which distort the actual situation. Some modern A.A. historians try to turn this into the picture of a fundamental conflict raging in early A.A. between true believers (who followed a very conservative form of Protestantism) and large numbers of godless atheists (who were at best worshiping a door knob or something like that as their higher power). In fact, in the 1930's and 40's, just as today, there were almost no A.A.'s who were able to maintain continuous sobriety over a long period of time, and who were able to achieve a degree of real serenity and comfort in their sobriety, who would continue to go around playing the Village Atheist in the way that man in New York city had tried doing.

Genuine, full-blooded, frothing at the mouth atheism has always been, within American A.A., in the early days just as now, the position of only a tiny minority at best -- at least among people with any significant time in the program. Trying to take A.A. people who hold any kind of theological position contrary to that of a rigid Protestant Fundamentalism, or an old-fashioned Baltimore Catechism pre-Vatican Two Catholicism, and then treat these people as though they were in the same camp as the small number of real atheists, just confuses everything and makes it impossible to see the real stresses and strains.

Psychology vs. spirituality

  The place where the real tension appeared, if any strains at all were going to occur, was a potential conflict between those who preferred to give a psychological interpretation of the program, and those who preferred to use a good deal of traditional religious language in the way that they talked about the program.

This could occur in the Midwest just as easily as it could occur on the East or West Coast. In South Bend, Indiana, where I live -- a typical fairly conservative Midwestern area of the United States -- the first split within the founding A.A. group occurred over precisely this issue. This is instructive, because the A.A. which was established in South Bend in 1943 and spread along the St. Joseph river valley, and around the southeastern coast of Lake Michigan (the southernmost of the Great Lakes), was originally not linked very closely with A.A. in any other part of the country. The two founding figures (Ken Merrill and Joseph Soulard "Soo" Cates) were basically just working from a copy of the Big Book, and trying to work it out as they went. In other words, the issue had nothing to do per se with the personalities of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, or some supposed difference between New York A.A. and Akron A.A., but was implicit within the A.A. program itself, because of the synthesis between psychology and religion which that program tried to produce.

Ken and Soo rapidly added a couple of other members, one of them Harry Stevens, who in 1944 helped found and then sponsored the A.A. group at the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City, one of the two best-known early A.A. prison groups at the national level. Soo died a year after the little A.A. group was formed, and Ken Merrill and Harry Stevens then became for a while the two dominant leaders and movers and shakers.

The split occurred a few years later, when Harry Stevens led a group of people into breaking away and holding their own separate A.A. meeting. Harry insisted that the spiritual aspect of the program was not being emphasized strongly enough by Ken and his supporters.

Atheism was not an issue. Ken was a devout Christian. He and his wife were pillars of St. James Episcopal Cathedral in South Bend. But many of the earliest A.A. leaders came from the professional class -- doctors, lawyers, stock brokers, and so on -- and Ken was one of those professional people, the president and co-owner of a large factory in South Bend which managed to make a profit even during the depths of the depression. And these people of the professional class read books, and were acquainted with the newest ideas.

So Ken Merrill knew a good deal about modern psychology and psychiatry. In fact, one of the reasons for his enormous success in business, was his ability to apply good psychological principles at the practical level to advertising and promoting his factory's products. And he felt that the best way to explain the A.A. program to newcomers was to lay out the most common psychological issues which made alcoholics so self-destructive in their personal lives, and then to explain how participation in the A.A. program could heal these underlying problems. In his understanding, the compulsive use of alcohol was a symptom rather than the disease itself -- the typical alcoholic had not only a drinking problem, but also a thinking problem, and we were not going to be able to deal with the first problem until we began dealing effectively the second problem.

He taught one of the weekly beginners lessons, and Jimmy M., one of the surviving old-timers from that period, told me that people would travel from miles away to hear Ken. As Jimmy put it, "he could just explain it all so clearly." And his style was highly successful in every way. Jimmy had about 54 years of sobriety when she died a couple of years ago. And people continually came from cities far away, in both Indiana and Michigan, to attend A.A. meetings in South Bend, and learn how to set up A.A. groups in their own town. And the groups they set up in their cities and towns were equally successful at getting alcoholics sober and keeping them sober.

Sgt. Bill S.

  Alcoholism is a three-fold disease, affecting the body, the mind, and the spirit. In particular, the problems of the mind and the spirit are usually just two sides of the same coin. We can choose to emphasize either side, and the end result will be very much the same: real healing, and learning how to live life on life's terms in God's universe as he created it.

Ken M. in South Bend wrote a little on his psychologically oriented method, but the most articulate spokesman for the wing of early A.A. which preferred to emphasize the psychological issues in working with newcomers, is SGT. BILL  S. who will have 56 years of sobriety on July 5, 2004. The book which he has recently written -- On the Military Firing Line in the Alcoholism Treatment Program -- is a priceless document for understanding early A.A.

Like Ken M. had been in South Bend, Sgt. Bill was not and is not antagonistic to the idea of God. In fact, he makes it clear that people in the program who are still hostile towards God have serious problems. Only the problems are almost invariably psychological problems that have nothing to do really with God: hostility towards all authority figures, childhood traumas created by an abusive father or mother, being victimized as a child by church people who talked about God while terrorizing and bullying little children, or something of that sort. And we don't get well from these things by debating about God, because that is not where the real underlying problem was situated in the first place. Coming out with complicated theological arguments, or hitting these people over the head with a Bible, will accomplish nothing -- that was never where their real life problem lay.

