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of talk given by Bill W.
note: The following address was delivered by Bill W. at
Guest House, a treatment center for alcoholic priests
in Lake Orion, Michigan shortly before his death, possibly
in 1968 or 1969. Where words are unintelligible, best
guesses appear in brackets.
I like the informal discussion type of approach. It seemed
to me that on an occasion like this questions have something
of infinitely more value than a lecture or a story. But
Ripp* suggested that I make some remarks here tonight, and
I'm only too glad to do that.
note: probably refers to Austin Ripley, who founded Guest
House in 1956.
coming down on the plane, I got speculating with myself
about the early days of AA and about the meaning of them
in terms of the grace of God. I read somewhere that if a
grain of wheat which has been stored for centuries in a
dry place is exposed to the right soil and the right climate
and to enough light from above it will manifest life and
it will unfold and it will grow. But this presupposes the
right soil, the right climate and, above all, enough light.
Well, I think it's that way with AA. I remember, years back,
when we first began to get publicity, and the first very
large occasion was a feature piece done in the Saturday
Evening Post which all at once produced us about six thousand
members. This was in '41, and by then a number of medics
had become close friends, some of them psychiatrists. And
these fellows allowed their names to be used (a rather audacious
step in those days, I assure you) their names were used
in the Post article.
make this point because, when later asked to testify on
another occasion, they refused to do it, and these were
the circumstances: the first gal that got sober in AA is
one known to many of you as Marty, still very much a going
concern in the educational field. Marty was a most difficult
case. God knows we're all complex, but Marty was really
a champ. And she had been under the care of a Dr. Foster
Kennedy, a man of very wide repute in that time, worldwide
renown, a neurologist. And he watched Marty as she was planted
in the new soil. He watched her receive this light. Well,
he was tremendously impressed. He came to some meetings
and soon he said to me, "Bill, would it be possible to have
two or three of the psychiatrists in institutions who have
seen recoveries of very grim cases, people that you say
are friends of yours and who have testified for you in the
Post piece, couldn't we get a group of this sort to come
to the Academy of Medicine and explain what they have seen?"
Well, we thought this was just great, because in those days
there were few friends, indeed. So shoring by these people,
by reason of Dr. Kennedy, well, what could be better? So,
one by one, we went to them, and we said "would they come
to the Academy" and we supposed they would. After all, some
of the Kennedy glory could brush off, and, you know, they
were friends anyhow, and they'd proved it, so why not? And
not a one would do it! And, when pressed for their reasons
for not doing it, each one of them separately said the same
thing. In effect, each said, "Look, Bill. You folks have
added up in one column more of the resources which have
been separately applied to alcoholics than anyone else.
For example: you have this kinship in suffering; you have
possibilities of communication that others don't have; you
have a crude form of self-examination or analysis and of
catharsis; you have a great new outgoing interest; you reduce
guilt by restitution and you have this great compelling
interest in helping others. And then there is the religious
factor. And then there is this factor of the hopelessness,
so far as the resources of the individual are concerned,
of this malady. Now this is a formidable list of forces,
but we still can't come to the Academy." "Well, why not?"
"Well," said they, "we see in AA, sometimes in weeks, in
a few months, shifts in motivation that even the sums of
these forces couldn't begin to account for, because we all
too well understand the difficulties of this subtle compulsion.
And the sum of them won't add up to the speed of these transformations
in these very grim cases. So, for us, there is an unknown
factor at work in AA. And, among ourselves, being scientists
we call it the 'X' factor. We believe you people call it
the grace of God. And who shall go to the Academy to explain
the grace of God to that body? No one can. And we simply
I think it is just as futile as ever for any of us to presume
to explain this matter of grace around which our entire
galaxy of principles and activities gathers and clusters.
We can't do that, but we can examine this matter of the
soil and this matter of climate and this matter of illumination
[for] which, for some reason or other, we have made ourselves
ready. Clearly, God's grace is in and through all. "So,"
it might be said, "why haven't alcoholics sobered many times
more often through grace than they have? It's available.