Sgt. Bill makes it equally clear that one of the more important signs of real psychological healing comes when the person who had been so hostile towards all talk of God and spirituality gradually starts adopting a totally different and sympathetic attitude. When they finally "quit fighting God" is when they are starting to get well.

Sgt. Bill learned a good deal about the relative problems and merits of these two different approaches from personal experience. When he started the first military alcoholism treatment program in the United States, at Mitchel Air Force Base on Long Island in 1948, he was linked to the Chaplain's Office. And he ultimately found that this was the kiss of death. Military personnel simply would not come to see him. When he started his second treatment program at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in 1953, he managed to get the quite different title of "psychiatric social worker." It is interesting (but instructive) that drunken soldiers, sailors, and airmen would prefer any day to be regarded as insane rather than to be regarded as religious!

And his psychologically oriented approach to recovery worked, and worked incredibly well. Fifty percent of the military alcoholics who were willing to take the first steps in dealing with their drinking problem not only responded positively to this approach, but got sober and stayed sober. This is fully documented, and is an astoundingly high success rate for such a hostile environment.

Different strokes for different folks

  Sgt. Bill always stressed that alcoholism is a complex disease, and each individual alcoholic is unique. He and Dr. Louis Jolyon "Jolly" West, the famous American psychiatrist with whom he worked, found that no one treatment method would work on all alcoholics. With experience, he and Jolly West got better and better at predicting which methods were going to work with each newcomer, but there was no way that a single theory of alcoholism (and a similarly simple minded theory of treatment) was going to work on all alcoholics.

He had spent a year visiting Sister Ignatia at St. Thomas Hospital, and had seen how her strongly spiritual program worked excellently with a large number of people. But it did not work with everyone, in Akron or any place else. It worked marvelously well with some alcoholics, but the first mention of "God" would raise the hackles on many other alcoholics' necks, and talking about the Bible would have them running out the door on the spot, as fast as they could flee. And on the other side, I have seen newcomers to A.A. from certain kinds of religious backgrounds -- people who wanted God and Jesus and the Bible -- bristling at the first mention of terms like "higher power" and running away as fast as their legs would work, the minute any kind of psychological language showed up.

Now ideally, one should perhaps interview alcoholics coming into a recovery program, and send some to a system like Sister Ignatia's which immersed the person into traditional religious language, and send others to the kind of psychologically oriented program which Sgt. Bill had to develop at Lackland Air Force Base. If an area is highly populated enough to support a large number of A.A. groups, I believe that the ideal may be to encourage different groups to develop in different directions, so that each newcomer can, by going around and visiting various meetings, discover which approach seems most appropriate to where he is, or she is.

A "must" read

  It is very rarely that I would say this, but I regard Sgt. Bill's recent book as a MUST read for anyone who is interested in early A.A. history. There are lots of books that can be read to understand the kind of spiritual language which early A.A.'s used, but his book is the only one I know of which lays out, in real detail, what that one major faction in early A.A. was teaching -- the large number of early A.A.'s who preferred to emphasize the psychological aspects of the program. There is no other way to get a balanced view of what was going on in A.A. in the the 1930's, 40's, and 50's.

The big issue was not atheism vs. conservative Protestantism; the big issue was using a psychological emphasis vs. talking about the program in a way which made heavy use of traditional religious language and literature.

Any decent A.A. historian needs to not only read Sgt. Bill's book, but study it carefully. All the good old-timers who have read it so far say that this is good old-time A.A. at its best. This is a man who was backed by Mrs. Marty Mann and Yev Gardner, who sat at the feet of Sister Ignatia, and who became lifelong friends with Searcy when the two of them attended the Yale School of Alcohol Studies. This is a side of the program which we must know about in order to make meaningful statements about the range of belief in early A.A. -- and there is no other book which has been written, expressing the point of view of those early A.A.'s who made up that side of the early tradition.

How a good A.A. sponsor
can use Sgt. Bill's book

  Furthermore, if you the reader are an A.A. sponsor, and you have a pigeon who is getting totally hung up on the God concept, why not get a copy of Sgt. Bill's book and loan it to that man or woman to read? His approach certainly worked like magic back in the old days for many of the newcomers bedeviled by that kind of problem.

The good old-timers who have read his book -- all of whom so far have praised it to the heavens -- say that the centerpiece of the work is Chapter 15, "The Effects of Alcohol on Our Emotional Development." In clear and simple language which anyone could understand, Sgt. Bill talks about the emotional pressure cooker at the bottom of our minds, and the way it drives us to drink to take the unbearable pressure off. He talks about what happens in the human mind once alcohol is in the system. And equally importantly, he describes what happens when that person puts the bottle down and tries to dry out -- and why it doesn't work, and why the cycle then is forced to repeat itself, with more and more guilt building up each time around.

They say that their second most favorite section is the eighth chapter, "Sabotaging Every Success." I would suspect that all of us who have any significant amount of recovery under our belts can understand why that chapter is so important!

So please, take that pigeon who is struggling hopelessly with the idea of any kind of God or higher power, who is making no progress in the program, and drifting back more and more towards drinking once again, and put a copy of Sgt. Bill's book in his or her hand. What do you have to lose? Nothing else you have tried has worked! I have seen Sgt. Bill at work at A.A. gatherings all over the country and I have never seen anyone even remotely as good as him at instantly relating to people with troubles. People would just start coming up to him at the A.A. state conference or whatever it was, and talking about their deepest fears and guilts and problems. And somehow, something about talking with this wise man was inherently healing -- you talked to him, and you realized that he was genuinely listening, and somewhere in there, you started feeling better, and you started seeing how you could get well.