Why hasn't religion been more successful, numerically at
least? Why hasn't medicine been more successful? How is
it that laymen seem to be doing this thing?" So I would
like to tell a story depicting, at least as it seems to
me, what the soil is and what the climate is and what the
light is, these things of which we have been placed in such
is no doubt that in an ordinary sense of time AA began in
the office of a psychiatrist, and we might be mindful of
this when we criticize people in this profession. Of course,
for most of us, the origin is two thousand years old, for
some of us perhaps older. But I am speaking of the situation
in an immediate sense: how was it precipitated? This too
is a matter of conjecture, but here's how it seems to me.
was a certain business man of great attainment. He's cut
down by the grog, he runs the gamut of treatments in this
country, and this would be in the year about 1932 when he
was just about at the end of his tether. So, he went abroad
and became a patient of Dr. Carl Jung. And, as all of you
know, Jung was one of the founding fathers of the "art"
(I prefer that instead of "science") of psychiatry. And
Jung, Adler, Freud were the three founding fathers, but,
of these, only Jung seemed to think that man is something
more than two dollar's worth of chemicals, a bundle of instincts
and an uncertain intellect. Jung thought that man had something
beyond this, that man has soul. So our traveler had found
a truly great human being, great, indeed, as events [spell
or fell] out. He placed himself under that dear man's tutelage
for a whole year, becoming more and more confident that
the hidden springs of this baleful compulsion to drink were
being understood and removed and cast away. He began to
feel more free. There was no drinking while he was under
treatment. At the end of a year, he left Carl Jung and in
one month he was tight. And the bender was terrific. So,
in infinite despair, he came back to Carl Jung and said,
"Is there anything now for me? You were my court of last
resort." And this great man said, "Roland, I thought for
a time after you first came that you might be one of those
rare cases in which my art has been helpful. Otherwise I
should not have encouraged you to stay. But, alas, I am
obliged to conclude that you are not, and that there is
nothing that I have to offer you. My art has failed you."
I need not say that, coming from a man of his eminence,
this was a statement of beautiful humility. And the whole
destiny of AA, you and me and all of us, has since hung
on that sentence. So then Hazard found that agony was added
to despair, and he cried out, "But is there nothing else?"
And this was the answer he got: "Roland, time out of mind,
alcoholics have recovered here and there, now and then,
through religious experiences, spiritual experiences let
us say, or very truly through conversion (a naughty word
for us AAs; we don't use it for obvious reasons). But,"
said the doctor," this benign lighting seldom strikes, and
no one can say where or when it will, or for the resuscitation
of whom. So I simply would advise you to place yourself
in a religious atmosphere, remembering the hopelessness
of your doing anything about it on your own remaining resources
alone, and cooperating with your associates and casting
yourself upon whatever God there may be."
Roland aligned himself with the Oxford groups of that time,
a rather evangelical movement, rather aggressive (very easy
it is to criticize). It was nondenominational, however,
and it used simple common denominators of religions, simple
moral principles. It called upon its members to admit that
they could not solve the life problem on their own. It called
upon them for self-examination. It called upon them for
restitution. It called upon them for a kind of giving in
the Franciscan manner, the kind of giving that demands no
return in money, power, prestige and the like, the losing
of one's self in the lives of others. Such was the nature
of the crowd with which he became associated. Unaccountably,
to him, the obsession to drink left. And for some years
he had no more trouble. At the time in the groups there
were a few alcoholics sober. There is one now at Ann Arbor
that goes back to that time, an old friend who never became
an AA. Sobered up in the Oxford Groups.
Roland returned to America. And the groups here in those
days were headed by an Episcopal clergyman called Sam Shoemaker.
And in his congregation and among the groups were two or
three other alcoholics that, for the nonce, were staying
dry. And Hazard had a summer place near Bennington, Vermont.
And these friends, one of them son of a local judge and
himself an alcoholic, described the plight of a boy who
was a school-time chum of mine, Ebby Thatcher. And Ebby
had been deteriorating horribly. There were summer folks
in the town above Manchester. Ebby had run his car into
the side of the farmer's house, pushed the wall of the kitchen
in, the door could still be opened to the car, Ebby stuck
his head out and, to the poor woman cowering in the corner
who hadn't been hit, he said, "Hey, what about a cup of
coffee?" Well, the town fathers had had it. They were going
to commit Ebby for alcoholic insanity, so the judge's son
and Hazard picked up the man who was to become my sponsor.
I had gone the route with which you're all familiar. I had
sobered up the summer before, scared to death by the verdict
of my doctor, Dr. Silkworth, the one we have since named
"the little doctor who loved drunks," and must have then
because in his lifetime he dealt with some forty thousand
of them as a hack doctor in a drying out place. And he had
an idea that this thing was an illness having several components:
a spiritual illness, a moral illness and also a physical
illness. And, perhaps oversimplifying, he was apt to describe
an alcoholic as a person condemned by a compulsion to drink
against his own interests, to drink in spite of his perfect
willingness to stop, and that this drinking was coupled
to an increasing sensitivity of the body which, if the drinking
went on, guaranteed his insanity and, one day, his death.
So this sort of a sentence had been spoken to Lois at long
last by my doctor, Dr. Silkworth. So you see the soil was
under preparation. We were beginning to learn a little more
about climate. Ebby and my other friend Roland had received
a considerable amount of light.
I got drunk in about two months, even in spite of this sentence
that I would have to be locked up or go nuts, maybe within
a year. And then my friend Ebby, who had been brought to
New York from Vermont, who had unaccountably sobered up
for the time being in the Oxford Groups, came to visit me
for I too was in great despair. Despair is the primary ingredient,
indeed, of this soil. In the medical jargon we might call
it "deflation at depth." Some deflation, huh? So, Ebby came
to see me. And he pitched at me this list of moral (you
might say) cliches. Nothing so new about that. I was in
favor of honesty. I was in favor of helping other people.
I was in favor of practically everything he had to say except
one thing: I was not in favor of God, for I had received
on of these magnificent modeled modern schoolings, scientific
schooling, that assured that by a series of stages, picking
up increments from somewhere as they went along, I could
be traced back to a single piece of ooze in prehistoric
seas. And this was my faith. And science was my god. So
along comes Ebby, and along comes Jung, for whom I had respect,
and here was my doctor: Science can't do it; medicine can't
do it; psychology can't do it. Religion? Sometimes. That
was his story. But how could I buy religion? So I felt trapped.
In other words, I was gripped in the trap which we every
day construct for the drunk who appoaches us saying, "Well,
I think the group life must be great. Helping other people?
I'm for it. But I couldn't get the spiritual angle (as our
jargon has it)." Now, as you know, this gentleman is the
newcomer, like me, is being caught in this trap. When you
and I talk to another alcoholic, and we identify ourselves
as having been denizens of this strange world, and, having
emerged, and we describe this malady in the terms of our
god, Science, and THAT god pronounces the sentence of hopelessness
upon us, the sentence, we are deflated at depth. And then
we learn that now we have accepted our personal hopelessness,
there still isn't any hope because we cannot go for the
this was the awful dilemma into which I was cast by my friend
Ebby, bringing, on the one side, all of this bad news, but
on the other side, the spectacle of his own release, and
that was the word to use. He didn't say he was on the water-wagon;
the obsession had just left him as soon as he became willing
to try on the basis of these principles, and, indeed, as
he became willing to appeal to whatever God there might
be. And this was reducing the theological requirements an
I went on drinking about three weeks, and in no waking hour
could I forget the face of my friend, a spectacle of release
as I looked out through a haze of gin into his face, as
he pitched this "synthesis" at me. So I thought, "well,
I better go up to the hospital and get sobered up. A conversion
experience is not for me: I'm an obstinate Vermonter. Besides,
I can't buy it. People say to me, 'Have faith.' And I believe
I'd have faith if I could have it but I can't. But anyhow,
I'll go and get dried up." So I went to the hospital. I
must have had a little optimism, because I came in with
a bag of beer (I had tried to share it on the subway up).
I was waving a bottle. Dear little Dr. Silkworth came out
and I yelled at him, "This time, Doc, I got it!" He said,
"I'm afraid you have, Bill. You better get upstairs and
go to bed." And he looked very sad, for he loved me. So
I went upstairs, and went to bed. I was there while I entered
the D.T.s. So, in about three days, I was all in the clear.
But, the more sober I got, the more awful the despair, the
depression. So, I think it was the morning of the third
or the fourth day that my friend Ebby showed up in the doorway,
and my feeling was ambivalent at once. So I said, "Well,
this is the time he's going to pour on the evangelism."
And on the other hand I was saying, "Well, he should be
looking for a job. Why is he up here at eleven o'clock in
the morning to see me? He does practice what he preaches."
Ebby knew my prejudices, and so he waited for me to ask
him again for that neat little formula through which he
had achieved release. And dutifully he went through it:
you got honest with yourself, with another person in confidence;
you made restitution; you helped others; and you prayed
to God as you understood Him (I think he might have even
used that phrase). And without much more ado, he was gone.
No pressure. And again I couldn't have truck with the God
business. And again the despair deepened until the last
of this prideful obstinacy momentarily was apparently crushed
out. And then, like a child crying out in the dark, I said,
"If there is a Father, if the is a God, will he show himself?"
And the place lit up in a great glare, a wondrous white
light. Then I began to have images, in the mind's eyes,
so to speak, and one came in which I seemed to see myself
standing on a mountain and a great clean wind was blowing,
and this blowing at first went around and then it seemed
to go through me. And then the ecstasy redoubled and I found
myself exclaiming, "I am a free man! So THIS is the God
of the preachers!" And little by little the ecstasy subsided
and I found myself in a new world of consciousness. And
one of the early reflections in this world of great peace
which stole over me was that all is well with God. I am
a part of His cosmos at last. Even evil in His hands can
be transmuted into good. So I had been deflates at depth
by a fellow sufferer who used the scientific verdict to
deflate me, who used his ability to communicate to me through
our kinship of common suffering, and who made the example
of a person who practiced what he preached. So, then, for
me, here indeed was the soil, here was the climate, and,
God knows, the light was great.
I venture this assertion [that every member] of AA has a
spiritual awakening or experience of exactly this character.
Certainly it is not for me to dicker with theologians, but
let me say I prefer to think that there is no essential
difference between what happened to me and what happens
to each sound AA, excepting the time element. Going back
to those psychiatrists who said, "We can't understand this
tremendous shift in motivation despite all your resources."
Well, in my case the shifts ...[tape paused].. but the fruits
have been the same. And one of the most terrible compulsions
and obsessions known has been expelled from us almost wholesale.
It's true, this happy synthesis of medicine, religion and
our own experience in suffering, in recovery and sharing
the grace of this, one with the next. So, fellas, there's
Bill, is that light relative in the sense of illumination?
It must be. Not every one of us has gone through the experience
of ecstasy or any light shining or ...
Maybe... You know, this is a curbstone opinion, but here's
how I look at it. You go to AA meetings and somebody gets
up, and this happens time after time,and he says, "Now,
folks, I ain't got the spiritual angle. Yet. I'm making
the group my Higher Power. They're sober and I wasn't. So
I got a Higher Power, I ain't got the spiritual angle the
way you fellas did. And as for Bill's thing, well, he looks
sane in other respects, but, you know.." Now, this guy will
get up there and tell a story of losing this compulsion
and of its being cleared out of him and his being re-motivated
in many other ways, just like those psychiatrists said,
in a matter of months, or of six months or a year. Now just
take one of those fellows and try to imagine all of those
shifts in motivation taking place within six months, or
within six minutes instead of six months. I think, had this
happened to that fellow, he too would have had ecstasy.
So I think it's a time element, and I personally see no
great advantage in these tremendous experiences, save in
my case only one. It did give me an instant conviction of
the presence of God which has never left me from that moment,
in spite of the worst I can do (and it's often been damned
bad), and no matter what the pressure. And I feel that that
extra dividend may have made the difference whether I would
have persisted with AA in the early years or not. Actually,
it has some liabilities, and I've seen it in others who
have had these experiences in AA, and there are quite a
lot. And this is the penance, and I think you theologues
give us some excuse for it too, of beginning to think that,
because we have these tremendous illuminations, that WE
are something special. So, you begin to develop a kind of
a paranoia alongside of a perfectly valid experience. And
this is just what happened to me. I damned near botched
up the whole works by coming out of this working furiously
with drunks and, before anybody had been sobered up, I got
so far off base as to loudly declare on time to an audience
by no means spellbound that I was going to sober up all
the god damned drunks in the world! Now THAT is pure paranoia
if you ever... So, don't long for the illumination. I think
you're apt to have the experience that's appropriate.
Q: Well, I'm not longing for it.
some people do. You know: "Oh, my God! If I could only have
one like Bill's!" Now, actually, this may be said very sincerely
because this may be a guy who's slipping around, but he
may be slipping around on account of the fact that he's
a little schizy and needs some of them vitamin B3s, so now
we'll put on Hawkins.
(probably Austin Ripley): Well, you heard it from
the horse's mouth, fellas. Very inspiring and illuminating,
the things that Bill [tells] of how this all began. Now
you've gone with him you know what the purpose of their
meeting is here: is on niacin. And tomorrow we'll have
Dr. Hoffer and Dr. Osborn and a couple of other people.
But one of the most active in the field with some startling
developments is Dr. Dave Hawkins in New York, and I'll
read you a little bit of his background: both his Bachelor
of Science degree and medical degree were received from
Marquette University. He interned in Columbia Hospital
in Milwaukee. He then graduated from
[end of tape]
note: According to "Pass It On", Dr. Humphry Osmond (not
Osborn) and Abram Hoffer were English psychiatrists working
in a mental hospital in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, principally
with alcoholics and schizophrenics. It was they who introduced
Bill to LSD. Later, they gained some success in treating
alcoholics by administering vitamin B3, also known as
niacin. Bill felt strongly that this was the key to the
"allergy of the body" that Dr. Silkworth had suspected,
and spent the remaining years of his life actively promoting
niacin therapy (much to the consternation of the AA fellowship).
Transcribed from duplicate audio tape by Steve C.
to download a version of "Bill W. at Guest House" for Palm
Thanks to Bill C. for the link and
for hosting the page earlier.
Thanks to Jack N. for information on Austin Ripley.
Thanks to James M. for making
copies of this talk available.
Updated 10/31/2003 - src
material is in the public domain.